Interpreting the Bible

image This is the post I have been wanting to write for a long time about interpreting the Bible.  I think it is useful reading both for those who believe the Bible is God’s Word and those who remain unconvinced.  I think sometimes Christians like myself forget what a big thing it is to say “God says” XYZ, and then quote Bible verses for it.  Everything we say about what the Bible says is an interpretation of what it says.  So how do we properly interpret what it is saying, so we can get at the message the Bible is communicating rather than the message we want to put into it?

In some previous posts and comment threads, questions have arisen as to how it is that we arrive at interpretations of particular verses – how do we decide what they say?  I plan on doing a short series of posts with some basic hermeneutical and exegetical guidelines to help shed some light on that process – but for now, check out what the internet monk has to say.  Here’s a little of it:

In all seriousness, evangelicals have a remarkable problem when it comes to treating the scriptures with respect. It’s astounding how many Christians tend to act as if any thought that comes into their head pertaining to the Bible is de facto true because they believe the Spirit is guiding them. If your use of the Bible were like handling a gun, you might have shot several people by now. Put that thing down and learn some basics on using the weapon.

Click here to read the rest.  I would recommend different books than the iMonk when it comes to learning about hermeneutics but I think he has a lot of good stuff to say about the importance of realizing just what we are doing when we go at interpreting scripture.  Understanding Biblical interpretation is important both for those who accept and those who do not accept the Bible as something special.  Those who criticize the message of the Bible while not understanding how to read it are as mistaken as those who use the Bible as a club claiming divine authority all the while using terrible hermeneutical and exegetical processes. 


Mikey G said...

I think iMonk's metaphor comparing the Bible to a gun is apt... but I have my doubts if there is some special way to read/interpret the Bible. I think that the problem is usually at a heart level rather than methodology. If a person hides behind scripture to avoid painful issues or hurt other people it is rarely I don't see how that would be helped by a superior method of Biblical interpretation. If their goal is to hide or hurt then it is somewhat arbitrary that they are using the Bible. However if their intention is not to hurt or hide they will not long dwell on methods of little use other than those effects.

I would say that since their is a Holy Spirit who will help those who sincerely seek out God's Word we can trust Him to help the ignorant learn how to read the Bible correctly. I am not saying that we ought not teach or use methodology but we should recognize that in the gun metaphor methodology is learning to aim more accurately. If a person's will is to do harm then methodology will help them avoid the weaknesses of their own false beliefs and learn which misleading verses work best.

I think that the bigger problem within the church is that many of us often have trouble distinguishing between the Spirit and the flesh. If we are tired, in love, hungery or whatever the impulses of our sinful nature sound just as reasonable as sober judgement. When a person quotes scripture poorly and with wrathful intent we shouldn't be focusing mainly on the poor nature of their quotation, right?

Jackson said...

No we should not focus more in their misuse of the passage than their wrathful intent, but that doesn't meant we should ignore their misuse and/or abuse of scripture. Both are important things that should be dealt with, and we can better get at the heart of the Bible by approaching it with sound heart and mind.

This also doesn't mean you come at every single verse and dissect it intellectually - it just means that you think about things before you simply assume you know what a verse or passage is talking about. Once you start to approach the Bible from a different point of view, one that understands every act of reading and speaking about scripture involves an act of interpretation (some are very unaware that this step takes place), you can get a better understanding of what God is saying to us through Scripture, and reduce the amount of "you" that comes through in your interpretation of what a verse or passage means.

Jackson said...

I should also add I think it is entirely possible to "use the Bible as a club" without being wrathful or having ill intent. I think someone can have the greatest of intentions, but if those intentions and zeal are not accompanied by appropriate knowledge, they are dangerous. And I think anybody who is truly interested in learning what God has to say to us through Scripture should be willing to put some thought into how they understand and interpret the Bible. Clinging to ignorance or naivete under the guise of "just following the Spirit" is irresponsible if you're going to make claims about what the Bible has to say, and arguably a back-door way to be able to use the Bible to support what you want as opposed to allowing yourself to be shaped by it.

Jesse and Melissa said...

