I just tweeted:

I hope I never reach the point where assumptions, opinions, and interpretations regarding scripture hold equal weight to scripture itself.

A Facebook friend asked, “Can you read a Bible verse without an interpretation? And how do you separate the scripture from the interpretation? Keith, I think I understand what you’re saying-that scripture takes precedence over opinion and I agree. I’m just not sure we can separate scripture from interpretation. Every time we read scripture we make an interpretation.”

I seem to read that a lot. Is it true?

Are we incapable of discerning the difference between what scripture says and what we (or others) think it says?

To me, Jesus seemed to be pretty tough on religious leaders who couldn’t; who added their own interpretation to scripture and made it weigh the same; as if it were God’s own doctrine rather than just based on God’s own doctrine.

When you go to a movie that’s “based on the best-selling biography” but, familiar as you are with that biography, encounter a point in the screenplay that takes wide liberties with the biography for the sake of dramatic effect, are you unable to discern that?

Why should it be different with scripture?

I answered my friend: “You don’t think there’s anyone who can come to a perplexing scripture and honestly say, ‘I don’t understand what this means’? That’s not an interpretation … It’s an admission.”

And if we are honestly unsure, isn’t discernment something that we can ask God for? That He gives through His Spirit?

I’m thinking 1 Kings 3:11Psalm 119:1251 Corinthians 2:14Philippians 1:9-10.

Am I off-base with this interpretation?

Don’t you think God wants us to understand His word? Won’t He grant that if we ask? Is the problem that we don’t ask …?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” ~ Luke 11:11-13

Or perhaps that we lean too much on our own understanding? (Proverbs 3:5; 18:2)

I’m not a heavily-structured logical thinker; I’ll just admit it. What logic I have is much more informal. But when I don’t understand a scripture, the first thing that I (usually remember to) do is ask for help. From God. From others. Because I believe there’s value in finding out what the consensus of others might be (if there is a consensus), or at least what the possibilities are.

Then I ask questions, and these are just a few of them — in addition to questions about the context/pericope, to whom it is written, when it is written, what its scope might be (just us, just them; both; then, now, both; etc.):

  • Is this the ONLY thing the scripture can mean here? Could it have more than one layer of meaning?
  • Is prophetic language or context in play?
  • Is it a commandment, instruction, request, narrative, parable, question, example, implication, poem/song/opera, historical record, what?
  • Has it been contravened by something in scripture that’s related and more recent/relevant?
  • Do other related scriptures confirm what it says or contradict it and why? For instance, were Jesus and party entering (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35) or leaving (Matthew 20:29-34) Jericho when a blind man was/two blind men were healed? Or, as in that example, is it possible that two different things are described that are similar in some ways – one going in; two coming out?
  • Does it matter? (A value judgment: “A difference which makes no difference is no difference.” Not always true, but sometimes relevant.)
  • What’s the simplest explanation? (Occam’s Razor can often be helpful, though not determinative.)
  • What explanation points me to God through Jesus Christ? (This, of course, is the Jesus Hermeneutic. I didn’t invent it and I don’t think I named it. As far as I know it’s not trademarked or copyrighted and you should feel free to use it if it helps!)

Well, those are a few of mine. What are some of yours?

And should we believers be teaching responsible scripture reading, analysis and interpretation skills — as well as asking God for answers — a whole lot more?

13 thoughts on “Interpretation

  1. I’ll say this much for starters – without interpretation, they’re just squiggles on a page, or sound waves radiating through the auditorium (I wanted to say the clanging of a gong, but that pushes too far towards an epistemology of faith/hope/love that I’m not ready to try and establish yet, let alone defend)

    The attachment of meaning to a symbol is the act of interpretation.

      • Okay… so if I grant, for purposes of this challenge, that we share the same definitions (although I think that differing definitions accounts for most of our interpretive disagreements), how do we bridge the audience gap without interpretation?

        These documents simply were not written to you and to me. They have an original audience – and it ain’t us.

  2. Wow, Keith. The stuff you write always challenges me to think and consider. And it’s consistently practical, related to things people really care and wonder about. Well done!

    Next comment: What Nick said. Beyond his last sentence, I would add that I feel certain that nobody reads the biblical text, or any other text for that matter, without bringing along with him all sorts of presuppositions and assumptions. And it’s probably the case that the reading of a familiar and high-stakes book (like the Bible) means there will be even more of this sort of thing.

    I don’t believe that invalidates every reading. Nor do I believe that when it comes to interpretations, one person’s is as good as another’s. Nor do I believe that readers should aim at as much objectivity as possible. In some of the Psalms, what reorients and corrects a person as much as anything is worship, time in the sanctuary. The goal of objectivity sounds so good to us enlightenment people. But that’s starting to break down. The way Africans and Asians understand Scripture is now beginning to be published. Funny, they don’t think like we do. If another five centuries go by, I wonder what they’ll say about our books on “How to Understand the Bible.”

  3. I think it’s probably more important to be part of a discussion community rather than to bridge an audience gap.

    Okay, for instance, this is my interpretation of some scriptures: Jesus spent a fair amount of time teaching and preaching in public, often in parables. He also spent a fair amount of time with His followers asking, essentially, “What do you think I meant by that?” (when they inevitably asked Him, “What did you mean by that?”).

    Dialogue is important. It’s a check on authority-only/didactic teaching (and the arrogance that can accompany it). I think Jesus used it to see if He was communicating clearly to His followers, but also to give them an opportunity to consider things together, meditate en masse, juggle possibilities, be a community of faith.

    • but he is precisely asking them to describe how they’ve interpreted what they heard. His call here is for humility and integrity (diligence, unwillingness to give up, settle, or stop asking questions) and community in the interpretive process… Not for them to just repeat back what He said (which is all we can do if interpretation is verboten).

  4. Let me ask this, then: Is it possible to read a text of scripture with intention and forethought with the purpose of trying to read it as if for the first time? Suppressing preconceptions and previous impressions? Looking for new possibilities? Weeding out words and concepts which aren’t there?

    If so, could there not be some value in doing so?

  5. yes yes yes! One of the best pieces of instruction Alexander Campbell ever delivered was the admonition to strive to read Scripture as if no one had ever read it before.

    I don’t think we should ALWAYS TRY TO DO THAT, because there is also value in reading Scripture the way its first audience heard it.

    But absolutely, we need to strive to understand and address the preconceptions through which we read the Word.

  6. We all are interpreters of what we read. You will be an interpreter of what you are reading right now. Call interpretations opinions instead. The question is whether or not one has a coherent base for such interpretation.

  7. Keith, I don’t comment a lot. Just wanted to let you know I’m a reader….and keep up the good work. I suppose it’s possible to read something without interpretation…we just don’t do it very often. That, by the way, doesn’t mean we’re wrong to interpret–or that our interpretations are wrong because they are interpretations. The biblical writers, when quoting Scripture themselves, often interpret them (i.e., Jesus in Luke 4) or see their application to something happening in their time.

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