The Bible – a question of interpretation?

I’ve said I don’t believe the Bible to be perfect or inerrant in the ways Christians have often assumed. But even if it were somehow perfect in its original form (whatever that is), we can never actually access that original perfection.

For us to engage with it, the Bible has to be first translated and then interpreted. Both of these stages introduce elements of uncertainty and complexity.

Unless we’re Greek and Hebrew scholars, the Bible as we receive it has always first been translated. Differences between the various English translations highlight the difficulty in getting to the ‘original meanings’. Some words and concepts are extraordinarily hard to translate, either because they have no direct modern or English equivalent, or because the original meaning is unclear and disputed.

Some of the passages about homosexuality, for example, are particularly fraught with these difficulties – how, for example, should the obscure word arsenokoites in 1 Cor 6:9 be translated? Faced with uncertainty, translators (or their editors) will often make decisions based on their own theological preferences.

Language is inherently imprecise

Ultimately the Bible is a work of language, and human language is both fundamentally metaphorical and inherently imprecise. Words and phrases often have multiple possible meanings; when used idiomatically, poetically or in a particular literary or cultural context their sense may change radically.

Furthermore, meanings of words and phrases aren’t forever fixed but are fluid, changing over time, so it’s often very hard for even scholars to be completely sure what they would have meant to their original authors and readers.

So translation is at least partly an act of interpretation, of judgement, sometimes of guesswork. We’re never getting ‘what the Bible says’ unmediated, in some state of original perfection.

Original words

To add another layer of complexity, even the best translators can’t get back to the original words of Jesus, as he almost certainly didn’t speak to his followers in Greek! So even if his original reporters remembered and recorded his wording accurately (which they clearly didn’t always, as the gospel accounts differ slightly), they’ve rendered them in another language. A layer of interpretation has therefore been introduced at the outset.

Furthermore the Greek text has no punctuation or speech-marks, and often the grammar is too sparse or ambiguous to be absolutely certain of the original intent. For example, Jesus’ words in Mark 3:28 that ‘everything will (or can) be forgiven the sons of men’ – the Greek verb can be translated in different ways which radically change the meaning.

And of course even biblical scholars don’t have the perfect original manuscripts; there are slight differences in the earliest extant copies. If a ‘perfect’ original version ever existed, we certainly don’t have it now.

However, it would be misleading to overplay all this. Within broad parameters and with certain provisos, we can probably be reasonably confident about the overall meaning of the majority of Bible passages. But we can’t be 100% certain about the precise meaning in many cases. There’s room for doubt, for questioning and re-interpretation, particularly on difficult and controversial passages about (for example) hell, homosexuality, or the role of women.

And even if we’re sure what it means, there are legitimate questions over which passages are ‘binding’ on us today – given that many clearly aren’t.

Questions of interpretation

Above all it’s never just a simple case of ‘What the Bible says’; we always have to interpret the Bible.

If translating is an act of interpretation, reading is far more so. As we read the already translator-mediated biblical text it it’s further mediated by our own perspective and what we bring to it, which we can never completely avoid.

We all have to use interpretive frameworks to try and understand what the text is saying. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are no different. They too have to rely on their own chosen approach to interpreting the Bible – one which cannot be guaranteed to be perfect and infallible.

So even within the most conservative evangelicalism there are varying interpretations of scripture, and understandings of many ‘biblical’ issues have changed over the years – from creationism to End Times theology, from gender roles to abortion and the death penalty.

The Bible challenges itself

Some evangelicals hold that Scripture interprets itself. Perhaps – but if it does, it rarely does so clearly and unequivocally, without space for alternative readings. I suspect this is intentional, allowing room for God to speak differently through it to our different contexts. I don’t think the Bible was ever meant to have single forever-fixed meanings.

And where scripture does interpret itself, it’s often in very surprising and non-literal ways. New Testament authors frequently re-interpret and re-use OT scriptures in novel and unorthodox ways. Paul interprets OT history allegorically. The author of Matthew’s gospel rips OT quotations out of context and uses them in ways the original authors definitely never intended. Jesus himself is pretty creative in his use of the psalms.

So the Bible constantly challenges and revises itself. God overturns or re-interprets previous commands, injunctions and prohibitions which were for a specific situation not for all time. The classic example is Peter’s vision (and Jesus’ teaching) overturning the clear scriptural ban on ‘unclean’ foods.

All this means that even if the Bible were inerrant and complete, our interpretation and understanding of it can’t be.

Critiquing fundamentalist readings

So I believe that the fundamentalist, literalist approach to scripture misunderstands and misuses the Bible. It uses the Bible to shore up its own position and shout down other viewpoints. But that was never the Bible’s purpose.

