Are there many meanings of Scripture?

David Ball writes: When people say, “We read the Bible differently from you,” it begs the question: is there a right or wrong way to read Scripture? In our post-modern context, it is easy for us to think that every reading of Scripture is as legitimate as another. If I read the Bible in a certain way, you have no right to challenge it. It is also true that those of us who believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us may read particular passages quite differently from each other. However, the question still stands as to whether there is a right or wrong way of reading the Bible and how do we decide.

Fortunately for us, this is not a new question and in many ways it was at the heart of the discussions between the reformers and the Catholic church. At that time, allegorical readings of the Scriptures were very common. So was the belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Bible. However, the reformers challenged both of these presuppositions. 

(Allegorical readings of the Bible tended to spiritualise passages in the Bible by giving a spiritual meaning to every word or concept. Augustine famously interpreted many passages in the Bible allegorically suggesting many hidden references to Christ that were not obvious in the text.)

The belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Scriptures was challenged by two doctrines. The first, which is probably familiar to many of us, was the priesthood of all believers based particularly on 1 Peter. This doctrine challenged the ‘special’ place of the priest in many ways, including the idea that the priest’s interpretation of Scripture was necessarily authoritative. The second doctrine was the doctrine of the ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture. In other words, the belief that the message of the Bible was clear and could be understood by all. It was this doctrine that led William Tyndale to challenge a learned priest with his famous quotation: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”  In other words, the reformers believed that ordinary people could understand the Scriptures for themselves.

It was not that they failed to recognise different passages within the Bible that would need careful study in order to understand correctly, but they believed that in the Scriptures God had given them everything they needed for ‘life and godliness’. That is to say that in the Bible an ordinary person could read and understand the message of salvation and God’s requirements for holy living.

(This is the basis of the 6th Article of Religion of the Church of England: Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”)

The power of the church hierarchy was therefore challenged. In the reformers’ view, the Catholic church had no right to claim the sole authority to interpret the Scriptures. With the translated Scriptures in their hands (or read to them in public), ordinary men and women could hear God speaking to them directly. This is why the public reading of Scripture in church became one of the key features of the reformation.

The danger of allowing anyone to read the Scriptures for themselves that could have followed was precisely the danger that we face today. Anyone’s reading of the Bible could be legitimate. How could you decide whether someone’s reading was right or wrong? The reformers were very aware of the many different readings of Scripture in their own day and they set out various principles upon which reformed churches, including the Church of England, should interpret the Bible. 

The first of these principles of interpretation was founded on the belief that what God said, God says. In other words, we must study the Scriptures to find out what it meant at the time it was written or spoken in order to understand what God is saying to us today. This led to the church, and subsequent biblical scholarship, to seek to understand the original meaning of the Bible in its context in order to apply it to our context. In other words, it is not our context or culture that determines the right reading of Scripture; it is the context of Scripture itself that determines the right reading.

(This calls into question the legitimacy of some of the so-called ‘reader-response’ approaches to understanding the Bible in our own day. Of course it important that we come to the Bible as we are (with our own presuppositions and understanding), but we need to be very careful that we don’t set this above what the Bible says within its own terms of reference.)

Alongside this search for the original meaning of the text was an equally important principle that said that the plain and obvious meaning of the passage is what it meant then and what it means now. This principle of the ‘literal’ meaning of Scripture has been misunderstood by many (sometimes deliberately). The literal meaning of Scripture does not mean that everything we read must be taken as scientific fact. What it means is that the meaning of Scripture is not an allegorical reading (unless the passage is an allegory), but the plain meaning as it was intended. So, when it comes to interpreting a passage of Scripture the reformers believed that there was a right way to do this and it was to understand the Bible in its own context and on its own terms. They believed that the clear and obvious meaning of a passage was what it meant.

But what about passages that seem to contradict each other? Can we say that one passage no longer applies because another passage is more important? This is particularly true when we come to the Old Testament as Christians. Surely all those laws do not apply to us because Christ has done away with the law? Here again, the reformers developed various principles for interpreting the Bible. The first of these is clearly set forth in the 20th Article of Religion of the Church of England on the authority of the church: 

It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.

In other words, the authority of the church was limited to what was in line with Scripture. Furthermore, where passages seem to disagree, it is not acceptable for the church to expound them in a way that they disagree with each other. The belief was (and still is) that the Scriptures ultimately have a coherent message and one passage should never be used to deny the legitimacy of another. 

How is it then, that we seem to ignore certain laws in the Old Testament while seeming to agree with others? Whether we agree with them or not, the reformers, based on earlier readings of the Bible going back to the church fathers, categorised the Old Testament laws into three categories: Cultic (to do with worship), Civic (to do with the state) and Moral (to do with personal behaviour). It was argued that most of the laws that are cultic point forward to Jesus and particularly to his death on the cross. Hence, we do not sacrifice animals as part of our worship, because Jesus was sacrificed on our behalf. It was also argued that many of the civic laws do not apply directly to us because the nation of Israel as God’s people has been replaced (or more correctly has been transformed) by the coming of Jesus so that God’s people are no longer an ethnic nation, but a community of believers from all nations.

