Introduction: The Need to Interpret
Every so often we meet someone who says with great feeling,
"You don't have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what
it says." Usually, such a remark reflects the layperson's protest
against the "professional" scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school
teacher, who by "interpreting" seems to be taking the Bible away
from the common man or woman. It is their way of saying that the
Bible is not an obscure book. "After all," it is argued, "any person
with half a brain can read it and understand it. The problem with too
many preachers and teachers is that they dig around so much they
tend to muddy the waters. What was clear to us when we read it
isn't so clear anymore."
There is a lot of truth in this protest. We agree that Christians
should learn to read, believe, and obey the Bible. And we especially
agree that the Bible need not be an obscure book if studied and read
properly. In fact we are convinced that the single most serious problem
people have with the Bible is not with a lack of understanding
but with the fact that they understand most things too well! For
example, with such a text as "Do everything without grumbling or
arguing" (Phil 2:14), the problem is not understanding it but obeying
it-putting it into practice.
We are also agreed that the preacher or teacher is all too often
prone to dig first and look later, and thereby to cover up the plain
meaning of the text, which often lies on the surface. Let it be said
at the outset-and repeated throughout-that the aim of good
interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what
no one else has ever seen before.
Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually
be attributed to pride (an attempt to "outclever" the rest of the
world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full
of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive
person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support
a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to
go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This
is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often
seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to
say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task.
The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the "plain
meaning of the text." And the most important ingredient one brings
to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation
is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation,
therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod
to the heart.
But if the plain meaning is what interpretation is all about, then
why interpret? Why not just read? Does not the plain meaning come
simply from reading? In a sense, yes. But in a truer sense, such an
argument is both naive and unrealistic because of two factors: the
nature of the reader and the nature of Scripture.
The Reader as an Interpreter
The first reason one needs to learn how to interpret is that,
whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter.
That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand
what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding
is the same thing as the Holy Spirit's or human author's intent.
However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of
our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and
ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be
sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign
ideas into the text.
Thus, when a person in our culture hears the word "cross," centuries
of Christian art and symbolism cause most people automatically
to think of a Roman cross (†), although there is little likelihood
that that was the shape of Jesus' cross, which was probably shaped
like a "T." Most Protestants, and Catholics as well, when they read
texts about the church at worship, automatically envision people sitting
in a building with "pews" much like their own. When Paul says,
"Make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Rom 13:14
NKJV), people in most English-speaking cultures are apt to think that
"flesh" means the "body" and therefore that Paul is speaking of
But the word "flesh," as Paul uses it, seldom refers to the
body-and in this text it almost certainly did not-but to a spiritual
malady sometimes called "the sinful nature," denoting totally
self-centered existence. Therefore, without intending to do so, the
reader is interpreting as he or she reads, and unfortunately all too
often interprets incorrectly.
This leads us to note further that in any case the reader of an
English Bible is already involved in interpretation. For translation is
in itself a (necessary) form of interpretation. Your Bible, whatever
translation you use, which is your beginning point, is in fact the end
result of much scholarly work. Translators are regularly called upon
to make choices regarding meanings, and their choices are going to
affect how you understand.
Good translators, therefore, take the problem of our language
differences into consideration. But it is not an easy task. In Romans
13:14, for example, shall we translate "flesh" (as in KJV, NRSV,
NASU, ESV, etc.) because this is the word Paul used, and then
leave it to an interpreter to tell us that "flesh" here does not mean
"body"? Or shall we "help" the reader and translate "sinful nature"
(as in the NIV, TNIV, GNB, NLT, etc.) or "disordered natural
inclinations" (NJB) because these more closely approximate what
Paul's word really means? We will take up this matter in greater
detail in the next chapter. For now it is sufficient to point out how
the fact of translation in itself has already involved one in the task
The need to interpret is also to be found by noting what goes
on around us all the time. A simple look at the contemporary
church, for example, makes it abundantly clear that not all "plain
meanings" are equally plain to all. It is of more than passing interest
that most of those in today's church who argue that women
should keep silent in church on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
at the same time deny the validity of speaking in tongues and
prophecy, the very context in which the "silence" passage occurs.
And those who affirm on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that
women as well as men should pray and prophesy usually deny that
women must do so with their heads covered. For some, the Bible
"plainly teaches" believers' baptism by immersion; others believe
they can make a biblical case for infant baptism. Both "eternal security"
and the possibility of "losing one's salvation" are preached in
the church, but never by the same person! Yet both are affirmed as
the plain meaning of biblical texts. Even the two authors of this
book have some disagreements as to what certain texts "plainly"
mean. Yet all of us are reading the same Bible, and we all are trying
to be obedient to what the text "plainly" means.