I would like to use my interpretation of the Bible to rebuke you right now:

(I Corinthians 8:1-3 NASB)
1…we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; 3but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

(I Corinthians 13:2 NASB)
2If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

(Acts 2:13 NASB)
13Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. (that’s right after Peter preached 5,000 people into the kingdom)

I don’t want to make this so long it goes unread, but come on, the Bible’s not a mystery and the knowledge of God is not a mystery. When a person comes to Christ that person is called by Christ to proclaim the gospel, not go and hide until they know enough. There are plenty of people I go to Church with now who don’t even have a high school education, they’re still very superstitious, some can’t even read, but that doesn’t prevent them from understanding Christ’s sacrifice, His call for them to live holy lives, or His call for them to share His love with others. These people use the Bible when they talk to others and they’ve been far more effective in what they’ve done for the Kingdom than I have, even though I’d count them as the weaker brothers from I Corinthians 8 up there.

I hope I’m not misrepresenting your case here, I just think it’s more hindering to the gospel to try to understand *everything* than it is to *only* understand who Christ is and what He did.


Jackson said...

I think you may be arguing against a stronger version of what I am saying. When I say "hermeneutical and exegetical methods" I mean simple things like considering the context of a passage. And I'm not saying it's necessary to have those kinds of things to understand the message of the gospel.

But I do think that when you start to explain Bible verses to someone else you need to be sure you are actually communicating what those verses say and you are not just putting your own meaning onto them. We both know all kinds of examples of people with good intentions using verses and whatnot out of context to justify things that the verses themselves have nothing to do with.

I'm not saying you need to be educated to understand the gospel message, I'm saying you need to be careful when you go beyond that.

And what about those teachers who say that the gospel is not just salvation from sins, but it is also salvation from financial distress? Or teachers that say you need to have a demon of anger cast out of you if you cuss someone out and use a Bible verse to justify it? Or others who say "this is how you must live" and they got that understanding from a Bible verse?

I don't think there can be any argument that far too often, Christians who should just be focusing on the gospel go off into other territory when they lack the knowledge to do so and end up misrepresenting the Biblical witness or misusing it. There is a big gap between "we must understand everything before speaking" and "we must understand what we are speaking about before we speak." The second statement is more my point.

Jesse and Melissa said...

Fair enough.

I just want to be clear though, there is a true and correct way to understand the Bible and it's not all that tough to figure out. At least for most cases. It would be fairly simple to demonstrate those teachers you mention above are full of crap, but we could argue until our faces turn blue over the rapture, or other relatively trivial things. Does that more charitably reflect what you're saying?

Jackson said...

Yeah Jesse, I think that's closer to what I'm saying.

Though even when we say it would be simple to prove those teachers are full of crap, we are using hermeneutical and exegetical methods to do so. Those words sound haughty but really they aren't, that's kind of my point too. In every situation we must be aware of the interpretive process that we ourselves are going through and that should inform our discussion of the Bible with other Christians with whom we disagree.

We can argue till we're blue in the face about stuff like the rapture - but when someone insists they're right about it and that others who disagree are putting something else above scripture - they themselves are, I think, making a mistake. They may think that the teaching about the rapture is so crystal clear they declare those who get something else out of Scripture are not agreeing with what is "clearly stated" in the Bible.

Even the crystal clear things require some interpretation and it's important we are all aware that we are interpreting, and know HOW we are interpreting and why. This doesn't require complex skills or education, it just requires paying attention to your own interaction with the Bible and the interactions of others with the Bible.

Jesse and Melissa said...

We can talk some more tonight if you want, you get the last word here. I'm only posting because I've been on your site often this morning and dang your daughter is cute.

Ricky said...

This is probably the most frustrating part of being a Christian. The constant "my knowledge is better than your knowledge" argument, or the "what I believe is right, and what (insert people like Rob Bell, Rick Warren, etc) is wrong or misinterpreted.

It's a waste of time to argue things like "Is the Holy Spirit a person?". I don't mind discussing it and hearing other people their opinions, but when Christians begin to argue amongst themselves and let things like that divide them, it really gives Christ following a bad name.

I agree with Jesse that the Bible and it's main themes are not a mystery. Sure, there are deeper subjects that aren't as clear cut, but when we as the body of Christ start pointing fingers and name calling because you don't agree with me that Jesus will return pre-trib, it takes away from what being a Christian is all about.