It is true that many so-called Christian countries have taken the civic law in the Old Testament as the basis for their countries’ legal systems (but the legitimacy of that is a different topic). So what about the Moral laws? Here the reformers were again in agreement that these were not necessary for salvation (which was by faith alone). However, they still believed that they were necessary for holy living. Returning to the Anglican Articles of Faith, here is Article 7 in full:

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

In other words, the reformers believed that the whole of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, speak of salvation through Christ. They also believed that every Christian believer is still bound by the moral commandments found in the Old Testament. In other words, they affirmed the unity of the Old and New Testament and the relevance of all Scripture for us as Christians today. Of course this is also affirmed by Paul when writing to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy 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. (2 Tim 3:14-17)

So, we return to the question we started with: Is there a right or wrong way of reading Scripture? The answer that the reformers would want to give us is: Yes, definitely. For those of us who seek to be true to the principles of the reformation, I believe we would want to affirm:

a. The perspicuity of Scripture: the translated Scriptures can be understood by ordinary people and we do not need a priestly or scholarly class of people to understand the basic message of salvation and how we should live (life and godliness).

b. What God said, God says. So we must seek to understand what God was saying in the context of the Scriptures and we must recognise the challenge that God continues to say the same to us today.

c. There is a plain meaning of Scripture and this is the meaning that we should seek to discover. We may need to recognise different types of literature within Scripture. Ultimately the onus is always on those who claim that something doesn’t mean what it clearly says to explain why their interpretation is ‘the plain meaning of Scripture.’

d. We should not explain or apply a passage of Scripture in such a way that it undermines another passage of Scripture.

e. The Old Testament and the New Testament have a unified message of salvation.

f. The commands of the Old Testament are not a means of salvation, but continue to be for each of us a guide for holy living. We will need to read them carefully, but the morality required of the Old Testament people of God continues to be relevant for the church today. 

Within these parameters, there will be a certain amount of leeway for different interpretations of Scripture, but the parameters which the reformers developed in their day continue to give us clear guidelines about legitimate (and illegitimate) interpretations of the Bible.

For a guide to the four essential questions we need to ask when reading Scripture, see Ian Paul’s Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible. For an exploration of interpreting the OT commandments, see Philip Jenson’s How to Interpret Old Testament Law.

Dr David Ball leads the GOLD Project, which offers small-group-based learning about scripture, theology and discipleship. There is an interview with David about how the GOLD project helps people grow in their faith here.

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69 thoughts on “Are there many meanings of Scripture?”

  1. I’m amused when I hear people saying that there are multiple “right” ways to read scripture – because this statement itself is a way of reading scripture.
    So according to them the “one right way” understanding is wrong and the “multiple right ways” is right. So they believe they have the one exclusively right way to understand scripture after all.

    • Yes, exactly. Like many of the less intelligent statements, this one is self refuting, and it is the proponents’ inability to see that it is self-refuting (among other factors) that marks it out as less intelligent.
      Secondly, it is always asserted not argued for.

    • Absolutely…. It’s akin to the “religions are all worshipping the same deity” on the basis of them holding different parts of a single elephant…. (ironically) that one person holds the true view.

      • A true view that has not the slightest research behind it.
        It is exactly right that we need to see all the parts of the whole picture.
        But absolutely incorrect that that whole picture is composed of an amalgam of all the different and often contradictory worldviews that just so happen to subsist at one random moment in time.

        • It is sooo stupid. On the back of the entirely true and important fact that we can generally see only part of the full picture, it somehow falls into 2 basic errors: (1) everything we may think we perceive is there and is true; there is nothing that is false; (2) the full and true picture is composed of an amalgam of the insights and teachings of major world religions, which often:
          -disagree with each other
          -are saying some untrue things
          -are best explicable by the historical contexts which gave rise to them
          -are not even the same sort of thing as one another: some are philosophies, some are mostly historical, some are mainly ethical, some are mainly spiritual.

  2. I hold with sola scriptura with the caveat that you need a dictionary and some knowledge of everyday life in the Ancient Near East. The meaning of difficult passages (and Peter warned that Paul could be diffcult to read) is best teased out in no-holds-barred discussions among the faithful.

  3. Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenised Jew who lived in Jesus’ time, pioneered the reading of allegory in the Old Testament. In Genesis 28 we read, “When Jacob reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with the angels of God going up and down on it.” Philo wrote (in De Somniis I) that Jacob’s stone pillow was really an ‘incorporeal intelligence’ – a spirit of some sort – and that he put it under his head under the pretext of going to sleep but really to let it soothe his thoughts, by being closer to his mind. This would supposedly have been the source of Jacob’s dream.

