But There are Many Interpretations!
Over the years, when I bring God’s Word into my conversations with others, I have often heard: “But there are so many different interpretations of the Bible. How do you know that yours is the one that is true? Isn’t it arrogant to believe that your interpretation is the only true one?” Because I know that many people have asked these questions or have wrestled with the many interpretations of Scripture out there, here is my response:
Scripture is God’s Revelation to Us
We must begin by answering the question: What is Scripture? There are really only two possible answers to this question. One way is to recognize the Bible as God’s words to mankind. So our Creator and Lord has revealed Himself and His will to us in the pages of Scripture through human authors. Now if God has sought to communicate to us, then why would we think that He cannot speak to us clearly so that we will understand His revelation to us? When our God speaks, He speaks to be understood. God has created us in His image to receive His revelation so that we can know what He wants us to know. Therefore, we have every confidence in knowing that we can understand what God has revealed when we interpret His Word.
However, there is another way to look at Scripture. It views the Bible as merely a collection of spiritual insights from an ancient people over centuries. They may have somehow received these insights from God, but the Bible is essentially a man-made compilation of ancient human wisdom. If we read it in this way, then we are not looking for a consistent, coherent, or accurate message from the pages of Scripture. We should expect mistakes, errors, and confusion. Obviously, this approach to reading the Bible will affect how we interpret it.
Either way that we view Scripture—as God’s revealed truth or as human’s spiritual insights—is a faith commitment. Either we believe that the Bible has been given to us by God or we believe that the Bible is just another book of ancient wisdom. For those who read the Bible as a collection of spiritual insights rather than God’s revelation, their faith (whether in their own abilities, in academic scholarship, in modern scientific analysis, etc.) will lead them to misinterpret God’s Word to us. So I encourage all to read Scripture expecting to hear from God by understanding what He is revealing to us when we are interpreting His words.
Different Interpretations Exist Because of Our Sin
But if God wants us to know His Word and His revelation in Scripture is clear, then why are there many interpretations of passages in the Bible? It is because we are born in rebellion against God as sinners. We prefer to live our own way rather than the way that God wisely and lovingly created us to live. As a result, when we read Scripture, our sinfulness will affect our understanding. We all have beliefs, assumptions, and biases which impact our interpretation of the Bible. As long as we remain in sin against God, we will read His Word opposed to the truth that He has revealed to us.
Even those of us who have been saved by Christ and are no longer alienated from God continue to wrestle with sin. So we shouldn’t be surprised in the struggles that we have in understanding Scripture. Our sin distorts, corrupts, and misunderstands what God has clearly revealed. The result of our sin is the many different interpretations of the Bible that we hear today.
God Sends His Holy Spirit to Guide Us in the Truth
Nevertheless, we should not lose hope! We can come to the right understanding of Scripture because God does not leave His people alone in our sin to interpret the Bible. Through the cross of Christ, believers in Him are free from the judgment that we deserve for our rebellious hearts and disobedient actions. And since God speaks to us in Scripture, we are also given His Holy Spirit to dwell in us and guide us to His revealed truth as we read the Bible. We are not lost in a sea of our own sinfulness and many competing interpretations of Scripture with only our own minds to guide us. God Himself guides us as we seek to interpret His Word.
This is why there is much agreement today among Christians on what the Bible means. Just look at the great creeds of the church that unite us: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We also see much doctrinal agreement among many evangelical believers. So we should not only remember our disagreements but also how much we agree! While our different interpretations of Scripture may be significant, we can also work together to better understand God’s Word and even come to the correct interpretation together because of His love for us and the guidance of His Spirit in us.
We Should Be Humble in Our Interpretation
Still, I want to give one final word of caution. In our sin, we can become dogmatic and prideful in our interpretation of Scripture, failing to recognize that we may be wrong. Rightly interpreting the Bible takes time and requires careful study, and even then we may still misunderstand what God has revealed. This should cause us to become humble and careful in drawing conclusions.
Do you want to know what I consider a dangerous Christian? Someone who believes that he and his Bible with his personal relationship with Jesus are enough. This not only underestimates our sin but also neglects our need for our church family. God never intended for us to live the Christian life alone. So He provides for His church pastors and teachers to lovingly lead His people with the truth of His Word. He also provides faithful men and women to help us grow in our knowledge and understanding of Scripture.
Furthermore, humility in our interpretation of Scripture should also remind us of the importance of church history. We are all affected by the time and the culture that we live in. So we can learn a great deal from those living in previous times and from other cultures. Their interpretations will often inform and sometimes correct our own. Think about it for a moment: the Holy Spirit has been guiding previous generations of believers for almost 2,000 years as they wrestled with different interpretations of God’s Word. How foolish would we be to ignore what they learned? With the benefit of history, we stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us in our own understanding and interpretation of Scripture.
Do you see how our Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is working so that we can know Him and His will in our interpreting Scripture? Through our faith in Him, we do not need to remain frustrated in sin and in the confusion of various interpretations. With patience as we seek to understand the Bible and with the help of fellow believers both past and present, we can come to know the correct interpretation of God’s holy and perfect Word. In humility, we should then boldly proclaim the meaning of God’s Word as it becomes clear to us.