Why do we need to interpret the Bible?: Hermeneutics and God's word

"God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  "I may not understand the Bible, but I believe it." "You don't have to interpret the Bible.  Just read it and do what it says."  Seminary students have made these kinds of statements each semester I have taught this course on biblical interpretation, and I've heard them from members of my church as well.

They all come down to one common, practical question: Why can't we simply read the Bible and understand it the way it is? Why do we need to interpret the Bible?  "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."  Great!  But what does a parent do when the Bible says, "Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death" (Ex 21:17)?  What about dietary laws such as Leviticus 11:7-8: "The pig…is unclean for you.  You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you"?

In the Bible, King Saul visits a medium (1 Samuel 28); should we today?  The Bible lists six wives of King David (2 Sam. 3:2-5); is this "biblical: now?  Or do these passages need more study?  One of Job's friends offered this explanation for Job's suffering: "Who, being innocent, has ever perished?  Where were the upright ever destroyed?"  As I have observed, those who plan evil and those who sow trouble reap it (Job 4:7-8).  Does this passage teach that suffering is always our fault?  In other words, if we would just repent and believe, would we always be well and wealthy?  Or, do we need to study further?

And the popularity of an interpretation doesn't make it right.  Consider these examples.  After chloroform was developed in England, doctors wanted to use it to help women with childbirth.  However, women refused because of Genesis 3:16: "…with pain you will give birth to children."  Only when it was shown from Genesis 2:21 that God "caused the man to fall into a deep sleep" to create woman would women accept chloroform.

When the first oil wells were dug in Pennsylvania, many ministers opposed this project.  They argued from 2 Peter 3:10, 12 that this would deplete the oil stored in the earth for the final burning of the world.  Winnowing fans were rejected for years on the basis of John 3:8 as interfering with God: "The wind blows wherever it pleases."

And a very famous sermon was preached against the woman's hair style called the "top knot."  It was entitled "Top Knot Come Down", and the text was Matthew 24:17 (KJV), "Let him which is on the housetop not come down."  As you can see, it's possible to be sincere and yet sincerely wrong.  Nowhere is this more true than in studying the Bible.

What Is Biblical Interpretation?

What does it mean to "interpret" the Bible?  Webster defines "interpret" as "to explain the meaning of; make understandable."  Interpreting the Bible, then, is understanding and explaining what the Bible means.  This was the aim of one of my seminary professors as he prayed before each class, "Lord, teach us today what your word says, and what it means by what it says."

When you interpret the Bible, you are doing biblical "hermeneutics."  "Hermeneutics" is the term scholars use for interpreting any kind of language.  The word itself comes from Hermes, the Greek god who was believed to bring the words of the gods to mortals.  He was for them the god of science, invention, eloquence, speech, writing, and art.  From then to now "hermeneutics" has been the study of language and speech.

Biblical hermeneutics is a more specific field--the study of the meaning of the language of the Bible.  Its task is to determine what a biblical statement meant to its author and his readers, and then to explain and apply this meaning for us today.  Note the order: first, what the Bible meant, then, what it means.  The text can never mean what it never meant.

Remembering that one fact would prevent most of the mistakes people make in understanding the Bible today.  Biblical interpretation is both a science and an art.  It is a science because it is guided by principles within a system.  There are guidelines which will help you to understand and apply every part of the Bible.  But biblical interpretation is also an art because you must apply these principles with skill.

There are two categories of guidelines for Bible study: "general" and "special."  "General" principles apply to the study of every passage in the Bible.  You should always know what you can about the author of the book you're studying, his times, his readers, and his purpose.  This is true of every passage in Scripture.  "Special" principles apply only to certain parts of the Bible.  For instance, there are guidelines for interpreting the poetry of the Psalms which you wouldn't want to use in studying the historical narrative of Acts.

To sum up: biblical interpretation is our effort to understand what the Bible meant when it was written, and then to understand and live out its meaning today.  This task is done through the skillful application of principles which apply to all the Bible as well as guidelines which are intended only for certain parts of Scripture.

Why Does The Bible Need Interpreting?

Communication and interpretation are important subjects in our society.  The biggest problem in most troubled homes is communication--learning how to share and understand each other's needs.  Likewise, lawyers interpret the law for their clients; judges interpret the law for the lawyers; and police interpret the law for our citizens.  Counselors help families interpret their problems.

