It’s a Matter of Interpretation (Part 1)

Years ago when I was still a boy I remember hearing a particular sermon illustration. I don’t remember what the sermon was about, and I don’t remember exactly how the illustration was presented, but I do remember the gist of it. Two grandsons were talking about their grandfather. The first grandson says, “It’s amazing that grandpa is 90 years old and he still doesn’t use glasses.” The second grandson replies, “Well maybe he just likes to drink from bottles.” The illustration is not particularly funny, but I think you get the point. The first grandson was referring to eyeglasses, and the second grandson thought he was referring to drinking glasses. The first grandson made what he thought was a literal statement. The problem was the second grandson gave a different literal meaning to “glasses.” The second grandson incorrectly interpreted the statement of the first grandson because he had a different primary meaning for “glasses.” Maybe the second grandson always referred to eyeglasses as eyeglasses and drinking glasses as glasses (or drinking glasses). Now I’m sure most of us would have understood “glasses” to mean eyeglasses. The problem, though, is there was not enough context to fully clarify which type of glasses the first grandson was thinking of, and, evidently, there were no other conversations about this particular subject that would cause the second grandson to realize the first grandson was referring to eyeglasses.

So what’s the point? The point is this is why we have differences in interpreting the bible. One person reads a verse and it means one thing, and another person reads the same verse and comes up with a different meaning. If I’m dependent only on my understanding of what words mean and ignore the context and what other parts of the bible have to say on the subject, I have a very subjective interpretation. It is subject to my education (secular and religious), my life experiences, my culture, and my version of common sense. In other words if I interpret the bible by what I consider to be literal I could easily come up with an incorrect interpretation.

What we are dealing with here is hermeneutics (sounds similar to herman new ticks). For most people hermeneutics is not an everyday word. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. It can be applied in many areas. For example, justices of the Supreme Court of the United States interpret the Constitution. Some justices allow their interpretation of the Constitution to be heavily influenced by today’s culture and thinking. Other justices try to interpret the Constitution with a heavy influence on original intent. (Original intent means interpreting based on the culture and thinking of the original authors.) The former is more subjective, and the latter is more objective. The former is more subjective because the interpretation is influenced (not necessarily determined) by whatever the justice thinks is correct. The latter is more objective because it is not just based on what the justice thinks is correct, but the language of the Constitution is compared with other writings of the founding fathers to see what the founding fathers thought about a particular subject.

Everyone has the right to read and interpret Scripture on his or her own. This is the right of private interpretation. The leaders of the Reformation fought for this right. Instead of relying solely on the teaching of the church, lay people can and should interpret Scripture on their own. At the time of the Reformation the Catholic Church protested that if people were allowed to interpret Scripture, they would distort Scripture for their own purposes. The Reformers agreed there would be distortion but still insisted on the right of private interpretation. However, with every right comes a responsibility. As R. C. Sproul says, “With the right of private interpretation comes the sober responsibility of accurate interpretation.”[1]

Accurate interpretation requires proper hermeneutics. For some, though, their one and only hermeneutic is “whatever the bible says.” What they mean is “whatever I think the bible means is what it means.” This is why many in the church are quite comfortable with contradictory interpretations. They begin sharing in their small group with the phrase “What this verse means to me is….” The important thing is not what a verse or passage means to me but what it means. This is why biblical hermeneutics (principles used to interpret the bible) are so important.

Many Christians, while exercising their right to read and interpret the bible, have not seriously investigated the proper rules for interpretation. The next two articles in this series will introduce the topic of biblical hermeneutics. In Part 2 we will look briefly at some biblical hermeneutics with emphasis on the most important principle for interpreting the bible (Scripture interprets Scripture). The primary principle will be illustrated by interpreting a portion of John chapter 3 where Jesus is talking with Nicodemus. Part 3 will demonstrate the importance of “Scripture interprets Scripture” using a passage from the Old Testament.

[1] R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 39

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