    Eventually the New Testament got the allegorical treatment. Clement of Alexandria wrote that when Christ said “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), He meant that only upon the believer, who is separated from the world and its wild beasts, does the word of Christ lay its head (Stromata I.3). When 5000 people were miraculously fed on five loaves and two fish (John 6), the two fish supposedly meant the curriculum of study and Greek philosophy (Stromata VI.11). The development of allegory in Christian exegesis – although it is really eisegesis – is traced, with further examples, in Edwin Hatch’s 1888 Hibbert Lectures (specifically the third lecture; the series is published as The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church).

    In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen takes the cleansing of the Temple in chapter 2 to be metaphorical, not an incident in history. The Temple is either the soul of a believer or the church, from which Jesus drives out earthly things (cattle), irrationality (sheep) and vanity (doves), the whip being his powerful words. But a sword is the proper New Testament metaphor for his words.

    Two centuries after Clement and Origen, Augustine of Hippo wrote about the parable of the Good Samaritan (in his Quaestiones Evangeliorum, 2.19). Of this parable (in Luke 10), Augustine wrote (slightly abridged):

    A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho: Adam himself is meant; Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace, from whose blessedness Adam fell; Jericho means “the moon,” and signifies our mortality, because it is born, waxes, wanes, and dies. Thieves are the devil and his angels. Who stripped him, namely, of his immortality; and beat him, by persuading him to sin; and left him half dead, because in so far as man can understand and know God, he lives, but in so far as he is wasted and oppressed by sin, he is dead – he is therefore called half dead. The Priest and Levite who saw him and passed by signify the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament, which could profit nothing for salvation, Samaritan means “guardian,” and therefore the Lord Himself is signified by this name. The binding of the wounds is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope; wine the exhortation to work with fervent spirit. The beast is the flesh in which he deigned to come to us. The being set upon the beast is belief in the incarnation of Christ. The inn is the Church, where travellers are refreshed on their return from pilgrimage to their heavenly country. The morrow is after the resurrection of the Lord. The two pence are either the two precepts of love, or the promise of this life and of that which is to come. The innkeeper is the Apostle (Paul). The supererogatory payment is either his counsel of celibacy, or the fact that he worked with his own hands lest he should be a burden to any of the weaker brethren when the Gospel was new, though it was lawful for him “to live by the Gospel.”

    Augustine was not denying the usual understanding, but the allegorical view was held to be deeper. It is too clever by half and is obviously not the short, sharp point that Jesus made when he told the parable. The effect is to make people think they cannot understand scripture for themselves, that its meaning is reserved for professional theologians and academics and philosophers to work out and hand down (a view promoted in the fourth century by the Cappadocian Fathers). Yet God said “I will make foolish the wisdom of the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20). Many church fathers have allegorised this parable; much of Augustine’s allegory is adapted from Origen’s Homilies on Luke (34.3). But Origen took Jericho to be the world rather than the moon, and called the manager of the inn the head of the church, not St Paul. That neither of these differing interpretations can be said to be right or wrong is a warning. Origen and Augustine are taking their wider understanding of scripture, which they got from its plain meaning, and using it to reimagine the parable. The result makes no point which cannot be got from the plain meaning of the scriptures.

    Prophecy was also allegorised. Justin Martyr (d. AD165) said the prophecy of Christ in Isaiah 9:6 that “the government shall be upon his shoulder” meant He would be stretched out on the Cross (First Apology, ch. 35). To allegorise a prophecy, every detail must have a counterpart. Allegorical meaning of a prophecy is in competition with its literal understanding, not just supplementary to it. Believers are meant to know if a prophecy has been fulfilled. How can that be, with an allegorical view of it?

  4. I think this is one of the poorer pieces that I’ve read on this blog Ian – when normally they are of very high qaulity. I agree largely with the conclusions drawn, however you can’t simply solely argue the reformation to argue a hermenuetic of scripture. That in itself is an appeal to tradition in order to interpret scripture, which opens up a whole can of hermenuetical worms.

    Better to argue strictly from Scripture’s usage of Scripture – the hermenuetical approach contained within scripture itself. And in doing so you have to wrestle with Paul’s seeming usage of allegorical exegesis in Gal 4 (though that’s not quite what’s going on there), the Matthew’s targumic approaches, which do not fit into simplistic hermenuetic approaches.

    • Well I am sorry you are disappointed!

      The argument here is not merely drawing from a tradition. It is noting the tradition we are in—but that tradition has self-consciously formed itself in the light of what Scripture claims for itself.

      I don’t think Paul in Gal 4 or Matthew are reading allegorically or targumicly, but both are doing what we would now call reading theologically.

      Oh, and JP, please could you give your name? Thanks.

  5. For evangelicals, who have a high regard of scripture and its unity as a revelation from God – the big issue today is the dominance of the 17th century, Northern European prism through which scripture is read.

