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One Interpretation, Many Applications April 23, 2016

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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One of the criticisms of the Bible is that everyone interprets it differently. This a legitimate concern. There are many people that come to different ideas on what parts of the Bible are actually teaching. Some people base their interpretations based on only one or two verses completely overlooking the literary context these verses came from. Picking out isolated verses to prove a point is called “proof-texting”. The problem with proof-texting is that it starts with the individual (their views, beliefs, experiences, etc.) and imposes those ideas onto the text. If you take verses out of their context you can find justification for almost anything you want. People have used the Bible to condone slavery, racism, the Crusades, polygamy, homosexuality, and numerous cults. The teachings on baptisms for the dead and the high status of the Pope both come from Biblical passages. There have been many things that people have wrongly believed simply because they had a misunderstanding of what the Bible actually taught.

The Church today is fractured and schizophrenic in its beliefs. We have hundreds of denominations in the US today. Most of these came about because of differences of opinions on doctrine and practice. We have some churches that put a big emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit, while others see the gifts of miracles and prophecy finished with the completion of the Bible. Some people believe it is a sin to read any other translation other than the KJV. Some churches don’t allow women teachers. Some believe if you are not a Calvinist you are not a Christian. Some of these differences are a matter of tradition, but for the most part we simply disagree on what the Bible teaches.

Some people think the Bible is like an artistic painting or piece of modern art, that you look at and interpret based on how you feel. This is exemplified in the question a lot Bible study groups ask: “What does this passage mean to you?”This version of Bible study a lot of times ends up as just a pooling of ignorance. People say whatever comes to their mind, whether or not it is relevant or even accurate. Studying the Bible takes time and effort. Most people tend to give up too quickly. They think that a cursory reading of the text is sufficient.

In case you were wondering, studying and understanding the Bible is difficult and takes time. It was written in an ancient language (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). It was written thousands of years in the past in a culture that we are unfamiliar with. It was originally written for a specific audience, and because of this there were things the authors didn’t say because they didn’t have to. Their audience was already familiar with the culture and language. It is our job as faithful readers to attempt to understand what the author’s of the Bible were trying to say to their original audience. Only after we understand what it meant to those people can we make application to our lives today.

People say that since there are so many different views on what the Bible says, we can’t know what the Bible actually teaches. If we have such a diverse range of interpretations, even in the Church and among scholars, how can we know which one is correct? This is the whole reason why we have exegesis and hermeneutics. Even though it is difficult to get at what the author’s original intent was, this should be our goal.

The people who wrote the Bible, had a specific purpose for writing what they did. They had a distinct and deliberate message they were trying to convey to their audience. This is what we should be trying to uncover. This becomes even more important when we realize that these people were inspired by God.The Holy Spirit led these writers to convey a message. This wasn’t some symbolic or hidden message He was trying to convey. God had a specific message He wanted the people to understand and He gave it in a way that the people could comprehend. The more we can put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the audience to which the Bible was originally written, the better we will be able to interpret the message to them. Once we understand what God was trying to say to them, we can make application to our modern context.

No one is perfect in their interpretation. Because of our distance from the original readers, there will inevitably be things we will not be 100% sure about. But, there are also things that the Bible is so clear on that we should be unified in our theology. The way I think about it is that there are two categories of the things the Bible teaches. There are essentials and non-essentials. The essentials include things like the basic Gospel message (Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected), Jesus’ divinity, the trinity, the idea that Christ is coming again, etc. The non-essentials are things like style of worship, speaking in tongues, tattoos, eating pork, issues surrounding the second-coming/end times, etc. Basically, the things that you must believe in order to be saved are essentials, and those things not affecting salvation are non-essentials.

Past interpretations

We are not the first generation to read the Bible. Many people in different cultures and contexts had to make sense of what the Bible was saying for them. This is what is so great about the Bible. Its message transcends time and culture. Throughout history people have had to do the same thing we do today – read the Bible, attempt to understand its original meaning and then apply it to their lives.

I do want to make mention of some alternate interpretive methods, particularly the Jewish interpretation. One of their methods is known as PaRDeS. It is basically an acronym for Pashat, Remez, Drash and Sod. The four levels of interpretation. The Pashat is the “simple” interpretation which is essentially what I have been referring to, getting at the meaning of the author. The other three are increasingly deeper levels of meaning that attempt to find hidden meanings that can be found in the patterns of words and letters of texts. These interpretations range from symbolic (reading an idea like circumcision into a text that doesn’t explicitly talk about it but may have verbal parallels to other passages that do mention circumcision) to more hidden interpretations. These hidden interpretations often would rely on numbers. By assigning numerical values to numbers and words they would make comparisons to other words or phrases with the same numerical value. In this way, they would connect passages together that otherwise wouldn’t be connected. One thing they did believe though was that the simple meaning was the baseline, and so none of the other levels could contradict it.

There are some dangers in these types of interpretive methods. I think a lot of people see the Bible as this mysterious book with all kinds of hidden meanings that once uncovered will unlock some secret message in the text. I’ve noticed this a lot when it comes to word studies. Because most people are unfamiliar with Greek and Hebrew, they think that they can uncover vast meanings hidden in the definitions of certain words. This is not the purpose of word studies. While it is true you can get a more nuanced understanding of a passage by looking both at the grammar and the Greek or Hebrew words used, this is different than trying to get a new meaning from a text by searching through a list of definitions for a word. The words themselves only have meaning because of the sentence they are in. A word doesn’t import all its different definitions to each context it is used in. It is constrained to its chosen usage. In the same way sentences or verses are limited to the context of the paragraph to which they are in.

Whether trying to get at a deeper meaning through improper use of word studies or through some sort of numerological code, we end up missing the message of the author. And this is what is important. Whatever other messages we “find” in the text, if we overlook the message of the author they are worthless. In fact, by looking for these other things instead of what the author is trying to tell us, we hinder ourselves from understanding the original message.

Application

I guess what bothers me in all this is that we aren’t satisfied with the simplicity of the Bible. Why do we think that a deeper meaning is somehow more spiritual than the plain meaning of the author? Earlier I mentioned the difficulties in the interpretive process due to time, context and language, but there are also things that are clear. A lot of the message of the Bible translates easily through all cultures and times. The ideas of love, justice, mercy, righteousness, holiness, and humility don’t need much interpretation to understand them properly. We get so caught up in the intricacies of interpretive method, that we forget to actually do what it says. The Bible isn’t just a book of a bunch of theological ideas, it is handbook for how to live. We follow it best, not when we understand it fully, but when we live out the parts we do understand.

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