This post is part of our "Help My Unbelief" blog series, responding to challenging faith questions asked that didn't make the sermon series. View the sermon series here.
How literally should I interpret the Bible?
Why is the church divided? Why are there so many interpretations of the Scriptures?
If the Holy Spirit leads Christians, why do Christians vary so much in matters of personal conviction?
The question of how we interpret the Bible is a vitally important one. Many times when a believer quotes Scripture to support an argument, another believer can easily dismiss it with a glib, "That's just your interpretation". Sometimes it seems that even among Christians there is very little agreement about what the Bible teaches. This can even cause a crises of faith for some believers who begin to wonder, "how can I know that my interpretation is correct?" or "maybe I can't trust that the Bible is clear".
WHY CHRISTIANS DISAGREE
There are many reasons why we see so many different interpretations of Scripture, even among believers. For starters, we have so many interpretations because we have so many interpreters. Each person brings their own unique perspective that is informed by their personality, gender, background, culture, race and family upbringing. This is not always a bad thing of course, because each person may wield different insights as they examine the text of Scripture. But it is just a reality that each person sees the text through their own lens and this often wields very differing perspectives. With that knowledge though, what are some main reasons for different interpretations?
Lazy study habits - This is perhaps the #1 reason we witness so much disagreement among Christians today. Most people - even Christians - do not read the Bible much at all, let alone read it in context and study it with good tools and helps (more on that later). And even though God's spirit (who is the Spirit of Truth) indwells a Christian, this does not excuse sloppy study habits or negate proper rules of interpretation.
Wrong Motives - As fallen people, we can often study the Bible with wrong motives. Sometimes we simply do not want to interpret the Bible accurately. Often we are more interested in reading what will inspire or encourage us, even if it may not be what God was communicating in the text.
Finite Minds - Even if our motives are right and we have studied rigorously for the right meaning, we still deal with the reality that we are finite people who "see in a mirror dimly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We simply do not see everything the way we ought to because we have limits as human beings.
Outside Pressures - There can be other factors as well, such as ecclesiastical, family or social pressure to see the Bible a particular way. We can sometimes hold that the Bible teaches something that it does not teach simply to appease others around us.
WHAT CHRISTIANS DISAGREE AND AGREE ON
Having said all that, there is far more agreement among Christians in terms of our core beliefs and doctrines than is often assumed. There is such a thing as orthodoxy (a standard of right belief) that defines what Christianity is at its core and has been for the last 2000 years. One example would be the Apostles Creed, one of Christianity's earliest creeds that is held unanimously by Christians as one of the core statements of belief. The Creed articulates many (not all) of the essentials or absolutes of the Christian faith. Indeed, when it comes to essentials, there is unity among believers. If someone were to disagree with the essential teachings of Christianity, this would not be considered a division among Christians, but a division between Christian and non.
Much of the disagreement among confessing Christians takes place, not around the essentials, but in the realm of second or third-order doctrines. Second-order doctrines are issues that are incredibly important, but not-essential to salvation, like baptism. Third-order doctrines are issues that are also important, but there is even less immediate importance than a second-order doctrine, such as the precise timing of Christ's return. Often the key difference that separates essential from non-essential teachings is the difference between what is most clear and what is less clear in the Bible. What is most clear is also most essential, such as the person and work of Christ, His atoning death on the cross and the necessity of faith alone in Christ alone for salvation.
Believers should be greatly encouraged therefore, that despite all of the disagreements about non-essentials, there still remains incredible unity in the Spirit surrounding the Gospel of Jesus, a unity that extends across the globe and far down the line of church history. Our God has not left us in the dark at all, his Gospel is light, his word is clear and he still reveals his word to "little children" (Matt 11:26).
HOW TO INTERPRET MORE FAITHFULLY
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul charged Timothy to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." Evidently, Paul thought it was possible for a believer to interpret God's word faithfully and accurately. Therefore it follows that certain rules of interpretation must be adhered to in order to handle God's Word with care and precision. So, how then should we read and study the Bible in a faithful manner?
Reading in Context - About 75% of bad interpretation can be remedied by simply reading scripture in context. This means reading it in literary context, historical context and cultural context. As you read, make observations and ask the questions of who, what, when, where and why? This will help you become familiar with the context, which will then shed proper light when it comes to interpreting the text.
Authorial Intent - As you read the text, your goal is not first to ask, "what is God saying to me?" but rather to ask, "what did the author intend to communicate to the audience he was writing to?" Our goal should first be to discover meaning, not invent meaning. Then we can move on to applying the Bible to our lives once we are confident of its meaning.
Recognize Genre - Sometimes people wonder, "how literally should we interpret the Bible"? The answer is that we should interpret the Bible the same way we interpret other literature. If I am reading the book of Psalms, I recognize immediately that I am dealing with poetic genre. I will therefore recognize the use of figurative language like metaphor, simile, personification and hyperbole. However, if I am reading historical narrative, and the author intends to communicate a literal event, then I will read it literally.
Use Good study tools – Use a good study Bible for the easiest and quickest access to historical, cultural and linguistic background that will shed light on the text. You can find many free online commentaries, Bible dictionaries and other study tools to help you answer some of the questions you may not know by studying the text alone. I might also add that choosing a more word for word Bible translation is critical to this process. Such translations include ESV, HCSB, NASB and NIV. At Central, we primarily preach from and recommend the ESV.
The Holy Spirit – Ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the text (Psalm 119:18) to your understanding and help you apply it to your life. The role of the Holy Spirit in proper interpretation and application of the text is critical, since He is the one who authored the Scripture in the first place (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This is also why we must interpret scripture by scripture, using clearer texts to help us better understand less clear texts.
There is much more to say about this topic. The bottom line is that disagreements among Christians do not reflect a problem with God’s Word itself, but has more to do with our problem as fallen and finite people. God’s word is clear. If you would like to continue exploring this topic further, below are some good resources for a) How to study and interpret the Bible and B) Bible study resources.
A. HOW TO READ AND STUDY THE BIBLE
Knowing Scripture — R.C. Sproul
How to Study the Bible and Enjoy It — Skip Heitzig
Grasping God’s Word: A Hands On Approach To Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible — J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays
B. BIBLE STUDY TOOLS
ESV Study Bible — Crossway
biblestudytools.com — this site includes free commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopaedias for Bible study.