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. girl reading to momThese 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).

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JanFeb12.