Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bible Interpretation

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about BIble Interpretation:

Q: When I talk with other Christians, especially those from different denominations, we often have different ways of understanding certain Bible passages. Is it possible to tell who is correct, and how would that be done?

Correctly understanding the Bible can sometimes be a challenging task when we encounter so many different interpretations surrounding us. Because people have their own personal biases and denominations desire to defend certain doctrines, we arrive at varying conclusions regarding the way certain passages are to be understood, but two contradictory interpretations cannot both be true.

First, it is helpful to distinguish between interpretation and application. On one hand, a certain passage may, in fact, have many applications for Christians. A verse which speaks of one thing may be applied by the individual in a variety of ways, depending on their circumstances. On the other hand, there can be no more than one correct meaning or interpretation of a given passage. If several people have different understandings of a passage’s meaning, it is possible that all of them are incorrect, but no more than one may be correct.

Sometimes determining this correct understanding is very simple. For example, when Jesus says, “Every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” there is no doubt about what He is saying. Other times, finding the meaning of a passage takes deeper study. On those occasions, here are a few important principles:

The first principle is to approach the Bible to find out its conclusion rather than simply using it to defend your own. It is important that we let the Bible speak to us rather than attempting to force it to confirm our predetermined conclusions.

Context is always your best tool. Do not look at the verse alone, but look at the verses around it, the rest of the chapter, and even the rest of the book of the Bible in which you find it. Look even to other books of the Bible for passages with similar themes that can help to clarify its meaning. Always start with very clear and straightforward verses and use them to help you understand the more difficult verses—not the reverse.

Be aware what it is you are reading. Some statements are intended to be taken literally, and in those cases we should do so. In other cases (such as Apocalyptic Visions and the Parables of Jesus), the passage is intended to communicate something deeper. Consider what kind of writing it is. Is it a Psalm? A Historical account? An Epistle (or letter)? A parable? A vision? Who is writing and for whom are they writing it? This will all assist in understanding what is meant by the author.

How does the text relate to Jesus? How does a given understanding of the verse relate to Jesus? All Scripture ultimately points to Jesus, so if Jesus is central in an interpretation, it is a good sign. If an interpretation pushes Jesus aside or ignores him, this is evidence that things may have gone off track.

The Bible’s message is always consistent with itself. If a passage seems to contradict a passage which clearly states something elsewhere, further study is necessary. Reconsider your understanding of the less clear passage. It may even be wise at this point to consult a pastor, especially one who knows the Greek and Hebrew languages in which the Bible was originally written.

Even after considering these principles, there may be very rare occasions when it is just not possible to find a definite answer. Occasionally we find mysterious passages in the Bible which we simply do not have the capacity to understand. Examples of this include the phrase “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 and some of the more obscure images in the book of Revelation. In these cases, we simply return to the clear passages of the Scriptures to guide us.

Obviously, this is not all there is to Biblical interpretation. The typical seminary course on Bible Interpretation (called Hermeneutics) includes as much as 30-40 hours of classroom study, but these principles, along with a basic understanding of how to read literature in general, are typically sufficient to address the questions which the average Christian will encounter in their daily Bible reading or discussion with their friends and neighbors.

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