Healthy Theology 3: Recognizing The Need For Interpretation
Consider three statements:
- “I don’t interpret the Bible. I just read it and do what it says.”
- “If the Bible needs interpretation, then it isn’t given by inspiration.”
- “Common sense is the only interpretation method we need to understand the Bible.”
Have you ever heard someone express sentiments like these? It usually comes from a good heart, and a strong belief that the God who loves us enough to save us wouldn’t leave us in the dark about His will for our lives. I actually think there is a lot of merit to that assumption, and at the end of this study we will address it again.
But if you are reading your Bible in English, then you are already benefiting from the serious study of those who believe strongly in the art of interpretation. There are a great many Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible that simply have no perfect English equivalent. Decisions have to be made based on interpretation–and these decisions can make a big difference. In his book God’s Word in Man’s Language, Eugene Nida shares some interesting (and funny) stories along this line. One missionary was translating from his Spanish Bible into a native language in Latin America. The word bienaventurados in the Beatitudes means “blessed,” “fortunate” or “lucky” in English; but in the native language, it came across literally as “Lucky in gambling are the poor in spirit…Lucky in gambling are those who mourn.” Just as we have non-literal expressions in English (“hows it hanging?” or “give me a break”), other languages do too. When one translator tried to give a literal rendering of “gave breath to the image” (Rev. 13:15), it was literally rendered into the new Latin American language as “He made the image stink.” In one Latin American literal translation, a woman “broke a stone jar of ointment” on Jesus’ head…which must have hurt a great deal (Matt 26:6), and Herod threw a drinking party on the very day he was actually born (Mk 6:21). “Holy Spirit” in one Sudanic language means “clean breath”…so the translators have to do some choosing and make some interpretive decisions in order to express the sense for a new people. Imagine the native Americans of southern Mexico (living in corn huts) reading about scribes who “devour widows houses“…and wondering if “scribes” is a word for starving cattle. How would you translate Revelation 3:20 (“behold I stand at the door and knock”) to the Zanaki people in Lake Victoria, who know each other so well, that only a thief makes a knocking noise at their hut? The translators changed it to “behold I stand at the door and call” to match the sense in the new culture. All of these–in one form or another–show us that simply by using translations we are already involved in questions of interpretation.
But translation is not the only way to get us to see the need for interpretation. I’d like to share with you an exercise I have my students take on the very first day of class. Feel free to take it yourself. The instruction is as follows: Decide if the Biblical statement/command is Essential (E), meaning it continues to be required, or if it is Negotiable (N), meaning it is culturally-specific and not essential today. Here is the list:
- Greet one another with a holy kiss.
- Wash the saints’ feet.
- Lord’s Supper on the first day of every week.
- Baptism by immersion.
- Shake the dust off your feet.
- Sell all you have and give it to the poor.
- Don’t forsake the assembly.
- Bring Paul his cloak.
- Women must wear veils when praying publicly.
- The husband is head of the wife.
- If you drink poison, it will not hurt you.
- Kill every male child.
- Love one another.
- Do not even eat with an immoral brother.
- Do not take your brother or sister to court.
- Do not eat meat offered to idols.
- To require circumcision denies the faith.
- Pray for God to kill my enemies.
- Be in obedience to those in authority.
- Do not resist an evil person.
- Lend, and do not ask in return.
- Drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake.
- Slaves, be obedient to your masters.
- Wives be submissive to your husbands.
- An elder must be the husband of one wife.
- The Spirit will guide you into all truth.
- I wish that you would all prophesy.
- Do not forbid speaking in tongues.
- You may stone a disobedient child.
- Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
- You may eat of every tree that is good for food.
- Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood must also be shed.
- Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
- Praying “thy kingdom come.”
- Anoint the sick with oil.
- Women should not wear gold, pearls, or braided hair.
- It is shameful for a man to have long hair.
- People who do not work should not eat .
- Be perfect.
You might have noticed three things from this list. First, every statement is listed somewhere in the Bible as a command or rule (someone, at some point, was commanded to do this or believe this). Second, it is often tough to know without context how to understand a particular statement. And third, it is highly unlikely that your answers to all 39 questions will be the same as the person sitting next to you.
I know…because we’ve tried it. In my 7 years of teaching this class (often multiple sections more than once in a year), I have never had any 2 students in the same class whose answers matched when they compared all 39 answers. What are we to make of this?
The problem gets even more complicated when I give my students another sheet. This time, allowing them to get the full context, and to work in groups. Here are the questions they have to answer:
- Is John 5:4 inspired? Look it up in two different translations. You’ll see why this is an interesting question (because in at least one of your translations, it doesn’t even appear, or is in a footnote! That’s right, your Bible most likely simply skips from verse 3 to verse 5!)
