The need for biblical interpretation is ever-increasing in our postmodern age, especially considering the growing pluralism in the world. Since God is the ultimate authority in all matters, and we believe that the Bible is God’s very words, we look to the Bible for a solid foundation to all matters of life. Because of this, we want to know what the Bible means. In order to find this out, we need to reflect on how the meaning of the Bible is obtained.
Since we know that the books and letters of the Bible are a written form of communication, we know that three main components are involved, because these three components are part of any written communication. These are: the text/writing, the reader, and the author. First, it is important that we evaluate all three and see if they could be the determiners of meaning. We are asking, “Who or what determines the meaning of a biblical text?” The text cannot be the determiner of meaning because it is an inanimate object, and cannot produce meaning—it may convey meaning, but can never produce it. The reader cannot be the determiner of meaning, because if that is true, then there can be as many meanings as there are readers—and they cannot all be right. The author as the determiner of meaning is the only legitimate conclusion. The author meant one thing by what he wrote, and that intention was fixed at the time of writing—and cannot be changed. All literature is rightly interpreted this way.
Therefore, the main goal in interpreting the Bible is determining what the author meant by what he wrote. This goal that we want to reach cannot happen spontaneously, however. There are many barriers to discovering what the author meant by what he wrote. Historical barriers, cultural barriers, linguistic or language barriers, and philosophical barriers. Because of these barriers, the need for biblical interpretation is created.
First of all, we are centuries in time difference from the authors of the Old and New Testaments. There were things that were common to them back then, that may not be to us today. For instance, we cannot necessarily interpret Leviticus through a 21st century lens. Second, there are many cultural differences that cause a barrier between us and the time of the biblical writers. Namely, oaths and marriages were quite different in that day than in ours. It would not be sound, then, to think of Mary and Joseph’s “betrothal” (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56) as simply an engagement in our time because engagement is culturally relevant to our world today. The culture then was much different than today, and this creates the need for biblical interpretation. Third, the very language of the Bible is not the language we speak. The original language of the Old Testament was Hebrew (with portions of Aramaic), and the New Testament in Greek. Hebrew and Greek are an entirely different language, with different letters, usages, rules, and phrases. Biblical interpretation is important because in order to determine what the author meant by what he wrote, we must look at the original languages as best as we can. Finally, the philosophy of the Bible is very different than that of our 21st century. We live in a postmodern world with pluralistic ideologies. This creates the need for biblical interpretation because the philosophy of the Bible is not pluralistic, and it is not hedonistic either, like our world is today. People today doubt the existence of a Triune God, while the people of Bible times just assumed His existence—their philosophy was different.
So then, discovering the author’s intended meaning will require biblical interpretation in light of all of these barriers that might hinder us from finding out the meaning that the author intended.
[Below is an addition, published on July 29, 2017]
So do we arrive at the true meaning of the Bible based on our own interpretation of the Bible? Can we arrive at a biblical interpretation on our own? Do we all have an equally valuable opinion about what Scripture means? Does everyone have a shot at biblical interpretation and can we use any rules of interpretation we want? It’s not exactly as simple as it may sound.
Consider the oft spoken phrase, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” This is easily the most cliche statement uttered in Christian circles, usually when there is disagreement about the meaning of a text. And it is becoming quite wearisome to continually hear it spoken as a defense of one’s own interpretation of a text. Usually they add, “That’s your interpretation and this is mine.” I will go ahead and say at the outset that there are two fundamental reasons why this assumption is not only wrong, but even heretical in my estimation. First of all, it allows for everyone and anyone to have any opinion whatsoever about the meaning of Scripture. And secondly, it doesn’t allow the real meaning of the Bible to be preserved and taught.
Let’s deal with the first reason. It may sound narrow-minded to say that no one should be allowed to have as many opinions as they want about the meaning of Scripture, and yes – it is narrow-minded, but in a good way and I will explain this more later. The fallacy with this idea that everyone has a “say-so” concerning the meaning of Scripture is found in the implications and logical conclusions of that approach. What this approach to interpretation implies is that there is no real, concrete, or reliable interpretation of any biblical text whatsoever. If everyone has an equal say in what a text means, and if everyone’s assumption holds equal value (what this assertion implies), then there can be no real meaning. If A is equally valuable to B, C, and D, and they are all esteemed as possibly correct interpretations, then either everybody is right or everybody is wrong.
