We have talked for the past two weeks about translating the Bible into English and some of the problems and pitfalls involved in that. That’s looking at determining what the Bible says. But now we need to go one step further. We need to look at what the Bible means. That’s called interpretation. It’s one thing to know what the Bible says, but it’s a whole different ball game to determine what the Bible means by what it says.
Christian beliefs come from the Bible. But, in general, Christian beliefs are not listed or outlined in the Bible. Christian beliefs are derived from things the Bible says. You don’t open a Bible and find a list of Christian beliefs. You find various kinds of writings. Christian beliefs are derived from interpreting those writings. The things the Bible says are interpreted in order to get Christian beliefs.
What does it mean to interpret something? It means to find and explain the meaning of something. The idea is that the writings of the Bible have meaning behind them. When we interpret the Bible, we attempt to find and explain the meaning of the writings in the Bible.
So, we go to the Bible and interpret it and get Christian beliefs. Every Christian belief is an interpretation of something the Bible says.
What Does This Passage Mean?
The most popular way people interpret the Bible is to take a passage or verse and try to get the meaning from it, try to get what that passage is trying to tell us. In this method, you cut out a little piece of the Bible. It could be one verse or a number of verses. Then you try to find the meaning of what you have cut out.
If you’ve ever been to Sunday School, you might recognize that as being the way Sunday School lessons work, or at least they used to work that way. In Sunday School, you’d be presented with a passage for that day, and then you’d look at it and try to get some kind of meaning from it.
Here’s the passage. What does it mean?
A lot of pastors prepare sermons using that method. Sometimes you see reader boards out in front of churches on which they put what the sermon will be for the coming week. It might say something like, “This week—Romans 5: 8-15.” The preacher will preach on those verses.
When you approach the Bible like that, you make a big assumption: You assume that the Bible is a whole bunch of little parts, with each separate part having some kind of meaning, some kind of message. This method views the Bible like a box that contains a lot of little slips of paper, with each slip of paper having a message written on it. You open the box, take out a little slip of paper, and read the message.
Is that what the Bible really is? Is it a box with a lot of little slips of paper, with each slip of paper having a message? Well, it may be or it may not be, but that method of studying the Bible makes the assumption that’s what the Bible is. Whether or not the Bible is a box with a whole bunch of little slips of paper in it that each have a message is a question that’s beyond the scope of this episode, but keep in mind that those who approach the Bible in this manner are making that assumption about the Bible, whether they realize it or not.
Making Pictures as We Read
So, having said that, let’s do a little experiment. Let’s pull one of those slips of paper out of the box and see what we have. I reached into the box and pulled out a passage from Luke chapter 10. It’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It reads as follows:
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’”
That’s what was on the little slip of paper we pulled out of the box. So let’s think about it.
When you listened to me read that, chances are you developed sort of a movie in your mind that played along as you heard it. You saw it happening in your mind. You imagined it. You imagined the wounded man lying on the side of the road. What did he look like? What kind of wounds did he have? You imagined the priest and Levite as they went by. What did they look like? How did they act? What did the Samaritan look like? What did his voice sound like? What did the inn look like? How did this Samaritan care for the man’s wounds? What did the innkeeper look like?
In some way, you developed some kind of picture in your mind of this happening. The picture you saw in your mind is unique to you. No two people would imagine it in exactly the same way. Another way to think of it is to imagine that you ask ten artists to paint a picture based on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I bet all ten pictures would be different. Each artist would interpret it differently.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a narrative like a parable to evoke images in our minds. Consider this passage from First Corinthians 6: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.”
A passage like that doesn’t necessarily create pictures of action in our mind, but still, it creates some sort of images in our mind. It creates something in our mind, some kind of reaction. The reaction it creates in each person is unique to that person.
When Is the True Meaning Made?
A woman told me a while back about a time she took a class on poetry. Each person in the class had to write a poem and stand up and read it to the class. The other people in the class then had to write down what they thought the poem meant, and then give it to the person who wrote the poem. This woman said she read her poem to the class, everyone handed her their slip of paper on which they had written the meaning of the poem, and she took them all home and read them. She said there were lots of different meanings put on that poem, meanings which, she said, she had never even thought of.
Her poem interacted with the people in the class in different ways, and they all got different meanings from it. Interestingly enough, she said that no one wrote down the meaning she had in mind when she wrote the poem. No one got the meaning she intended them to get.
