ME: This Bible passage says ______________. That means we should(n't) _______________.
HIM/HER: That's one interpretation. I have a different interpretation.
ME: What's your interpretation?
HIM/HER: [Something completely contrary to what the passage says; OR . . . ] I don't know; I just know that I have a different interpretation.
There's a good bit of innocent confusion out there over what "interpretation" is. Some of the confusion is not so innocent: many people with a Christian self-concept wave it as a magic wand over a part of the Bible they don't like so that its meaning might disappear.
Here are four principles about interpreting the Bible that might clear up confusion and prevent you from being embarrassed when you use the term "interpretation."
1. The Bible is language, not art.
The principal function of language is communication—sending a meaningful message from a sender to a recipient. Art—whether employing language, visual forms, sound, or some combination—also functioned as a form of communication often in early times and even into modernity. (For example, an artist makes a statue of a king in a city. A viewer says, "This city is ruled by that king.")
But in the nineteenth century and later, art became more and more detached from communication—that is, the message became independent of both the sender and the recipient. Instead, in the eyes of many artists and audiences, "art for art's sake" took on an existence of its own. The artist did not intend to send a message, and the viewer did not try to parse out what the artist was "saying." Rather, both the maker and the viewer reacted to the artwork as if it were a found object with no context. That included artworks whose material was language—plays, novels, and the like.
Thus, "what it means to me" became one and the same with "what it means." By this principle, there are as many valid interpretations as there are interpreters, and no one—including the artist—can claim that theirs is closer to the "right" one than anyone else's. Though that interpretive principle is extremely radical, it persists widely in a softer, popular form that shows some interest in what the artist was trying to express but still makes the viewer's response to it the determinative interpretation.
I am out of my depth evaluating whether that is a good principle of interpreting art. But I can claim confidently that the Bible is not art in that sense.
For one thing, the Bible was written centuries before the concept of art for art's sake—in fact, it was probably written before the concept of art itself. The Bible was not written to be art. It is not art whose substance is language. The Bible is language whose construction is artful.
This makes all the difference in the world. If the Bible is language, then its function is to communicate. In any given book of the Bible, there is a sender (or senders) and a recipient (or recipients), and the text is the message (or messages) that goes from the one to the other.
Biblical interpretation, then, is for C to identify what A said to B. Interpretation—sound interpretation—is not about what C thinks or feels or anything about C's life. Interpretation is about taking ourselves as far off center stage as we can—hard for postmodern humans, but try it for a change—and looking at the message as a dynamic, relational bridge from one person to another, neither of whom is you. Therefore . . .
2. The Bible was written for us, not to us.
Interpretation requires knowing as much as you can about the author, the audience, the relationship between the two, and where and when they lived. Much of that can be gleaned from the message (the text) itself, while the rest can be gleaned from other texts, archaeology, and so on.
Once again, it is critical that before you read the Bible as a message to you, you read it as a message to someone else, because in fact it was not written to you but to them. It's not about you!
However, even though the Bible was not written to us living in the twenty-first century, it was written for us—and that "for" is a big deal.
First, the Bible contains the gospel, the "good news," which is the thread of God's activity through time to save for himself a people "from every tribe, language, people, and nation" (Rev. 5:9). The Bible reveals the gospel and gives critical examples of how this gospel was communicated to various specific hearers, but its purpose is to show all individuals at all times that this gospel is for them: we too can opt in to the people of God by committing ourselves to the gospel as truth.
The classic statement of this is the part in the Gospel of John, an account of the life of Jesus, that reads, "Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31).
Second, if you have become part of God's people by faith in the gospel, then the Bible, which tells the story of that people, is now your family heritage. It tells you who your spiritual ancestors are. It tells you the identity, standards, values, code of conduct, and mission of the family you now belong to—what it means to be a genuine part of that family.
Third, the Bible has an author behind its authors, namely the Holy Spirit. In a uniquely comprehensive and fully saturated way, the Bible is the word of God. If you have committed yourself to the gospel, then the Spirit of God who guided the authors of the Bible letter by letter—sometimes openly, sometimes silently—is the same Spirit in you.
The Holy Spirit, therefore, is the living, personal bridge between the Bible and yourself. Sometimes he turns the message that was written to someone else into a message directly to you. When he does it, you know it. But he never does so in a way that contradicts what he said in the Scriptures to the original recipients.
So if we know that the Bible wasn't written to us, but it is written for us, how do we read what it said to other people so that it has any bearing on our lives?
3. The Bible is to be interpreted first, applied second.
These are two distinct steps. It is critical that we take both, and it is critical that we do interpretation before we do application.
When the average person says, "I have a different interpretation," they usually mean, "The change required in my life or viewpoint implied by this Scripture is not reasonable or palatable to me." They merge interpretation and application into one step and thereby screw up both.
Once again, interpretation means identifying what the author(s) were communicating to the recipient(s). Neither of them is yourself, so leave yourself out of it.
