Have you ever had a conversation about the Bible only to hear, “That’s just your interpretation”? It’s a great conversation killer. Sometimes a person may not want to get into an argument or hurt your feelings. Or they may not like what you’re saying. After all, some truths can be uncomfortable, especially on subjects like hell, women’s roles, homosexuality, or one way to salvation. Anyone squirming yet? Some may want to interpret these hard truths away.
Often lurking behind “that’s just your interpretation” is a dangerous assumption: that any interpretation is fine. If there is no clear meaning in a text, the words can mean whatever you want. But is that really the case? Are there right and wrong interpretations? Or are we lost in a sea of subjectivism with no certainty possible?
If you or a loved one are in a college or university setting, you may recognize this objection. Socrates confronted just such a view in Plato’s Cratylus, as did Thomas Reid among the eighteenth-century philosophers. Reid responded with a common-sense realism. More recent responses to what is called “post-structuralism” include E. D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1973) and Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning In This Text? (Zondervan, 1998)—hint, hint: ideal for the university student grappling with these issues.
Doesn’t the speed limit sign mean that driving faster is against the law? That’s not just my interpretation but the correct one, whether or not I abide by it. When I fill out my tax forms, isn’t there a right way to do it? We all draw on the same language with specific meanings of words and a grammar and syntax to convey what we mean. Otherwise, we would not be able to understand each other or converse.
Reading requires interpretation—not a bad thing in itself—and there are interpretations that are wrong. In Luke 10:28, Jesus tells the scribe he had answered correctly in how he interpreted what is written in the law. Paul admonishes the young preacher about “teaching correctly the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15; CSB). The Apostle assumes that the young man will be able to teach correctly. The Bible stands against modern skepticism! If you confess the Apostle’s Creed on a Sunday morning or read the Lutheran Confessions, these creeds maintain that what the Bible teaches is clear and is to be confessed.
Maybe the objector was implying that you misinterpreted a passage (subtext: you’re wrong). We might ask: “So where did my interpretation go wrong?” “What is your interpretation, and what reasons do you have for it?” Good interpretation takes time, effort, and patience.
Now a valid interpretation does not require us to know everything about a text. Luke tells Theophilus that he has investigated sufficiently about Jesus for Theophilus to know and be certain. Again, we don’t have to know everything to know enough with certainty.
So how can I be sure that my interpretation of a text is correct, especially with a text two or three thousand years old, written in another language, and from another culture? The first order of business is to have a good translation of the Scriptures from their original languages. Some translations are very literal to the original and yet miscommunicate because of stilted English. Others use wonderful, idiomatic English, but at the expense of what the original had said. A translation needs to be optimal, both readable and accurate with respect to the original.
Andi Wu of the Global Bible Institute analyzed English translations and identified one very close to that “sweet spot” between readability and faithfulness to the original, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) (https://csbible.com/wp-). It’s also the one mainstream translation that a WELS translation committee worked tirelessly to vet and improve over several years.
With a good translation in hand, the next step is to engage the biblical text, asking the reporter’s “who, what, when, where, why, how” questions. To begin with, God inspired individual human beings to write to particular people for particular purposes. If we were reading a letter of Paul, say, to the Galatians, as we hear the letter, whom do we see around us? Jews or non-Jews? How would these first–century listeners understand the words? Not wanting to import our own modern notions into the biblical text, what did Paul’s words mean for those intended recipients?
To do that, we need to know roughly when the biblical document came about. For the first-century New Testament, what can we learn about its history and culture, especially when the biblical author assumes a familiarity with that world? For the Old Testament, what do we know about the Ancient Near East?
What genre of literature are we reading? We read historical accounts differently than we do poetry, narratives, or letters. Is the author using figurative language or metaphors, or is the author speaking literally? We would interpret a Psalm with its lyrics differently than we would the historical accounts in Joshua.
Where is the passage located? What is its immediate context? Good interpretation always works from the inside out: word, phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, unit of thought, book, related books. So what comes just before and what comes just after? (That’s one of the problems with printing readings in a bulletin!) That immediate context is essential. Then, how does that passage function within the book itself? Finally, where does it fit within a body of writings (whether Paul’s letters, the Pentateuch, or Luke-Acts)? Where else is the writer discussing a topic? How does the author use a word elsewhere? What has been said leading up to and preparing for this point?
We always need to ask how a passage relates to the central point or main thrust of the document. What was the author trying to communicate as a whole? Paul was writing to unite a divided church in 1 Corinthians, and he was doing it with the counter-cultural, self-denying power of a man on a cross. How does each paragraph and chapter relate to that central thesis? This requires a little inductive work and reconstruction, but it’s essential.
Since God inspired these Scriptures, other passages will be helpful in filling out the truth. If we come across an apparent contradiction, we know we need to dig deeper. What Scripture teaches should dovetail with the rest of Scripture.
A good study Bible is vital. It will have introductions to biblical books, footnotes for cultural or textual details, maps, related passages, and reference charts. And as the eunuch recognized in Acts 8:30-31, it is helpful to receive instruction for matters that are unclear. Thanks to training and work with the Scriptures, a pastor is a sort of modern-day Philip. His Bible class will help.
Many passages yield their meaning quickly. Other passages are more difficult. Peter recognizes about Paul’s letters that some things are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16), but Peter does not say impossible! Then he faults those who misinterpret Paul by actively twisting his words. No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Since Scripture is not of men, we are not to interpret it according to our own fancy.
The Bereans in Acts 17:11 examined the Scriptures daily to see whether what Paul was saying was so. Every time our convictions are challenged as a mere interpretation, we can respond “more nobly” by “examining the Scriptures” together to find out if it is truth or error (Psalm 119:105).
Rev. Dr. A. Andrew Das is Professor of Religious Studies and Assistant Dean of the Faculty at Elmhurst University in Illinois, an internationally recognized biblical scholar, and a member of St. Timothy, Lombard.