Understanding the Bible

February 16, 2023

Understanding the Bible

In 1832, U.S. president Andrew Jackson explained his unique perspective on how the executive office should implement the Constitution saying, “each public officer takes an oath to support the Constitution as he understands it, not as it is understood by others.” Jackson’s type of unilateral approach to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution was unprecedented to that point in U.S. history. Jackson is often recognized as the first president who placed less authority on the intent of the framers of the Constitution and more with his own interpretation of what they wrote. This type of interpretive approach would lead to decisions that marked a notorious presidency, full of tumult and controversy, including the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Although Jackson was the first president to allow himself such a wide latitude in interpreting the Constitution, he would not be the last. Since the time of Jackson’s presidency, the question has been asked repeatedly throughout the history of American governance, who holds the authority of the Constitution, those who wrote it or those who interpret it?

Interpreting the U.S. Constitution is one thing but how about interpreting the Bible? Who holds the authority when it comes to the meaning of the Bible, the One who wrote it or those who are interpreting it? Seems like an obvious answer, we should say God holds the authority, it is His word after all. However, you may have noticed that it does not always work that way in practice.

Intentions and Interpretations

We have all been there, meeting with others in a Bible study and everything is going along great until we hit one of those tough passages and as it is discussed around the room, someone utters the phrase, “but that’s my interpretation.” Depending on the group or the environment, someone else will typically respond, “well, this is my interpretation” and before you know it, there are 20 different interpretations from only 10 people in the room! How did that happen? Is the Bible open for interpretation or is there an essential meaning to any given passage?

To be fair, there are plenty of places in Scripture where Bible believing, Jesus-loving people can have different interpretations and still maintain Biblical orthodoxy and fellowship in the same churches and small groups. But there are also times when Biblical interpretation means everything for how we understand Christian doctrine and what it means to follow Jesus.

In other words, what happens when my interpretation doesn’t match your interpretation on matters which cause a distinct theological fork in the road?

How do we know what is true? How do we know what God really wants us to know from his Word?

Is it really enough to say, “let’s just agree to disagree” or “that’s just my interpretation.” When do we need to challenge interpretations? When do we need to have our own interpretations challenged?

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is truth, it contains God’s very words to us and it is inspired by God. This what the Bible says about itself, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
2 Timothy 3:16

This means that there is one author, God himself, who inspired all of His word so there is one essential meaning to these words. All of this also implies that the authority for God’s word rests with the author, not the interpreter, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”
1 Thessalonians 2:13

Notice here that the apostle Paul makes a point to distinguish between the Bible as God’s word versus being “the word of men.” We can take this as an affirmation that not only is God the author of Scripture but that He owns it and He has a designed meaning and purpose for it.

In light of that, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, they explain the main goal of biblical interpretation, “the goal of interpretation is to get at the “plain meaning of the text,” the author’s (God’s) intended meaning.”

For anyone who has tried to understand and interpret the Bible, many times the meaning of the biblical text can be anything but “plain.” After all, the Bible is a library of 66 books written by at least 40 different human writers in three different languages over more than 1000 years of history. In addition, the settings of the Biblical story are largely foreign to modern western readers like us, both in terms of geography and culture. On top of all of that, this is a divinely inspired book that human beings are trying to understand. Given what the Bible communicates (“the very words of life”), the stakes for getting our interpretations right are well worth the investment that it takes to get there.

Hermeneutics: Funny Word, Necessary Skills

You might have never heard the word before but every time you open the Bible and try to interpret it, you are doing hermeneutics and when you do, you are drawing from whatever hermeneutical skills you have. The question then is not whether we have hermeneutical skills but how good (or bad) those skills are. Those skills, for good and bad, have a huge impact on our understanding of the Bible.

The good news is that our Biblical hermeneutical skills can constantly grow and get better, often yielding a more faithful understanding of the Bible. If you are interested in improving your interpretation skills, there also plenty of ways you can get started immediately. Some of the best ways include studying the Bible itself with a commentary or study Bible notes, reading books on Biblical theology and hermeneutics, and listening to certain podcasts and sermons.

If you really want to get a jump start on developing your Biblical interpretive skills, you can join us for our new Branch U class, Understanding the Bible, which starts this Sunday, February 19, 2023 at 11am and will continue for four weeks.

Hermeneutics is more than just a funny word. It describes an essential set of interpretive skills necessary to engage the most important words that you and I will ever read.