You Mean To Say The Bible Means Whatever You Say It Means?

[This is the third post in a series on Bible meaning and meaninglessness. Follow these links for parts one and two. ]

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not open to just any interpretation. Who would believe it does? The person who commented over at Jonathan Merritt’s post on the misuse of Philippians 4:13, for one (or actually for two since another commenter there voiced agreement to this):

The whole Bible is open for any interpretation which sounds right to any particular person. That is why none of it really matters.

Of course, if the Bible means only what any particular person decides it means then so do any other written or spoken words. And, as the commenter said, that would mean that “none of it really matters.”

But why stop at words? Let’s look at actions.

Circumstantial Evidence

Here’s an example I use to instruct juries on circumstantial evidence. Imagine you’re in your living room at night with the curtains closed. You hear what sounds like rain beating against the window and you hear what sounds like thunder rumbling. You see what look like lightning flashes through the drapes and you look toward the front door and see wet foot prints leading into the house. It’s not hard to draw the conclusion it’s raining outside. Someone with a different interpretation better have stronger evidence than you have.

Let’s try another. Suppose a car stopped on the road.  Why did it do that? Perhaps it’s out of gas. OK, we’ll go with running out of gas, or a mechanical failure of some kind. Wait a moment … it just started moving again. See the stop sign at the intersection? In context, you come to realize the driver was merely obeying a rule of the road: stop at stop signs.

Let’s do one more. You’re at the airport waiting to pick someone up and you see a large group of people all holding signs and balloons, every eye fixed on the escalator leading down from the arriving flights. Soon one of them points and then they all cheer a man in combat fatigues who in turn is doing his best to wipe away the tears streaming down his face. As he reaches the bottom he’s wrapped up in one hug after another. It’s a good bet this man has not merely returned from a longish weekend away from home.

If we can interpret these events when there are no words to guide us, why should we not be able to come to a decent understanding of the meaning of the Bible?

Spiritual Understanding

The problem is found in the spiritual aspect of Scripture.

 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:13-14.)

Essentially, there is so much more riding on a right interpretation of Scripture – matters of eternal consequence – that it takes the Holy Spirit to get it right.

Without the Spirit, Bible understanding looks like this:

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:25.)

With the Spirit it looks like this:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God … . (Colossians 1:9.)

Gutenberg Bible, Wikipedia

So you still think the Bible is subject to interpretation? Perhaps so, if what you mean is that there is one interpretation that counts. That’s the one the Spirit provides. After all that’s where Scripture came from in the first place.

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21.)

and,

All Scripture is God-breathed … . (2 Timothy 3:16.)

There’s meaning to Scripture all right, and it’s found in God.

***

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12 Responses to You Mean To Say The Bible Means Whatever You Say It Means?

  1. stephanielynn75 says:

    Good words, Tim. I think we all approach the Bible with our own prejudices, whether we intend to or not, which slants how we interpret what we read. It is so difficult to find the “right” interpretation of scripture for that very reason. Even more difficult is finding the correct application of that interpretation.

    • Tim says:

      I think those concerns are why it’s important to rely on God’s grace and the inner working of the Spirit in our lives for Christ’s glory. Because, frankly, other than that I got nothing!

  2. I do think much of Scripture has been mis-interpreted, particularly the letters of Paul. Unlike looking out the window and seeing it rain, the Epistles provide us HALF of a conversation, in a culture many readers don’t bother to understand. Particularly in Paul’s letters, people pull one sentence out of the larger context and try to make it mean something it doesn’t.
    This is not only wrong, but has damaged a lot of people. For example, for years people justified slavery because Paul tells slaves to obey their masters. We need to understand the context and look at the whole of Scripture, and understand the heart of God.
    We also have to realize that our English bibles are a translation, and cannot always capture the nuances of Greek or Hebrew. (And can’t help but be influenced by the translators’ bias.)
    Just a few thoughts. I agree that the Bible is not “open to any interpretation which sounds right” but on the other hand some traditional interpretations are indeed incorrect.

    • Tim says:

      Context is so key and as you say, Keri, without knowing Paul’s context it is hard to get why he said many of the things he did. I think the context thing even goes to the rain example I gave above. Suppose the person lived next door to a water pumping station that had a terrible series of explosions. That might then explain the flashes of light, loud booms and water gushing everywhere. But we can’t just make us such fanciful alternatives, and I think that gets to the point you’re making that we need to look at where Paul was coming from: we need to know what a Bible writer meant before we can know what the text means.

      • elmore says:

        The bible is suppose to be the absolute truthful word of god and yet you Christians when confronted with a verse that is unbelievably appalling and runs counter to everything that a decent person would find normal and you will try to explain it away through misinterpretation etc. The problem with this is that if you find any part of it that is a misinterpretation then the whole of it is also brought into question, even those parts, which are considered to be normal and good, are now open to interpretation. What you Christians are trying to do is make the text of it mean what you think it should mean using your own judgment based on what you think is normal and decent. Since that’s the case the bible cannot be the absolute truthful word of God if you can question and change it. Therefore you must either accept the literal interpretation or reject it. If you reject it, then the whole book becomes worthless and you should realize that you cannot use logic and reason to explain faith. Those that do will find that their efforts will always be doomed to failure. Since my world runs on deep thought, logic and reason, then I must reject religion and faith. As for bible context this is even more open to questions.

        • Tim says:

          Elmore, I’m not sure how your comment pertains to what Keri or I were talking about in here. But if you’d like to know more about reading comprehension and reading the Bible literally, you might like this post.

  3. Jeannie says:

    It’s good to be reminded that the Holy Spirit both inspired the Scriptures and is our guide to understanding them. As for the commenter you quoted, they’re just using their opinion that the Bible can mean whatever anyone says it means, to justify their opinion that “none of it matters.” Weak premise, weak conclusion.

    I have a better and much more logical argument: if a certain blogger was born on January 27, x number of years ago, and today is January 27, 2014, then it must be that blogger’s birthday. I can’t see any other way to interpret that evidence. Happy Birthday, Tim!

    • Tim says:

      “Weak premise, weak conclusion.” Exactly so, Jeannie.

      Thanks for the birthday wishes too. Let’s just say that x number of years ago is almost long ago enough to make me a child of the 50s, but I missed that decade by 27 days.

  4. Erica M. says:

    I like Jeannie’s use of logic up there and I’m seconding her interpretation. Happy Birthday!

    On the subject of personal interpretation, I do wonder how they would respond if you asked them how they interpret “Thou shalt not murder”. It should, at the very least, give them pause. XD

  5. Aimee Byrd says:

    I too am glad that the same Holy Spirit that inspired the Scriptures also illuminates my understanding. This article is timely, as we are going through wisdom in the Proverbs at church.
    And Happy Birthday Tim!!!

    • Tim says:

      That Spirit-led illumination of God’s word is one more blessing of belonging to the Word who is the Light who came into the world, isn’t it Aimee?

      And thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m feeling younger with each one that comes!

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