I'll never be able to spout off big words like hermeneutical and words like that. I'll never be one of those guys that's able to call up 18 Bible verses from memory to aid in a conversation, but I do know that Jesus is the Son of God, came to earth as fully man and fully God, died for my sins, then rose again. My belief in that, is what gets me into heaven. Everything else I'm learning in school about prophets, exegesis', how many times the Ten Commandments appears in the Old Testament and things of that nature don't make a lick of difference to God. Sure, it's beneficial to know those things, but the minute I start using that knowledge to divide the body of Christ is the minute I miss the entire point of Christ's message.

Jackson said...

But Ricky, how do you know those people are interpreting the Bible wrong? How can you tell them their interpretation is incorrect or they are misinterpreting it or they aren't doing it right? How do you know the things you said you know about arguing dividing the body of Christ, and how do you know that it doesn't make a lick of difference if you know something? Because it's your opinion? Because a pastor you respect told you so? Because the Holy Spirit is giving you the right interpretation but not them? Or is there something else that will help you deal with stuff like that and answer questions like these:

How do you know Jesus Christ died for your sins?

How do you know Jesus is the Son of God? What does "Son of God" mean?

What is the Trinity? Is it important? Does it matter if I believe the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Trinity or is it just a magical force?

Why do I have to put my faith in Jesus Christ to be saved?

Is it wrong to get a divorce? What if my husband is beating me?

Do I need to have a demon of drunkenness cast out of me if I have a drinking problem? I went to a church and they told me I need to.

This pastor on TV quoted Psalm 33.3 to me and said if I donate my money to God through his ministry that God would triple my money! Why is he wrong?

Someone else told me that heaven and hell are just illusions and he pointed out these Bible verses to me - why do you think heaven and hell are real when this guy explained the verses so clearly to me?

How does Jesus dying on the cross save us from our sins? Why did he have to die, why doesn't God just say He forgives us?

I read in James that if I don't have works that I can't be saved, but I thought I was saved by grace? Do I have to work for my salvation or not? Can I lose my salvation?

Every single one of those questions, and the hundreds more you will hear throughout your life, requires you use hermeneutics and exegesis (just fancy words for the way you interpret the meaning of Scripture) to answer them. The words are big but the concepts they communicate are not terribly complicated. This isn't about memorizing Bible verses, it's about making sense of the Bible when you read it. Everyone is engaged in interpreting scripture when they read it - every single verse. Some are easier to understand than others but they all require interpretation. That is the nature of communication of every kind.

If you want to be anything other than someone who has other people tell you what to think or believe you need to be able to do some of this kind of thinking for yourself. And if you're going to be a Pastor, in which case other people are going to expect you do to their thinking for them in many cases, you need to be sure to not dismiss things like biblical interpretation as something as useless as "spouting off words like hermeneutics."

It's simply being aware of a process you already engage in. You already do hermeneutics and exegesis.

Ricky said...

My point wasn't that people shouldn't interpret the Bible and come up with their own ideas and how and what it means to them. My point, kind sir, is that these kinds of discussions shouldn't resort to such heated arguments that people end up name calling and stereotyping. I cannot tell you how much it makes me cringe when (I don't know why I keep using him, but...) a video by Rob Bell is played and someone whispers "I can't stand him. He's an idiot". Or when this semester we had a pastor of a seeker church come in and give a message and then someone after chapel said "well that was the dumbest message i've ever heard. i knew all of that. waste of my time".

My point was along the lines of Jesse's. We shouldn't be so arrogant and prideful when we do try and explain our points. WAY too many times have I heard Christians be the most snobby people I've ever encountered.

For me, I will read the Bible, do my research, pray for wisdom, and know that the Holy Spirit along with what I've learned will guide and direct my answers. And if I am ever in a position to "do the thinking for" people, then I will do my best to ask God to use me and be my voice, despite my voice being what others have described as "like listening to a symphony performed by angels attending Juliard".

P.S. We're on the same page on this one Jackson. Even if we're not seeing eye to eye on everything.

P.P.S. You're a dick.

Mikey G said...

I have been thinking "what is thisw about?" What is the real question?

I think it is different for people involved. For Jackson it is about being careful how you approach God's Word. His position is almost close to the root of wisdom and he should be complimented for refusing to treat God's very words casually.

