Why Is Interpretation Needed?
To read the Bible also means to interpret the Bible. But how do we do that? What principles do we use? How, for instance, do we deal with the different kinds of writing we find there? For example, is the passage we’re reading a parable, a prophetic-symbolic dream, or a historical narrative? The decision of such an important question of the context of Scripture involves an act of interpretation itself.
At times, some people use the Bible as a divine oracle: simply opening the Bible randomly to seek a Bible verse that they hope will provide guidance. But randomly linking Bible passages as one finds them can lead to very strange and wrong conclusions.
For instance, when a husband left his wife for another woman, the wife got great assurance when she found the following text: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman” (Gen. 3:15, NKJV). She was convinced, based on that verse, that her husband’s affair would not last! Any text without a context quickly becomes a pretext for one’s own agenda and ideas. Hence, there is a great need for us not just to read the Bible but to interpret it correctly.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 9
No one comes to the text of Scripture with a blank mind. Every reader, every student of Scripture, comes to the Bible with a particular history and personal experience that inevitably impacts the process of interpretation. Even the disciples had their own particular ideas of who the Messiah was and what He was supposed to do, based on the expectations of their times. Their strong convictions prohibited a clearer understanding of the biblical text, which helps explain why they so often misunderstood Jesus and the events surrounding His life, death, and resurrection.
We all hold a number of beliefs about this world, about ultimate reality, about God, et cetera, that we presuppose or accept—even unwittingly or unconsciously—when we interpret the Bible. No one approaches the biblical text with an empty mind. If, for instance, someone’s worldview categorically rules out any supernatural intervention by God, that person will not read and understand Scripture as a true and reliable report of what God has done in history, but will interpret it very differently from someone who accepts the reality of the supernatural. Interpreters of the Bible cannot completely divest themselves from their own past, their experiences, resident ideas, and preconceived notions and opinions. Total neutrality, or absolute objectivity, cannot be achieved. Bible study and theological reflection always happen against the background of presuppositions about the nature of the world and the nature of God.
But the good news is that the Holy Spirit can open up and correct our limited perspectives and presuppositions when we read the words of Scripture with an open mind and honest heart. The Bible repeatedly affirms that people with vastly different backgrounds were able to understand the Word of God and that the Holy Spirit leads us “into all truth” (John 16:13).
The Bible was written in very ancient languages: the Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew, with a few passages in Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Koine Greek. The majority of the world population today does not speak and read those ancient languages. Hence, the Bible has to be translated into different modern languages.
But, as any good translator knows, every translation always involves some kind of interpretation. Some words in one language do not have an exact equivalent in another. The art and skill of carefully translating and then interpreting texts is called “hermeneutics.”
The Greek word hermeneuo, from which we have the word hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), is derived from the Greek god Hermes. Hermes was considered to be an emissary and messenger of the gods, and as such was responsible for, among other things, translating divine messages for the people.
The crucial point for us in regard to hermeneutics is that unless we read the original languages, our only access to the texts is through translations. Fortunately, many translations do a good job of conveying the essential meaning. We do not need to know the original language to be able to understand the crucial truths revealed in Scripture, even if having that linguistic knowledge could be beneficial. Yet, even with a good translation, a proper interpretation of the texts is important, as well, as we saw in Luke 24:27. That’s the key purpose of hermeneutics: to convey accurately the meaning of Bible texts and to help us know how to apply properly the text’s teaching to our lives now. As the text in Luke above shows, Jesus did this for His followers. Imagine what it must have been like having Jesus Himself interpret Bible passages for you!
A background knowledge of Near Eastern culture is helpful for understanding some biblical passages. “For example, Hebrew culture attributed responsibility to an individual for acts he did not commit but that he allowed to happen. Therefore, the inspired writers of the Scriptures commonly credit God with doing actively that which in Western thought we would say He permits or does not prevent from happening, for example, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.”—“Methods of Bible Study,” section 4.P. at www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-interpretation-hermeneutics/methods-bible-study.
Culture also raises some important hermeneutical questions. Is the Bible culturally conditioned, and thus only relative to that culture in what it asserts? Or does the divine message given in a particular culture transcend this particular culture and speak to all human beings? What happens if one’s own cultural experience becomes the basis and litmus test for our interpretation of Scripture?
In Acts 17:26, the apostle Paul gives an interesting perspective on reality that is often overlooked when people read this text. He states that God made us all from one blood. While we are culturally very diverse, biblically speaking there is a common bond that unites all people, despite their cultural differences, and that’s because God is the Creator of all humanity. Our sinfulness and our need of salvation is not limited to one culture. We all need the salvation offered to us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Though God spoke to specific generations, He saw to it that future generations reading the Word of God would understand that those truths go beyond the local and limited circumstances during which the Bible texts were written.