But when we turn to the Bible, interpretation seems less necessary.  Why can't we just read it?  Why must it be interpreted?  There are five answers to this important question.

The Lord calls us to Bible study

First, the Lord wants us to interpret his word and to do this well.  Paul's command to Timothy is still God's word for us today: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15).  Paul's phrase "correctly handles" refers to a stone mason who cuts stones precisely so they will fit into their places in a building.  We are called to interpret correctly the "word of truth."

Biblical characters interpreted the Bible

From the time God first began to give us his word, his people have interpreted and applied it to their lives.  For instance, the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are followed by 37 chapters which interpret and apply them (Ex 21-30) and Leviticus).  The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses' interpretation and application of God's word for the Hebrews before they entered the Promised Land.

The prophets interpreted God's Law for the people and challenged them to obey it.  Ezra's ministry focused on interpretation: "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Nehemiah 8:8). Those in the New Testament continued this practice.  As Jesus taught, he interpreted the Old Testament and applied its message to himself.  When he met with two disciples following his resurrection, here was his approach: "Beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Lk 24:27).

The Gospels each interpret Jesus' ministry.  Acts describes the work of the early church to interpret the gospel for the world.  The epistles interpret this gospel for the church.  Revelation interprets and applies the hope of the Christian faith for all believers.  The Bible not only reveals to us God's word--many of its pages are given to interpreting and applying that word as well.  Bible study is itself "biblical."

The Bible is God's authoritative word

Another reason the Bible must be interpreted and understood is because of its importance in our lives.  The Bible is God's book.  It shows us that we need him and that he will meet us in his word.  It is his authority for our lives today. Protestants from the first called the Bible the sola fidei regula, our only rule of faith.  We must understand and apply its message faithfully to our lives. 

The Bible is God's word of authority on every spiritual topic.  The way we interpret it will govern how we understand salvation, the Christian life, and every other spiritual issue.  We must interpret it properly so that we can know God's word on these subjects.  His authoritative word merits our best efforts to study its truths.

The Bible is an ancient book

One fact about the Bible which we often overlook is that it is a very old book.  Its authors finished writing during the days of the Roman Empire.  Their words were being read five hundred years before the Middle Ages, fourteen hundred years before Columbus, and seventeen hundred years before the founding of America.  The Bible was written for a very different society from ours.

We must understand what the Bible meant then so we can know what it means today.  There are four "gaps" between biblical times and ours.  For each "gap," interpretation is the bridge we need for the biblical message to cross over to us. 

The Time Gap:  we are separated from biblical events by thousands of years.  It makes sense that the more we close this gap in time, the better we can understand the Bible.

For instance, we can understand Jonah's refusal to go to Nineveh and preach against their sins when we know about these sins.  The Ninevites were a warrior nation, so cruel that they often peeled the skin from those they conquered and used it as wallpaper in their homes.  Understanding the times helps us identify with Jonah's struggle to be faithful.  Crossing the time gap brings home the biblical message.

The Culture Gap:  we also need to understand the differences between the culture ofbiblical times and ours.  Consider Jesus' statement, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles" (Mt 5:41).  He was referring to the law which permitted Roman soldiers to force their subjects to carry their military pack for one mile.  This was an act of slavery and terrible humiliation.  Jesus calls us to respond to humiliation with willing service.

Another example is Jesus' warning, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal" (Mt 6:19).  In Jesus' day a man often buried his money beneath a wall of his house.  These walls were thin and brittle, and thieves could simply put their fist through and steal what was buried beneath.  Jesus is saying that earthly possessions can be stolen, no matter where we hide them, so we should invest in heaven instead.  Once we cross the culture gap, we understand the relevance and power of God's word.

The Language Gap: differences in the meaning of words and expressions often confuse us as we study.  Consider this perplexing statement by Jesus:  "Anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca," is answerable to the Sanhedrin.  But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell" (Mt 5:22).

"Raca" was an Aramaic term of contempt, something similar to an obscenity today.  "Fool" was even worse, however, for this word accused a person of immorality in character.  What Jesus is saying is that using an obscenity is wrong and punishable, but slandering someone's character is even worse.  When we cross the language gap we understand that obscenity and slander are both wrong today.

