Is the Bible subject to interpretation?

Is the Bible subject to interpretation?

Most people, when asked, will say that the reason we have so many denominations is because the Bible is subject to interpretation. When considering why we have so many denominations, they are right to a point. The reason we have so many denominations is because people interpret the Bible their own way, not because it is subject to interpretation. For the Bible to be “subject” to interpretation, would literally mean that the Bible is supposed to be interpreted according to man’s wisdom, not God’s.

When interpreting the Bible according to the way the Bible says it should be interpreted, the teachings of Scripture become very clear. Unfortunately, for many reasons most people do not know what the Bible says about how to properly interpret it. Because of this, there are different interpretations as man’s ways of interpreting are not God’s ways. This leads man to interpret God’s Word in a way that seems right in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15).

In order to understand the Bible and its application there are several principles that need to be followed if we hope to gain the full meaning and application of what is written. This requires the use of hermeneutics, a method by which we rightfully interpret Scripture. Once we learn how to rightfully interpret Scripture, we are able to fully receive God’s Word with the intention in which it was given by God.

The word Hermeneutics is derived from a Greek word connected with the name of the Greek god Hermes, the reputed messenger and interpreter of the gods. Although as Christians, we deny the existence of Hermes and the need for him to interpret God’s Word, we still recognize the word hermeneutics as the word in our English language that describes the process of Scripture interpretation.

The are many reasons why many people say that the Bible is subject to interpretation. The first reason is because of unbelief about what the Bible says. We are told that unbelief does not make the Word of God untrue in Romans 3:1-4:

(Romans 3:1-4 KJV)  “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? {2} Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. {3} For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? {4} God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” (Emphasis added)

This passage tells us that God gave his Word, the oracles of God, to the Jews, yet some did not believe what was written. However, just because some did not believe it, does not make it untrue. Therefore, some people deny some or even all the teachings of Scripture because of unbelief or they have their own beliefs about if is is true.

An example of this would be the belief about the sinlessness of the Virgin Mary. Despite the overwhelming amount of Scriptures that show Mary was a blessed woman, she was still a sinner and not perfect like the rest of us. Some people refuse to admit it because they or someone else has told them the Scriptures do not teach she was a sinner. (See Wisdom4Today article which answers the question: Was the Virgin Mary without sin?)

Another reason why many people say that the Bible is subject to interpretation is because of Biblical illiteracy. Simply stated, they do not know what the Bible teaches.  It is amazing how many people will make baseless claims about something the Bible teaches, yet they could not identify from a list of names books from the Bible if their life depended on it. These are the same people who say they have read the Bible and know it is filled with myths and fairy tales, but can not articulate the simplest of theological concepts that the Bible clearly teaches (Romans 10:1-3). The Bible speaks to these types of people in 2 Peter 3:3-7:

(2 Peter 3:3-7 KJV)  “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, {4} And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. {5} For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: {6} Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: {7} But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” (Emphasis added)

Scoffers who walk after their own lusts are people who make claims about Biblical teaching, but are “ignorant” (Biblically illiterate) about what the Word of God teaches because they care more about what they feel is right rather than what they know is right.

Biblical illiteracy used to be rare in America, but with the removal of the Bible from the public schools in the 1960′s, we now have two, going on three generations of American’s who were raised with no formal education in the Bible. This has caused a great divide in not only social and moral issues in America, but now many people do not see the wisdom in America’s founders when they wrote America’s Constitution using Biblical principles. (See the Wisdom4Today resource book: Silenced in the Schoolhouse to learn in greater detail how Biblical illiteracy in our schools is destroying America.)

Biblical illiteracy not only is affecting America, but it is affecting many of the western nations, which once embraced the truth of Scripture. Like America, they too are seeing a falling away (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2) from the Biblical values that once made their nation’s great.

Another reason why many people say that the Bible is subject to interpretation is because of wrong ideas about interpretation as noted in 2 Peter 1:16-21:

(2 Peter 1:16-21 KJV)  “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. {17} For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. {18} And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. {19} We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: {20} Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. {21} For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

Here Peter is making the point that although they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears, the ministry of Jesus Christ, the we should look to a “more sure word of prophecy”, the Scripture or Jesus Christ/the Holy Spirit, as our reliable resource of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Peter goes on to tell us “that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation”, but “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” It does not get any clearer than this on how Scripture is interpreted. It is not our own thoughts and feelings and ideas about what it says, it is what the Holy Spirit says. The writers of the Bible as we commonly think of them were not the authors of the Bible, the Holy Spirit was. They were just the Scribes who wrote down what God said.

This is an important concept to understand is that the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, or God, as the author (1 John 5:7; Acts 5:3-4; Hebrews 2:3) moved the writers (Matthew, mark, Luke, Moses, Isaiah, etc) to write or speak what the Holy Spirit/ God told them to write or say. Likewise, the written Word of God, Jesus Christ (John 1:1,14; Colossians 3:16) was given to use as our source of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30). With this understanding it is clear that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, or God breathed (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

When understanding this important Biblical concept it becomes clear that it was not Moses or Peter or Paul, who wrote their opinions on the matter, it was God. Too often, many high ranking theologians such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, show their ignorance of this Scriptural concept when they make comments suggesting that the writers of the Bible did not know anything about modern physics which contradict Scripture.  Or Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church, who claims Paul did not understand about modern wisdom about homosexuality that contradicts Scripture.