Besides these recognizable differences among Bible-believing
Christians, there are also all kinds of strange things afloat. One can
usually recognize the cults, for example, because they have an
authority in addition to the Bible. But not all of them do; and in
every case they bend the truth by the way they select texts from the
Bible itself. Every imaginable heresy or practice, from the Arianism
(denying Christ's deity) of the Jehovah's Witnesses, to baptizing for
the dead among Mormons, to snake handling among Appalachian
sects, claims to be "supported" by a text.
Even among more theologically orthodox people, however,
many strange ideas manage to gain acceptance in various quarters.
For example, one of the current rages among American Protestants,
especially charismatics, is the so-called wealth and health gospel. The
"good news" is that God's will for you is financial and material prosperity!
One of the advocates of this "gospel" begins his book by
arguing for the "plain sense" of Scripture and claiming that he puts
the Word of God first and foremost throughout his study. He says
that it is not what we think it says but what it actually says that
counts. The "plain meaning" is what he is after. But one begins to
wonder what the "plain meaning" really is when financial prosperity
is argued as the will of God from such a text as 3 John 2,
"Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be
in health, even as thy soul prospereth" (KJV)-a text that in fact
has nothing at all to do with financial prosperity. Another example
takes the plain meaning of the story of the rich young man (Mark
10:17-22) as precisely the opposite of "what it actually says" and
attributes the "interpretation" to the Holy Spirit. One may rightly
question whether the plain meaning is being sought at all; perhaps
the plain meaning is simply what such a writer wants the text to
mean in order to support some pet ideas.
Given all this diversity, both inside and outside the church, and
all the differences even among scholars, who supposedly know "the
rules," it is no wonder that some argue for no interpretation, just
reading. But as we have seen, this is a false option. The antidote tobad interpretation is not no interpretation but good interpretation,
based on commonsense guidelines.
The authors of this book labor under no illusions that by reading
and following our guidelines everyone will finally agree on the
"plain meaning," our meaning! What we do hope to achieve is to
heighten the reader's sensitivity to specific problems inherent in each
genre, to help the reader know why different options exist and how
to make commonsense judgments, and especially to enable the
reader to discern between good and not-so-good interpretations-and
to know what makes them one or the other.
The Nature of Scripture
A more significant reason for the need to interpret lies in the
nature of Scripture itself. Historically the church has understood the
nature of Scripture much the same as it has understood the person
of Christ-the Bible is at the same time both human and divine.
"The Bible," it has been correctly said, "is the Word of God given
in human words in history." It is this dual nature of the Bible that
demands of us the task of interpretation.
Because the Bible is God's Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks
to all humankind, in every age and in every culture. Because it is God's
Word, we must listen-and obey. But because God chose to speak
his Word through human words in history, every book in the Bible
also has historical particularity; each document is conditioned by the
language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (and in
some cases also by the oral history it had before it was written down).
Interpretation of the Bible is demanded by the "tension" that exists
between its eternal relevance and its historical particularity.
There are some, of course, who believe that the Bible is merely
a human book, and that it contains only human words in history.
For these people the task of interpreting is limited to historical
inquiry. Their interest, as with reading Cicero or Milton, is with the
religious ideas of the Jews, Jesus, or the early church. The task for
them, therefore, is purely a historical one. What did these words
mean to the people who wrote them? What did they think about
God? How did they understand themselves?
On the other hand, there are those who think of the Bible only
in terms of its eternal relevance. Because it is God's Word, they tend
to think of it only as a collection of propositions to be believed and
imperatives to be obeyed-although invariably there is a great deal
of picking and choosing among the propositions and imperatives.
There are, for example, Christians who, on the basis of Deuteronomy
22:5 ("A woman must not wear men's clothing"), argue that a
woman should not wear slacks or shorts, because these are deemed
to be "men's clothing." But the same people seldom take literally
the other imperatives in this list, which include building a parapet
around the roof of one's house (v. 8), not planting two kinds of seeds
in a vineyard (v. 9), and making tassels on the four corners of one's
cloak (v. 12).
The Bible, however, is not a series of propositions and imperatives;
it is not simply a collection of "Sayings from Chairman God,"
as though he looked down on us from heaven and said: "Hey you
down there, learn these truths. Number 1, There is no God but
One, and I am he. Number 2, I am the Creator of all things, including
humankind"-and so on, all the way through proposition number
7,777 and imperative number 777.
These propositions of course are true, and they are found in the
Bible (though not quite in that form). Indeed such a book might
have made many things easier for us. But, fortunately, that is not
how God chose to speak to us. Rather, he chose to speak his eternal
truths within the particular circumstances and events of human
history. This also is what gives us hope. Precisely because God chose
to speak in the context of real human history, we may take courage
that these same words will speak again and again in our own "real"
history, as they have throughout the history of the church.
The fact that the Bible has a human side is our encouragement;
it is also our challenge, and the reason that we need to interpret.
Two things should be noted in this regard:
1. One of the most important aspects of the human side of the
Bible is that, in order to communicate his Word to all human conditions,
God chose to use almost every available kind of communication:
narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds,
poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical
sketches, parables, letters, sermons, and apocalypses.