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Do we need to ‘interpret’ the Bible?

Some 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.

tyndaleOn 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 17.6, Deut 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 1.23, Mark 5.41, Mark 15.22, Mark 15.34, John 1.38, John 1.41, John 1.42, John 9.7, Acts 4.36, Acts 13.8, Hebrews 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.

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

  1. John Richardson September 8, 2013 at 12:41 pm #

    “the old needs to be interpreted in the light of the new”.

    Don’t forget, though, when reading Old Testament texts, we need to read them carefully in their own right, before then going on to integrate them with the New Testament perspectives. Although we will want to pay careful attention to (for instance) how Paul interprets them, we will not understand how he is reading them until we have engaged with the [OT] texts for ourselves.

  2. Ian Paul September 8, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

    Yes, absolutely. Doing either without the other will get us into trouble. I have made the point about reading texts in their own right in relation to gender issues in Genesis elsewhere.

    My observation is that historically ‘evangelicals’ have tended to neglect the first, and ‘liberals’ have tended to neglect the second.

  3. John Richardson September 8, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    So an old style ‘evangelical’ wouldn’t get to grips with what Isaiah 53 means and a modern ‘liberal’ won’t accept it is about Jesus.

  4. Gordon Lawrence September 8, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    The example that always springs to my mind when thinking about this is when Herod is described as “a fox”. In English culture this usually, in that context, would mean sly or cunning, but to a first century AD Jew it would mean “fox in a hen-house” type destructive. That difference in cultural artefacts mediating the thinking about “fox” could potentially lead us right up the garden path with regard to comprehending what a that scripture means. This could also easily apply elsewhere, for example the passage where the woman says “even a dog may gather up the crumbs under the table” (Mark 7v28), especially as we are looking at three different cultures not two. So it could be argued from that perspective that the Bible will always need exegetical interpretation.

    The opposite extreme is Liberation Theology where the Bible is often interpreted in the context of a particular set of circumstances or a concrete (rather than theoretical) situation. It could be argued that to be most effective at the latter you would also need to do the former. Is this really the case?

    Unfortunately here I have to move away from academic examination and use personal experience. I have been a Christian over 30 years, and in that time, I have used both methods both in isolation, and in conjunction. I have not noticed a difference in terms of God speaking into a given situation, by either using just the LT approach or using exegesis then the LT approach other than once, where I’m fairly sure God spoke to me out of scripture, and my understanding of that particular scripture from an exegesis perspective was actually wrong (I didn’t know that at the time).

    My argument therefore would be that what we really need to understand scripture is the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That in turn needs a discernment process (to make sure it was really the Holy Spirit that was being heard) and that “best practice” for that discernment process would be overseen ideally by someone with the gifts of both prophesy and discernment and with good exegesis skills.

  5. Ro Mody September 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Yes, I agree. We come to the text with our pre-understandings. But, we can change. my pre-Christian hermeneutic of Scripture was different to my conversion understanding. Today my hermeneutic is different because it shaped by a deeper engagement with Scripture in dialogue with modern and ancient interpretations.

  6. Lothars Sohn September 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    Hello I admire your reverence for the Bible you think to be inerrant and I know you are sincerely wanting to defend God’s honor.

    For me, the belief in God’s absolute goodness is absolute and this leads me to reject certain Biblical texts ordering genocides:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/william-lane-craig-and-divine-genocides/

    You are not honoring God by telling people He sometimes act like the worse human criminal by butchering innocent babies and pregnant women.

    I’d love to interact with you on that, my blog is always free and open for new comments at any time.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  7. Ian Paul September 9, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    Thanks Lothar. I have blogged about that question under The Problem of Violence in the OT.

  8. Ian Paul September 9, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    Gordon, as you suggest at the end of your comment, I don’t think the question of the role of the Spirit and the role of good exegesis can be ‘either/or’ but must be ‘both/and’. A key issue here is to explore the relation between what the text means and what the text means to me as God speaks to me. If we start to separate these we will get into trouble since we could then make the text mean anything we like.

  9. Ian Paul September 9, 2013 at 6:57 am #

    Ro, indeed, and of course what you are describing is what is often called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ but I think it is best described as the hermeneutical spiral (or, more accurately ‘helix’). We approach the text with our assumptions about its meaning, and the text can resist or confirm those assumptions, which as you say are then amended when we come to the text a second time.

  10. Veronica Zundel September 9, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Actually, as literary critics have pointed out, there is no human communication without interpretation. If my husband says ‘I’m going to the shops now’, an apparently simple statement, I have to interpret: which shops? how soon is ‘now’? does he mean I should come with him? does his statement include an intent to buy the things I said I needed? No communication is 100% straightforward, and every recipient of communication is an interpreter.

  11. Ian Paul September 9, 2013 at 10:51 pm #

    No indeed. But on the one hand, there are those who want to treat the Bible as an object rather than an act of communication, and so somehow its authority becomes detached from questions of interpretations.

    On the other hand, I think we need to acknowledge the anxiety amongst ordinary readers that ‘interpretation’ is a trick in which the interpreter makes the Bible mean what they want it to.

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