Tough Questions: Biblical Interpretation

Let’s say for a minute that the Bible actually is God’s Word.  Do you really think you can interpret it correctly?  Throughout the history of the church, the Bible has been used to support everything from slavery to the Crusades.  What makes you think you can interpret it in such a way that we could accurately say “God has spoken”?

This past week I explained that the Bible is the Word of God.  For that sermon click here.  Today, I will be moving from that starting point to deal with the important issue of interpreting the Bible.  I will attempt to answer the challenge of interpretation before us in the following ways:

  1. Unpack the Challenges of Interpretation
  2. Employ a Biblical Answer to the Problem
  3. Provide a Process for Interpretation

Challenges of Interpretation

The main problem in interpretation is our sin.  The two primary functions of sin is to decieve and destroy.  Colossians 1:13-14 describes sin as a “power of darkness” that holds humanity in bondage.  The darkness of sin makes it impossible for us to accurately, on our own, understand God and His Word as Romans 3:11 reminds us that no one understands.

Theological post-modernity has also raised a problem- we are all biased.  I grew up in Germantown, TN- a middle class community outside of Memphis.  My parents loved the Lord and had me in church every Sunday.  Can I really interpret the Scripture “objectively” so that I could tell someone in the Dominican Republic that has not grown up in church what God has said to them?  Hasn’t my faith just been the result of the conditioning of my environment growing up?

These limitations make it impossible to say that we really can interpret God’s Word.  We desperately need help from the Lord.

Answer: the Work of the Holy Spirit

1 Corinthians 2:12-13 (ESV)

12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.  13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

The role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation is the key to truly understanding how we as sinful, biased human beings can rightly understand the Bible.  In verse twelve, we are shown one of the key roles of the Spirit- helping us understand the grace that God has given to us.  Paul also says that the Spirit works in us to help us understand “spiritual truths.”

The key here is that without the Spirit, we are left to human wisdom which is deficient to help us understand the grace of God and His Word.  Ephesians 1 teaches that the Spirit is the “guarantee” of our salvation.  Because only believers have this Spirit, is important to see that non-believers may be able to read the Bible and understand the stories or words on the page, but they will never be able to truly understand and grasp the meaning of the Scripture.  Plainly, non-believers will understand certain concepts, but never accept them as true and live them out without the Spirit.

So, given all this, how do we rightly interpret the Scripture?

Process for Interpretation

Here are a few practical steps for interpretation.  Interpretation should be done…

1.  With a Focus on Scripture- the Bible should always be our starting place for interpretation.  Taking the Scritpures, word by word, phrase by phrase, section by section in the context of the book being read is essential.

2.  In Reliance upon the Spirit- coming to the Scripture seeking the guidance of the Spirit can be seen in an attitude of  humility and habit of prayer.

3.  In conversation with the Church- interpretation should happen in fellowship and conversation with not only with your local church but also with the church of the past.

Much more could be said about interpretation and this will be a subject of posts to come.  My encouragement to everyone this week- read your Bibles!