Bible Interpretation Part 1: God Has Spoken
Why we Disagree
How is it that Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Evangelicals all use the Bible? How can these varied groups appeal to the same book as their foundation? Even Islam accepts parts of the Bible to be true. Then we look within the broad group identified as Evangelical Christian, and we see even more variety. Some baptize babies, others forbid it. Some say that men have free will, others insist that men do not. Some groups are very tied to ritual and liturgy while other groups seem to have an “anything goes” approach. Of course, we should ask who is right and how do we know.
We start with God. If we do not believe that God is the author of the Bible, then the discussion is over. We may disagree over exactly how the Bible was communicated from God to man but if we do not accept that God is the ultimate source of the Bible then there is no reason to think the Bible has religious value. If the Bible is merely a collection of stories, observations, experiences, dreams and allegories then it has no more weight than the Qur’an, the Upanishads or “Winnie The Pooh.” We might just as well build a religion on the “Harry Potter” series or “To Kill a Mocking Bird.”
Before we can talk about correct interpretation, we need to establish some presuppositions. Of course, we must presuppose there is a God. If there is no God then this discussion is pointless. Secondly, we must distinguish that the Judeo-Christian God is distinct from the gods of other religions. The God presented in the Bible makes claims that directly contradict the claims of the gods of other religions. Logically, the God of the Bible is not the same as the god of Islam or Zoroastrianism.
The second presupposition is that God has spoken. How can we know that God has spoken? We know because we have heard Him speak. Let me be clear here, by “hear” I do not mean that we have literally heard the voice of God in our ears but rather we have the Bible. The Bible claims to be from God. Third, we presuppose that what God has said can be understood by us.
How can we know what God said?
There has been a movement within philosophy in the 20th century that questions the ability of language to communicate clearly. In fact, the bulk of philosophical discussion has been about language. Unfortunately for us all, the discussion has not gone very well. We are currently seeing a trend in thinking where meaning is not only relative but pragmatic. That is to say, one’s agenda is to be the driving force of language regardless of fact. This debate can be put to rest very quickly. If words have no meaning, then why are the ones who advocate this view speaking?
God created language and He created the human brain to be able to understand language. This must be the starting place in our discussion on interpretation. God spoke the things of this universe into creation. God spoke to Adam and Adam understood God. While we cannot ignore the effects of the Fall upon Adam and humanity, we can see that throughout the Old Testament, God continued to speak and men continued to understand and obey Him. One example should suffice to establish this point.
“Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you…” Genesis 12:1
What was the result of God’s words to Abram? Was Abram confused? Did he wonder at the interpretation of God’s word? Did he sit around and ponder “I wonder what God means by ‘go forth’?” We see the response of Abram in verse four of this same chapter.
“So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him…”
What is my point? Simply put, words having meaning. Words are not abstract symbols that require a special decoding mechanism to be understood. Words mean what they mean. I do acknowledge that words can have more than one meaning, that meaning is determined often by context and that words can be misunderstood. However, the word blue can never be interpreted as pineapple. Blue is blue and pineapple is another thing entirely.
Why I have gone to such great lengths to point out the obvious? I have done so because so many come to the Bible with no concept of meaning or they deny the obvious. For some reason, they simply refuse to accept the plain words of the Bible. They abandon the way they communicate in everyday life in favor of some “special interpretation” that ignores the literal meaning of the Bible.
Speakers have Intent
We talk with the expectation that we will be understood. We further expect that the listener will receive the meaning that we are communicating. God said go and Abram went. I often use another example with my students.
Your wife sends you a text message to bring home rice after you leave work. You interpret the message as “go play basketball.” What will be the result?
In everyday life, words have meaning. God is the author of language. If He can preserve meaning in everyday talk between creatures, how much more can He preserve His own word to communicate from the Creator to the Creature? He has done so in the Bible. He has spoken and we can know what He has said.