Why I Mean It When I Say the Bible Lacks Meaning

[This is part one of a series on the Bible and meaning/meaninglessness. Part two will be up on tomorrow.]

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Some people read the Bible as if it were a Rorschach ink blot:  all impressions are equally valid.

Ink blot: what do you think it means? (Wikimedia)

If that were the case, though, then passages like this would be meaningless:

… you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (1 Timothy 3:15-17.)

My take: God’s word means something, but it doesn’t mean everything.

The passage from 1 timothy 3 is a good place to begin understanding the Bible’s meaning or purpose. And when a book has a purpose it’s not fair to then read the words as if we could make them mean anything we want them to.

  • For example, try reading a recipe and then assigning your own meaning. The chili recipe’s list of ingredients includes cayenne pepper? Go ahead and read that as meaning you should use strawberry jelly. After all, they’re both red, right?
  • Or perhaps you’re on jury duty and the judge instructs jurors not to talk about the case with any other person. You hear the word “person” and think, “Well, the internet is not a person so I can write all about the case on Facebook and Twitter!” I bet the judge would rather you not come up with your own meaning for the jury instructions.
  • Maybe your car is low on oil, so you read the manual to see what to do. It says to fill with oil to the level on the dipstick. That seems like a waste of time because you’ll just need to add more again later, so you decide the manual must mean to fill above the line and you put in a couple extra quarts. Let’s see how that works out for your engine as the oil pressure goes higher – much higher – than the car is designed to handle.

As I said above, it’s important to get the author’s meaning when reading.

With the Bible, that means not only reading it carefully but also comparing what one part of it says to what another part says. Sometimes that’s easy, such as when Jesus quotes a prophet from the Old Testament and says he is fulfilling a prophecy.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21.)

Other times we need to find the reference for ourselves, as in seeing the fulfillment of Old Testament visions in the Book of Revelation. Compare these two passages:

I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. (Daniel 7:11.)

And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. (Revelation 20:7.)

The Bib;e – not an ink blot (Wikimedia)

But one thing we can’t do is read these passages and make up our own meaning to them. Well, I suppose we can. But it won’t give us a right understanding, and it won’t give us the blessings described in 1 Timothy 3 above. How to understand the Daniel and Revelation passages, then? Start by reading the rest of the Bible to get the entire context of God’s work in this world.

So when I said the Bible lacks meaning, I meant it. The Bible does not mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.

But it also does not lack meaning. It means what God says it means.

If there’s something worth reading and understanding, it’s reading and understanding what God’s word means.

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7 Responses to Why I Mean It When I Say the Bible Lacks Meaning

  1. Laura Droege says:

    In college and graduate school, I learned that some folks (in this case, literary critics) believe that authorial intent can never be determined and that the authors don’t even know their own intent, and thus texts mean whatever you, the reader, believe they mean based on your experience, your ideas, your reality. It’s subjective, with no firm basis in objective reality. That leads to all kinds of misinterpretations and has ramifications for things beyond the literary world, such as distorted interpretations of Scripture. Bleh, such balderdash. Good work showing how that’s all nonsense. Loved the example of the person on jury duty, though I have a feeling that’s probably happened before.

  2. This is great, Tim. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible lately — what it says, what it means. To take a current example, I’ve heard people referring to the Good Samaritan parable to make the point that since the GS didn’t take the injured man into his home, we aren’t obliged to take refugees into OUR home (i.e. country). Then someone else counters that with Isaiah 58: “Is [the fast I have chosen] not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” It seems to me that the first interpretation (taking the parable literally, point by point) just won’t work: otherwise we have to say that we need only help people who are lying on the road, not standing up; or we must take hurting people to inns and pay for their care. But the second one can’t really be taken as a literal command directly to me to bring a homeless person in to my house to live with me. They both express what is important to God, the compassion He has for the poor and hurting, the need to see others as our neighbour and treat them as we would want to be treated, etc. So then it would be helpful to ask, in relation to I Tim 3, “How does this passage equip me to do good works? How does it instruct or rebuke or train me?” etc. The more I think about this, the more helpful it seems — I’m going to try to make this application more explicitly when I read the Bible. Thanks, Tim.

    P.S. Thanks a lot for that picture of Hagrid, coming to pick Harry Potter up on his motorcycle and take him to Hogwarts. That is exactly what it’s supposed to be, right? 😉

    • Tim says:

      That’s the best ink blot interpretation ever, Jeannie, because it does look like Hagrid on his hog.

      And even better, I like the application you draw from 1 Timothy 3 on discerning the meaning of passages in your life today. Very good stuff.

  3. Pingback: Love and the Meaninglessness of Scripture | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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