For example, let's interpret Jesus' teaching, "It was said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt. 5:31-32).
A full-bore, robust interpretation requires us to read the source of what Jesus quoted ("Whoever divorces his wife . . . "). We need to get whatever information we can about how the quoted source served as a basis for action by Palestinian Jews in Jesus' time. We need to investigate the significance of Jesus saying, "It was said . . . but I say to you." We need to uncover what Jesus' society understood to count as "immorality." We need to explore why Jesus speaks about a husband divorcing his wife or marrying a divorced woman and not vice versa. We need to compare what Jesus says here to other remarks Jesus makes about divorce to get a fuller picture of his thoughts. Finally, we need to explore the whole book to discern as well as we can why the writer, who had lots of material to choose from, thought this was worth including in his account of Jesus' life.
At the end of all this investigation, we can sum it up starting like this: "Matthew recorded that Jesus instructed a large group of first-century Palestinian Jews, including a smaller group of his disciples not to _______________ because _______________." That is an interpretation.
The average person does not have the resources or training to produce an interpretation this thorough, but that doesn't mean you can't do legitimate interpretation yourself. As long as you take care to set yourself aside, observe the text, take into account as much of its context as you know, and phrase your findings in terms of what the original author(s) were attempting to communicate to the original recipient(s), you are doing genuine interpretation. Every reader—even you!—can do this and must do this.
Application is comparing our life and viewpoint with the interpreted text to discern what in ourselves must change for us to fit in with the people of God. The details of this are infinitely complex, but the basics are very simple:
- If the interpreted text asserts a truth, believe it.
- If the interpreted text gives an instruction, obey it.
- If the interpreted text models a good example, imitate it.
Also, there is one critical exception to the rule: do not believe or obey or imitate it—at least not in a straightforward way—if there has been a radical change in conditions between the time of the text and yourself. I will define "radical change" in the next post. (Expect to be surprised.) But I will talk about one particular change now.
4. Interpretation doesn't correct the Bible; it corrects you.
There is no denying that certain beliefs and practices of Christians have changed over time despite that Christians have based their thinking and behavior on the same Bible and used the Bible to justify them.
Examples that jump quickest to mind compare Christians in the nineteenth century with those in the twenty-first. A popular one is slavery (which I'll talk more about in the post after next). Another example we could bring up is Sabbath-keeping; American Christians today do a vast array of activities on Sundays, almost all of which were considered sinful by Christians in an earlier time when done on the Lord's Day. Appropriate women's dress (both in cut and in material) is yet another example.
People quickly assume that changes like these stem from different interpretations of Scripture. This may be true, yet it may not be: these may be changes in application while the interpretations remain the same. Once again, people are prone to confuse the two.
But people make other questionable assumptions as well. They assume that a change in interpretation constitutes progress. But it may just as well constitute regress. How can you be confident that the prevailing interpretation of the Bible today is better than the interpretation two hundred years ago? What if it is worse?
Progress assumes an objective standard of truth, goodness, or beauty that an imperfect thing gets closer to over time. Without a standard there is no progress, only change. So what is the objective standard that a new interpretation of Scripture is closer to or farther from?
It can't be collective opinion (i.e., "Everybody knows that . . . "), because collective opinion changes—it is a moving target, not an objective standard. If collective opinion were the standard there would be no progress, because every generation's interpretation is equally close to that generation's collective opinion.
Some people, sensing the problem, make another assumption—that changes in people's interpretations of the Bible are the Bible's fault, not people's fault. The Bible itself is flawed and self-contradictory, or at best it is a mirror of the thoughts and feelings of both the writers and the readers, not a message from a transcendent source. Or if it is from a transcendent source somehow, people's propensity to take what they want from it according to their own point of view is stronger than whatever the source may have wanted to communicate.
None of these assumptions are proven; they are merely asserted or kept hidden. In general, they are attempts to flee from the ultimate source of the Scriptures, God.
God's Word is the objective standard of its own interpretation. It is perfect, because God is perfect. Humans are not perfect, a truth that we tend to admit when it excuses us and deny the rest of the time.
A change in interpretation only constitutes progress when it drives us deeper into what the Bible says, in total and in detail, not away from it. Most so-called "progressive" interpretations of the Bible today are actually regressive—they take us further from light and truth by downgrading the validity of portions of the Bible that offend the spirit of the age.
I have hope that the interpretations and applications of the true church, the invisible fellowship of those newly born of God, are on the whole progressing in accuracy over time. But even for that group it is probably a roller coaster—sometimes better, sometimes worse, or better on this topic but worse on that one.
An interpretation of the Bible that claims that the Bible itself has the problem—that its well-meaning but mistaken writers did the best they could but said some inaccurate things about God and people—is a misinterpretation. It is not an interpretation but a correction, and it is correcting the wrong thing. We are the ones with the problem; we are the ones who need correcting by it, not the other way around.