I think it safe to assume that we are in agreement: we want to read the Bible, understand it correctly, live it out, and teach others to do the same. You are reading a Bible interpretation guide, after all.
However, when discussing the topic of how one should read, study, and interpret the Bible, a question commonly comes up: “What’s all the fuss? Can’t I just read the Bible and be happy with what it says to me or how it makes me feel?” I understand the sentiment, but there are a few reasons that we can’t be satisfied with that approach to reading the Bible.
Reason #1: I Don’t Get to Determine What the Bible Means; Meaning is Determined by the Author
Who or what determines the meaning of a text? The author, the text itself, or the reader? The author is the one who has constructed an intelligent thought (who has constructed the meaning) and conveyed it through inanimate objects (paper, ink, or pixels on a digital display) in order to communicate meaning to an audience. Meaning is created and determined by the author. In the case of the Bible, God has inspired multiple authors over a period of around 1500 years to reveal Himself to mankind. He has a message, an intended purpose and meaning in communication. We simply do not have the freedom to impose our feelings and impressions on God’s message to mankind. The role of the student of the Bible is to discover the consciously-willed meaning of the inspired author.
Reason #2: The Bible is the Inerrant Word of God
Another reason that Christians put so much effort into understanding the Bible is that it is true in all that it communicates—it is the inerrant Word of God. Further, biblical inerrancy means that when the Bible speaks in historical narrative, that the history is true; where the Bible touches on matters of science, it speaks truth; when the Bible describes the lost condition of sinful man and the redemption that is in Christ, it speaks truth; when the Bible issues commands for how those who love Him should live, it speaks truth.
Reason #3: There is “Distance” Between Ourselves and the Original Audience
Daniel Doriani describes the issue that this distance causes: “Because we believe in the authority of the Bible, we need an objective method for determining, as best we can, what the Bible originally meant and what it means today. We need training because we live in a world far removed from the world of the Bible—in time, in language, and in customs. We speak English, Spanish, or German. They spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. We live in a technological society, shaped by cars, refrigerators, telephones, videos, and computer networks, all ruled by elected officials, convertible currencies, and global markets…Because of the differences between biblical times and our age, we need training in the biblical language and customs. As for language, how many of us know precisely what the terms atonement, justification, redemption, and propitiation mean?” Speaking to the gap between ourselves and the original audience of the Bible, John MacArthur makes this observation: “so we have to kind of close all those gaps to interpret Scripture accurately because whatever the Bible meant when it was originally given is exactly what it means now. And so we have to recreate that scene. Sometimes you hear people say, ‘We need to bring the Bible into modern times.’ That’s exactly the wrong thing to do, you need to take the modern reader into ancient times. You need to reconstruct the setting in order that you can get the interpretation at the time it was written.”
Our cultural conditioning, feelings, and assumptions might get us lost in the gap between ourselves and the original audience of a Bible passage.
“What do I do about it?”
Later this week, there will be a follow-up to this post, “The Author Determines the Meaning: Now, What Do I Do About It?” It will give some direction and provide some practical tips to get started.
- Daniel M. Doriani, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company), 4-5.
John MacArthur, “How Should We Interpret the Bible?” sermon transcript, August 25, 2013, (http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/90-463/How-Should-We-Interpret-the-Bible).