  6. A much needed article, thanks. It gets to grips with the underpinning meaning of God’word alone.
    Sadly it will be traduce by some who will think that it is too straightforward, to understandable, too plain, too much of the *golden rule*.
    While I don’t have it with me, the illustration of allegory given by Anton, reminds me of the one set out by Fee and Stuart in their book, How to read the Bible for all its Worth.

  7. Anyone who makes this claim is in need of further study or devious or both.
    It is obvious that the number of possibly-accurate readings of any text is an infinitesimally small proportion of the number of available readings. Why the Bible is treated as a special case here, I do not know. But it is almost always the Bible where people say ‘My interpretation is {something nowhere near what the text says]. To treat the Bible differently from other texts in this way is firstly fundamentalism (always assuming that is a meaningful term, which is open to a lot of doubt) and secondly knowingly dishonest.

    • Hi Christopher, do you really want us to *not* treat the Bible as a special case? to treat the Bible the *same way* as other contemporary texts, such as Herodotus or Julius Caesar or Lucretius? Most people accept that Herodotus used sources that may or may not have been accurate, that Caesar wrote to make himself look good, that Lucretius wrote for fun with little regard for truth or internal consistency. Treat the Bible like that?

      • Dear Jamie

        I think there are 2 things wrong with what you say, as follows:

        (1) First, you are speaking as though there is only one barometer: namely, spiritual truth or reality. There are thousands of different barometers when it comes to comparing texts. It just depends what it is that you are measuring. Now, in the present case we are doing no more than measuring how far texts mean what they say. Why is the Bible different in THAT respect?

        (2) Second, those who treat the Bible as different in THAT respect almost always say that the surface words of the Bible can be interpreted out of existence, whereas they would not treat any other text that way. They are, in other words, in effect making the Bible a special case because its text deserves LESS respect than other texts. Not an example anyone should follow, primarily because it is so dishonest.

        • The problem is, Christopher, that we DO seem to treat every text that way. When we use language we seem to rely on and have the expectation that hearers are able to infer what we mean from their understanding of the PARTICULAR context. So the text itself is not sufficient, especially if we look at individual sentences and, even more, if we look at individual words (didn’t James Barr have something to say about that?)
          If you offer your partner a cup of coffee and they say ‘Coffee will keep me awake’, do you get them a cup of coffee or not? (Example from the pragmatics literature). The ‘plain meaning of the text’ is only slightly? helpful in interpreting this statement. And nothing allegorical in sight!
          Maybe there is a bit more involved in interpreting texts than the article suggests.

          • I agree with you. My only point was that the Bible seems to be treated as a special case in that people push further away from its more obvious or surface meanings than they do with any other text. In terms of deriving meaning from words, sentences and contexts the biblical texts should be treated like any others.

  8. The statement ‘We read the Bible differently from you’ is telling.
    (1) First, they simply accept that the Bible is a book not a library.
    (2) Second, they somehow think that there is the possibility of a blanket, package-deal reading of 1200 pages. (Which would certainly save the bother of doing any detailed study – maybe that is the reason that they say this.) Whereas intelligent people will take each sentence, each word, individually.

  9. Good article…

    “The belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Scriptures was challenged by two doctrines.”

    I agree and this has been my line in helping others to understand scripture…

    But one might ask what the place of teachers/preachers is? Is it to make the plain meaning obvious to all? (which risks the” superior expert ” authority) Or to do this with a more immediate prophetic content… And what does gifting mean in this context?

    • For me, my role as teaching is to enable, from many expert knowledge that I have, the people of God to read the scriptures well. I do not stand as interpreter between the people and the text; I stand alongside them, contributing my gifts to the common goal.

      The Reformers were very well aware of the need for expert knowledge, but opposite its use to control reading.

      • The Reformers were very well aware of the need for expert knowledge, but opposite its use to control reading.

        Until, i.e., they fell out with one another over the meaning of scripture! Calvin in Geneva was hardly working alongside people to help them understand scripture! And Luther wasn’t the most patient of men when it came to catechesis. And look at the Puritan’s v’s the Established Church.

  10. Hmm. How do we then account for the large number of Protestant denominations all claiming to have understood the Bible correctly but think the others are in error?

    • Chris – well, I can only speak for myself (and I don’t belong to any denomination). I think that Scripture is clear and plain, but it all goes horribly wrong when we see sincere people (such as Ezra) writing Scripture – and then we’re expected to believe that they ‘got it right’.

      I see, for example, Ezra duffing up marriages which may have been quite stable and happy, providing solid support for the children, because the women were ‘foreign’ – and note that Ezra seems to be interested only in genetic descent here – he makes absolutely no caveats about failing to appropriate the Jewish religion.

      If your name is DA Carson, you can write nice things rationalising all of this, but for me they just don’t add up (Geoff gave the commentary by DA Carson when I made similar comments about a year ago).

