How can Christians tell which interpretation is valid? Different people read the same text, and have different ideas about what it means. Why? Don’t we all have the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism of the Spirit, and the same God and Father? Why don’t we agree on what the Bible teaches?
One reason is because some people are better at reading than others. In our day and age, people don’t read as often as they should. This means we don’t read all that much, which means when we do read, we can do it badly. So, when we read the Bible, it’s entirely possible we don’t read it too well.
A while back, Roy Zuck wrote a wonderful book entitled Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth. The title says it all. What makes this book so practical is that it’s written for normal people. Zuck tackled the problem of “whose view is valid” in this book. Here, I’ll briefly explain some of his axioms of Bible interpretation. No matter how smart you are, how many degrees you have (or don’t have), or how skilled you are in biblical Greek and Hebrew, these principles are foundational to understanding and interpreting the Bible. I once heard Steven Lawson proclaim that he re-reads Zuck’s book every few years; it helps him not forget so many of the basics that can be taken for granted.
The first thing Roy Zuck emphasizes is that the Bible is a human book. This seems pretty simple. But, it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? Go to the local used bookstore, or the Goodwill, and look for those tawdry books about “Bible codes” that were all the rage a while back. The authors claim to have “uncovered” some “hidden code” in the Bible. And, guess what? It changes everything (cue sinister music).
This is wrong. The Bible is a collection of books written by real people, in real language, and they were meant to actually communicate something understandable to the original audience. This means several things:1
The Bible was written in normal language
The original audience understood the words. They understood the message. The books were given by God to the people, through men moved by the Spirit, and He intended them to be understood. There’s no need to call a magician, a sorcerer, or a “qualified expert” to explain the basic sense of Scripture.
Of course, God speaks in figurative language at times. The Lord didn’t literally make David lie down in green pastures. Yahweh hasn’t literally sent four horsemen to patrol the earth (Zech 1:7-10). Jeremiah did not literally see the city of Jerusalem weep bitterly in the night (Lam 1:2). The context tells us when the author is using figurative language. We do the same thing in everyday language; for example, “I’d kill for a good cup of coffee, right now!”
The point is that we shouldn’t seek for a “deeper” meaning, unless the context tells us. When Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water, is this an allegory for Jesus being a “shelter in the time of storm?” Does the text say it? No, it doesn’t.
The biblical books were written for a specific people, in a specific context
If you don’t understand why a book was written, then you won’t really understand what the author is saying, or why. Should you go and build an ark? Should you go and marry a prostitute (Hosea 1)? Is Hosea telling you to avoid worshiping pieces of wood (Hos 4:12)? Was Habakkuk prophesying about Islam (Hab 1:5-11)? Should women wear head coverings (1 Cor 11)? Were Paul’s comments about women in church really only applicable to the local situation in Ephesus? Should a Christian never go to Samaria (Mt 10:5)?
If you try and understand the context, then you’ll have a better shot at understanding the book. Get a good Bible dictionary, and a good introduction to the Old and New Testaments — they’ll both help you out.
The biblical authors were influenced by their cultures
This is simple, and everybody ought to relate. For example, an American might use sports metaphors in his writing; “Pastor Jimmy really hit a home run today in his sermon!” However, a person from India might not “get” this reference at all!
Recently, I had a meeting with the two senior attorneys at my agency about an allegation against a major health care provider. I summarized what I’d found from the documents the complainants provided, and concluded, “In the end, if we decide to open a formal investigation, we’ll just end up exegeting the by-laws to determine if the board misrepresented the issue to the agency.” The attorneys understood what I meant, but my choice of words was clearly influenced by my theological training. It’s not a legal term, or even an investigatory term. I don’t even know where it came from; it’s just what I found on the fly as I summarized my opinion. In short, my particular culture and context influenced how I communicated that day.
The Bible is the same.
The Bible must be understood in light of its context
When it comes to interpreting individual words and their relationship to the larger context, there is no “literal” meaning. None. People who know better often use the term “literal” out of necessity; what they really mean is the default or general understanding. For example, the word “ball” could mean a round shape, a formal dance, or a figurative reference to a fun time (e.g. “we had a ball at the office party last week!”). Anyone who has studied language understands that context is key. Moises Silva, for example, writes about agonizing it was for him to translate a Spanish article into English – because he’s a native Spanish speaker. Suddenly, Silva wrote, he became aware that the reason he struggled so much was because he knew Spanish so well. He had trouble capturing the nuance of the matter, and translating it into English.2 There is no “literal meaning;” the context always determines meaning.
For example, did the Apostle Peter write that Christians “by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” (1 Pet 1:5)? Or, did he mean something like deliverance? Context must decide, because the Greek word could be taken either way. Likewise, what did Peter mean when he wrote that women are the “weaker sex” (1 Pet 3:7)? Physically? Spiritually? Weaker in authority, within the marriage relationship? Weaker morally? The context is key.
So, you can’t divorce a Bible passage from its context. Be very careful when you see somebody habitually pull a verse out of thin air, and use it with gusto. That sentence was written in a particular context, and you can’t understand it without that context.
Each biblical book is written in a specific literary form
When we read something, we instinctively recalibrate our minds to interpret accordingly. You read about Jack Reacher’s exploits in the latest Lee Child novel differently than you read a theological tome on the Trinity. This isn’t a surprise; you expect that and adjust accordingly. We understand poetry, prophesy, narrative, and wisdom literature when we see it in the Bible, too. That impacts our interpretation; you can’t read Revelation the same way you read the Gospel of Mark. The genres are different, and the style is different. You also don’t read Walt Whitman the same way you read John Sandford.
Each biblical book was understood by its audience according to basic principles of communication
An author doesn’t write to confuse his readers. He seeks to be consistent. This means you interpret and harmonize a text with itself, or with other writings which might be clearer. The point is that you can understand what the text means. There is no mystery. No “hidden code.” No wise man whom you should seek to discover the “real meaning.” It wasn’t written in a foreign language. It was written in a language it’s original audience would understand, in a way they would understand, to communicate something God wanted them to “get.”
A lot of this is common sense. You do it instinctively when you read a novel, a play, a newspaper, a blog article, or President Trump’s tweets. You understand the genre you’re reading, and you re-calibrate your mind to interpret it accordingly. The Bible is like that. It’s written in normal language that follows normal patterns. It was written for a specific people, in a specific context, and it has to be understood that way. The people who wrote the books were influenced by their culture and society. Each writing has a specific literary form, or several, and they each have to be interpreted on that basis. Each writing was meant to be understood according to basic principles of logic and communication.
Hopefully, these axioms can help you read and understand the Bible better. They’ll also help you discern a good Bible teacher from an unbalanced one.
1 The following axioms are taken from Roy Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1991), 59-67.
2 Moises Silva, “Are Translators Traitors? Some Personal Reflections,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation: Communicating God’s Word to the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 37-50 (37).