Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. Luke 24:45
To interpret a passage of Scripture is to explain its message: first as it was meant to be understood in its original setting; and second as it has significance in a contemporary setting. Christ is the central theme of Scripture, and the Spirit guides persons to right interpretation.
Every written document has to be interpreted, from a daily newspaper to the United States Constitution to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. For all documents—whether they are of great historical value or as personal as a grocery list—the first goal is to discover what the original author intended by his or her written message.
So it is with the Bible. The primary task is to determine, as nearly as possible, what a passage meant. For this reason, it’s important to study such matters as historical background and literary types (such as poetry and parables). Only then can a passage be applied, because a biblical text cannot mean today something contrary to what it meant originally. (For example, Acts 5:32-37 can’t be used to teach that all Christians should sell their real estate and give it to church leaders unless one first shows that the author was giving a universal prescription rather than a historical description.)
Much has been said about “literal” interpretation. This means that words are taken in their ordinary literary and historical sense, taking into account figures of speech and other such devices. Thus when a historical narrative records, for example, that the Israelites left Egypt under Moses’ leadership, we can believe that there was a real human figure named Moses and a literal event referred to as the exodus. Yet when John in a vision saw Jesus with a sword coming from His mouth, we understand this to be figurative, a symbol of His powerful word.
Biblical interpretation centers on Jesus Christ and is enabled by the Spirit of Christ working in the lives of earnest believers who humbly request the Spirit’s illumination. Because Scripture is internally cohesive, a great principle of interpretation is that “Scripture is its own best interpreter.” Others refer to this as “the analogy of Scripture.” A parallel principle is “the analogy of faith,” that is, the consensus of devout interpreters through the centuries. As noted in the introduction to this book, such harmony has been expressed in the creeds affirmed by all Christians everywhere and in the five great Reformation principles.
All believers are responsible to interpret for themselves, aided by godly preachers and teachers. The Bible is sufficiently clear in itself for the typical believer, equipped with basic principles of interpretation, to learn the message of Scripture.
Yet highly trained biblical scholars will be able to interpret more fully than others, pointing to the need for formally educated church leaders. What happens when sincere Christians disagree, inevitable once one has abandoned the idea of an infallible human interpreter? If the interpretation rejects a matter central to the gospel, then it is to be rejected as unorthodox or heretical. If the explanation falls within “the analogy of faith,” then Christian charity requires one to withhold criticism more severe than saying, “In my judgment, this interpretation is in error, but it is within the bounds of orthodoxy.”
Why does every written document have to be interpreted? How important is it to seek to discover what a Bible passage meant in its original context?
PRAYER: Lord, help me to be diligent in my quest to understand the Word, as one who longs to know its message aright so that I may live by its life-giving light. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.