However for Jesse and Ricky I think the question is whether or not a person needs to be "smart" to be a good christian. I haven't heard any objections to any of the "hermeneutical and exegetical processes" Jackson is proposing. This absence is are resounding... it is almost as if we are not absolutely what those words mean. I've got to tell you the truth I have a very unsatisfying definition for "hermenutics" and no definition at all for "exegesis."

My best answer what I believe is the contravery is "Yes you do have to be smart... if you want to be a teacher." So Ricky I'm sorry but I think you are going to have to learn what the ideas Jackson is talking about.

But since I am just a simple small group leader I can take a pass! Ha ha ha!

Ricky said...

(I'm going to be turning most of this reply into a fresh post on my own website)

I'm not exactly sure where or how I came across as giving off the impression that studying the Word and knowing and having answers for my faith wasn't important, but that wasn't my point or thought at all. My point was, if I remember correctly without looking, was that knowing and explaining your faith are extremely important, the problem is when you know so much that you start beating down other Christians with it.

I watched Religulous with Bill Maher last night. I had been wanting to see that movie since I first heard about it. It's a documentary, and the premise is that Bill, an athiest goes around trying to find answers (and when he does he shoots them down) about why religious people believe in their religion. The movie is 2 hours, and I'd say the first hour and 15 minutes are spent knocking Christianity.

I'm all for open discussion, and people like Bill Maher questioning why we believe what we believe. I am not a fan of Bill Maher, and I think he has an agenda against Christianity and religion in general, but I found that I wasn't appalled with him, as I thought I would be. What I was appalled with, was the lack of knowledge and answers that the Christians he interviewed possessed (or not possessed if that makes more sense).

Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Bill is in front of about 10 Christians, and the basis for his argument is that "The gospels are NOT an eyewitness account of Jesus, and that they were written by men who had never met him, decades later". He also said that the bible does not mention a "virgin birth". Not ONE of the men (at least in the movie, I'm not sure if their answer to that was edited out) disputed that. Not one of them. They stood there dumbfounded. For the first time in my life, I found myself yelling at the TV screen (well, besides when I'm watching the 49ers). I couldn't believe that the preacher of the church Bill was at, didn't dispute Bill's claim. (For the record, the Gospels, and a lot of the Bible for that matter were written by men who did in fact walk and talk with Jesus. Those books are absolutely an eye witness account. And the bible does in fact mention a virgin birth, in both Matthew and Luke. )

Later, Bill interviewed a senator from somewhere, a Christian senator, and asked him if he believed in evolution. The senator, to my extreme surprise, said he did. Again, I was completely shocked. While the Bible isn't a science book, it clearly states in the FIRST chapter of Genesis that God created everything. The planet, stars, plants, animals, humans, oceans, etc etc. God created all of it. So again, it was sad to see a Christian senator say that evolution was how we came about.

I realize that if Bill had interviewed someone (and maybe he did but didn't include it in the movie, in order to portray Christians as idiots) who could explain their faith better, he would have asked questions like "Well how do you know the Bible is true?" Again, not one person in their defense of their faith quoted the verse from 2 Timothy that says "EVERY scripture is God breathed and useful for teaching".

Bill then interviewed a TV evangelist that said "money and riches will come as a result of serving God". This was perhaps the most ridiculous and frustrating interview out of all the Christians he interviewed. This pastor was so far off the mark that he actually began to quote fictitious scripture. (Again, Bill could have edited this interview to his liking, removing accurate things this pastor said) This pastor didn't really have answers either, and the answers he did have were so far off base with the basic principles of Christ followership that it fueled Bill Maher's own thoughts on religion and why it's ridiculous.

Throughout the movie and his interviews with various people (Christian and non alike) Bill quoted scriptures from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qur'an and others, using those specific scriptures to prove his point. What Bill did was exactly what everyone does who wants to prove the bible as flawed. He pulled one verse, out of context, amongst surrounding verses that continued to explain that particular verse, and used it for his argument. Unfortunately again in the interviews, these Christians couldn't answer Bill's question because they didn't know the rest of the verse.

