How to interpret the Bible?

Preacher

Christians have probably argued more about the Bible, and how to interpret it, than almost anything else. Many churches say they believe the “Bible alone”, echoing the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.

I am a christian who believes the Bible reveals God to us, but I want to try to show you that it isn’t as simple as that, for several reasons:

  • I believe there is always a gap between the claim and the actual belief, in fact everyone disbelieves some parts of the Bible.
  • There is a big difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
  • We can learn something from how Jesus and the apostles used their scriptures – our Old Testament.

And I want to show you why this matters. And suggest a better way to understand and interpret the Bible.

Believing everything in the Bible?

Do you believe every one of these teachings?

Old Testament

  • “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137:9
  • “…. if the mould has spread in the house, it is a persistent defiling mould; the house is unclean. It must be torn down — its stones, timbers and all the plaster ….” Leviticus 14:44-45
  • “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 20:27
  • “…. an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul ….” 1 Samuel 18:10

Now I suggest (and hope) that no christian would think those commands should be believed and acted on today. And I would guess most christians would have trouble believing that God, the author of “every good and perfect gift”, would send an evil spirit to someone.

Now you may be thinking that there are good reasons to no longer apply these Old Testament passages, for we are in a new covenant. I agree (and will come back to this), but please stick with me for a moment.

New Testament

The Old Testament may have the most obviously inapplicable passages, but I suggest no-one believes and applies everything in the New Testament in a perfectly literal way either.

  • “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Matthew 5:29
  • “Give to the one who asks you” Matthew 5:42
  • “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Luke 16:18
  • “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” Luke 14:33
  • “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.” 1 Corinthians 14:5
  • “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” James 2:24

These passages trouble us, for who believes we should believe and obey them all as they stand? Again, I’m sure most of you will have reasons why we shouldn’t take them literally, but this brings us to an important lesson and an important question.

An important lesson

The important lesson is clear.

Everyone re-interprets some parts of the Bible. We all have reasons, and we may draw the line at different places, but we simply don’t think every part of it should be believed and applied today as written.

If we can admit this, then I believe we can get on with understanding the Bible better and obeying God more.

An important question

So now we face an important question:

How do we know which parts we should believe and obey, and which parts we should understand less literally?

Why is the Bible divided into two parts?

Bible

The Bible is divided into two ‘Testaments’. It is obvious that the Old Testament tells about Hebrew history and religion before Jesus, while the New Testament tells about the coming of Jesus and what happened next.

But is that all? Can the differences between the two Testaments tell us something important about the Bible and how we should read it?

What does ‘testament’ mean?

We are familiar with the word testament in the term last will and testament, but this isn’t its meaning here. The Greek and Latin words could mean testament in this sense, but when used in the Bible the word means covenant (see FF Bruce on The Two Testaments).

And we know what a covenant is – a binding agreement between two parties.

The covenant between God and Israel

According to the Old Testament, God entered into a covenant with Abraham in which God promised Abraham several blessings of many descendants and great influence (Genesis 12-17). The covenant is renewed and expanded with Moses (Exodus 19-24), when the Law was given. This covenant essentially said Yahweh would be the Israelite’s God and they would be his people, serving no other gods, and obeying the very detailed commands given to Moses.

The Old Testament is the record of God’s dealings with his people under this covenant.

Even if we believe that some or most of the stories about Abraham and Moses are legendary, we can still believe that God used these stories to lead his people into a covenant.

Jesus and the new covenant

One of Jesus’ most memorable actions was his Passover meal (the ‘Last Supper’) with his disciples the night before he was executed. During this meal, which included a ritual of drinking wine and offering prayers, Jesus made an astonishing statement (Luke 22:20):

This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.

The reference would have been obvious to any Jew. The Passover meal commemorated the killing of a lamb and the use of its blood to “save” the Hebrews at the time of Moses – and here was Jesus saying his blood was to be shed to begin a new covenant. He was claiming to have the authority to supersede a covenant established by God with a new covenant established by him!

The new replaces the old

It is clear in the New Testament that the new covenant supersedes and completes the old. I have outlined the reasons for this conclusion in The Old Testament Law and Christians, so I will only briefly summarise here:

  • Jesus said the Law (old covenant) remained in force for those who chose to live under it, but the new covenant of “the good news of the kingdom of God” is open to all who wish to receive it (Luke 16:16,17).
  • Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were willing to let go of some crucial aspects of the old covenant (see Acts 10-11 & 15).
  • Paul taught very strongly that the old covenant of Law and “written code” (including even the Ten Commandments!) was inferior to, and replaced by, the new covenant of grace, freedom and the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6-8, Galatians 3:23-25, Colossians 2:16-17).
  • The book of Hebrews reinforces this teaching (Hebrews 7:18-19, 10:1, 10:9).

What’s more, no christians tries to keep the old covenant in its entirety now – in fact it is impossible now the Jerusalem temple doesn’t exist.

