Interpreting the Bible


I have argued (Everyone disbelieves some parts of the Bible) that, while most christians say we follow the Bible as our standard of what to believe and do, in fact all of us make exceptions for certain parts.

So how do we decide how to interpret the tricky parts of the Bible?

Theology 1.01

When I was growing up as a young evangelical christian, we were taught that there were three ways to know the truth, two wrong and one right:

  • The Bible interpreted by church tradition. This was said to be the Catholic way – the church has authority to explain truth to us, and to show us what the Bible really means. The trouble is, we were told, in the end, the church becomes the authority and the Bible is just a tool in its hands.
  • The Bible interpreted by reason. This was said to be the liberal approach – we only believe the Bible as much as is reasonable in the light of modern knowledge. But, we were told, this ends up making each human being the arbiter of truth, and again the Bible is relegated to being just a book of often-antiquated ideas.
  • The Bible alone. This was the way of the Reformers, we were told, and the only safe way to know the truth. God’s word was truth.

But it wasn’t long before I found this view had some terrible holes in it.

It wasn’t what evangelicals actually did

  1. Truth in evangelical churches was not in fact determined by the Bible, because the Bible sometimes says some disconcerting and even contradictory things. These matters couldn’t be left unresolved, for this would be dangerous, so evangelicals used a technique of “interpreting scripture by scripture”, whereby more difficult passages were interpreted in the light of more obvious ones.
    It sounds good, but who says the Bible should be interpreted this way? Certainly not the Bible! What if we end up explaining away an important teaching just because we want to harmonise things? Most crucially, if the Bible is indeed the sole source of truth and God had wanted us to resolve matters in this way, wouldn’t he have made it clear in the Bible?
  2. It soon becomes clear that it isn’t the Bible alone at all, but the Bible interpreted by the evangelical creeds and statements of faith, like the Westminster Confession. Any reading of the Bible that doesn’t conform to the creedal statement of your church is suspect.
  3. In the end, to really know what the Bible says we need good preaching. The preacher has been to theological or Bible college and he knows. He knows the Greek, he knows his church’s creeds, and he knows what is acceptable in his denomination.

In practical fact, what was said to be “sola scriptura” ended up as much dependent on church traditions and human reason as the views they criticised.

And it wasn’t true

  • There is an element of pride (because we think we can resolve authoritatively ambiguities that God has left unresolved) and humanism (teaching is explained and doctrinal arguments are resolved based on intellectual knowledge) in this evangelical approach.
  • It leaves uneducated people without Bible College-trained pastors completely in the dark. But if the Bible is indeed God revealing truth about himself, then surely it ought to be possible for ordinary people, even those with little education, to be able to read it and get the basic message.
  • Churches often promote beliefs that don’t seem to be true (e.g. apartheid in the Reformed churches in South Africa; prosperity doctrine in the USA and elsewhere; teachings about Jesus and first century Judaism that don’t conform to what the historians have found), yet insist on followers keeping to them.
  • This evangelical approach tends to lead to partisan interpretations – Calvinist vs Arminian, charismatic vs evangelical, evangelism vs social gospel, believers’ baptism vs infant baptism, etc – when we ought to be seeking unity on the essentials of the faith and allowing liberty on the rest.
  • The killer: the use of creeds and systematic doctrinal statements isn’t actually taught by the Bible in any explicit way that I can see, neither does the Bible suggest God cannot reveal truth apart from the Bible.

There must be a better way

I suggest that all of these ways of interpreting the Bible (church tradition and creeds, reason, formal study, comparing scripture with scripture) have value, but none of them is sufficient on their own, and none of them should prevent the Bible speaking for itself without hindrance. They need a guiding principle to hold them together and prevent them overwhelming what God wants to say to us.

Jesus gave us a method

In John 16:13, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth. And in the book of Acts (especially Acts 10:19, 13:2, 15:28, 16:7) we see the Spirit guiding Jesus’ followers into truth and right decisions.

Surely if we believe in the Holy Spirit, if we trust the Spirit, he has a crucially important role in interpreting the Bible to us!? And surely praying and asking the Spirit for his guidance is more important than arguing about the Greek, consulting the creeds or explaining away one scripture by another? In fact the Spirit’s guidance is the only way we can safely use other methods to know truth.

Truth is truth

God is the author of all truth, wherever we find it, so we should expect the truths of science, history, philosophy and our own experience of God to be consistent with what God says through the Bible. If different approaches to truth seem to be contradictory, we shouldn’t assume either secular truth or our understanding of the Bible are right, or wrong, but seek clarification and a renewed understanding.

We don’t have to know everything

Human beings are inquisitive, and we like to find out answers. But we cannot ever fully comprehend God, and there will always be things we don’t understand. Perhaps God doesn’t want to give us certainty at these points? We don’t have to resolve them and we don’t have to know everything.

Putting it together

I suggest we need to allow God to speak to us in all these ways – through the Bible and secular knowledge, both interpreted by the Spirit and understood in faith.

So in the next couple of posts, I will be allowing the Bible to speak for itself without the “protection” of church traditions or creeds, and I will invite you to join me in praying consistently for the Spirit’s guidance in putting all this together. I will use reason, history, theology and a balance of scriptural passages, but I will try to be true to what we have been given. This is a process that anyone can follow.

I think the results will bring freedom and clarity. Please come with me on the ride, and comment along the way.


3. What does the Bible say about itself?

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

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  1. I figure that getting spiritual matters right, like understanding the Bible, comes from the Spirit. At least that’s what I get form 1 Corinthians 2:14.

  2. I’m enjoying this series so far, dude. Loving hearing some of my own thoughts echoed out. I’ve had some…erm… run ins with folks who have insisted that their particular interpretation of passages is the only valid interpretation. While I counter with my own interpretation, I hope that I’m coming across with a sense of humility that “I could be wrong.”
    If you’re interested, here are my two relevant articles on the topic. Would be curious as to your input on them.
    First, the Mennonite Church USA confession of faith on Scripture and my thoughts concerning it.
    Second, my reflections on the difference between Scripture and Revelation
    Looking forward to following this series…

  3. Thanks Robert. I will definitely look those up and see what you have to say, but I may not have access to the internet for a few days, so don’t hold your breath!

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