How do we know how to interpret the Bible correctly? How many
interpretations are there in general? I was thinking one, but I don’t know
You are asking a very broad question. One can take an entire college
course in this subject. In fact, one can earn a PhD in the study of how to
interpret the Bible. The special technical term for the study of how to
interpret the Bible is hermeneutics.
Before giving a little primer on hermeneutics, let me first answer your
secondary question. How many interpretation of the Bible are there? There
are two ways to answer this question. One could be honest and admit that
in the denominational world there are about as many interpretations of the
Bible as there are people who claim to follow Jesus. Even amongst true
disciples of Jesus, there are many passages over which sincere and careful
students of the Bible would disagree. When Paul faced Christians who had a
different “interpretation,” about a relatively minor point of doctrine, he
tried not to get too worked up over it. “And if on some point you think
differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to
what we have already obtained.” (Philippians 3:15,15) However, there are
certain “interpretations” about which he absolutely would not budge a
nanometer. “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you
accepted, let him be eternally condemned.”
Another way of answering the question “How many interpretations of the
Bible are there?” is to say only one! Consider 2 Peter 1:20,21. “Above all
you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the
prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the
will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy
Spirit.” In other words, because God is the author of the Bible, he has
only one interpretation in mind for any passage of scripture. Any
interpretation which does not agree with the original intent of the author
is a false interpretation! There is only one correct interpretation of the
Bible. The job of the sincere student of the Bible is to do his or her
absolute best to determine what this interpretation is. Hermeneutics is
the study of how best to search for the correct interpretation.
I absolutely cannot do justice to the subject of hermeneutics in this
context. I would refer you to books on the subject. My favorite one lately
has been the book “How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth.” This book is
still in print. It is available from Zondervan Publishers. The authors are
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart. Another recommendation is “Introduction to
Bible Interpretation” by William W. Klein.
Having given these recommendations, let me suggest just the barest
possible list of rules for Bible interpretations.
1. Bear in mind the historical setting of the passage.
2. Bear in mind the intended hearers of the book.
3. Bear in mind the theme of the book.
4. Take into account the immediate context of the scripture.
5. Let more clear passages on the same subject be used to help interpret
more difficult passages.
6. For seemingly contradictory passages try to understand how they can
work together to obtain a fuller meaning.
7. Always let the Bible interpret the Bible. If the scripture is
interpreted in the context, that interpretation must stand. If other
parallel passages give an interpretation, that interpretation must stand.
There are many other more or less common sense rules for interpreting the
Bible, but I would refer you to a book on the subject.
John Oakes, PhD