The Perspective Gap:  people in biblical times had ways of understanding their world which are sometimes much different from ours.  For instance, they could speak of the "four quarters of the earth" (Is 11:12). They thought of heaven as "up" (Job 22:12; Rev 4:1) and hell as "down" (Prov 15:24; see Job 11:8).  Theirs was simply a pre-scientific understanding of God's creation.

Of course, this fact does not make them any less intelligent than us.  Our own understanding of the universe continues to change and contradict our earlier beliefs.  Newton's "laws" have become Einstein's "theories," and we learn more every day about the wonder and complexity of God's world.  Nonetheless, we must watch for places in Scripture where the author and his first readers viewed the world in ways which must be interpreted for people today.  When we cross the perspective gap, we can apply the message found within the biblical worldview. 

The Bible does not need to be made relevant.  Human nature does not change, so the biblical answers to our problems do not change either.  But we must clear the way for the message of the Bible to be understood today.  We must help people cross the "gaps" between themselves and God's word.  When we build these bridges, the biblical message will come across in its ever-relevant power.

You must understand the author's intended meaning

God has one primary purpose for his word: to bring us into personal relationship with himself.  This purpose must always be kept in mind as you are studying the Scriptures.  Along with this general purpose, however, there is also a specific purpose for each individual passage.  You must know what the author intended to say if his work is to make sense today.  Here we find one of the most important principles for all Bible study: you must know what the author meant before you can know what his words mean now.

The Bible can never mean what it never meant.  You must apply the Scriptures in keeping with their intended meaning and purpose.  This raises a very difficult problem for modern readers: how can we know the author's intent?  How do we decide what Matthew wanted to accomplish with his Gospel, or the reasons why Moses gave us Leviticus?  There's only one answer to this problem: interpretation.  Principles of Bible study can help us understand the purpose behind each part of the Bible.  Then we can apply the passage in the way its author intended.  This makes for life-changing study of God's word.

Why must you interpret the Bible?    

If we believe in the task and necessity of biblical interpretation, one more question naturally arises: why must you learn to do this?  Isn't this what you expect your pastor to do?  When you're sick, you consult a doctor.  When you need to travel by air, you trust a pilot.  Why, then, do you need to learn how to interpret the Bible for yourself?  Can't you simply rely on your pastor and other professionals to do this for you? 

Gordon MacDonald, one of the most insightful pastors of our generation, says, "No!"  Here's his explanation:

[Pastors] spend too much time studying the Bible for their people. . . . Frankly, one of my greatest personal regrets in twenty-five years of preaching is that I don't feel I taught my people how to study the Bible for themselves, either as individuals or in a group.  I think I've been a fairly good preacher.  People took notes and were very affirming about what I preached.  So I think my preaching was definitely meeting a need.  But now as I look back, I feel I was studying the Bible for the people.  We are moving toward a point where there are just a few strong communicators who are studying the Bible for us all.  What I should have done was help them to understand how I studied it and how they could learn to study it for themselves.    

McDonald is right, for three reasons.

God wants to meet you personally in his Word

God intends the Bible to draw you into personal fellowship with him.  He cannot do this when you study his word only through the mind and personality of another person.  The Bible becomes a second-hand book for you.  You are drawn more to the preacher than to the person of Christ, and this is not the intention of the Scripture.  Jesus cannot be experienced second-hand.  Salvation is intensely personal in nature.  The Holy Spirit dwells personally in your heart.  Spiritual growth is a matter of personal, individual experience.  Nothing God intends the Bible to accomplish in your life can be done effectively second-hand.

Of course, this fact doesn't mean that you don't need the assistance of other Christians.  Those who have devoted their lives to the study of the Bible have much help to offer you.  The Christian life was always meant to be lived in community with other believers.  This is true of Bible study as well.  The point is, you must not depend on others.  You must interpret God's word for yourself if the purpose of Bible study is to be fulfilled in your life.

You have the right to study for yourself

Each Christian is his or her own priest before God.  We call this doctrine "the priesthood of the believer."  This means that you need no intermediary between yourself and your Father.  You can pray directly to God, confess your sins and ask his forgiveness, and live in personal fellowship with him.