      The book of Ezra is clear and plain; anybody can understand what the chapters and verses mean. The difficulty is in deciding whether Ezra was doing right or doing wrong.

      I believe that the Spirit of God is behind Scripture, so it’s there because God ordained it – but I believe he was trying to show us how The Church was going horribly wrong and indicating how the seeds were set for the Pharisaical tendencies that somehow dominated at the time of Christ and which Jesus spoke out against.

      So – in short – I’m not a great fan of ‘perspicuity’ – it’s not clear to me that the ‘correct’ message will be drawn from Scripture without a very strong element of guidance from the Holy Spirit. After all, Ezra seems (at least to me) to be badly mistaken.

          • So, Jock,
            When you meet Ezra, you’ll be able to tell him off and tell him you didn’t think much of his book or of him and tell God that God’s affirmation of Ezra by his inclusion in the Book of Books is grievously wrong and lacked omniscient, enlightened judgement.

          • Without taking a stand on whether the breaking up of the families was right or wrong: just because it is included doesn’t mean it is right or wrong. Moses’s murder or second rock-striking weren’t good,

            I don’t think – but I am open to be proven wrong – that there is anything in Ezra-Nehemiah that shows God approval of anything in Ezra-Nehemiah. The collard of that being that stuff one might feel squeamish on are described in the exact same fashion as things that are clearly good (such as prayer or reading the scriptures)

          • Kyle – thanks – you said pretty much more or less what I was thinking of saying in response to Geoff, but you phrased it better.

    • Who says there should be denominations? In the New Testament is that an apostolos (a man sent, by God) preaches the gospel somewhere new, leads a congregation from those who come to faith, after a while appoints elders (presbyteroi) to oversee the congregation (overseer = episkopos, so the elders and the overseers are the same men as at Acts 20:17 & 20:28), and moves on to preach in another place. He will occasionally check that all is well. Appointment of elders and checking-up might be done by someone whom the founding apostolos trusts and sends for that purpose. He retains authority over that congregation during his life but, after he has died, it *is* the church in that place, autonomous under Christ.

      I am willing to debate this exegesis with other believers and, if we fail to agree, not question their faith in Jesus Christ.

      Thereafter a network of gifted teachers might move among congregations, but there is no hierarchy beyond any congregation. This is one reason why I find the apostolic succession insidious. It has been used as a weapon by patently unscriptural hierarchies to assert that they have the succession so only they are the church, no matter how deviant their practices or how many people they torture in the name of Christ.

      Had the church kept to this structure – which is the only one that flourishes under persecution – then the question of denominations falling out does not even arise. Of course, Christians may fail to agree, and the occasional congregation may go heretical. But God does not then have to shut down the church over an entire continent…

  11. The reformation allowed for opinions contrary to orthodoxy.
    Are we suggesting we need a new orthodoxy banning allegorical interpretation?

  12. The suggestion that there is *a* correct reading of the Bible is more difficult for the boy who drives a plough than is sometimes imagined. Matthew 1:17 says there were fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon – well yes, but only because the author omitted three of the generations (Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah.) 2 Kings 15:30 In the twentieth year of the reign of Jotham … , though verse 33 says he reigned for 16 years only. Nehemiah 8:17 This was the first time the (Festival of Shelters) had been done since the days of Joshua son of Nun – ignoring 2 Chronicles 7:8 when it was celebrated under Solomon. What is the boy who drives a plough supposed to do when he comes to these bits?

    • I’ve had a ploughman’s lunch so I qualify to comment.
      Perhaps Chronicles was compiled after Nehemiah with access to better sources?
      Ezra’s faith got him in the Bible not his table manners; likewise, Nehemiah’s scholarly lack did not prevent his material being published.

    • The ploughboy should buy a copy of John Haley’s book “Alleged discrepancies of the Bible”, saee how many apparently irreconcilable verses it reconciles, and then suppose thatany others can be reconciled too with enough uncovering of Israel’s past.

  13. Thank you, David for re-iterating Reformation guidelines for understanding the Scriptures. Amongst people I know, it has become particularly contentious to say “let Scripture interpret Scripture”, but I genuinely don’t know why some think this is the “wrong way to read Scripture”.

  14. I sometimes think that Christians suffer from ‘Muslim envy’ – in other words, they want the Bible to be like the Koran… Our Scripture points beyond itself, explicitly. In the end, the point is not to know Scripture as an end in itself but to know Jesus (a hopefully non-controversial point) – and Jesus himself indicates how we are to read Scripture, ie read it with him in mind (Jn 5.39). So the hermeneutical principle of interpretation must always in the end collapse into the knowledge of a person, not the knowledge of a text. Or, to put that in a different way, if our reading of Scripture is not making us more like Jesus, we are doing it wrong. And I would add – for me, crucially, as an Anglo-Catholic – Jesus is also revealed in the sacraments, which also teach us to be like Him, which means that Word and Sacrament reveal Jesus together. Perhaps ‘neither may the church expound Scripture… that it be repugnant to the Sacrament’.

