Why Would God Write The Bible In Such A Way As There Are So Many Interpretations? Is There One Right Interpretation?
Probably the first thing that should be said is that all writings, religious or secular, ancient or modern, require interpretation. As soon as there is a reader, the process of interpretation begins. Words have meaning. Grammar has meaning. Interpretation is the skill and art of understanding how language is used, how thought forms are communicated both orally and in writing from one person to another. Often, people take for granted that communication is simple and straightforward, and so long as one functions within the rather tight circle of his or her own cultural group, that assumption may work reasonably well most of the time. A moment’s reflection, however, will demonstrate that language is idiosyncratic, even among people who live together. Take a Millennial, a Gen-Xer and a Baby-boomer, for instance. Generational changes in verbal nuances can make communication tricky, even for people from the same ethnicity and culture. If one moves outside one’s own culture, the process becomes even more complex. The reason this is so is that all language is culturally conditioned and idiomatic, that is, every culture has unique ways of using words and ideas so that complete meaning is more than just a sum of the individual words. This is true of all written literature, and it is true of the Bible, too. Hence, it is not so much that “God wrote the Bible in such a way as there are so many interpretations” as it is that there is no other way to write anything! Given that the written form of the Bible is two millennia old and older, written in different languages than we currently speak, and written in a cultural context that is different than the one in which we live, it is not so surprising that people read it in different ways.
In general, we should assume that one must discover what the biblical text meant before one can properly address what it means. This is to say that all texts in the Bible meant something to its original authors and original readers, and discovering this meaning is the single most important factor that shapes how we should understand the text in our modern world. We cannot properly know what God has to say to us if we have no clue what he said to them. Otherwise, the Bible is simply a book of magic: its words and paragraphs will be liable to any sort of meaning we want to inject into them.
Occasionally, one may hear the sentiment, “I have read no man’s book, I’ve consulted no man’s theory: I just read the Bible and take it as it is.” This may sound rather spiritual, but really it is rather arrogant. What this person really says is that he is smarter than all the people who have studied the Bible in the whole history of the Christian church—his mind is so sharp he is beyond the need of help. Any good reader will adopt a more modest self-assessment. If the Bible is the Word of God in the words of humans, then the believer who reads the Scriptures must be serious in attempting to understand what they intended to say as well as avoiding making them say something they did not intend.
So then, do the passages in the Bible have a single meaning or multiple meanings? Usually, we should assume that there is one right interpretation of any given passage—and that interpretation is what the writer intended to convey. Occasionally, as a figure of speech, someone may express something with a double meaning, such as, when Jesus told his followers, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” In one sense, this saying refers to when the disciples would see him after his resurrection, but in a broader sense, it also points to his ascension into the heavens and his return at the end of history. Usually, however, this more rare form will be clear enough from the context.
One of the easiest snares in which to fall is the refusal to recognize one’s own limitations, or to put it another way, to assume that one’s own way of looking at things must surely be correct and all the others wrong. The wise interpreter will freely admit his own tendency toward error and thereby build a tolerance for others when he thinks they might be wrong. Two principles will be helpful here. First, the Bible is sufficient, but not exhaustive. It will not necessarily tell us everything we might wish to know, even about things that the Bible itself introduces. Second, the Bible is more clear in some places than in others. For reasons just such as culture and language, there are some passages from which one must withhold dogmatic judgment. On one occasion, for instance, Paul refers to a subject about which he had previously given extensive teaching, but without access to this body of instruction, we would be wise to proceed with caution (2 Th. 2:5). This is why obscure passages must give way to more clear passages. In the end the antidote to bad interpretation is not no interpretation but good interpretation, based on common sense guidelines for the ordinary use of language.
Pastor Dan LewisMay 1, 2013