Why Do We Have to Interpret the Bible?
Can’t we just take the Bible for what it says? Isn’t it plain enough? Do we really need others to help us interpret the Bible? These questions came home to me this past week when an old friend of mine emailed me about his concern regarding interpretation of the Bible. He was troubled by the existence of many different churches and the various interpretations of Scripture that they represent. He wanted to know why we need anyone to interpret the word of God for us. His position was, to quote him, “It seems to me that the word of God, the will of God, should be instinctively, intuitively…ACCURATELY interpreted by the knowledge of God I have within me.” He continues, “To wit: I believe God is capable of this…”miracle?” Anyone who experiences God’s true word will know, recognize and understand without the need for another person to assist or interpret for them. So where is this miracle? Why does the world have, (does it) need people who believe they are interpreters of God’s word?”
My friend’s concern is a valid one and his question is worth exploring. One of the points of the Reformation was that individuals did not need to have a priest act as an intermediary between themselves and God. Nor did they have to depend upon the Church’s interpretation of Scripture. Each individual could read the word of God for themselves and allow God to speak to them. This belief helped propel the translation of the Bible into the common languages of people throughout Europe. However, the Reformers were well aware that not everything in the Bible is equally plain. Whether we’re speaking of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or others, these men brought certain principles of interpretation with them to the text, and they were all familiar with the original languages in which the Scripture was written.
The Bible itself teaches that we need others to help us comprehend its message correctly. For example, the disciples of Jesus needed his guidance to comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures. After Jesus appears to two of his disciples on the Emmaus road and instructs them, they later say to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32). Later Jesus appears to his disciples in the Upper Room and speaks to them of how all must be fulfilled that was written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (i.e., the Old Testament). The next verse states, “And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:44-45). Let me offer one final example, lest it be thought that Jesus was the only one who helped people to understand the Scripture. After the establishment of the Church, the Book of Acts records an incident where the Spirit takes Philip (a deacon and evangelist in the early church) to an Ethiopian eunuch who is riding along in his chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” To which the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). For more on this topic see my article “Can Bible Study Be Spirit-Led and Academic?”
The Response to My Friend’s Question
The rest of this post (mostly) consists of the email response that I sent to my friend in answer to his question. I have modified the format slightly (he didn’t have the benefit of all the pretty pictures you have here in the article) and have corrected and/or adjusted some wording. As I emphasized to my friend, the following response is not all that can be said on this subject. It merely consists of some important aspects to consider.
Dear (friend), your question is an important one and also one that could take a book to answer, but a modest email will have to do. Thanks for asking and for paying me the compliment that I might have some sort of answer to offer.
All Communication Involves Interpretation
First I would say that all communication involves interpretation. As we read each other’s emails we are interpreting what the other is saying. Sometimes we are accurate and sometimes we may misunderstand each other. Speaking the same language and having the same cultural background helps in the communication process. Still, as I read your email (and you mine) because it is written communication, we must discern things that would be more easily communicated face to face. For example, when communicating face to face, I can see your facial expressions, your hand gestures, and I can tell a lot by your tone of voice as to what you mean. As I write this you can’t see those things. You only have the written word, so you have to decide from the language whether I am speaking with a kind considerate tone, or whether I am being condescending or sarcastic etc. That process is interpretation. It is possible that even with the best of intentions you and I may misunderstand each other. You might be positive I’m saying one thing, when in fact, I’m intending to say something different. It is only through the communication process–the give and take–that we finally come to a true interpretation of what the other meant. Because the Bible is a written document, this not only makes interpretation necessary, it also makes it more challenging!
The Importance of Language and Culture in Interpretation
The second thing I would say is that communication becomes more difficult when either language or culture (or both) differ between the people who are trying to communicate. For instance, when we moved to England we learned that American words can have different meanings here in England. If I say 100 bucks, an English person may think I’m talking about a herd of male deer. If an Englishmen tells me to look under my bonnet, I might reply that I’m a man and I don’t wear a bonnet, but what he means is the hood of my car. Context, of course, is a key to interpreting these expressions correctly. Also, culture, and how words are used, makes a HUGE difference in interpretation. Every culture also has certain idioms and expressions that don’t make sense in another language, or even in another culture that speaks the same language. Here in England if I am impressed with something I might say, “I’m gobsmacked.” Someone in America wouldn’t know what I was saying. If I say to someone of another language “Stop pulling my leg” they may take it literally and be confused because their hands are nowhere near my legs. When we share the same culture and language we automatically understand what someone is saying, or at least usually we do, whereas, to someone of a different culture or language our expression will be confusing. All of this involves interpretation. Sometimes we are interpreting without being consciously aware of it, and other times we have to struggle to interpret what someone else is saying. Either way, we are constantly involved in interpretation from the moment we wake until the moment we go to sleep.
The Bible was Written in a Foreign Language, a Foreign Culture, in a Time Long Ago
The third thing I would say is that when it comes to the Bible, we are dealing with a book that was written in another language, in another culture, and in a time long ago. All 3 of these circumstances present interpretive challenges. To begin with, unless you or I read Hebrew and Greek, we are automatically reading an interpretation of the Bible. All English Bibles, or any other language Bible, is an interpretation. It has to be because no language can be translated word for word into another language. Some languages have several words for a certain concept, while other languages have just one word that must do the duty of bearing all the meanings. For example, Greek has 3 words for love while English has only 1. Certain Hebrew or Greek idioms make no sense to us, so it does a translator no good to translate something literally. They must translate the sense. For example, in 1 Samuel 1:5 the literal rendering of the Hebrew says that Elkanah gave his wife Hannah, “a portion for the nostrils.” That is a Hebrew idiom which clearly makes no sense to us in the English world. Scholars still debate what exactly is meant by this idiom. It is usually translated “a double portion.” Personally, I believe it refers to the fact that Hannah has been angered and Elkanah is trying to calm her down and cheer her up by offering her a portion of the sacrifice (see my article, “Anger: The Bible Says the Nose Knows,” or my book Family Portraits).
