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Do we need to ‘interpret’ the Bible?

tyndaleSome years ago a well-known Christian leader, minister of a large and influential church, proclaimed:

I don’t interpret the Bible. I just tell you what it says.

How you react to that statement will say quite a lot about your attitude to the Bible, its interpretation, and the role of ministry.

On the one hand, this could be understood as a humble statement of deference to Scripture. I don’t want to come in the way of your reading of the Bible; I just want to enable you to read the Bible for yourself and help you with this. To this extent, the statement is faithful to the dynamic which is present throughout that multi-faceted and extended cultural and theological process often labelled ‘The Reformation’. Both Wycliffe and Tyndale, pioneers in translation of the Bible into English, emphasised the importance of unmediated engagement with the Scriptures. Tyndale famously responded to clergy who opposed his efforts:

If God spares my life, I will take care that a plowboy shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.

More than that, my observation is that most of us, most of the time, when we read the Bible ‘devotionally’ in daily reading, will often have a sense of immediacy as we read—we feel we are simply reading the Bible (not ‘interpreting’ it) and in doing so we are ‘simply’ hearing God (we hope).

On the other hand, this statement could be read as a statement of presumption. My view is not merely an interpretation—it is what the Bible says. So anyone who disagrees with me is in fact not being faithful to the Bible; there is no other legitimate view than mine. Ironically, this approach not only makes discussion with others difficult, it also closes down the possibility that our interpretation at any one point is imperfect, and might change, grow or develop, so it in fact inhibits continued learning about Scripture.

The reality of course is that we are all interpreters, whether or not we acknowledge it explicitly. In fact interpretation is at the heart of the New Testament, at the heart of Christian faith, and at the heart of mission.


Hermeneutics at the heart

Our word ‘hermeneutics’, the more technical term describing the whole process of biblical interpretation, derives from the New Testament. At the beginning of John’s gospel, we read:

They said “Rabbi” (which being translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” (John 1.38)

This text, as is typical of John’s gospel, is heavy with significance. John the Baptist functions as a ‘witness’ to Jesus (as set out twice earlier in the chapter), and so models discipleship as pointing others to Jesus. He describes Jesus as ‘The Lamb of God’, already anticipating his sacrificial death, whose significance this gospel highlights by depicting Jesus dying at the moment that the passover lambs are sacrificed. There are ‘two’ disciples, using the Deuteronomic number of witness (Deut 17.6Deut 19.15; see also Numbers 35.30) which Jesus draws on later in John 5.31, and which features in the trial narratives in all the gospels. Jesus turns and asks the profoundly existential question ‘What do you seek?’, to which the (as yet unnamed) disciples respond by asking where Jesus ‘abides’ or stays—at surface a question about Jesus’ home, but in the world of this gospel’s constant double meaning, an enquiry about Jesus’ home in his Father’s will. Jesus returns to question of abiding in John 15.5 where he, the true vine, becomes the true disciple’s true home.

But at the crucial moment of encounter, we meet the word met-hermenueo, meaning to translate or interpret. It comes as a parenthetical aside from the author to the reader, a feature typical of John. The comment is in fact more an interpretation than a translation; ‘rabbi’ literally means ‘my great one’, but of course rabbis functioned as teachers. But the key significance of the comment is that it shows that John is writing for an audience who are in a different social, cultural and linguistic context from that of the original event. That is why interpretation is needed. (We see the same dynamic at other places where hermenuo and related words occur: Matt 1.23Mark 5.41Mark 15.22Mark 15.34John 1.38John 1.41John 1.42John 9.7Acts 4.36Acts 13.8Hebrews 7.2.)

And, as the gospel’s author makes clear, the impulse for making these events known in a new context is missional, ‘that you [the reader in a different context, reading in a different language] may believe’ (John 20.31). Because mission (in this sense) is a distinctive concern of Christian faith, so is translation and interpretation—wherever there is Christian mission activity, there is interpretation.

It is also worth noting that in moving from Hebrew or Aramaic to Greek, the New Testament is taking these events from a world of security where they are easily understood into a larger, uncertain world where they could easily be dismissed or misunderstood. To do mission is to be vulnerable (Matt 10.16), and to engage in interpretation is to be vulnerable, and to take risks. I think this is a key reason why the statement I began with has so much appeal.


caravaggio-emmaus-750pix1Jesus as Interpreter

Any Christian missional activity must flow from and be a participation in the missional activity of God. ‘As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’ (John 20.21). Do we then find that the renewed mission of God to humanity in Jesus leads to fresh interpretation and understanding of God? Indeed we do. On the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, Jesus draws alongside two disciples who know the Scriptures, and are familiar with all the events of Jesus’ life, but cannot relate the two together. So Jesus draws alongside them:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24.27).

Once again, we find our word hermeneuo (this time in a compound with dia-). Jesus is not listing all the predictive prophecies hidden in the OT which the disciples have not spotted (as I was taught as a teenager!). No, he is interpreting the OT in the light of himself, and in so doing also interpreting himself to them in terms they can understand. (When Luke records that ‘Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread’ I don’t think he is pointing forward to the presence of Jesus in Communion, but back to the last supper where Jesus renewed God’s covenant.)

We see the same dynamic in Paul, where he is constantly interpreting the OT Scriptures in the light of Jesus. And at the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews we read:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. (Heb 1.1–2)

There is both continuity and newness in God’s actions in Jesus, and the old needs to be interpreted in the light of the new. Hebrews then offers an extended exercise in reinterpretation of the OT, and particularly of the sacrificial system, but in passing also the creation narrative, in the light of Jesus. Note that here and elsewhere the movement is primarily in this direction—making sense of the sacrificial system in the light of Jesus, more than making sense of Jesus in the light of the sacrificial system. (For a contrasting approach, see some of the comments on my post about Jesus and God’s wrath.)

