Principles of Bible Interpretation – Part 1

Read carefully these words, written in the 1500s:

“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”

—Martin Luther, discoursing on how Copernicus was unbiblical about the Earth revolving around the Sun.

Or perhaps this 1637 declaration will be more biblical than Luther”:

“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must die with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”

— Captain John Underhill, defending how his Puritan friends and he killed the entire Pequot tribe.

Maybe you’re thinking this kind of interpretation shenanigans only happens in the far past. Here is one quote from the 1960s, spoken by the founder of one of America’s most conservative Bible Colleges:

“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in our country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.” 

— Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration titled, “Is Segregation Biblical?”

I could put up quote after quote for page after page. People have defended slavery, racial cleansing, spousal abuse, overt racism, war, ignoring the poor, acquisition of great wealth–all from the Bible!

But most people reading what I have just said will say to themselves, “well, at least those aren’t my problems”. I should hope they’re not. But I believe the mistakes which are made by the people quoted above are made most days when people read the Bible. These mistakes are not errors in their ability to read, but in their ability to interpret.

I’m going to make my signature statement for this article series. And many of you are not going to like it; but that’s the way it is.

You can’t just read the Bible to know what God is saying. You must learn to interpret what is says. And most people do not know or care how to do that. Therefore, most people will do more harm in reading the Bible than if they had never picked it up.

One statement, often uttered in conservative bible churches always makes me cringe: “Well, that’s what the Bible says and I just believe it“. The speakers of this phrase go on to say “I may not be learned like you, but God made things plain in the Bible and I just believe it.” My friends, this statement is so full of error, I cannot begin to tell you how much pain and agony this idea has cost us.

It takes intelligence to interpret the Bible. It takes hard work to interpret the Bible. It takes a person dedicated to walking in the Holy Spirit’s power to interpret the Bible. And not that many people have what it takes to do it properly and consistently.

If that opens me up to a charge of elitism, then so be it. I console myself in knowing that even people with doctorates in theology sometime fail to meet the above qualifications.

But just so you know I do not consider my position on this to be elitist, let me explain.

The Bible was inspired by God, but it was written by people. It was written by people who understood their historical context and were learning where they were in the Story of God. They didn’t understand our modern world, and they didn’t write what they wrote so we could understand it. They wrote down what they wrote so the people of their day could understand it.

Why does that matter? Because they wrote the Bible using languages, cultural references, metaphors, stories, historical challenges etc.  which are foreign to us. If we would begin to understand what they wrote, the Bible must be translated from its original documents. Then, several more steps must be taken to get to the bottom of what we can use in our lives.

Just saying, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is going to get you and others into a lot of trouble. I want to save you and others from that trouble.

In the next several articles, I am going to lay out for you what it will cost for you to learn how to interpret. The practice of Interpretation is called Hermeneutics. I would like for you to practice accepted and helpful hermeneutics so you can both grace your own life with God’s truth and maybe teach others.