I’m currently teaching Genesis and Genesis is an excellent book to talk about the importance of interpretation. The first few verses of Genesis (verses 1-2) require interpretation, and different Bible translations interpret it differently. To give you just one example. The New King James translates Genesis 1:2 as “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The New American Bible (NAB) translates this as “a mighty wind swept over the waters.” This is obviously quite different! The problem involves deciding what the Hebrew words mean in this particular context. The word for “Spirit” also means “wind” or “breath” in Hebrew and in Genesis 8:1 this same word is translated as “wind” because this seems to be the obvious meaning there from the context. Furthermore the word translated “God” (‘elohim) is sometimes used as an adjective meaning “mighty” (as it is in Genesis 23:6 where Abraham is called a “mighty prince”). This is why some translations say “mighty wind” and others say “Spirit of God.” The words legitimately mean both, so it is up to the translator to determine from context which meaning seems the most likely. Unfortunately, we can’t speak to any ancient Hebrews to ask them what is meant by this expression! So already in Genesis 1:2 we have had to make an “interpretation.” By the way, Genesis 1:1 is also translated in different ways depending on how one understands the Hebrew grammar (compare NKJV, NRSV, for example).
When it comes to the Bible, it is important that we realize that we are dealing with an ancient document. One of the mistakes that people frequently make is interpreting the Bible from their own 21st century perspective. Here’s another example from Genesis 1. Because of the “Creation and Science” debate many people come to Genesis 1 with an agenda to answer this question. Coming to Genesis 1 in order to answer questions about evolution or the Big Bang means superimposing our cultural questions on the Bible which often ends up making it say something it never intended to say. The (inspired) author of Genesis 1 didn’t know who Darwin was and wasn’t trying to debate the evolution question. Instead, God used him to address the issues that were important to his audience and the culture of his day. If we are going to understand Genesis 1 rightly, we must first seek to understand it in its ancient context. If we don’t know much about the ancient world, and if we don’t know the Hebrew language, then this is where we have to consult books written by those who do. Once we are fairly confident that we know what the text meant to the original audience, then we can make application as to what it means to us today. (The following info was not part of my original email but I include it here for my readers. Earlier this week I was watching a video on Genesis 1 by Dr. John Walton, an expert on Genesis and the ancient Near East. He goes into great detail as to why we need to understand what the ancient author meant and why we need to be careful about bringing our modern agendas to the text. Get a cup of coffee and a sandwich and enjoy his 1 hour lecture by clicking here: Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes.)
The Conclusion of My Email on Why We Need to Interpret the Bible
The fact that many churches/people have different understandings of the Bible or a biblical passage is an example of at least two things. 1) It demonstrates that there are things in the Bible that aren’t always plain. They need study to interpret them correctly because of the difference of time, culture and language. 2) Some people do not observe proper procedures of interpreting the Bible and therefore they come up with interpretations that distort its original meaning. You mentioned that God speaks to each of us and why isn’t that good enough? I do agree that God speaks to us, but it’s been my experience that He usually does it when we put the effort into truly understanding the Bible. If I simply trust the “voice within,” I may be wrong. Someone says, “God told me this passage means such and such,” and I say, “No that’s not right because God told me it means this.” Such arguments are purely subjective. If I only listen to the voice within, why is that voice better, than someone else’s voice within? This leads to the same problem that you voiced your frustration over–i.e., many different interpretations all claiming to be right. There has to be a more objective way of getting at what a passage truly says and means. If someone puts the time into studying the language, the culture, and the time period and takes the context seriously doesn’t it make more sense that they are more likely to have the correct understanding of a passage than someone who simply listens to their inner voice? The person who puts a lot of time into studying the Bible shows that he or she treasures it. Anyone can say, “I think it means this.” Maybe they are right, or maybe they aren’t. Maybe God spoke to them or maybe He didn’t. But when we sit down together and look at the Bible and learn what the words in the original language mean and learn the culture, etc. then we have a much more likely scenario for getting the correct message from the text. (end of email)
Final Thought: The Importance of Knowing the Genre
There are, of course, other important considerations that I did not mention in my email. I thought it was long enough already! One that I just note in conclusion is the importance of understanding genre. We read a love letter differently from a telephone book, and a novel differently from a piece of poetry. The same is true when we seek to understand the Bible. We need to be aware of the genre(s) we are dealing with. If we don’t we may make the mistake made by some people in America in 1939 when H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” was presented on the radio in the form of a newscast. People who heard the opening of the newscast realized that the broadcasters were simply doing a dramatazation of Wells’s book. Others who tuned in later, however, misunderstanding the genre, thought that a real invasion from Mars was taking place! Havoc was the result in many cities and communities across the United States! We all approach a piece of literature with certain presuppositions which causes us to interpret it in a certain way. Knowing the genre of the literature we are reading is certainly another important ingredient in reading the Bible properly.
(For those interested on a good book dealing with biblical interpretation, I would recommend, Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, available at Amazon USA / UK).