As a parallel, think about algebra, which was first invented in the ninth century a.d. in Baghdad. Does this mean, then, that the truths and principles of this branch of mathematics are limited only to that time and place? Of course not.
The same principle applies to the truths of God’s Word. Though the Bible was written a long time ago in cultures very different from ours today, the truths it contains are as relevant to us now as they were to whom they were first addressed.
It’s easy to look back with scorn at the religious leaders who rejected Jesus despite such powerful evidence. Yet, we need to be careful ourselves that we don’t foster a similar attitude when it comes to His Word.
There is no question that sin has radically altered, ruptured, and fractured our relationship with God. Sin affects all of our human existence. It also affects our ability to interpret Scripture. It is not just that our human thought processes are easily employed for sinful ends, but our minds and thoughts have become corrupted by sin and, therefore, become closed to God’s truth. The following characteristics of this corruption can be detected in our thinking: pride, self-deception, doubt, distance, and disobedience.
A prideful person elevates himself or herself over God and His Word. This is because pride leads the interpreter to overemphasize human reason as the final arbiter of truth, even truths found in the Bible. This attitude diminishes the divine authority of Scripture.
Some people tend to listen only to those ideas that are attractive to them, even if they are in contradiction to God’s revealed will. God has warned us about the danger of self-deception (Rev. 3:17). Sin also fosters doubt, in which we waver and are inclined not to believe God’s Word. When one starts with doubt, the interpretation of the biblical text will never lead to certainty. Instead, the doubting person quickly elevates himself to a position where he judges what is and is not acceptable in the Bible, which is very dangerous ground to be standing on.
Instead, we should approach the Bible in faith and submission, and not with an attitude of criticism and doubt. Pride, self-deception, and doubt lead to an attitude of distance toward God and the Bible that surely will lead to disobedience, that is, an unwillingness to follow God’s revealed will.
The most important question in the Bible is the question of salvation and how we are saved. After all, what else matters in the long run? What good is it, as Jesus Himself told us, if we gain all that the world offers and lose our own souls (Matt. 16:26)?
But to know what the Bible teaches about salvation depends very much on interpretation. If we approach and interpret the Bible wrongly, we will likely come to false conclusions, not just in the understanding of salvation but in everything else that the Bible teaches. In fact, even in the time of the apostles, theological error had already crept into the church, no doubt buttressed by false interpretations of Scripture.
Indeed, if we are a people of the Book, who want to live by the Bible and the Bible alone—and we do not have other authoritative sources such as tradition, creeds, or the teaching authority of the church to interpret the Bible for us—then the issue of a correct hermeneutic of the Bible is so important because we have only the Bible to tell us what we shall believe and how we shall live.
The issue of the interpretation of Scripture is vital to the theological and missiological health of the church. Without a correct interpretation of the Bible, there can be no unity of doctrine and teaching, and thus no unity of the church and our mission. A bad and distorted theology inevitably leads to a deficient and distorted mission. After all, if we have a message to give to the world but are confused about the meaning of the message, how efficiently will we be able to present that message to those who need to hear it?
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “What to Do With Doubt,” pp. 105–113, in Steps to Christ, and from the document “Methods of Bible Study,” section 1 (Preamble), section 2 (Presuppositions Arising From the Claims of Scripture), and section 3 (Principles for Approaching the Interpretation of Scripture). “Methods of Bible Study” can be found at www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-interpretation -hermeneutics/methods-bible-study.
“In your study of the word, lay at the door of investigation your preconceived opinions and your hereditary and cultivated ideas. You will never reach the truth if you study the Scriptures to vindicate your own ideas. Leave these at the door, and with a contrite heart go in to hear what the Lord has to say to you. As the humble seeker for truth sits at Christ’s feet, and learns of Him, the word gives him understanding. To those who are too wise in their own conceit to study the Bible, Christ says, You must become meek and lowly in heart if you desire to become wise unto salvation.
“Do not read the word in the light of former opinions; but, with a mind free from prejudice, search it carefully and prayerfully. If, as you read, conviction comes, and you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the word, do not try to make the word fit these opinions. Make your opinions fit the word. Do not allow what you have believed or practiced in the past to control your understanding. Open the eyes of your mind to behold wondrous things out of the law. Find out what is written, and then plant your feet on the eternal Rock.” —Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People, p. 260.