He also brought up the "fact" that Jesus' story was borrowed from many different stories of gods from different cultures. He started using examples from Egyptian gods, Greek gods and Muslim gods. He said that the story of Jesus blended from this guy, that guy and others. Not once did Bill theorize that perhaps those stories were written after the bible, or that those stories (interpreted by men thousands of years later who were hired to decipher hieroglyphics) could have been interpreted wrong or off base. Bill Maher took those stories as fact.

My point to all of this, is that I think it's EXTREMELY important to interpret the bible, to know and understand it, and to most of all, defend your faith and have answers and responses to the types of questions Bill Maher and others ask. The bible is not full of contradictions. The bible was written by men who had first-hand contact and conversations with God and Jesus. It is infallible, and can provide answers for the types of questions that men ask. The problem is, we don't take the time to learn it. We go around with our basic knowledge, and think that's good enough. It's not. We need to be dedicated to the Word, to study it and embed it into our psyche.

There have been men far more intelligent than Bill Maher that have asked similar questions. The problem isn't Bill Maher, or people like him who denounce religion and Christianity. The problem is with Christians who have never bothered to do anything more than go to church on Sunday and listen to some pastor preach. The problem is with Christians who misinterpret and twist the bible in order to fit their own personal agenda. (As in Christians who say things like "God hates fags") The problem is with humans, not the bible, and not God. Humans mess it up. Humans twist and make religion into the hateful, warring thing it has become. My God, the God of the bible is a loving God.

And to close, I need to clarify that in NO way do I think I have all the answers and in NO way do I think I'm any better than the people interviewed in that movie. I just feel that I would have been able to explain and answer my stance and why I believe what I believe, and what I believe, in a different manner than them.

It's extremely important for Christians to be able to have answers for the types of questions Bill Maher asked. It is, in my opinion, inexcusable for me to remain silent and not argue the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that the gospels were in fact first-hand accounts of Jesus' life. It's not ok for ME. I want to bring others to Christ, so I need to be prepared for those types of questions.

So I hope now, that I've explained my point and stance a little better. :)

Jackson said...

Thanks for explaining your point of view a bit more. I think it's good for us to talk through this stuff and I think we can do so without being argumentative.

Let's just take one thing you said re: Biblical interpretation and look at it and it may help us both out in a discussion on Biblical interpretation and its importance, and the importance of understanding how we ourselves interpret the Bible (and what it means for how we will talk to other Christians and non-Christians about it). I would like very much for us to carry this conversation through a few rounds so you can get a better sense of what I'm trying to say.

In your post you said you were "extremely surprised" and "sad" that a Christian would say they believe in evolution because Genesis clearly states God made everything. Do you think it is possible to be a Christian that respects the Bible as the Word of God, yet still believe evolution was a process God used? If not, why not?

Ricky said...

I actually just told my father-in-law that it is feasible (Although I don't believe this way) that God could have created certain creatures in a certain way 2000 years ago and that they've evolved over time. As long as God gets the credit for the initial creation, that's fine.

Not for humans though. We did not evolve in the sense that we came from apes or crystals. We were made in his image.

Jackson said...

Where do you get 2000 years ago?

When it comes to being made in God's image, why do you think that has to do with our physical bodies? What about people who are deformed or suffer injuries that make it so their bodies are no longer in God's image?

Mikey G said...

I think micro-evolution (natural selection) makes perfect sense. That is if the air polution in London makes the white buildings black with soot it makes sense that white moths would be less competative with dark colored moths.

But macro-evolution, the kind of stuff that takes a million years, seems kind of mythological and even forced to me. Granted I have not studied the evidence and am not particularly interested in the subject.

I am rarely caught up in the orgin of human beings but get stuck on the orgin of snakes and elephants.

Ricky said...

I'm not doing this anymore. Sorry.

Jackson said...


Ricky said...

On this post. I just don't feel like going back and forth anymore on this issue, with you. :) We've both made our points. Time to go open Christmas presents at my Grandma's anyway.

Merry Christmas you in-shape jerk!

Jackson said...

Got it. I just thought it would be a good exercise for you to understand what I meant when I say we need to understand how we arrive at the conclusions we do regarding the Bible. It would've been a way for you to show what you meant when you said you would be better able to explain what and why you believe what you do from Scripture unlike the people in Religulous. I wasn't trying to be argumentative.

Merry Christmas to you and your ladies.

Ricky said...

Should we keep posting replies to pass the 47 that your prop 8 post garnered?