Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 1)


Reading a text necessarily involves interpreting a text. I suppose when I started my studies I had a rather unsophisticated view of reading: that the point of reading a text is simply to let the text “speak for itself,” to uncover the meaning inherent in its words. The reality, I came to see, is that meaning is not inherent and texts do not speak for themselves. If texts could speak for themselves, then everyone honestly and openly reading a text would agree on what the text says. But interpretations of texts abound, and people in fact do not agree on what the texts mean. This is obviously true of the texts of scripture: simply look at the hundreds, or even thousands, of ways people interpret the book of Revelation, or consider all the different Christians denominations, filled with intelligent and well-meaning people who base their views of how the church should be organized and function on the Bible, yet all of them coming to radically different conclusions. – Bart Ehrman

There is a vast array of factors that influence how we interpret the scriptures (see the link at the bottom of this post). For example, whether they like to admit it or not, people have to choose whether a passage is literal or figurative or whether it is theologically correct or not. Even those who say that it is all literal and all theologically correct are making a choice (namely, they choose to believe that all of it is true).

As a result, no one’s interpretation of the bible is unbiased. We all have interpretive assumptions that we bring to the scriptures, whether we are conscious of them or not. For example, many assume that the scriptures are divinely inspired by God (there is no widely, much less universally, accepted proof for such a proposition.)

When someone says “I believe whatever the bible says,” what they really mean is that they believe their own interpretation of it.

There is no absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context. – Peter Enns

We do not read the Bible the way it is; we read it the way we are. – Evelyn Uyemura

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means. – George Bernard Shaw

It is therefore possible to “prove” anything you want to from bibles (at least to yourself). People find what they want to from bibles. They find evidence for and convince themselves of what they want to believe. Some people do this intentionally, but even people who are reading the bible in a sincere pursuit of truth unknowingly make this human mistake. Consequently, when there is something we wish to be true, we will favor interpretations that favor what we want to believe.

Reading the scriptures is a subjective endeavor; you can never remove you and your interpretation from the picture. (This alone is sufficient to render ideas like the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the scriptures as useless since there is no guarantee that our interpretation will extract the inspired, infallible, and authoritative meaning. This is not to say, however, that all interpretations are equally valid or equal in value.)


Also see:

God was God and Truth was Truth Before There was a Bible (by Jim Palmer)

One thought on “Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 5) | Stepping Toes

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