One very important result of this doctrine is that every believer has the right and responsibility to interpret the Bible personally.  As you need no intermediary between you and God, so you need none between you and his word.  The same Holy Spirit who brought salvation to your heart can bring the truth of Scripture to your mind.  Since you are your own priest before God, you can learn his word for yourself.

You should not depend on the opinions of others

A third, very important reason why you should learn to study the Bible for yourself is that if you don't, your ideas will be those of others.  And the opinions of others are not always right.  If you let others do all your Bible study for you, you will only know God as they do.  Their opinions and biases, however good or bad, will become yours.  It is impossible to interpret the Bible with absolute objectivity.  No one can interpret the Bible apart from his or her own presuppositions.  Our opinions will always affect our Bible study.

Religious heritage affects Bible study, for the doctrines of our church usually become our own.  Take Jesus' word to Peter, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18).  Catholic interpreters believe this text establishes the papacy;  Protestants do not.  Each brings his or her own religious heritage and viewpoint to the text.

Logically-oriented people tend to make the Bible very rational and systematic, drawing charts and lining up texts in logical order.  Practically-oriented people often make the Bible a handbook for personal accomplishment, a book of "how-to's" for marriage, family, finances, government, and so on.  Those who are influenced heavily by the scientific method may have a hard time with biblical miracles.

An evolutionist will obviously interpret Genesis differently from a creationist.  Those who believe that "speaking in tongues" ceased with the first century will approach 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 very differently than those who affirm tongues today.

If one believes that women should not preach, this presupposition will clearly affect his or her interpretation of Acts 21:9: "[Philip] had four unmarried daughters who prophesied."  At every turn, personal opinions affect Bible study.  The following shows how the opinions of people can affect every part of the process of Bible study:

The Original Biblical Writings (none in existence today)

Copies (made, compiled and edited by people)

Translations (made by people)

Commentaries (written by people)

Sermons (given by people)

Congregation (heard by people)

As you can see, the closer you get to the original text, the less you will inherit the presuppositions of others.

God wants to meet you personally in his word, but for this experience to occur, you must interpret it yourself.  You are your own priest before the Father, but you must interpret the Bible for yourself to exercise this privilege and responsibility.  God wants to speak directly to you through the Bible, but you must interpret his word for yourself or else your beliefs will be largely those of others.  You need to learn and apply principles which make the Bible God's word to you.

One last word

This survey is intended to help you make the Bible God's personal word for you.  One caution, however: the true Teacher of God's word is the Lord himself.  You must use the principles in this book by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  This text and course are only a means to an end.  God wants to use these principles by his Spirit to help you meet him in his word.

Martin Luther, the man who most inspired the Protestant Reformation of 400 years ago, was firmly aware of his dependence on God's Spirit in knowing God's truth.  I have his "Pastoral Prayer" in my study and read it often.  Let us make his prayer ours:

O Lord God, Thou hast made me a pastor and teacher in the church.  Thou seest how unfit I am to administer rightly this great responsible office; and had I been without Thy aid and counsel I would surely have ruined it all long ago.  Therefore do I invoke Thee.  How gladly do I desire to yield and consecrate my heart and mouth to this ministry!  I desire to teach the congregation.  I, too, desire ever to learn and to keep Thy word my constant companion and to mediate thereupon earnestly.  Use me as Thy instrument in Thy service.  Only do not Thou forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction.  Amen.

 Most of the following are taken from John P. Newport and William Cannon, Why Christians Fight Over the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1974), 163-65.

 For a larger discussion of these, see Henry A. Virkler, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1981), 19-20.

 Paul Ricoeur has stated well this need to cross history in studying the Bible:

There has always been a hermeneutical problem in Christianity because Christianity proceeds from a proclamation.  It begins with a fundamental preaching that maintains that in Jesus Christ the kingdom has approached us in a decisive fashion.  But this fundamental preaching, this word, comes to us through writings, through the Scriptures, and these must constantly be restored as the living word if the primitive word that witnessed to the fundamental and founding event is to remain contemporary (Essays on Biblical Interpretation, ed. with intro. by Lewis S. Mudge [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980], 49).

 Quoted in Parables, Etc. (Platteville, CO; Saratoga Press, September, 1990), 1.