Varying Interpretations of the Bible

When different people read and understand the Bible in a thousand different ways, how do we know who's right? Christian ministries like yours are always quoting Scripture and talking about the authority of the Word of God. To me, this raises a huge question: how can I know whose interpretation is correct?

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What you’re saying makes sense up to a certain point. Unfortunately, it’s easy to take this kind of logic too far. When that happens, as it frequently does nowadays, you end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Nowadays people like to say that the only ultimate reality is personal opinion. This is especially true where “religion” is concerned. It’s “my beliefs” against “your beliefs,” and there isn’t anything solid or objective against which to measure our different viewpoints.

This may be true if we’re talking about some of the customized, mix-and-match “spiritualities” that have become so common in modern society. But it doesn’t apply to Bible study. Why not? Because when we turn to the Old and New Testaments we find that there is something else besides our own prejudices and preferences that has to be taken into account: the text itself. Among other things, it introduces another Mind (or minds) into the conversation. If we want to read the Bible seriously, we have to ask some thoughtful and discerning questions about the intentions of the people who wrote it.

Don’t misunderstand. We realize that people can take a book like the Bible and try to make it mean whatever they want it to mean. That doesn’t prove that they’re justified in doing so. The words of Scripture do mean something in their own right, whatever you or I may say about them. What’s more, they can be misrepresented or misconstrued. So it’s not just a matter of “personal interpretation.”

Think of it this way. In every trial, the defense, the prosecution, and each member of the jury all have an equal opportunity to examine the facts. Each of these parties may see those facts from a different angle. But in the final analysis there is only one truth about what really happened. A similar observation applies here.

That’s why it’s so important to study the Bible carefully, diligently, and with as much help as possible from those who are trained and skilled in the art of “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Biblical interpretation or hermeneutics is a broad and complex subject. If we really want to grasp the intended meanings of Scripture, we will have to do our homework. We’ll have to ask ourselves how we can best approach and understand each and every biblical book and passage on its own terms.

For example, when the Psalmist prays, “Hide me under the shadow of Your wings” (Psalm 17:8), it’s important to remember that this is poetic imagery. The writer does not want us to picture God as some kind of gigantic bird. On the other hand, when the apostle Paul asserts that “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and was buried, and rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4), we can determine from context that he wants us to take this as a statement of historical fact. His words are not intended as “symbols” of “spiritual principles.”

It’s also crucial to remember that the Bible itself is the single best guide to its own interpretation. As the authors of The Westminster Confession of Faith put it, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (Chapter 1, section 9).

One last thought. We’ll admit that some passages in the Bible are difficult to understand. What’s more, we realize that, down through the centuries, these sections have spawned a lot of controversy and disagreement. We don’t, however, believe that this negates anything we’ve been saying here. We may not be able to understand everything about the Bible; that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand anything about it.

To quote The Westminster Confession again: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other that not only the learned but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Chapter 1, section 7). From our perspective, it doesn’t make sense to abandon the major teachings of the Bible concerning “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” simply because there are a few minor points in the biblical record that we have trouble grasping.

If you have further questions about this, or if you’d simply like to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of our team, don’t hesitate to contact us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


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What The Bible Teaches: The Truths of the Bible Made Plain, Simple, and Understandable

Why Believe the Bible?

Christian Research Institute

Insight for Living


How Do We Know the Bible Is True?

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