To put it theologically, the Christ event is an act of interpretation. To be a follower of Jesus is to be an interpreter—backwards, in terms of understanding what God has done in the past, and forwards, making this known to people who do not yet understand.

(First posted in 2013)


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14 Responses to Do we need to ‘interpret’ the Bible?

  1. Steve Walton September 28, 2016 at 9:00 am #

    Thanks Ian. I’ve shared this with my MA Scripture class.

  2. Clive September 28, 2016 at 9:45 am #

    I am told that Jeffrey John says “I don’t interpret the Bible. I just tell you what it says.” when teaching people about John’s gospel.

    • Ian Paul September 28, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

      Really? Is that true, an urban myth, or ironic…?

      • Mat Sheffield September 29, 2016 at 9:23 am #

        I think it’s just quite an old and well-known joke that Christian leaders like to bring out occasionally and have done for quite a while.

        I’m fairly certain I’ve heard J-John say it, I know Tom Wright has said it (both people clearly saying so in jest I might add). I vaguely recall that even D.D.Moule makes the joke, or something very close to it, in his commentary on Romans, and that’s from 1902!

  3. Jonathan Tallon September 28, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    Thank you for this, Ian.

  4. Alastair Roberts September 28, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    I’ve just written a post that pushes in a slightly different direction.

    • David Shepherd September 29, 2016 at 9:03 am #

      Hi Alistair,

      I read your thoughtful post. A great example of not getting the ‘joke’ is how people interpret the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1 – 14)

      In contemporary terms, Jesus’ story centres on a manager who liberally reduces outstanding invoices for oil and wheat in the hope of favourable treatment by his soon-to-be ex-employer’s debtors.

      In a business context, the employer commends the manager’s shrewd tactic of currying favour with his potential new bosses. And Jesus sums this up by saying: ‘for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

      The punch-line which incenses the Pharisees to contemptuous sneering is: ‘And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it fails, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

      Some have suggested that Jesus here is emphasizing that shrewdly targeted generosity will lead to alliances capable of bestowing eternal rewards. However, that wouldn’t explain the hostile mockery of the Pharisees.

      It’s far more likely that Christ was using sarcasm. At best, he was saying, shrewdness with worldly means, so coveted in this age, can only court temporal advancement from those who cannot ensure our eternal welfare.

      Taking such a dim view of would have upset the covetous Pharisees no end. Yet, today, few think Christ could resort to sarcasm to disarm his enemies. They don’t get the joke.

  5. Ian H September 28, 2016 at 10:22 pm #

    Thank you Ian. I’ve been wandering this in my own thinking
    – if from a different direction. I think I might sum it up as a question; when does preaching/interpretation risk crossing the line from
    ‘Well read/expert ‘ into a version of Gnosticism?

  6. Tim Keene September 29, 2016 at 8:21 am #

    I was present when a “well-known Christian leader, minister of a large and influential church, proclaimed:
    I don’t interpret the Bible. I just tell you what it says.”
    I do not know if it was the one you were referring to. And the claim was not a simple humility. And he got howled at by the principal of a very conservative Anglican theological college. As a result he seemed to back down. His point however is not entirely wrong. Somewhere Richard Hays says, “My grandmother said that the devil uses scripture to his own ends or as we prefer to say in the academy, the text provides infinite hermeneutical potential.” In our hermeneutics we need somehow to preserve the commitment to understanding the text so the text does say what it says and not what we want it to say. The minister quoted above dismissed hermeneutics as the method of making scripture saw whatever you want it to say. And who of us has never distorted scripture in this way. It is a real problem of preacher and listener/reader alike.
    So if his aim was always to tell us simply what it says this is entirely laudable.
    Our techniques of interpretation are as open to corruption and in need of redemption as anything else. If we might suspect a smidgeon of pride in claim above, the opposite approach is equally in danger of pride. “I interpret scripture according to all the best techniques” might convey a claim, “So I am right and you must obey me.”

    • David Shepherd September 29, 2016 at 11:11 am #

      Well said: Ne’er a truer word spoke on this blog!

  7. travis finley September 30, 2016 at 1:59 pm #

    There is a difference bt what the Bible says, and what it means by what it says and there is no escaping the fact that “all translation is interpretation.”
    The one who say’d, “I just tell you what it means,” at worst is a liar; he is willing to power. Interpreting the text cannot be avoided and the Pastor has the advantage over the layperson on several fronts.
    https://db.tt/YIrbTz8z

  8. Philip Almond October 1, 2016 at 8:33 pm #

    Given time I would like to read this article carefully and respond. In my view ‘understand’ and ‘meaning’ is the place to start. Quite often, on controversial doctrinal issues, there are exegetical arguments on both (perhaps several) sides. For example, predestination, propitiation/satisfaction, eternal punishment, male headship. The contenders for different views offer up their understandings of what the critical passages say and mean – in context of course and compared/contrasted with other passages that bear on the disputed issue. The aim should be to ‘weight’ the views of these passages and combine them in a way that gives the overall ‘best fit’. For instance, some passages have a clear meaning, whereas other passage(s) have several possible meanings only some of which contradict the first passage, while other meanings are neutral or are harmonious with the first passage. This gives the first passage higher weighting than the other passage(s).
    Phil Almond

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