We often forget that mainstream fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most Christians throughout history haven’t approached the Bible this way, and have interpreted much of scripture allegorically, analogically or prophetically as well as literally.

Straightforward literalism doesn’t even work as a hermeneutic; it’s not possible to apply it with consistency and coherency across the Bible, even often across single passages. The Bible always wrong-foots such attempts, because it wasn’t written to be read in that way. The plain meaning is not always easy to determine, and reading it in the ‘obvious’ way often misses the point that original readers would have understood.

The Bible never demands that we read it literalistically, as though it were a divinely-dictated textbook of correct answers. Rather we engage with it on its own terms and in its own context. We approach it more like a complex work of art, which does not give up all its meaning at once and which may have multiple layers of meaning. And we approach it not so that we can slavishly follow ancient regulations, but so we can encounter the eternally-new Spirit who breathes afresh through it.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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23 Responses to The Bible – a question of interpretation?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Harvey, I think this is a masterful article. You integrated a number of important biblical-text issues, and led them from one to the other in a proper, flowing sequence, While these issues are well-known to most people with a Bible-related degree, many (perhaps most) other believers will be surprised–even shocked–to hear these things.

    But they need to hear it; they need to hear it very much. Thanks for posting it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tim! I worry sometimes that I’m being overly negative, or undermining simple faith. But yes, I do think these are important things to understand so that we can engage with the Bible – and with God – in a more grown-up, meaningful and ultimately life-bringing way. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • tonycutty says:

        Harvey, Tim’s right, this is indeed an excellent article. I think, once again, it’s time for a reblog…. anyway look don’t worry about undermining simple faith. I often worry about that because my wife has a beautiful, simple faith too and I rant on about all this theological stuff with her. But it doesn’t change her faith; firstly her faith is entirely grounded in her relationship with Jesus, and secondly, her faith is actually strengthened by listening to my dronings because she sees that I, despite and because of all this in-depth stuff, also have as strong a faith as she does. Simple faith is the best, and it is fine to augment it (if it can be called augmenting) with a good bit of debate too. Those who want to debate can do; those who do not, can simply live out of their ‘simple faith’, and both are fine with Father. But the problem comes when people try to impose their own beliefs on others, and indeed stamp all over those of simple faith, and use that exxcuse for the debate. That’s not what you are doing here. If people don’t want to come and read your blog, they don’t have to!

        But it’s still brilliant!

        Like

        • Thanks Tony!

          I have to admit I sometimes rather envy people who (like your wife) have a very beautiful and simple faith – I always seem to feel the need to complicate things, to question everything, to look for the exceptions, nuances and difficulties, the ‘yes buts’ or ‘what ifs’. Occasionally I’d love just to throw all that aside and, I don’t know, let God love me / use me as I am! But then part of who I am is the person who complicates everything… 😉

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  2. Eng Hoe says:

    The Bible was never meant to be a dead law book from which we look up what’s God’s commands, laws, rules and regulations for anything apart from the Author Himself. I was a lawyer and practiced law for 10 years. I can tell you that if God meant the Bible to be a law book, the Bible would not be in the way it came into being, and in the way it was compiled, and in the format it is. Yes we need to study the Bible but we also need to hear what the Lord is saying to us. Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice”. Christians like to say that Christianity is not really a religion but a relationship. But how can there be a relationship without an on-going conversation with someone? If we are honest, how many Christians would say they are actually experiencing that? I am not saying that hearing God would solve the issue. There is still a need for proper hermeneutics for understanding the Bible better. But just good hermeneutics alone is not enough. We need to hear His voice, and like you said, we need to discern the Spirit that breathes afresh through His Word.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Eng Hoe, it’s great to hear from you again! I think you’re absolutely right.

      And if I’m honest, it’s something I struggle with. I do believe that Christianity is a relationship, and I do at least partly experience it that way. But nonetheless, I often find it very hard to hear God’s voice, to really know with any clarity what he’s saying or where he’s leading.

      But perhaps if I did read the Bible more while being open to the Spirit, it’s possible I might hear him more. I think the trouble for me is that the Bible still has a lot of negative baggage for me from my more evangelical days, and I find it hard to get past that and hear God afresh through it.

      Liked by 2 people

    • tonycutty says:

      Yes, this. Superbly put, Eng Hoe.

