Imagine the following scenario: You and four of your friends have met together to study a passage of Scripture (pick whichever one you like). You begin with prayer (always a good start) and then someone volunteers to read the passage aloud while the rest of you carefully follow along in your Bibles. Next comes the part where everyone takes a turn discussing what the passage means. Do you think that everyone in your group will arrive at the same interpretation? If we’re being honest, we’d have to say probably not. After all, each person is reading the passage from his or her own unique perspective. It’s akin to the old cliché “there are two sides to every story”. Different life experiences, family backgrounds, cultural norms, etc. all color our reading of the text. So does this mean that the Bible means different things to different people? Be careful how you answer that.
Last week I wrote a piece on the importance biblical authority will have in our churches as our nation continues its descent in to moral depravity. To form the basis of my argument I responded to an article in the New York Times written by Frank Bruni. In his piece he attempted to undermine the authority of the Bible in two ways. First, by reminding us that it is, after all, an ancient document and we have made much “progress” since then, and, second, by saying that interpretation is “subjective, debatable”. That is to say, when four friends have four different interpretations at a Bible study, whose to say which one is right? And in classic post-modern style, we are told that due to this kind of subjectivity our only option is to become interpretive agnostics.
Now the question has become, is he right? Is interpreting the Bible a helplessly subjective process, open to any and every opinion? I don’t think so. Arguments like the one presented by Bruni are carefully nuanced and, to be honest, quite clever. But when we examine it a bit closer we can see that his statements are not only false, but even self-defeating.
Here are some helpful thoughts we need to keep in mind when attempting to answer questions like the ones above…
1. The original author controls the meaning.
When we are studying a passage of Scripture it is crucial that we remember that this passage was written by someone (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) who had a message he wanted his readers to understand. This is how communication works. The sender (or in our case, writer) composes a message and transfers it to the receiver (me and you). The job of the receiver is to seek to understand what message the sender was trying to convey. This is the foundation of all meaningful communication.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider an example from our time. Suppose you send a text message to a friend asking him/her to come over for dinner. And then you receive back the reply, “I would love to move in! Thank you :)”. Would you say that your friend understood the message you were trying to send? Of course not. Now further imagine that when you bring this up to your friend, they argue that due to some kind of cultural norm to which they are accustomed, asking one over for dinner is the same as asking someone to move in (Note: This example isn’t drawn from any real culture which believes such a thing. I dreamed this one up purely for the sake of illustration). But your defense would then be that it doesn’t matter because that’s not what you meant by the request. And therein lies the point. Since you are the one who sent the message, you are the one who controls the meaning. It is your friend’s job to interpret the message you sent accurately. This communication theory is called authorial intent and it is the theory every one subscribes to in day to day life. And so…
2. Authorial Intent Forms The Basis For Our Bible Study.
When we approach a passage of Scripture, our first question is not What does this passage mean to me? But rather, What message was the original author intending to send? With this question always at the front of our minds, we are now ready to study the Bible. And this will lead to further questions to help us get at that original meaning. We’ll have to consider things like the historical-cultural context in which the passage was written. Recognizing that we can easily read our own culture and experiences in to the text, this instead helps us to do everything we can to read the passage from the vantage point of the original author and audience and thus limit the influence of our own personal biases. We’ll also have to consider things like the literary context. When we’re studying a passage of Scripture, we’ll also want to check what the author wrote before it and after it to get a feel for his larger flow of thought. This will also safeguard us from reading our own opinions in to the text.
So when you gather with your four friends to study a passage, you will all evaluate each other’s interpretations based on the evidence (i.e. does your interpretation account for the historical-cultural context? Have you considered the literary context?). And yes, this means that sometimes certain interpretations will be wrong.There, I said it. But what I hope you see is that when we begin to understand Bible study in this way, it creates a standard whereby all of our interpretations are measured. Even though you might think a certain interpretation clever or helpful, yet if it runs contrary to the original author’s intent, it must be rejected. That doesn’t mean the thought you had was necessarily bad, it just means that the passage you’re trying to use to say it isn’t justified. And finally…
3. All Communication Is Based On Interpretation
This point is probably obvious by now. But let me tease it out a bit more by returning to the article by Frank Bruni. In it he has said that interpretation is “subjective, debatable”. But this statement is self-defeating. Here’s why… The whole time Bruni was crafting his article getting it ready to be published in the Nee York Times, he was assuming that you and I would be able to read, understand, and correctly interpret his words. But if interpretation is as subjective as he claims (to the point that we might as well give up trying), then he has no right to make such an assumption. After all, he and I have had different experiences. Different family backgrounds. Different influences, etc. So theoretically I could read his article and say, “Here’s what Frank Bruni means: The Scriptures are the absolute source of authority and should influence how we make all of our decisions. Even though interpretation is subjective and the Bible is really old, it is the Word of God nonetheless.” Now, I’m sure that Frank would become frustrated and would insist that I interpreted his article incorrectly. And he would be assuming (correctly) that it is my job as the reader to understand what he meant by his words. And so my point is, why can’t we show the same courtesy to the apostle Paul? Is Frank holding Paul and all other biblical writers to a standard that he himself is not keeping. I think so.
Granted, some passages will be more difficult to understand than others (though not the ones he has in mind). But this doesn’t mean that we simply throw our hands in the air and give up. Rather, it means we strive to sharpen our skills as interpreters. It means we spend the time digging in to the historical-cultural context. We continuously seek to understand how this or that passage fits within the larger literary context. This is the work of interpretation. Just because we’re separated by time and culture doesn’t mean that all of a sudden the biblical writers don’t get the same opportunity to be understood on their own terms just like everyone else. Logically, that just doesn’t make sense. But it does mean that we must spend more time in the text. It means that if we all agree that the author controls the meaning, and the meaning is embedded in the text, and the text is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it must be our aim to discover that meaning, not create our own. Thankfully, men and women skilled in the fields of archaeology and linguistics have made numerous resources available for us to use. To say that the Bible is shrouded in unreachable history, in a culture we can no longer access is to literally ignore generations worth of scholarship.
Scores of ancient documents written around the time of the Bible have been interpreted and understood by historians in such a way that we have a good idea of what happened in the past. Any secular historian would agree that just because time and culture separates us from such documents does not mean we lack the ability to understand what they mean. If it did, then we might as well chuck our entire understanding of ancient history. But such would be ridiculous. Again, I would ask Frank, if other ancient documents can be so confidently understood, why is the Bible being held to a different standard. It simply doesn’t make sense.
Ideas have consequences. Let us take care with the way in which we talk about and do Bible study. We can know what God would have us to if we resolve to study His Word carefully!