Friday, April 1, 2011

"The Bible Can Mean Anything You Want."

I was downtown Comox to do a survey on what people believe about the Bible.  I ran into the mother of one of my former music students.  We got talking and I asked her my survey question – “Christians believe the Bible is true – what do you think?”     She gave an answer that many Canadians would identify with to some degree: “I believe it’s true, there are just so many interpretations.”  That's what we've been told, right?

Many people sincerely think the Bible is rather unusual among pieces of literature in that it is open to a variety of conflicting interpretations.  Is that really true?  Is that what you believe?  The Bible is rather unusual in literature – there is no other book like it, in fact, in that it makes the claim to be “God-breathed”, and through fulfilled prophecy, unity of content (with 40 authors collaborating over 1500 years!), and life changing authority, gives stellar reasons to accept its claim.  But it is not a book that can mean whatever you want it to mean.  

You say, “But what about all the different denominations of the church?  Don’t they represent different interpretations?”  Yes, and no.  Yes, they differ – on minor points (unless it’s a cult – Bible plus some other religious book like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons).  And no, they don’t differ – when it comes to the major doctrines of the faith – the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith in Christ, the church, future judgement, stuff like that.

Interpreting the Bible accurately is deeply important just because it speaks about matters as significant as God and eternity.  Do you know how to interpret it?

John Stott points out three keys to interpreting the Bible, and they are worth repeating.  Look for:

  1. The Obvious Meaning.  Principle: most of Scripture is clear, not difficult to understand.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” tells us several things plainly: all we see had a beginning, the first cause was God, and we live in a world that is a result of personal creation. Scripture is generally like that: plain.  If you, like one second century writer, see the Old Testament law that told Jews to “only eat cud-chewing cloven hoofed animals”, and read into that secret messages about only being friends with people who chew the cud of the Word and live a balanced life “cloven” between the earth and heaven, you have missed the obvious mea
  2. The Original Meaning.  Principle: the Bible can only mean what it originally meant.  While the Bible is for all people in all times in all places, each book was first written to a specific people in a specific time, place, and circumstance.  If you want to know what it means to you, you should first think about, and investigate if needed, what it first meant to them.  To do that, reading through the book or comparing parallel passages will often give details of author, audience, occasion, and place that help you understand the message better.  Tools like a good study Bible or website can help too.
  3. The Overall Meaning.   Principle: interpret Scripture with Scripture.  Since it all has one ultimate author (God), the Bible is an incredibly harmonious anthology.  So, don't read out of context.  John 8:11 has Jesus saying the words "Go and sin", but if you look at the context the meaning changes just a bit - "Go and sin no more".  You would not be so silly as to make the first interpretation, but we do this when we interpret out of context.  When you hit an obscure text, consider whether other verses within that book of the Bible help you understand it.  Look outside that book if needed and allow plainer texts to shed light on it.  Here is where something as simple as using a Bible with cross-references in the margin can help in the short term, and reading theology (yes, you should read theology!  There is some good stuff out there) can help in the long term.
Recommended resources:

The Obvious Meaning: Bible Gateway (Compare over 15 English versions + other languages)
The Original Meaning:  NET Bible (online study Bible with over 60,000 notes)
The Overall Meaning: (tons of resources including a free Theology curriculum)

The Obvious Meaning: The Bible
The Original Meaning: How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Gordon Fee, Douglas Stewart), ESV Study Bible (I use the iPod version. Also available online)
The Overall Meaning: Know the Truth (Bruce Milne), Bible Doctrine (Wayne Grudem)


  1. No doubt there is some happy medium between "anything you want" and "strictly in this way."

    #1 obvious meaning I find problematic, because often one part of the Bible, at least superficially, contradicts another part. For example, can God regret his own decisions? Genesis 6:6 specifically states he has. Yet no small number of Christians would take issue with this reading.

    #2 and #3 often contradict each other. The original meaning of individual passages and books varies from canonical interpretation. Case in point -- the serpent in Genesis 3, which canonically signifies Satan, but originally did not.

    Like every great book, the truth in the Bible is without measure. It cannot be "boiled down" to a set of pithy sayings, a systematic theology, or a moral code. To a large part this is due to the way in which its readers have used it for hundreds and thousands of years. They have not been bound by the obvious, the original, or (more recently) the overall meaning.

    However, despite this grandiose qualification, I sympathize with the general rule, and I wish that more people would start with the obvious, original and overall meaning, and work outward from there.

  2. {sheds a tear for his inability to spark theological debate}