Think of conversations about the environment, or homosexuality, or how science intersects with faith, or evil happening to good people, or human rights, or the church or whatever. At the heart of it all is what the Bible “says” about something.
In the 1700’s, the French philosopher Voltaire, who was also an atheist, said this: “Another century and there will not be a Bible on earth!” He was very wrong. The colossal influence of the Bible is at the centre of more than we know—both inside and outside the church. It continues to be the world’s #1 best-seller (and also the most shop-lifted).
I come from the Protestant Christian tradition. There’s something called the Scripture principle. The contents of the Bible are the “rule of faith and life.” Personally, I have a very “high” view of Scripture. It’s “inspired,” from God. So my gut aches every time I hear someone misusing it.
What the Bible “says” is often harder to figure out than you first realize. I forget where he said it (I’m quoting from memory here) but scholar Rudolf Bultmann warned us. Why? Because if you want to just quote random passages out of context you can find in the Bible whatever you want to find there. It can be dangerous.
Nothing worse than a God-backed hobby horse that isn’t from God.
So here are 5 rules that help us when interpreting the Bible. They’re by a guy named Heinrich Bullinger, a (long deceased) Swiss theologian who gives us some enduring wisdom.
1. Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture, the more obscure passages by the clearer
What this means is that if one passage is confusing, why not try looking at other passages on similar topics? Perhaps the other passage(s) will be able to shed light on the more difficult one.
2. With attention to language, to historical setting, to the author’s intention
This means that looking to a word’s meaning and context can be important. For example, the word “cool” today means more than just a low temperature. Some biblical words also have more meanings that the original author may have had in mind. Context is very important. For example, if a passage says that “All chocolate is bad,” but it was originally written to a group of people who were all allergic to chocolate, then we have to take that into consideration. The author was surely looking out for their health and not pronouncing a universal principle for all-time. This is a fun example, but more serious ones exist for bigger issues.
3. In the light of the church’s understanding of Scripture
This is meant to encourage us to lean on the enduring wisdom of the church and its teachers. It has long and deep wisdom, dating back centuries from which we can benefit. And if you’re serious about Bible reading, why not buy a commentary from the book store? They can also be ordered online. Ministers and other teachers can also be a great resource to know the historic wisdom of the church. Most have training in this area.
4. Any authentic interpretation of Scripture will increase love for God and love for humanity
I love this one. Because Scripture itself summarizes the great commandment(s) as loving God with our whole being and our neighbours as ourselves, any interpretation that instead advances hate, greed, etc is surely misplaced. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…”
5. All true interpretations of Scripture presuppose that the heart of the interpreter loves God and seeks to do his will
When we go to the Bible to find out what it “says” about something, we must ask whose agenda we are trying to further. If we want to take God’s name in vain, we can find small chunks of Scripture and pull them out of context to support almost anything. So we need to pray before we read the Bible, asking that God purify our motives so that they align with his own. Interpretation is not some abstract dusty exercise, but an act of love and devotion, furthering what Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done.”
So hopefully that helps.
We don’t worship pages in a book. We worship the One to whom the Book points.
I heard someone say that they take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. But even that becomes an easy “out” for some people. Some passages should be taken literally, but some shouldn’t. You have to do the work to figure it out.
I’m a father of 3. Recently as we were getting ready for a road trip I came up with an analogy: Putting in car seats is like reading the Bible; it can be hard and frustrating but it’ll keep you safe.
Let me close with this thought from Trappist Monk Thomas Merton: “The Bible may be difficult and confusing, but it is meant to challenge our intelligence, not insult it.”
I took the above picture yesterday. It is the start of Proverbs 12 in Hebrew. I love verse 1.