Interpreting the Bible

The Great Mathematician Pascal wrote that God intended for the Bible to be beyond the understanding of those who do not want to understand it. (See PENSEES by Blaise Pascal, #255, 269, 286. Or go to PENSEES.)

Jesus said, "small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matt 7:14) Perhaps many people don't want to find it. People seem to have a natural inclination to follow a road to life that is determined by themselves, their friends, and others who influence them, rather than the road that leads to life that is established by God. In so doing, they approach the Bible with a preconceived notion of doctrine, searching for justification for that doctrine, instead of seeking to understand the Bible.

There is a common misconception that the Bible cannot be trusted as the sole source of doctrine because there are so many conflicting doctrines derived from the Bible by different groups. But Jesus clearly explained that the reason that many people derive incorrect doctrine from his teaching is because it is intentionally delivered in a way that would only allow it to be correctly interpreted by those who are honestly seeking the truth with an open mind. He explained this to his disciples:

Then he explained to them, "You have been permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others have not. To those who are open to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But to those who are not listening, even what they have will be taken away from them. That is why I tell these stories, because people see what I do, but they don't really see. They hear what I say, but they don't really hear, and they don't understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, which says:

`You will hear my words,
but you will not understand;
you will see what I do,
but you will not perceive its meaning.
For the hearts of these people are hardened,
and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes--
so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and let me heal them.'

"But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. I assure you, many prophets and godly people have longed to see and hear what you have seen and heard, but they could not." (Matthew 13:11-17 New Living Translation)


As Jesus did here in the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John also quotes this same prophecy of Isaiah (John 12:40; Isaiah 6:10), again emphasizing that God has blinded the eyes and deadened the hearts of those who refuse his gospel.

To the Pharisees "Jesus said, ' For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.'" (John 9:39)  Note that He said that He would make blind those who see.  Why did Jesus come into the world to make people blind?  By "those who see" He is undoubtedly referring to those who think that they already see, but whose minds are closed and whose hearts are unreachable.  To those people he has intentionally positioned his gospel beyond their understanding.  Again, this may be counterintuitive, but God does not want people to understand when they do not want to understand.

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14)  Since people without the Spirit cannot understand things from the Spirit, the Bible can only be reliably interpreted by people with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The numerous conflicting interpretations of the Bible amongst the numerous religionists is not the fault of the Bible.  It is because most of the religionists are operating without the gift of the Holy Spirit even though they claim otherwise.

Jesus said, "Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father." (John 17:25).  When Jesus returns in judgment, He will speak plainly.  But in the mean time He has taught in a way that is clear only to those who listen with open minds and teachable hearts.

So it is not surprising that there are many conflicting doctrines that people obtain from the Bible. But this problem is not the fault of the Bible. It is the fault of those who use the Bible for their own self-centered purposes.

The Apostle Paul wrote, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." (2 Tim 3:16) He was referring to the Old Testament in this quote because it was the scripture at his time. He was also referring to the New Testament that he and other prophets were writing at that time because he wrote, "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe." (1 Thess 2:13) The Bible is the source of doctrine, and it is definitive.

Jesus also said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." (Matt 7:7) We must put forth effort, with sincerity, and with an open, teachable mind in order to understand the Bible. We must truly want to know what the Bible means rather than satisfying our own agendas in searching the Bible. I think that we must do so with a prayer, but unfortunately I think that many people pray, "Lord please strengthen my testimony of what I already believe." This is what Pascal meant in referring to those who don't want to understand the Bible. We should pray, "Lord please open my mind to understand what You want me to believe."

Before attempting to interpret a verse in the Bible, or before accepting the interpretation presented by a person or organization, we must be mindful of a critical rule: any interpretation of any part of the Bible that contradicts another part of the Bible is an incorrect interpretation. If you look at the conflicting interpretations from numerous organizations, you will find that that their interpretations contradict portions of the Bible. And any person or organization that teaches interpretations that contradict portions of the Bible must be working in opposition to the Lord as He indicated in the passage in Matthew 13 quoted above.  Even organizations that call themselves Christian may be in opposition to Christ on this basis.  Some of these organizations even go so far as to claim that the Bible contradicts itself, when in reality it is only their interpretations that are contradicting the Bible.

In order to understand a verse in the Bible, we must understand the context of that verse. For example, if we read a verse that refers to baptism, but it is inside a paragraph on the topic of resurrection, it may be inappropriate to use that verse as a source of doctrine on the topic of baptism. Doctrines on baptism are usually located where one would reasonably expect to find them: within paragraphs on the topic of baptism. Yet so many of the various doctrines of the different sects are based on such extraction of references to topics that the Biblical writers weren't actually addressing.

Here is an example the importance of context. "…indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords', yet for us there is but one God" (1 Cor 8:5-6) This statement by itself seems to indicate that although on this earth we have only one God, He is actually one of many gods. However, when we look at the beginning of the chapter, we find that it is not about real gods, but about idols and food sacrificed to those idols: "Now about food sacrificed to idols." (1 Cor 8:1) And when we look at the entire paragraph within the chapter rather than the original quotation by itself we can see even more clearly what the Apostle Paul is explaining:

"So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." (1 Cor 8:4-6)

Sometimes misunderstandings of the Bible come from failing to use care in reading the individual words. We must pay particularly close attention to what each word actually means rather that zipping past the word while supplying our own preconceived meaning. If, after careful word studies, there is still disagreement between different people on the meaning of a verse, then perhaps a word-for-word literal translation, such as the NASB (New American Standard Bible) should be used. The KJV (King James Version) and the now more widely used NIV (New International Version) are accurate translations, but they are idiomatic for readability. It is possible that the interpretations implied by the idiomatic translations may get in the way of resolving disputes on Biblical meaning.