      Like

      • Eng Hoe says:

        I think I should add this. What Harvey shared with us is so important because we still need to read and understand the Scriptures in the right way. However we also need to be reminded of what Jesus told the Pharisees – that life is not found in the knowledge of the Scriptures. Life is found in Jesus. Jesus told the Pharisees : “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn.5:39-40). Someone said this : “The Word did not become a philosophy, theory or a concept to be discussed, debated or pondered. The Word became a person to be followed, enjoyed and loved.” What happens if we do not know that in experience? then our whole Christian life is down to living by principles based on textual interpretation.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Just to say that I completely agree with this. I do think both aspects are important – to try and understand the Bible better, but also (far more importantly) to let it point us back to Jesus. The Bible matters and has useful things to say to us, but it’s Jesus who is the living Word and he is the one we ultimately follow.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Eng Hoe says:

    I honor you for your down to earth honesty my brother. I do not always hear so clearly from the Lord either, but something that the Lord said to me some years ago has made a big difference ever since. I had been struggling for some years then over some matter in which I really, really needed to hear from God. I fasted and I prayed, but all I heard was silence. I envied those who operated in the gift of knowledge and prophecy. I wished I could hear God like they could. One morning, just as I was waking up, like 2 seconds before I was fully awake, the Lord spoke very clearly to me. He said, “It is not so important that you can hear my voice that way. It is more important that you know my heart. If your know my heart, then in whatever situation you are in, you would know how I feel about it.” That’s all He said. He still did not answer the questions I had been asking Him! Eventually though, I came to “see” and “understand” what He was saying to me.

    I take the Bible to be like a C drive that’s full of data from which God can pick and choose what to bring up to my screen anytime. I need however to be ever “switched on” and have enough “RAM” to process and get what He is saying. The Bible to me is also like an operations manual that I take with me on a mission, but just before I rush off, the General hands me a walkie-talkie and tells me to keep it charged up, switched on, and tuned to the right frequency all the time, from which He will keep communicating with me. Without that on-going communication, the operation manual alone will not be sufficient. If I know my operations manual well enough I can almost guess what my General would say in any situation. But on the field, in the middle of the battle, it cannot tell me when to turn left or right or stop, etc. I need to keep hearing from the General who can see the whole battle, the terrain, other men he has on the field, and enemy movements, and get his instructions in real time.

    Like

    • tonycutty says:

      Yeah, this is a superb analogy. It’s like flying in light aircraft, which I do for a hobby. Check-list items on the ground are read from the book, because there’s the time and space to do this. But once you’re up in the air, it is all done from memory in real time. Great stuff!

      Like

    • Thank you – I find that very helpful, particularly about knowing God’s heart rather than needing always to hear his voice.

      I’m not sure I do always fully know God’s heart, especially on some of the more complex and messy issues in the world (and in myself), but I think I may know at least enough of it to be going on with, and as I draw closer to him in prayer and worship the picture becomes gradually clearer.

      Part of the trouble with the Bible for me is that it sometimes seems to make the picture less rather than more clear. So sometimes I think I’m getting to a better understanding of God’s heart, and then I read something in scripture which feels like it goes against that. At these times I can feel confused and angry – who are you really, God? What are you really like?

      But in the end I come back to Jesus, or what I know of him, and lay the rest to one side. It may be that I’m misreading the Bible, or that it’s something I won’t be able to understand yet – or perhaps it may sometimes be that the picture the biblical authors present is not always the final and complete one.

      Interesting analogy about the operations manual! I don’t quite see the Bible that way, partly because I don’t tend to see myself as engaged in battle in quite that sense, but I can certainly see that that’s one helpful way of viewing it. And I like the idea that you need both the manual and the walkie-talkie (though sometimes I feel I have neither!).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eng Hoe says:

        I believe that quite apart from the question how much we might or might not be able to know God through the Scriptures, is this : We have to accept that while we live in the imperfect, we will always see and know only in part (1 Cor.13) . I believe so long as we are in this dimension God purposely does not reveal everything to us because He is using the imperfect to test us and train us in faith, hope and love. By God’s mercy, if and when we get there or when the perfect comes, when everything is revealed and we can see and know as we are known, then the time for us to learn faith, hope and love will be over. So for good reason, God often remains silent, hidden and obscure, which of course can be very perplexing to us.

        Through some hard times, I came to discover that God is not “nice”. I’ve written about it here : http://acts1322issachar.wordpress.com /2009/10/13/making-sense-of-it-all/ and here : https://acts1322issachar.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/why-did-god-create-us/ and just yesterday here : https://acts1322issachar.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/tough-times-are-coming-choose-wisely/

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks – those are interesting posts. I think you and I probably have a slightly different theological perspective overall, which is fine by me – and I certainly couldn’t claim to be ‘right’ or to have all the answers.