Now, let’s be honest – most of those interpretations are likely going to contradict one another. Most of the time varying interpretations contradict one another, otherwise there would be no disagreement leading to a round table discussion where everyone gives their opinions about meaning! And in the case when those interpretations do contradict, plain sense would tell you that not everybody around the table has an equal say about what a biblical text means. Either they are insane, or the authors of the Bible were insane. If Billy thinks the verse means that Scripture is without error, and Sally thinks the verse means that Scripture is full of error, then somebody is wrong because those two assertions contradict one another. Both of them might be wrong, but both of them cannot simultaneously be right.
The second reason this approach to interpretation is wrong also has to do with consistency – the author’s original meaning is no longer preserved. Consider that we do not believe it to be ethical or right to take a historical document and twist it anyway we want. When a document is written in history, the author’s meaning is sealed forever. Therefore, the only correct interpretation of any historical document must be in harmony and accordance with what the author really meant by what he wrote. We dare not do this with great works in history such as the writings of Eusebius, or Josephus, or the Constitution. One could possibly be jailed for reading something into those documents that was not intended by the original author.
So then, it is absolute insanity to suppose that it is wrong to do this with historical works, but it is right to do this with the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, supremely more valuable than any historical document – and like any historical document its meaning is sealed in history forever. The only way one can discover its meaning is by discovering the author’s original meaning – which we are very much able to do.
But note the insanity of interpreting a written text in any fashion desirable: If I text my wife that we need milk and eggs, she is not free to interpret that in any way she wants, and neither is anybody else. To take it a step further, let’s suppose I send her that text on Monday, and she doesn’t read it until Wednesday. Can she now interpret that anyway she wants, because it is an old message? I would believe her to be insane if she sat down with a group of her friends for two hours trying to figure out what I meant by that text. How strange would it be for each of her friends to offer a different interpretation of what I meant by that text. One might say, “Well here’s what I think – he probably wants you to buy rice milk and snake eggs.” Another remarks, “Your husband strikes me as the type that likes to get prepared, so he probably wants you to bring home a cow and a few chickens so that you never have to go to the market to buy milk and eggs ever again.” Another says, “Well, let’s think about it this way – what do you get when you mix milk and eggs? Usually scrambled eggs, right? He probably has a craving for some scrambled eggs from Cracker Barrel.”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Clearly, I meant that my wife needs to pick up a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs from the supermarket. But with a philosophy of interpretation that allows for anyone to interpret what I wrote in any way they want, the original meaning is lost and no longer preserved. In fact, the value of my text becomes virtually worthless. The interpretations make my text obsolete. My text no longer has any value if it is subject to this many interpretations. Neither are we allowed to do this with the Bible!
It doesn’t matter what your interpretation is, and it doesn’t matter what my interpretation is. What matters is the right interpretation. We must answer the question: What did author of the text mean by what he wrote to the original audience?
Clearly, there are many other rules of interpretation to follow when seeking to discover the author’s original meaning. But all of those rules must flow from pursuing the answer to this one question. Therefore, any interpretation which does not agree with the author’s original meaning is false and should be rejected. And we discover the original meaning through careful study of the context, study of history, study of the original languages, and many other things. I understand that many of us do not have either the time nor the professional training required to use all of those means listed to discover the author’s original meaning. But there is one rule of interpretation upon which we must all agree. And this one rule of interpretation is fundamental to understanding any verse of Scripture, and it is certainly fundamental to discovering the author’s original meaning by what he wrote. In addition, while we may not know much of how to use those means of discovering the author’s meaning listed above, this one rule alone will suffice. In fact, all of those other means proceed from this one rule, therefore even using them is an extension of using this one rule (and to some degree is necessary to using this one rule in its fullness). This one rule concerns consistency, and it is this: We must interpret Scripture with Scripture. We must do so, brothers and sisters. This is to say, what we assert as an interpretation of any biblical text must agree with Scripture as a whole. If our interpretation is in disagreement with any other verse, idea, or teaching in Scripture then our interpretation is wrong and must be changed.
To the example earlier, if Sally asserts that the correct interpretation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that Scripture contains error, then we must endeavor to discover if that interpretation agrees with the rest of Scripture. And anybody who knows their Bible even remotely understands that 2 Timothy 3:16, and Scripture as a whole refutes that interpretation. The Bible itself claims that it is a book that should be received as the divine revelation of God, for that is what it is. Therefore, it is without error and inerrant. So Sally’s interpretation is wrong.
“Well, that’s just your interpretation.” Let us both stop saying this and encouraging others to do so. We are not free to interpret the Bible any way we want – we are only free to discover the author’s original meaning by what they wrote in the sacred text. Let us study the Scriptures daily to discover their true meaning, and may our interpretations be in unison with the overall teaching of Scripture.