The tense of a verb also conveys important information about the meaning, and ignoring the tense may fundamentally change the meaning of a verse. For example, consider the verse, "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." (1 Peter 4:6 KJV) To an inattentive reader this verse may seem to say that the gospel was preached to dead people, but note that it is stating that the gospel "was preached" at some time in the past "to those who are dead" now. It doesn't say that the gospel was preached to those who were dead at the time of preaching. So, there is no indication in this verse about teaching the dead at all. Note that the NIV translation reads, "For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit." (1 Peter 4:6)

In conclusion, there are three components to accurately understanding a verse in scripture. First, approach the task of understanding with the right attitude. This requires honestly pursuing truth and prayerfully seeking the guidance of the Spirit with an open mind. Second, understand the context. When you read a verse, you are usually reading a single sentence from within a paragraph. You'll probably need to understand the entire paragraph to be certain of the proper interpretation of the individual sentence. Also, be aware of the historical context and the cultural environment. And third, be certain to understand each word in the verse. For pronouns, pay attention to whether they are singular or plural. You may need to consult a Bible with footnotes that provide this information from the original language. For verbs, pay attention to the tense since a change in verb tense can fundamentally change the meaning of the sentence. Also remember that there is not a direct one-to-one correspondence between words in ancient languages and modern languages. Words in Modern English have different ranges of meanings than they did in ancient Hebrew and Greek, which makes context critical in determining where the word is being used within its permissible range.  Finally, a reader needs to test his interpretation to be sure that it doesn't contradict other statements in the Bible.  If it does, then the interpretation must be wrong, and an interpretation without internal contradiction would be the correct one.

Several years ago, before I became part of Evangelical Christianity, I was studying the Bible independently and learning its teachings and doctrines directly. Since I did not accept the Evangelical position on the Bible at the time, I did not use Evangelical materials nor did I hear any Evangelical speakers. As a result of my studies, I wrote down my own personal systematic theology, which differed significantly from that of the group that I was in at the time. When I reached the decision that my quest for truth required that I look beyond the group that I was in, I started attending local Evangelical congregations. I was amazed to find that the doctrines that I had independently found in the Bible precisely matched the teachings that I found at every one of the Evangelical local churches that I attended, regardless of denomination. Over the years since becoming part of Evangelical Christianity, I continue to consistently find complete agreement in Biblical interpretation of critical doctrines. This confirms to me that there is only one accurate doctrinal interpretation of the Bible even though there are dozens of groups like the one that I was previously in that teach substantially different doctrines. Although this web site now contains quotations from Evangelical materials, it is simply an expansion of my original documentation that I developed while avoiding Evangelical teachings. The doctrines reflected in this web site are specifically the ones that I received directly from the Bible without the aid of other materials. For those who are already in an true relationship with Jesus Christ my experience may not seem surprising, but for me it was miraculous to discover that the doctrinal teachings of Evangelical Christianity so closely matched what I had learned from my own independent Bible study.

The Bible is definitive regarding critical doctrines. (By "critical doctrines" I mean those doctrines that we need to know in order to participate in the Lord's plan of salvation according to his will.) The Apostle Paul wrote, "and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." (2 Tim 3:15) However, not everything in the Bible can be interpreted conclusively. The Bible contains many "mysteries" that confound the most sincere searchers of its truths.  I believe that this is partly because the Bible contains much information that we don't need now, but that Bible readers will need in the future.  This is particularly true of end-times prophecies in the Bible. When we examine the enormous amount of prophecy in the Old Testament about Jesus, it seems surprising in retrospect that so few of the Jews understood his mission before He was on the earth.  Yet the prophecies in Daniel even provide the very year that He would begin his mission.  Nonetheless when He was on the earth, those who were humble and teachable were able to see that his mission was fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  I believe that Apocalyptic Biblical prophecies are similar in purpose and understandability to Messianic prophecies before the mission of Jesus.  As the end-time events begin, Biblical prophecies will empower faithful people to recognize them as they see them.  In the mean time Apocalyptic prophecies provide a view, but somewhat imprecise view, of the end-time events.  Accordingly, there are many scriptures in the Bible that are not yet open to conclusive interpretation.

In concluding this essay on understanding the Bible, without any intended disrespect for the great contributions of C. S. Lewis, I would like to add my own Screwtape letter. As you may know, the Screwtape Letters is a book that contains a series of fictional letters between a demon, named Screwtape, and his apprentice, Wormwood.

My dear Wormwood,

You have done very well in convincing the patient that the Bible cannot be trusted as the definitive source of the Enemy's doctrines. As you know, the Enemy has inspired the writing of that book so that readers can only discern its true meaning if they approach it with soft hearts and teachable minds and with a sincere desire to know the truth. (What a disgusting thought that anyone could be like that.) But as long as we can continue to convince them that the book is not conclusive on doctrine, they won't approach it that way. They will instead notice that we have already succeeded in persuading so many others to draw different conflicting incorrect doctrines out of that book, and they will simply assume that these conflicts between different groups of Bible interpreters are the fault of the Bible. So instead of trusting the word of the Enemy our patients will need to trust in each other! That spells glorious victory for our side.

So keep up the good work. Keep the patient thinking that the Bible is unclear on critical doctrines and that it even contradicts itself. Let him continue to trust in other men as authoritative sources of doctrine instead of trusting directly in the word of the Enemy. You can be confident that those leaders that the patient is trusting are patients of our coworkers, and they are similarly being directed to distrust the word of the Enemy.

Your affectionate uncle,
Screwtape

When someone declares that the Bible is missing plain and precious truths, he is indicating that he personally lacks the spiritual discernment to see the truth that is actually there.

© 2013 William C. Hamer