Whose meaning was right? What was the “true meaning” of her poem? Was the true meaning the meaning she intended it to have when she wrote it, or was the true meaning the meaning the other people got when they heard it?
This brings up a serious question: When is the true meaning of something made? Is the true meaning made when something is written? Or is the true meaning made when it is read or heard?
Think about this in relation to the Bible. Is the “true meaning” of a biblical passage what the author intended when they wrote it, or is the “true meaning” the meaning you get from it when you read it?
We may be tempted to immediately think that the true meaning is the meaning the author intended. But although that sounds simple, there’s a big problem with it. How could you ever know what the author meant? After all, the books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago. How could you ever really know what meaning the author of any passage had in mind?
Let’s consider a well-known passage to illustrate that problem—John 3: 16. It goes like this, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
On the face of it, that verse sounds simple and straightforward. But think about it. What does the term “only begotten Son” mean? You’ll open up a can of worms if you get into that one, because there are many different opinions in Christianity about what “only begotten Son” means.
What does it mean to “believe in Him?” What exactly do you have to believe? It’s not explained. What does “perish” mean? Does it mean you’ll die? Does it mean you’ll go to hell? It doesn’t say what it means. It just says “perish.” What does “everlasting life” mean? Does it mean your body will never die? Does it mean your body will die but your soul will live on and go to heaven? It doesn’t say.
Even something like John 3: 16, which seems so straightforward, is open to interpretation on many points. How could you ever know exactly what the author meant when he wrote that sentence almost 2000 years ago?
Some people say you can determine the meaning of one passage by comparing it to other passages. But that often doesn’t work. For example, the Bible never clearly explains what it means to “believe in Jesus.” It talks about believing in Jesus, but it never really explains exactly what you have to believe. And, although Jesus is referred to in the Bible as the Son of God, the Bible never explains what that means.
The fact is that you can never know what the author intended to mean. You can never know what the author intended the phrase “only begotten Son” to mean. That’s why, if you look throughout Christianity, you’ll see many different interpretations of what “only begotten Son” means.
The point of all this is that it’s one thing to say that the “true meaning” of something in the Bible is what the author intended, but it’s another thing entirely to determine what that meaning was.
So let’s look at the other possibility and see if it’s less complicated. That’s the idea that says the true meaning is the meaning you get when you read or hear it. Let’s go back to the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an example. What if four people read it and each one of them gets a different meaning? Does that parable have four “true meanings?”
Well, the fact is that different Christians have placed a lot of different meanings on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. You can find all sorts of different interpretations of that parable. Are all the “true meaning”?
It seems like we’re lost in a quagmire. Interpreting the Bible is a difficult issue. It seems like we’ve hit a brick wall.
But we’re not the first ones to hit it. The very same brick wall was hit early on in Christianity. Different Christians in different places read the same writings and placed all kinds of different meanings on them. What was the “true meaning”?
We Will Tell You What It Means
The institutional church came to the rescue. The Church said, “Don’t worry about interpreting the Bible. We’ll interpret it for you and tell you what it means.”
And that’s what they did. Beginning in the 300’s, with the rise of The Institutional Church, they said they were the only ones who could properly interpret the Bible. You, as in individual Christian, didn’t even need to read the Bible. All you needed to do was listen to them. They’d tell you what the Bible means. They’d tell you all you need to know. The Roman Catholic Church claimed that only it could properly interpret the Bible.
The Protestant Reformation: Only Scripture?
But then, in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation came along. The basis for the Protestant Reformation—the reason it happened—was that the Protestants interpreted the Bible differently than The Roman Catholic Church. The Protestants came up with different interpretations of the Bible than The Church.
But how could they justify interpreting the Bible differently? After all, for 1200 years of Christian history, it was believed that only The Church could properly interpret the Bible. Yet here comes a group of people with a different interpretation, and they challenged The Church. What basis, or authority, could they claim for the validity of their interpretation? What right, in other words, did they have to depart from the official interpretation of The Church?
They reached back to something that came from very, very early Christianity, something that came from back before the development of The Church. They reached back to the ancient Christian idea that when you read the Bible, God works within you and makes its meaning clear. That was a very early Christian belief, and it was based on things from the New Testament, including things Jesus Himself said. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes, “He will lead you into all truth.” And then there’s a passage from First John that says, “But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you.” There are also other things scattered throughout the New Testament.