The clear and obvious conclusion

The commandments of the Old Testament are not in themselves binding on christians because we didn’t sign up to that covenant! When we asked God for forgiveness through Jesus, we entered into Jesus’ new covenant of the good news of the kingdom of God, a covenant of grace, freedom and of the Spirit. The New Testament is written for us.

The take-home message

Whatever anyone says to the contrary, the Old and New Testaments don’t have the same status. While they are both included in the Bible, because they are both recognised as a revelation of God, they are not believed and obeyed in the same way.

This must affect the way we view the Bible.

Learning from Jesus and the apostles

We have seen that the Bible doesn’t claim as much for itself as some christians claim for it. Now I test these conclusions by examining how Jesus and his apostles treated their Bible – our Old Testament.

Non-literal interpretations

When we examine how Jesus and his apostles used their scriptures, we find they didn’t always quote the Old Testament precisely and apply it literally. As often as not, they draw meanings out of passages that were not in the original, and seem to our literal western minds to be quite fanciful at times.

Some examples

  • In Luke 4:18 Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, but omits a couple of phrases and inserts one from Isaiah 58.
  • At the last supper (Mark 14:27), Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, but changes the words from “strike down the shepherds and draw out the sheep” to “I will strike down the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered”. This appears to change the meaning.
  • When Paul quotes Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8, he changes the wording from “you took many captives; you received gifts from people” to “he took many captives and gave gifts to his people” Again the meaning is thereby changed from God receiving gifts to giving them.
  • Matthew 27:9-10 quotes Zechariah 11:12 (but ascribes it to Jeremiah), which mentions 30 pieces of silver as part of a narrative, and turns it into a prophecy of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – this is a significant change in the original meaning.

What does this tell us?

None of these, and the many other examples, are all that shocking, but they do suggest that:

  1. Jesus and the apostles were not concerned to use the exact words of the Old Testament. One can conclude that either they didn’t think the exact words were given by God, or they felt free to change the words given by God.
  2. Likewise, they felt quite free to re-interpret or change the meaning of some Old Testament passages if it suited their purpose.
  3. Interpreting literally and in context, which are very important to us today, was not always necessary.

Therefore we have to be careful when we insist on literal interpretations in every situation. God’s truths can be conveyed through non-literal understandings – perhaps sometimes they can best, or only, be conveyed that way.

Interpreting the Bible today.

Reading a book

In the light of all this, how can we faithfully interpret and apply the Bible today, especially the tricky parts?

Theology 1.01

When I was growing up as a young evangelical christian, we were taught that there were three ways to know the truth, two wrong and one right:

  • The Bible interpreted by church tradition. This was said to be the Catholic way – the church has authority to explain truth to us, and to show us what the Bible really means. The trouble is, we were told, in the end, the church becomes the authority and the Bible is just a tool in its hands.
  • The Bible interpreted by reason. This was said to be the liberal approach – we only believe the Bible as much as is reasonable in the light of modern knowledge. But, we were told, this ends up making each human being the arbiter of truth, and again the Bible is relegated to being just a book of often-antiquated ideas.
  • The Bible alone. This was the way of the Reformers, we were told, and the only safe way to know the truth. God’s word was truth.

But it wasn’t long before I found this view had some terrible holes in it.

It wasn’t what evangelicals actually did

  1. Truth in evangelical churches was not in fact determined by the Bible, because the Bible sometimes says some disconcerting and even contradictory things. These matters couldn’t be left unresolved, for this would be dangerous, so evangelicals used a technique of “interpreting scripture by scripture”, whereby more difficult passages were interpreted in the light of more obvious ones.
    .
    This sounds good, but who says the Bible should be interpreted this way? Certainly not the Bible! What if we end up explaining away an important teaching just because we want to harmonise things? Most crucially, if the Bible is indeed the sole source of truth and God had wanted us to resolve matters in this way, wouldn’t he have made it clear in the Bible?
  2. It soon becomes clear that it isn’t the Bible alone at all, but the Bible interpreted by the evangelical creeds and statements of faith, like the Westminster Confession. Any reading of the Bible that doesn’t conform to the creedal statement of your church is suspect.
  3. In the end, evangelicals seem to think that to really know what the Bible says we need good preaching. The preacher has been to theological or Bible college and he knows. He knows the Greek, he knows his church’s creeds, and he knows what is acceptable in his denomination.

In practical fact, what was said to be “sola scriptura” ended up as much dependent on church traditions and human reason as the views they criticised.