Simply stated, these so called “theologians” are ignorant of the fact that God wrote the Bible, not man. In their comments, they show that not only they are ignorant of proper Biblical interpretation, they are nothing more than false teachers and prophets as described in 2 Peter 2:1-22 as follows:

(2 Peter 2 KJV)  “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. {2} And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. {3} And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not. {4} For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; {5} And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; {6} And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly; {7} And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: {8} (For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;) {9} The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished: {10} But chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled, they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities. {11} Whereas angels, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord. {12} But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; {13} And shall receive the reward of unrighteousness, as they that count it pleasure to riot in the day time. Spots they are and blemishes, sporting themselves with their own deceivings while they feast with you; {14} Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin; beguiling unstable souls: an heart they have exercised with covetous practices; cursed children: {15} Which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; {16} But was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet. {17} These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. {18} For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error. {19} While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. {20} For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. {21} For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. {22} But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” (Emphasis added)

Simply stated, these false prophets and false teachers will lead many people astray, even those who are believers, with their important titles and positions of authority. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9); it does not matter if you are the Pope, an Arch-Bishop, a Pastor, Deacon, or Sunday School teacher, when you substitute your ignorance of the Scriptures for the truth and teach others the same, you are in serious trouble with God.

Proper Biblical interpretation leads to two results: eternal life (Romans 10:14-18) and growth in Christ (1 Peter 1:25-2:1-3). It does not lead to confusion, because God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33; James 3:15-17). Likewise, this confusion is reflected in denominationalism, which is condemned in Scripture (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).

Proper Biblical interpretation requires the right approaches to study. First, there has to be the right tools. The most important tool is the Word of God. In order to study the Bible, the focus needs to be on the Bible, not what someone wrote about the Bible. This is because the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17); man’s commentary on the Bible is not inspired or written by God.

Second, having the right tools to interpret the Bible requires that the person is a saved believer. Only believers have God’s Holy Spirit in them and it is by the Holy Spirit that we have the wisdom to understand what the Bible is teaching as stated in 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 as follows:

(1 Corinthians 2:9-16 KJV)  “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. {10} But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. {11} For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. {12} Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. {13} Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. {14} But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. {15} But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. {16} For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (Emphasis added)

It is by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that we understand how to interpret what God is saying in the Bible. More specifically, this is done by letting the Bible describe and define itself through a process of cross referencing. This is described in Isaiah 28:9-10 as follows:

(Isaiah 28:9-10 KJV)  “Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. {10} For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:”

We take passages of Scripture and seek elsewhere in Scripture where words, lines, concepts, etc. are further explained, used, or described. This requires the study of all of the Bible on a regular basis, not just a few topical studies here and there. When studying all of the Bible under the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, familiarity of passages, connections, and concepts are seen that the unbeliever can not see because they are Spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). This causes us to grow in our knowledge of God’s Word from that of a baby handling the easy “milk” of the Word to the more meatier matters of Scripture (Hebrews 5:12-14 through Hebrews 6:1).

This also means that the person studying or wanting to be a disciple or student of God’s Word must be willing to make a concerted effort. They must be continually studying (John 8:31-32); denying preconceived notions and ideas (Mark 8:34-38), loving Christ above all else (Matthew 10:31); and willing to seek God’s meaning (Psalms 119:73). In addition, they must be willing to seek God’s approval in their study (2 Timothy 2:15) and spend time meditating on God’s Word (1 Timothy 4:13-16; Psalms 119:148).

When wanting to be a student or disciple of God”s Word and the aforementioned efforts are kept in mind, then wrong approaches to study will be avoided. Wrong approaches such as:

The informational approach: Studying to see how God’s Word fits in with what we believe from our own preconceived ideas and beliefs.

Devotional approach: Studying as part of a routine or devotion that is read from outside the Bible telling me what the Bible says in a context that fits the topical ideas of the study.

Mystical approach: Studying to see if what is read or heard “speaks” to the person in imagination or dreams to reveal a new truth or understanding that no one else “sees.”

Finally, the process of interpretation needs to take into account numerous other factors as aforementioned in Isaiah 28:9-10 above. These include, but are not limited to the following:

A.  Observation: What can we see about the passage?

    • What is the context of the passage, paragraph, chapter, or book?
    • Who is the writer?
    • Who is the audience?
    • What is the historical situation as it relates the historical timeline?
    • What is the location and are there any geographical considerations?
    • What is the literary type, law, Psalm, Proverb, Epistles?
    • What is the grammar and syntax?
    • What are the keywords of the passage and are they found elsewhere?
    • What is the etymology, or history and origins of the words?

B.  Interpretation: What does the text say?

    • Is the interpretation consistent with the context of the passage?
    • Is the interpretation consistent with other passages by the same or different writers?
    • Is the interpretation consistent with the time period in history?
    • Is the interpretation consistent with the rest of Scripture?
    • Is the interpretation consistent with the nature of God and man?
    • Is the interpretation able to be summarized in your own words?

C.  Application: How does the text apply to current events?

    • Note: bad interpretation always leads to bad life application
    • What is the moral lesson that applies?
    • Is there a life application?
    • Is there a cultural application?
    • Does the text give a better understanding of other texts?
    • Is there a standard or theological truth being taught?

When considering all of these questions, studying of God’s Word will not only result in better understanding, it will result in a closer relationship with the Lord.

In conclusion, is the Bible subject to private interpretation? The answer Biblically is no.

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