The Protestants reached back into very early Christianity and revived the ancient idea that when you read the Bible, God makes its meaning clear to you. God speaks to you individually though the Bible when you read it.
This represented a tremendous break from The Church. The Church said that God speaks to them only, and then they tell you what God said. But the Protestants said that God speaks to you, individually, through the Bible. They said when you read the Bible, God works in your mind, making its meaning clear to you. God speaks to you, as an individual, through the Bible.
That’s how the Protestants legitimized having a different interpretation of the Bible than The Church’s interpretation. They said they read the Bible, and God spoke to them through the Bible, telling them what it means. Now, if someone confronted them and asked by what authority they held a different interpretation of the Bible than The Church held, they could reply, “When someone reads the Bible, God works individually in that person, making its meaning clear to them. You don’t have to have The Church to explain it; God does that in your own mind, to you individually, as you read it.” That was their justification for departing from the Roman Catholic Church.
The early part of the Protestant Reformation really emphasized the idea that you do not have to have The Church standing between you and the Bible, telling you what it means. You can read the Bible yourself, and when you do, God works directly in you to make its meaning clear.
But the Protestants soon realized they had let the cat out of the bag. Their justification for breaking away from the Catholic Church had been that when they read the Bible, God spoke to them through the words of the Bible and led them to a meaning that was different than the meaning the Catholic Church put on it. But now, using this very same idea, other people were reading the Bible and coming up with different interpretations than they had. These people said exactly what the Protestants said, “God spoke to us as we read the Bible.” But they had very different interpretation than the Protestants had.
This was a challenge to the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. They were, of course, convinced their interpretation was right. After all, hadn’t God spoken to them and told them it was right? But here come other people. They read the Bible and came up with different interpretations than the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. And to top that off, they were using the same claim against the Protestant leaders that the Protestant leaders had used against the Catholic Church—that God spoke to them and led them to this interpretation. Just as the leaders of the Protestant Reformation challenged the Roman Catholic Church, here were people challenging the leaders of the protestant Reformation.
Gradually, the Protestant leaders realized that the same justification they used to challenge the Catholic Church said could just as easily be used to challenge them. And they would not tolerate that. They couldn’t tolerate it. They were right, and anyone who didn’t agree with them was wrong. Dead wrong.
Regardless of what they might have said about God speaking to each person individually and making the Bible clear, they believed their interpretation of the Bible was the only “correct” interpretation, and they would not allow themselves to be challenged. And so gradually, this idea about God making the meaning of scripture clear to each individual as it is read was pushed into the background, and the Protestants became just like the Catholics they had separated from and said exactly what the Catholics had said—“We have the correct interpretation of the Bible and will tell you what it is.”
Some of the Protestant leaders, though, recognized how empty their entire argument had become and tried to smooth it over with another idea. They came up with this idea: “It is true that when you read the Bible, God works within you to allow you to understand it. The way you will know if you have correctly understood what God tried to tell you is if you have the same interpretation we have.” In other words, they told people they would know they had correctly understood God if they agreed with the Protestant leaders. If you read the Bible and didn’t agree with the Protestant leaders, then you must have misunderstood what God was trying to tell you. After all, God wouldn’t tell someone something that didn’t agree with the Protestant leaders, would He?
The Protestants Go Back to the Catholic Position
Sort of unbelievable that people could actually promote something like that with a straight face, but that’s the idea the Protestant leaders eventually came up with. People fell for it then and still fall for it today.
The fact is that for all of Christian history, except for a short time at the very beginning and a short time at the start of the Protestant Reformation, The Church, in one form or another, has always inserted itself between us and the Bible and has told us, “We will tell you what the Bible means.” It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church that does that; virtually all Protestant churches do it, too. Maybe they don’t put it in those particular terms, but in essence, that’s what they do. Christianity has always been an authoritative religion, with The Institutional Church, organized Christianity in whatever form, claiming the authority for itself.
We Depend on Someone Else to Tell Us What the Bible Means
That’s why most Christians depend on someone else to tell them what the Bible means. Whether it be the pastor at their church, a preacher on TV or radio, someone who writes Christian books or devotionals, or whoever, most Christians don’t worry about interpreting the Bible. They depend on someone else to tell them what the Bible means.
This is the reason so few Christians actually read the Bible. There’s no need to, since they’ve been taught to depend on others to tell them what the Bible means.
I don’t like to ever tell someone what the Bible means. I consider my job only as helping people know what the Bible says. What it means, I leave between that person and God.