Anyone who has ever sat in or taught a
Bible class, read a commentary or other religious book, talked to
another person about the Bible, or listened to a sermon will agree
that not everyone interprets the Bible in the same way. Failing to
properly interpret the Bible often leads to misunderstanding and
confusion about its message. If we are to truly understand God’s
Word, we must learn to interpret it well. Thus, the importance of
good interpretation cannot be over emphasized.
The text of the Bible is intended to
communicate God’s Word to human beings. Like any form of
communication, this is a rather complicated process involving
three different components. These
are the author (sender), the text (message), and the reader
(receiver), and communication is possible only when these three
are connected in a meaningful way.
The main goal of biblical
interpretation is to determine the meaning of the text or message
that was written by the author. Sometimes this can be accomplished
by simply reading the text. Some of the Bible is in simple,
straight forward language and can be understood in this way. For
much of the Bible, however, determining the meaning of the text is
much more complicated.
There are different theories about
where the meaning of the text “resides.” Some people, for example,
have suggested that the meaning is within the text itself. The
text is described as being “autonomous” and the meaning is thought
to be independent of the author. The text is viewed as
“literature” or “art” with the meaning of the text within itself
much like the “meaning” of a painting or sculpture is within
itself. As such, the normal rules of communication no longer apply
to the text. Further, what the author originally intended the text
to mean is unimportant. The text essentially stands alone. Also,
there can be no common, or shared, interpretation since the
meaning is totally within the text and each person must try to
find it for themselves.
However, the text is simply made up of
symbols or letters written or printed on some type of material. A
written or printed page of text by itself has no meaning. It is
only when a person can read and understand the symbols that
communication can take place. I can look at a page of Arabic or
Chinese symbols but it will have no meaning for me because I
cannot read the language. It is only when there is a connection
between the author, text, and reader that meaning exists.
Another approach to interpretation
suggests that the meaning is determined by the reader. The person
reading the text gives meaning to the text. This is a rather
common approach and many people accept this view of interpretation
unknowingly. It is quite common in a Bible class for the teacher
to ask questions like, “What did Luke mean in verse 3?” Questions
such as these are frequently answered by someone giving his or her
own personal view of the passage with little or no regard to the
literary or historical context and shaped primarily by the
person’s own personal experience and viewpoint.
This brings us to a third approach to
interpreting the Bible. This view of interpretation suggests that
the meaning of the text was determined by the author. This is
sometimes referred to as the “intended meaning.” As I write these
words, for example, I have a particular meaning that I want to
convey. Likewise, as Paul wrote Romans, he intended to communicate
a particular meaning to the readers. Through the process of
inspiration and preservation of the text, Paul’s intended meaning
is then communicated to us today.
This third approach is the most
objective and reasonable way to view the process of biblical
interpretation. It is also the only approach to interpretation
that connects the author, the text, and the reader in a meaningful
way. It is only when we come to some understanding of the author’s
original intended meaning and “translate” that meaning into a form
that can be understood within a particular twenty-first century
context, that true communication has taken place.
It must be remembered, however, that
the original text was written in a different time and place. We
are also separated from the original authors by differences in
language and culture. This is why it is so important to see the
passage in its original literary and historical context before
attempting to apply it to our own contemporary situation.
Interpreting the Bible can be a
complex, but not impossible process. It will, however, require
good translations, commentaries, and other reference works by
reputable scholars, and patience to accomplish this important
task. Taking the time to look at a passage in its historical and
literary context and searching for the meaning intended by the
author will help us to have a much better understanding of God’s
message for us today.
Robert H. Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible (Baker, 1994).
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 2003).
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