          I do very much agree that God’s overall purpose is for us to become Christlike, and to bring his Kingdom. I might possibly have slightly different understandings of what that looks like and how God achieves it – but I also freely acknowledge that I have far less practical experience than you in seeking to bear the gospel to dark places.

          I also agree that God often remains hidden and silent, and my understanding of why he does this certainly overlaps with yours, though it might differ in some details.

          And yes, I have experienced for myself that God is not always ‘nice’ in the ways we might like. I do believe however that he is always good, always loving, always merciful, always kind, always gracious and faithful – and never capricious or cruel (though he may at times appear to be). I view it rather as I see my own parenting – there are times when I have to deny my children nice things that they would like, or require them to do hard things that they don’t like. But it is always ultimately with their best long-term interests at heart, and from a basis of complete and unconditional love.

          So I’m not sure that God ever willingly inflicts suffering – but I do believe that he is in our sufferings, working to redeem them and bring good out of them, both for us and for others.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Eng Hoe says:

            Always good, always loving, always merciful, always kind, always gracious and faithful – Yes Amen but from His perspective and by His terms. Not necessarily from our perspective nor by our terms. A well known passage comes to mind : the “all things” in Rom.8:28 that Paul was talking about was about suffering (beginning from verse 16) and the “good” is “according to His purpose” – which is defined in verse 29 – that we will be changed to become like Him. Suffering is never good from our perspective until like the psalmist we get to the point where we can reflect upon it and say “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Ps.119:71) and “in faithfulness you have afflicted me.” (Ps.119:75).

            There are numerous Bible passages on God afflicting His own people : Joseph, Israel, Job, and the Psalms and Lamentations recounts much of that, even Moses’ prayer in Ps.90. – sometimes as punishment but not always. For example Joseph, Job, David, Jeremiah, Hosea, and many of the other prophets. They were not being punished for any disobedience or sin, but God intentionally allowed them to be afflicted either to train them up for a task or that they might share His broken heart and be able to communicate His broken heart better, or simply as a prophetic message to His people (what a rotten deal to be a prophet!). What is clear is that it is always to work out His purposes. Apart from specific purposes, there is nothing like suffering to purify us – I gave several references in ‘We cannot crucify ourselves’ on how God will purify His people through fire.

            And where we need shaping up, Heb.12 affirms that God’s discipline is for our good, that we may share in His holiness. In “We cannot crucify ourselves” where I was talking about “sharing in His sufferings” I said that if God even afflicted and perfected His own Son through suffering, how much more that we need the same.

            I don’t think we have a very dissimilar understanding, but if we do, that’s fine too. And we even agree on that! 🙂 Anyway, glad that we can share, encourage, provoke, challenge, enrich and strengthen each other.

            Like

            • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

              Eng Hoe, I must agree with Harvey about God and suffering, but I will state it in slightly stronger terms: I don’t think God ever willingly inflicts suffering – but I do believe that he is with us in our sufferings.

              In the case of Romans 8 or Hebrews 12, there is nothing to suggest to me that God causes suffering. Hebrews discusses discipline, and we need discipline to grow, but discipline does not necessarily include punishment or suffering (like a spanking or going to bed without dinner); discipline is guidance to help us grow.

              Have you considered that the writers of the Old Testament did not describe some ‘true reality’ of what God is like? Instead they described what they imagined God was like; they thought of God as an angry, jealous, and vindictive God. And they were mistaken in my opinion. For me, Jesus is the authority on what God is like, and he does not portray the Father as administering punishment or suffering.

              Like

            • Eng Hoe says:

              Imagined?

              I wonder what Joseph would have replied you when he was serving as a slave. I wonder what the Israelites would have replied you when the Babylonian army came and laid them waste and took them away as slaves. I wonder what the women who had their babies gutted out of their wombs and their little ones dashed to the rocks would have replied you if you were there and had told them they were only imagining it .. after Jeremiah had clearly warned them that God said He was going to send the Babylonian army to do that to them. I wonder what David and Job would have replied you when you told them they were only imagining it.

              Did God Himself not say how vindictive He was in Hosea? And did He not actually carry out what He said He would do?

              I’m not sure which Bible you are reading but in my Bible Heb.12 talks about discipline as punishment. Not discipline as in as being disciplined about time and how we conduct our daily lives.

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            • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

              Eng Hoe, I see the distinction more clearly now. You take the words of the Old Testament as accurate and historical, while I understand them to be written by people (a nation) who felt they had a close relationship with God and wrote about it from within their culture, time, and limited comprehension.