    • There is a neatness and directness to the Quran, which is no surprise for a book compiled right away, within 20 years of Mohammed’s death. I can see why some find that attractive (if you overlook the actual content).

      The Bible isn’t that. It’s a collection of writings, a record of religious thought, revelations, and insight, but God-breathed – living and relevant. There is a messiness to it, because it’s real not contrived. It’s not the witterings of a pre-modern AC Grayling that we can choose to take on board or dismiss. It’s come from the people who compiled it interacting with the living God over centuries. So we get a variety of writings – histories, mythologies, philosophical discussions, poetry, prophesies, instructions, lawbooks etc.. 2 Timothy 3, although usually only quoted for the “God-breathed” tells us what Scripture is useful for – teaching, reproof, training in righteousness and equipping us. This is more than a simple manual to look up instructions. It’s more interactive and with more to discuss than that.

      But we don’t get everything that was ever written – the Church over the centuries had to set the canon. For example, the Book of Enoch thought by some of the early Church Fathers to be canonical was thrown out by the 4th century. Scripture is less a rival of tradition, and more a part of the traditional inheritance. A proper reverence for Scripture is therefore difficult to square with the instincts of some to throw out the Apocrypha wholesale.

      As God’s children we share in the inheritance of Scripture. We are in the same story with the same God.

      • To finish the thought/comparison:

        Muslims really do think the Quran was dictated by God. Hence, although they do translate the Quran, they are clear that only the original classical Arabic Quran is the true one. Indeed, they go further and do not only learn to read the original Arabic, but have an entire tradition of tajwid – the correct way to pronounce the words and recite the Quran as Mohammed would have done. We Christians on the other hand take almost the opposite view – we translate the Bible enthusiastically in order for it to be understood. Translation has always been part of how Scripture was handled from the Septuagint, to the Vulgate, to the King James Version and beyond. Scholars will go back to the original Hebrew and Greek to inform and learn, but there’s no suggestion that translations are inherently invalid.

        That I think has implications for some of the arguments about crudely literal takes on Scripture. If we’re happy to translate Scripture, we are happy to interpret it because that is a necessary part of translation. And we need to be careful about getting obsessive about an individual word – which is either a translation, or one we’re very willing to translate (perhaps in several different ways). Unlike the reading of the Quran we’re not interested in simply reciting Scripture, but in understanding and applying what it tells us about God, the world, and ourselves. A crude literalism misses this, and reduces faith to a game of saying you believe “impossible” things – e.g. saying you believe in literal 6 day creationism has no particular relevance to your life, but if the point we’re supposed to focus on is that the world is God’s creation, that we are we created in His image to live in and be responsible for, that has a lot of consequences for how we go about our lives.

  15. Authorial intention is the baseline. And that makes study scintillating.

    Beyond that, there is no way it can even begin to be scholarly. Because it introduces the perspectives of every single non-author there is, even those many who do not understand the language as well; it makes them equivalent with the actual author who has slaved away for exactly the right diction and word combinations and effects. And you are then in a rabbit hole from which no-one can emerge. All that can be done is enunciate the extremely vague theory and before you apply it your time is already up and you have not looked at any text.

    • But then how do you know what the authorial intention is? Did Luke have a different intention than Matthew, despite both using Mark as a basis for their writings (assuming that view is historically correct)?

      • The point is too general. You analyse them for their internal logic. There are ways in whcih their intention was the same and ways in which it was more specific to each individual writer. If it had been 100% the same then you would struggle to explain why the later one needed to write at all.

      • PC1 – as is often the case, I find that my own view chimes in with yours to a greater extent than the others who comment here.

        The ‘author intent’ may be very clear, but sometimes only after heavy prompting in the right direction – and very strong guidance from the Holy Spirit.

        Two very important examples: I remember when John Thompson posted here. In one of the discussions, I pointed out that all the important figures in Genesis were a bunch of rotters – every single one of them – and I gave the example of Noah. The first thing he did after leaving the arc was to establish a vineyard and get horribly drunk on the wine that it produced. Then he childishly said, ‘cursed by Canaan’ after Ham had made a joke out of the fact that his parts most private were on display.

        John Thompson’s come-back, ‘Do you really think that that was the authorial intent’ (to portray them all as a bunch of rotters). My answer – yes – this was first pointed out to me in a commentary by William Still – and after I had seen this, an awful lot of Genesis made an awful lot of sense. But I got the impression that JT was still of the opinion that I had picked up the wrong end of the stick.

        This has important consequences. If you get this point (they were all a bunch of rotters), you stop looking for ‘saints’ (as the Roman Catholics do) who present ‘role models’ of exceedingly nice people who present a terrific example and you stop looking for ‘role models’ in the way that American protestant culture does (when I was there, they were outraged by the behaviour of some baseball and basket ball players, whose behaviour was not nearly as noteworthy as, say, George Best, but who were expected to be ‘role models’ for young children.

