Yesterday I had the privilege of sharing an animated discussion with a man who does not consider himself a Christian. One of the themes which came up, briefly, was the idea that everyone interprets the Bible differently. Sound familiar? It usually occurs when you quote the Bible to someone who disagrees with you, and uses this observation to turn whatever verse you quote into simply your opinion -- not the Word of God.
On the one hand, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that there’s some truth here. Christians hold a wide variety of biblical interpretations on various subjects, some of them even rather important theological issues. That’s one reason there are so many denominations and even in-house church debates. This raises our first question:
Why do people interpret the Bible differently from one another?
1. People interpret the Bible differently because the Bible itself is not always completely clear on a particular topic
While I believe that the Bible is sufficient, it’s certainly not exhaustive. We know enough to connect with God and to live a godly life, but not all that we might know. For example, the narratives or stories often simply tell us what happened without critiquing it (should Rahab have lied to protect the spies?). It doesn’t define every term in detail (what exactly is “coveting”?). Prophecies are not always clearly spelled out (thus the debate over the timing of the rapture). And there are a lot of questions it simply doesn’t address (will there be pets in heaven?). This is okay. It gives us a chance to use our minds to humbly attempt to fill in some of the gaps, which, of course, is part of the reason we don’t always agree.
2. People interpret the Bible differently because they bring personal filters to their interpretation
None of us sees the Bible, or life itself, for that matter, neutrally. We all bring our genetics, our upbringing, our religious background, our culture, and so on to any interpretation we make. It’s impossible not to do this. So if you’re raised Lutheran and stay Lutheran, there will be some Lutheran slant to your interpretations even though you think you’re being objective. If you’re a non-Christian, you’ll make certain assumptions that seasoned believers wouldn’t make. This is normal and hard to totally avoid.
3. People interpret the Bible differently because they make different assumptions about its veracity
The friend whom I mentioned at the beginning also noted that “the Bible was written by men”. His implication was that Scripture therefore has a certain number of errors or misstatements in it. This assumption, of course, seriously changes the way one handles Scripture. The assumption that the Bible is always right and true is set aside, as then, are certain passages. Others believe that the Bible being inspired by the Holy Spirit, is infallible and even inerrant, which lends more weight to all its passages, including the difficult ones.
4. People interpret the Bible differently depending on the spirit they bring to it
Here again is the subjective factor. If you’re not a believer, then you lack the full help of the Holy Spirit in interpreting Scripture. But even if you are a believer, you may not be willing to submit to the Spirit regarding all of the Bible’s teachings. Some of them require sacrifices which you’re not yet ready to make (like staying in a tough marriage) or truths which, if followed, will expose you to persecution or ridicule by society (like sexual purity). You don’t want your friends calling you a “Bible-thumper” or a “goody-two-shoes”.
5. People interpret the Bible differently depending on their level of Scriptural understanding
Let’s be frank. A lot of believers are biblically illiterate. They seldom read their Bibles and even more rarely seriously study them. Most of what they get is second-hand – from the preacher or a friend. So some of their “differences” are based on ignorance. They’re weak on biblical facts and contexts.
This all brings us back to the basic observation that “Everyone interprets the Bible differently.” By the way, this is often a red herring. Ask the person stating to quote the passage they have in mind and then have them state various legitimate ways it can be interpreted. Usually, they don’t have any particular passage in mind and often haven’t even read much of the Bible. They’re just parroting a common criticism.
Nevertheless, while there’s certainly some truth in the observation, what concerns me are its implications. It’s often meant to imply that the Bible is of little use as a source of universal authority; that our subjective interpretations turn it into little more than a spiritual Rorschach test So the idea of shared biblical authority on any subject is dismissed. If I say, “The Bible says”, some reply “In your opinion, the Bible says,” thus neutering any passage I quote. Nevertheless, I believe that the Bible can still speak with authority to us and to our world without requiring universal agreement on every point of its teaching.
Why does the Bible still speak with authority to us as a group?
1. The Bible still speaks with authority today because it spoke authoritatively to its original audience
God assumed Adam and Eve understood His commands in the Garden of Eden. Moses assumed that the Israelites understood the law. The prophets assumed that their words were intelligible to the people. The apostles did the same. Because of this, its teaching was considered authoritative, which wouldn’t have been the case if it meant something entirely different to each person.
2. The Bible still speaks with authority today because most of what it says make common sense
Using ordinary rules of interpretation we can agree today on most of what the Bible says, just as we do in daily interaction with one another. The story of God the Son becoming man, dying for our sins, and rising from the dead is straightforward. The church, as a whole, has agreed on this and a great many other teachings for millenia. We may struggle to explain the exact details, but we agree on the big ideas. Christian beliefs have considerable overlap, especially on key issues. It’s true that there are always some who deny straightforward biblical assertions, but that’s to be expected.
3. The Bible still speaks with authority today because it’s an accurate representation of God’s Word spoken through the Holy Spirit
This, or course, is critical to the argument. If you believe that that Bible is merely fallible human opinion, how we interpret it is of little significance. But the Bible speaks of itself as an accurate representation of God’s Words (2 Tim. 3:16) and Jesus Himself treated the Old Testament with complete confidence. I don’t have space here to present various defenses of this belief, but I hold it, as have Christians since the early church times. If it’s not true, then what I’ve just said doesn’t hold much weight, since the Bible’s just classic fiction. But if it is true, it’s best to take the Bible seriously since it deals with eternal matters of life and death, Heaven and Hell. I bear personal witness to its power and truth after many years of following it.