              That being the case, of course we are not going to draw the same conclusions, but there is nothing wrong with that. I was raised a fundamentalist, and inerrancy was a key belief for me. But I no longer think so.

              I read the NIV.

              Like

            • Hi both, interesting discussion! I think I fall somewhere in the middle ground between your two positions. I’m not fully convinced that everything in the Old Testament is accurate, or that it is in directly applicable to our current circumstances – God may not have changed, but I believe that our relationship with him and understanding of him has. However, I’m also not completely closing the door on a more literal understanding of some of these OT passages, though I’m profoundly uneasy with many of them.

              However, I’m not convinced that Jeremiah’s, Joseph’s or David’s stories need to be interpreted quite as you seem to, Eng Hoe. I think that many of the human responses recorded in the Bible are based on their understanding at the time that God caused everything that happened, good or ill, and that if someone was afflicted then it had to be God’s doing – and often as a punishment for sin. Other passages in the Bible challenge this, including the book of Job and a number of things that Jesus himself said.

              For myself, I still cannot believe that God does afflict people with suffering in the way you read from the Bible. But of course I accept that I may be wrong.

              I understand what you say that God’s perspective is different to ours. Yet I also believe that our ideas and standards of goodness, of love, of mercy derive from him.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Eng Hoe says:

              I don’t subscribe to inerrancy either. But neither do I think that all the accounts of what happened to Joseph, to David, to Israel, to Job, to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, to Hosea, etc were fictitious and just poetry or some literary piece, do you? Did the exodus and the exile not actually happen? Did Isaiah and Jeremiah not prophesy to Judah and Israel before it happened, and then it actually happened?

              I am not sure how much of the words recorded by any of the prophets as having been spoken by God were the actual exact words of God, and how much of it was the subjective expression of the prophet himself, because clearly the writing style of each of the prophets and of the NT writers differ, but I do not think Isaiah or Jeremiah or the Gospel writers or any of them were only imagining that God was speaking to them, and they conjured all of that up in their own minds.

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            • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

              Eng Hoe, I think you have some good questions–and very valid ones. But you seem to assume the answers, and they are not the same as my answers. I do believe Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea were mightily moved by the situation of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah of their times; and I think their concepts of God were much better developed than many other OT writers.

              However, I cannot agree that the stories of Joseph, Job, and David are historical. The story of Joseph is a hero story, and I doubt that it has any historical basis at all. David’s story is an aggrandizement of the founding king of the Davidic dynasty written years after he lived. Some of the story probably has an historical basis, but it has been elaborated and slanted to glorify David and his relationship with God.

              Job is not written as a history but as a reflection on why bad things happen to good people. And it is an excellent philosophical discussion of the subject.

              Of course the exile happened, and it tremendously affected the thinking of the Jews in regard to their identity and their relationship to God. But the exodus, and the conquests of Joshua, are less certain. Archaeology does not support the stories as told in the Bible. There might have been a trickle of ‘Israelites’ out of Egypt into Canaan, but a massive and rapid conquest of Canaan by outsiders is unfounded.

              I used to believe in angry, vindictive, punishing God, but I no longer can believe that in light of Jesus’ teaching–and the Old Testament portrait of such a God is simply misguided.

              Like

            • Hi both, it’s really good to hear both sides of this expressed so clearly and well.

              For me, there are question marks over the historicity of much of the Old Testament, though I also wouldn’t reject the accounts outright. I incline to the view that much of what’s recorded has at least some basis in historical fact, but some more accurately than others – for example, I wouldn’t see the stories of Jonah or Job as primarily factual.

              But even if we accept for argument’s sake that all of the OT is based in fact, I’m not sure that means that the authors’ beliefs about God are always full and accurate. They were trying to make the best sense of events within their context and worldview, and we can learn from them – many were wise and godly people. But they aren’t necessarily fully correct in all their representations of God’s character and deeds. It’s always a partial, provisional picture.

              The other big issue here for me is the cross. Eng Hoe, if I understand you right, you view it as God the Father inflicting suffering on God the Son, and that if he treats his son this way then how much more will he treat us like this. I don’t see it that way at all.

              For me, God the Father asks his Son to take on this suffering on behalf of humanity, for our sake, out of love both for the Father and for us. And the Son accepts, of his own free will. Similarly, when we follow Jesus in the way of sacrificial love, we will at times be asked to suffer on behalf of people. The road to the redemption of the world is not an easy one. But it is not (I think) that God inflicts this suffering on us; rather he asks us if we are willing to suffer (sometimes), and for that suffering to have meaning and redemptive purpose.

              Liked by 1 person

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