        Another very important example for me: Paul wrote Romans 7:14-25 in the present tense and, for me, it is a vital part of my faith that Romans 7:14-25 is *intended* to be a picture of the present tense struggles of a mature believer. If indeed Romans 7 presents something of the ‘past tense’, unlike Romans 8 which somehow portrays current present-tense Christian experience, then this does not chime in with my own experience (while taking Romans 7:14-25 in the present tense most certainly does).

        Lots and lots and lots of people disagree with me on this – many of whom seem to be fine Christians.

        My conclusion is that I don’t really accept all this ‘perspicuity’ business. It’s a nice sounding phrase, which looks as if it ought to be true, but this does not conform to my own experience of discussions with other Christians. There seem to be fundamental disagreements on things that I’d consider to be very basic.

  16. “What God said, God says. So we must seek to understand what God was saying in the context of the Scriptures and we must recognise the challenge that God continues to say the same to us today.”

    This paragraph is the one that presents the biggest problem. Anglicans understand this concept in different ways. God has always had to be interpreted and has inevitably been interpreted differently in various times and cultures throughout history.

    Add to this that scripture has very different forms of literature. Letters, for example. Letters are the first or intermediate written explorations of a theme. Rarely are they the last word. They are part of a conversation. That’s true of the biblical letters. We are still having conversations on those very themes. So you can’t take them ‘literally’ without distorting their intent – which was the writer expressing an opinion and offering advice and wisdom. And advice and wisdom change under different circumstances.

    The gospels were not written to present a watertight history of what happened. They were written so that people would believe the good news of Jesus Christ. So, they are sometimes being historical and sometimes being interpretative. Taken as a whole, the gospels are presenting us with an intertwined history and interpretation of history. And it can be difficult – and I’d say mostly impossible – to separate the two. That’s what makes study of them so fascinating.

    You also have to add in to that mix what the early Christians thought. And that’s where other texts like the Didache – the teaching of the Apostles- and the writings of the early Church Fathers – are important.

    One example we have used before – I just don’t think the NT tells us about real presence. But the Didache and some of the Fathers are grappling with what it means.

    St Paul was writing a letter to a particular situation. I don’t think he was proclaiming something about the real presence. I think he was saying that you can’t just eat the elements of this last supper/Eucharistic meal as you would dinner or breakfast or an ordinary meal. He was saying that you need to have in mind the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ – his birth, life, death and resurrection – when you do this. You need to know about his risen and glorified body. Otherwise this meal falls into disrepute. And you need to know what other Christians – the body of Christ – are thinking about this special meal. Because, as I say, their doctrine about it all was still emerging.

    Scripture is inspired. But people mean different things when they use that term. I’m sure someone will now state the Articles, which is fine. But let’s not pretend the Articles are infallible, because not even the CofE believes them to be. And clergy in particular are not bound to them all – please read ‘To Proclaim afresh’.

    So the phrase ‘God said…’ is just too simplistic to be meaningful.

    • There are many letters in the NT but I cannot think of any of these that is part of a conversation. Clearly there was a conversation behind 1 Cor but not an equal conversation where each side learnt from the other. 1 Peter and Hebrews are magnificent pronouncements. 1 John is an authoritative missive. Revelation discounts that it may be mistaken. Romans begins by stating the way things are and never relents on that. And so on.

      • Sorry Christopher but this is just incorrect:
        Romans – Paul writes that he had intended to visit but has been prevented to is writing instead. It’s intended as part of a dialogue, even if the style doesn’t always read that way.
        I Corinthians – Paul clearly refers to the conversations and dialogue that precede his writing
        2 Cor – Paul has been in dialogue with the Corinthians and writes from that perspective
        Gal – Paul details the background to his writing – its ongoing
        Ephesians – a more general epistle
        Phil – Paul is in relationship with those to whom he writes and does so from that standpoint
        Col – ditto
        1 and 2 Thess – Paul is writing to follow up on visits
        Pastorals – the background is various heresies in the church at Ephesus and Paul is writing to his assistants. Obviously part of a conversation
        Philemon – Paul is writing a personal appeal
        Hebrews – isn’t really a letter
        James – specifically for Jewish Christians
        The letters of Peter and John are more personal statements but nontheless address specific issues that have arisen in the life of the early Church. So they are part of ongoing dialogue.

        • He has a relationship? With people he writes a letter to?
          You could have knocked me down with a feather.
          One normally writes letters to random unknown people.

          The fact that people are talking to one another (which is how you are defining dialogue) is a given if people are writing letters. That is why they are writing the letters.

          I already said about the 1 Cor questions answered.

          None of this was what I was talking about. Rather, I was saying about whether the conversation was an equal conversation or not. With respect to be given to both sides, and all that.

          Not at all. The writer is the teacher, and the recipients are the instructed.

