But What Does it Mean?


  • Question from DM, United Kingdom

    As an individual believer the Holy Spirit acts as a guide to make the Scriptures clear and help me to know and understand the truth of Jesus. So how is it that the Holy Spirit can apparently reveal one interpretation of Scripture to one believer and what would seem to be a contradictory interpretation to another believer?

    The idea that every believer has the same ability to apprehend and understand what the Bible is saying is a simplification of one of the chief principles of the reformation – namely that every person could read and interpret Scripture for themselves, because the Holy Spirit dwelt in them. This concept was partly a reaction to the established, papal Church, which held (and still does hold) that it is only through the ordained ministers of the Church that the truth of Scripture could be received. The Church therefore acted as a filter of correct doctrine and whatever it said a particular Bible passage meant had to be accepted.

    Of course this led to some passages of scripture being interpreted in a way that benefited the Church and justified whatever the Church was doing, hence the reaction in the Reformation. The Reformers were also heavily influenced by renaissance proto-humanism, which sought to get back to the original meaning of the text, stripping away the many interpretations that had accreted over the centuries. Saying that the Holy Spirit acts as an interpretive guide, was the Reformers’ way of justifying their interpretations as equally valid to those given by the papal Church.

    However, most of the Reformers soon found themselves in conflict with other reforming groups who differed from them in their interpretations of scripture, leading to an almost comical situation where the breakaway churches in Germany and Switzerland were excluding people over disagreements in what the Bible said. This was despite emphasising the ‘right’ of the ordinary man to read the Bible in his own language, in his own home (apologies for the gender-based language, but that was the case in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries).

    Five hundred years later and the Protestant church is riven by disagreements among Christians, many of which start out from differences in opinion about what the Bible says on any given issue. Not that this is a new issue – Soren Kierkegaard, regarded as the formative influence on existentialism, wrote in his journal in 1848 that: “Fundamentally a reformation that did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope… Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” [The Journals of Kierkegaard, Alexander Dru (ed.), Fontana, 1958, p.150] What Kierkegaard means is that by assuming that everybody can use the Bible properly, Protestantism has caused two basic problems: firstly no one can agree on anything; secondly ‘studying’ the Bible and trying to find out what it really means becomes a substitute for genuine personal faith in God. Human intellect has replaced divine revelation and debates over interpretation have sapped the world-changing energy out of the Christian community of faith.

    But most modern believers are in a situation where they can access the Bible and read it themselves. In this situation, it is perhaps wise to have some pointers towards what is correct interpretation.

    First: Beware the ‘one-size, fits-all’ mentality.
    This may seem unpalatable to those who have been raised in fundamentalist or evangelical circles where Biblical ‘literalism’ has been emphasised, but the Bible is not one book, written at one time, by one author. It is a collection of writings, spanning at least a thousand years of human history, written by many different people, transmitted orally, or copied many times, and, crucially, written in very different situations and for different purposes. It covers a number of genres, beginning with a complex legal code, including foundational myths (‘myth’ in the technical sense, not meaning made up story), historical accounts, prophetic oracles, songs, poetry, ‘gospels’, apocalyptic visions, letters, and some bits that don’t fit into any easy classification at all.

    The problem with asserting that every bit of the Bible can be read in the same way is that a ‘one-size, fits-all’ methodology is inappropriate. It is unwise to assign the same level of accuracy to a historical account and a poem. People would not do that with twenty-first century writings, but they are happy to do it with the Bible. A common misuse of the Bible these days is ‘proof-texting’, stacking up Bible verse after Bible verse, to prove the point. Small phrases are torn out of context and applied literally, regardless of where they originally came from.

    Second: What the Bible says isn’t always immediately relevant today.
    This is another phrase that could cause offence, but divorcing the Bible from the time and place where it was written is to invite misinterpretation. Put simply, knowing the context in which a particular part of the Bible was written is crucial if a believer is going to try and apply it in a way that will actually benefit them. Biblical scholar Gordon Fee sums this up: “In speaking through real persons, in a variety of circumstances, over a 1,500 year period, God’s Word was expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of those persons… That is to say, God’s Word to us was first of all his Word to them… Our problem is that we are so far removed from them in time, and sometimes in thought.” [Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed, Zondervan, 2003, p.23]

    To make the Bible relevant, it’s important to study around the text and discover what it meant in its original context, before we look to apply it to a contemporary situation. Taking a fairly mundane example, the prohibitions on idol worship are not particularly relevant for most Christians in Europe or North America. It would be easy to smugly assume that by not carving statues and bowing down to them, God’s instructions are being observed. However, studying the text in depth should bring the realisation that the issue God has with idols was not based on how they were made, but on the fact that people worshipped them more than God. Not letting anything become more important to you than God is an easily applicable message, which most Christians have probably heard preached at some point. But without unpacking the text, the point can be easily missed.

    Third: A unique interpretation is usually wrong.
    A text cannot mean what it never meant. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.” [Fee & Stuart, op. cit. p.30] Many people who have unique interpretations of the Bible operate in isolation, either founding their own churches or by not being answerable. A good way to avoid this error is to check out new ideas with a circle of Bible-reading friends.

    Emphasising the Holy Spirit’s role in interpretation seems to give some people carte blanche to make the Bible say anything. However, within a proper theological understanding of how the Bible is formed, the Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture is hardly going to contradict Himself with a brand-new interpretation that goes against the original intent of the verse or section in question.

    Fourth and finally: Measure it against itself.
    Most doctrinal errors crop up based on one verse or section of Scripture and great care should be taken about emphasising a doctrine with little, or virtually no, Scriptural support. Another way to state this is that ‘all of doctrine must be based on all of Scripture’ – so, for example, there is a good argument for the sacrament of baptism based on the many references to baptism in the New Testament. However, there is only one reference to being ‘baptised for the dead’ (1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 29) and the meaning of that verse is far from clear. The Mormon church which practices ‘baptism for the dead’ based on this one verse could thus be regarded as introducing a doctrine with dubious Biblical provenance.

    Insisting that core doctrines must be found throughout the Bible is the best way of avoiding an over-emphasis on a secondary issue. The return of Christ is another example, testified to throughout the New Testament, but the complex dispensationalist theology (or, more accurately, sensationalist theology) outlined by populist writers like Hal Lindsay or Tim Lahaye, is based mainly on a disproportionately small number of Scriptures (dispensationalist claims that their eschatology is found throughout the Bible is ‘proof-texting’ at its absolute worst). For many dispensationalists, the imminent end of the world (and spotting the signs) has become the most important thing. This over-emphasis effectively renders their faith irrelevant to the world around them.

    To return to DM’s question – try and apply the above points to both interpretations. Do they both treat the Bible sensibly? Do they take the original context into account? Does anybody else agree with it (and who)? And, finally, do the interpretations match other references in the Bible? (If there are no other references, then how important can it be anyway?) It may be that even after applying these points, both interpretations are equally valid. In which case, the choice is whether to follow the example of centuries and have a divisive quarrel about the issue that will never be settled, or to agree to disagree and find something else which you can agree on, and which might be more useful in terms of discovering truths about God.

    Thanks for your question, DM.

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