- Is 1 Corinthians 7:36 talking about a (soon-to-be) wife or daughter? (English translations actually give different answers if you compare them).
- Of whom is Revelation 13:18 speaking (the mark of the beast, of course).
- Who is the “man of lawlessness” Paul is so concerned about in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12. Has he already come?
- Read Luke 12:33 where Jesus gives a series of general commands–“Do not worry about your life;” “Consider how the lilies grow;” “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness”–then immediately says this: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” So, why do you still have possessions?
Even while working in groups, my students have disagreed. I imagine you are beginning to see why the idea that “we don’t need any interpretation” is a hard pill to swallow.
So far, I have tried to show that for a group to come up with “the right answer” (individually) to a host of Bible questions is bound to fail unless they share a common standard framework for interpretation, or unless they are willing to allow their leader to interpret for them. “Common sense consensus” hasn’t seemed to work very well in church history, and the experiments in my classes have only confirmed that fact. Avoiding our need to interpret and to interpret well is a recipe for disaster.
Avoiding our need to interpret and to interpret well is a recipe for disaster.
A second-century Christian by the name of Origen wrote over 2,000 books in his lifetime which have influenced us to this very day. Of course, he had lots of time on his hands to do so. Because when he was just a teenager, he read Matthew 19:12 (“some become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”), and, wishing to be a disciple of the Lord, castrated himself. I know of at least one person who harmed himself terribly while trying to be obedient to the command of Matthew 5:29 (“If your right eye offends, pluck it out.”) Acts 15:29 is a New Testament command which says that “you are to abstain from blood.” There are many sincere believers who believe it a sin to eat rare steak, and at least one whole group believes it wrong to allow blood transfusions even if such would save the life of their own child.
All of these are examples of (bad) interpretation…with lasting consequences. But the Bible actually tells us that what we need in order to understand the Bible…is help to interpret it correctly. In Nehemiah 8:8, the Levites not only read from the Book of the Law, but they also made it clear and gave the meaning (or sense) so that the people could understand what was being read. In Acts chapter 8, the Queen’s treasurer is reading from Isaiah. The preacher Philip asks a very sensible question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” What followed, as you would imagine, was some offered guidance. 2 Peter 3:16 says there are some Scriptures that are, in fact, “hard to understand.” Every Scripture is at least 1,900 years old, separated from us by time, culture, and language. If we find the need to interpret the gestures and innuendos of the people we know the best, how much more the need when it comes to Scripture?
The truth is that we often disagree about what the Bible teaches (both what it says, and what it means) because of a variety of reasons. We can disagree about what it says due to language and translation barriers. We disagree about what it means because we are heavily influenced (and in many ways, conditioned) by a number of factors.
First, we have differing backgrounds, which colors how we see things. Just think of what we consider to be the norm in our social circles. A Japanese student might describe herself as polite and obedient, whereas an American student describes herself as care-free and into music. Second, we have different approaches to what we think Scripture is and how it works. When we read the command “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12), some will think we must kiss each other, others will think we must greet each other however greetings are normalized in our culture, and still others will think this was a wish from an Apostle to a particular people, not a command for all time. Finally, we all use our religious traditions, our reason, and our personal experiences as lenses through which we interpret the Bible.
I wish it was as simple as assuming that if we have good hearts, and understand the context, then we will always agree on the simple single answer. But perhaps one illustration will show why that simply isn’t the case. Consider the following 5 statements in the New Testament:
- “Sell your possessions and give alms.”
- “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”
- “The Comforter will guide you into all truth.”
- “If you drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt you.”
- “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.”
All 5 of these quotes are given by Jesus directly to his Apostles. But my guess is that you apply some of them only to the Apostles, some of them to a broader but limited group, and some of them to yourself and all Christians. How do you make those decisions?
My point in this lesson is simple: Avoiding our need to interpret and to interpret well is a recipe for disaster. A “common sense” reading may get us far…but not to perfect agreement. And if you think (as some do) that unity is only achieved in perfect agreement, then we are in even greater trouble. Instead, I would suggest that we need to acknowledge that we do, in fact, interpret the Bible, and often without using a tried-and-true method. The goal should be to carefully examine our methods, seek to find the best ones available, and, finally, to reconsider whether “agreeing on all matters” is the kind of unity Jesus had in mind.
(photo credit: Mikey)
Nathan Guy believes the passionate pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty culminates in Jesus Christ. He received formal training in philosophy, theology, biblical studies, and cultural & political ethics from Oxford, Cambridge, and the LSE. Nathan lives in Searcy, Arkansas, where he teaches in the College of Bible & Ministry at Harding University.