          • Christopher what you said was
            “There are many letters in the NT but I cannot think of any of these that is part of a conversation. “
            Which is simply wrong. Most of them are part of a conversation. Whether it is an equal conversation is quite another question.
            But conversations – equal or not – are specific to circumstance . Paul makes that plain in some of his writing. Whether he’d say the same things in different circumstances is the point on which we disagree.

            And yes, some of the so called ‘letters’ in the NT are written to unknown readers. They are open letters.

  17. I think the challenge is that even when two people start off with this same set of rules for reading the Bible they will not come to the same conclusions

    • But what do you mean?
      (1) First, it matters little what ‘conclusions’ people come to who do not know the original languages AND fail to consult those who do.
      (2) Second, are they coming to these different conclusions about a single word, a sentence, a chapter, a book, or the whole 1200 pages?
      (3) How can you come to a generalised conclusion about 1200 pages?
      (4)And even after all that, you are still wrong. The truth is that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. There is no world where they always don’t.
      (5) And half of this is because scholars have precise minds, so that even if they differ by 1% that seems big to them.

      • For example, readers of the Bible disagree on whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father only. These are not just people who no nothing of the original languages, but the best scholars.

  18. Scripture interprets scripture.
    God is the ultimate superintending author.
    There is both a simplicity and depth to scripture which admits to the attributes of its author.
    It frequently happens in group Bible study that people give their opinion as to the answer to questions posed, and the answer is found not in the opinion but in the surrounding verses, or chapters, even in other parts of the Bible Old and New.
    But we return to the underpinng meaning of sola scriptura clearly set out in the article; necessay for salvation and leading a Godly life.
    What we balk at is when scripture ” reads” us, holds up a mirror to ourselves, and when we read into it a god made in our own image.
    And if anyone doesn’t think they need Bible teachers, they are mistaken, in ignorance, indifference, and pride. But discernment, and sifting is needed. And study. According to Peter, Paul wasn’t easy. But, Paul, we know was grounded in the Old Testament in a way Peter wasn’t.
    And what are we to make of Jesus’s Old Testament seminar on the road to Emmaus.

    • I’d love to be in your bible study, Geoff,

      Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about understanding the Land’s cartography and be taken forward into the Landscape, not discussing again reasons to reread the map or we will get nowhere, but let us step out into the Land; enough of instruction about basic map reading, right orientation, the bus home to a warm fire. And God permitting, we will do so.

  19. [T]he question still stands as to whether there is a right or wrong way of reading the Bible and how do we decide.
    [I]n many ways it was at the heart of the discussions between the reformers and the Catholic church. At that time, allegorical readings of the Scriptures were very common. So was the belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Bible. However, the reformers challenged both of these presuppositions.

    I think this is something of an over simplification. The Catholic teaching on the reading, understanding and interpretation of Scripture is presented in the Catholic Catechism. Here’s a (relatively) brief summary of this:

    Attentiveness and study is needed
    The reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

    To discover the sacred authors’ intention, we must take into account the conditions and culture of their time, the literary genres in use, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating, as truth is presented and expressed in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.

    The Holy Spirit is the interpreter of Scripture
    As Sacred Scripture is inspired, in addition to correct interpretation of the writings, it must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written otherwise it would remain a ”dead letter.

    There are three criteria for interpreting:
    (1)Be attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.
    Scripture is a unity because God’s plan is and Christ Jesus is its centre and heart, open since His Passover. Before then, Scripture was obscure. Now we can discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.
    (2)Read the Scriptures within the Church’s living Tradition
    Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture “…according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church” (Origin).
    (3)Be attentive to the analogy of faith.
    By “analogy of faith” is meant the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

    It then presents:
    The Senses of Scripture
    The literal and the spiritual; the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The concordance of these four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
    literal sense is the meaning of the words of Scripture or exegesis.
    The spiritual sense is the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks.
    The allegorical sense brings a more profound understanding of events by recognising their significance in Christ in the history recorded.
    The moral sense concerns the events reported in Scripture reported for our instruction that lead us to act justly.
    (3) The anagogical sensee (“leading”) to view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

    And where Protestants and Catholics most significantly disagree:

    It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”

    (See: CCC: Article 3: Sacred Scripture (101 – 141)!/search/s1.1.2.3

  20. David Ball, Thank you for your insights, the chaps on the Number 48 omnibus
    are much encouraged, in particular the tractor boys ! They just enjoy reading the Scriptures alongside the Author. John 16:13 Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come.
    1 John 2:27(NASB)
    You have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.
    1 John 2:27 — New Living Translation (NLT)
    27 But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ.

    John is simply saying that there is no illumination to be discovered that is additional to the inspired Word of God we hold in our hand. The Scriptures were specifically given to us from God for our learning. And together with the indwelling Holy Spirit living in our heart, we have all we need for our spiritual directives and development – as long we obey Christ’s command to abide in Him and He in us.
    Rom 8:14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.


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