And it wasn’t true

  • There is an element of pride (because we think we can resolve authoritatively ambiguities that God has left unresolved) and humanism (teaching is explained and doctrinal arguments are resolved based on intellectual knowledge) in this evangelical approach.
  • It leaves uneducated people without Bible College-trained pastors completely in the dark. But if the Bible is indeed God revealing truth about himself, then surely it ought to be possible for ordinary people, even those with little education, to be able to read it and get the basic message.
  • Churches often promote beliefs that don’t seem to be true (e.g. apartheid in the Reformed churches in South Africa; prosperity doctrine in the USA and elsewhere; teachings about Jesus and first century Judaism that don’t conform to what the historians have found), yet insist on followers keeping to them.
  • This evangelical approach tends to lead to partisan interpretations – Calvinist vs Arminian, charismatic vs evangelical, evangelism vs social gospel, believers’ baptism vs infant baptism, etc – when we ought to be seeking unity on the essentials of the faith and allowing liberty on the rest.
  • The killer: the use of creeds and systematic doctrinal statements isn’t actually taught by the Bible in any explicit way that I can see, neither does the Bible suggest God cannot reveal truth apart from the Bible.

There must be a better way

I suggest that all of these ways of interpreting the Bible (church tradition and creeds, reason, formal study, comparing scripture with scripture) have value, but none of them is sufficient on their own, and none of them should prevent the Bible speaking for itself without hindrance. They need a guiding principle to hold them together and prevent them overwhelming what God wants to say to us.

Jesus gave us a method

In John 16:13, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth. And in the book of Acts (especially Acts 10:19, 13:2, 15:28, 16:7) we see the Spirit guiding Jesus’ followers into truth and right decisions.

Surely if we believe in the Holy Spirit, if we trust the Spirit, he has a crucially important role in interpreting the Bible to us!? And surely praying and asking the Spirit for his guidance is more important than arguing about the Greek, consulting the creeds or explaining away one scripture by another? In fact the Spirit’s guidance is the only way we can safely use other methods to know truth.

There are, of course, dangers in allowing the Spirit to guide us – we can easily get things wrong. But (1) we get things wrong anyway, and (2) the New Testament gives us some guidelines on discerning the Spirit:

  • Truth will acknowledge Jesus as Lord and lead to his name being honoured (1 Corinthians 12:3, 1 John 2:20-23).
  • Truth is known through the discernment of the whole community of christians (1 Corinthians 14:29, Colossians 3:15-16 [the “you” words are plural], Acts 13:1-3, Acts 15:22 & 28).
  • The true way will be the way of love (1 Corinthians 13).
  • We trust the Spirit won’t lead us astray if we follow these guidelines (Matthew 7:7-12).

Avoiding legalism

If we follow the way of the Spirit, we will avoid legalism and have a new attitude to rules:

  • In the new covenant, we no longer live by the law, but in the new way of the freedom of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6). If we walk in the Spirit we are not subject to the law (Galatians 5:16-18).
  • All the law is replaced by the simple commands to love God and fellow human (Mark 12:29-31, Galatians 5:14).
  • We should be wary of fixed rules, because on many matters, God’s conviction will lead to different responses in different people (Romans 14). We shouldn’t be judging how others choose (Romans 14:13). Anything not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
  • If we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our thinking, we will know God’s perfect will (Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit comes to us to teach us truth and to convict us (John 14:26, 16:13).

Truth is truth

God is the author of all truth, wherever we find it, so we should expect the truths of science, history, philosophy and our own experience of God to be consistent with what God says through the Bible. If different approaches to truth seem to be contradictory, we shouldn’t assume either secular truth or our understanding of the Bible are right, or wrong, but seek clarification and a renewed understanding.

We don’t have to know everything

Human beings are inquisitive, and we like to find out answers. But we cannot ever fully comprehend God, and there will always be things we don’t understand. Perhaps God doesn’t want to give us certainty at these points? We don’t have to resolve them and we don’t have to know everything.

Putting it together

I suggest we need to allow God to speak to us in all these ways – through the Bible and secular knowledge, both interpreted by the Spirit and understood in faith.

So for many years now I have tried to allow the Bible to speak for itself without the “protection” of church traditions or creeds, praying for the Spirit’s guidance in putting all these ideas together. I use reason, history, theology and a balance of scriptural passages, but I try to be true to what we have been given. This is a process that anyone can follow.

I think the results will bring freedom and clarity. Please come with me on the ride.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

2 thoughts on “How to interpret the Bible?

  1. Robbie says:

    The danger of your thinking..is that any Christian can then truly be deceived into believing things like “homo/bi sexual marriage is OK” or that We don’t have to strive to keep the moral law of Gods commandments…or even that Christians can date and or marry unbelievers..not to mention Women in ministry. Of course the New covenant is better! We ..unlike our old testament ancestors have been given the freedom from sin and power over it and its punishment of eternal death by the free gift of the Holy spirit. The same spirit that allowed and empowered Jesus to live in total obedience to the fathers will and then rise from the dead. The other great danger in your thesis is that this snowball will grow so large that eventually nothing in “God breathed scripture” will be accepted as fact and real. There is only one being in the universe who would rejoice at such a result. Please reconsider the gravity of the theological and doctrinal errors your teaching will cause. I ask this in the name which Truly is above all names,,,literally!

    Robbie.

    Like

  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Robbie, thanks for commenting. I can see you feel strongly about this. Are you interested in discussing further, or would you rather just leave your comment stand?

    Like

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