Why Believe the Bible: Interpretation

This entry is part [part not set] of 1 in the series Why Believe the Bible - Buck McCallum
  • Why Believe the Bible: Interpretation

Why Believe the Bible: Interpretation

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Intro: The assumption of communication

Before we get into this interpretation business, I want you to think about the last real good fight you had with someone.  It may have been one of those long-term irritations, with periodic outbursts–a low key conflict.  Or, it may have been an argument that got loud and animated.  Maybe it was a disagreement that went on for a couple days with several arguments.

If you never get in arguments or fights with anybody, I suggest you seek out some counseling as soon as possible.

Take a minute and think about that fight.  Think about what it was that irritated you about the other person.  Sure, they may have had a weird point of view.  But go beyond that.  What was it about the way they acted or argued that made you want to fight with that person?

As you think about that, I’m going to bet that about 90% of us here are thinking about the fact that the other person didn’t listen to us.  They didn’t understand us.  They assumed what we meant.  They put words into our mouths.  They misrepresented our point of view.

When I talk to people about their fights, in one way or another, the biggest complaint is always, “He doesn’t listen to me.”  Or, “He doesn’t understand me.”  Or, “He may think he knows what I’m saying, but he doesn’t!”

What is it about this that makes us so angry?  Why is it that when someone takes our point of view and twists it, that just sends us off?

Example: I have to admit, I know this is true.  And in the past, I have not always argued fairly with the people I disagree with.  One of the tactics I have used in the past is to throw someone off balance by purposefully misrepresenting their point of view.  “So, you’re saying it angers you when you don’t get your way?”  “No I’m not!  That’s not what I’m saying!”  “OK, OK, just slow down and try and explain yourself.”  But now they’re all angry and they aren’t thinking straight.

Let me tell you, that form of argumentation is not right.  And unless you want to get into some good fights, you should probably refrain from using such tactics.

But why?  Why does it bother us so much when people take liberty with our words?

I think it’s because there is an assumption there.  There is an assumption that if someone respects me, then they will understand me.  When someone doesn’t take the time and care to listen to me, then that means they don’t respect me.

Or, if you’re like me, I’m not always aware of how I am being affected by something.  A lot of people are immediately in touch with that.  But I’m more focused on what I perceive about other people.  And when I sense someone who doesn’t take the time to really listen to me, then I start to feel like I’m dealing with an egotistical, fat-headed loud-mouth.  They’re not listening to me because they have some kind of attitude!

So this is the way it is with us.  We consider it a matter of respect, for people to take the time listen to us and understand us.  And a lot of us would start to judge the character of someone who doesn’t listen.

And yet, here’s the point for our study, many people feel the freedom to do this to the Bible any time they want!  They feel the freedom to read whatever they want.  They feel the freedom to find what they want to find in there.

And we even justify it by using pat-lines like, “Everybody knows you can read whatever you want in the Bible.”  Or, “It’s all just a matter of interpretation.”

That may be true for some of you out there, I don’t know.  But if you treat me that way in a personal conversation, then you might have an argument or a fight on your hands.

The Bible also is a communication.  It is a book, or series of books.  The Bible also has authors, the ones who penned that communication.

Now here’s what we have to consider: Where they different than us?  Were they sitting there writing and thinking, “This could mean whatever you want it to mean?”  “I’ll bet no one will really understand me here!”

What kind of idiot would write a book like that?

I take that back.  There are popular art-forms today where people think that’s really neat to compose something that everyone can read differently.

Let me assure you of something, the Bible is not a work of art in that sense.  It is an intentional communication.  It is a speach-act.  There is a speaker, there was a designated audience.  There was a purpose.

I use the term “intenional” because in this communication there were authors who had intentions.  They had reasons.  That’s the same thing you and I have when we communicate.  And that’s the same thing we get so angry about when people misread it.

If we are going to respect the Bible as a communication, then we must respect the intention of that author–just the same as you would respect the intention of any speaker you were dealing with.  I’m not even saying, “Hey, work at understanding the Bible because it’s God’s word.”  We’ve been talking about that for the last couple weeks.  And I do believe that the authority the Bible has should make us work even harder to understand what he intention of the author was.

But really, all I’m advocating here is just give it the same level of respect that you would give anyone.  Listen to it.

And let’s do away with this myth that says, “The Bible can mean anything you want it to mean.”

The goal of interpreting the Bible is the same as any other communication: Let’s try to understand what the author intended.  This is not just a book that has been floating around for hundreds of years.  This is a book, authored by people.  We must try to establish what those authors were intending.

Different levels of difficulty

Now, having said that, I realize that there are some passages in the Bible that are hard to understand.  We want to understand what that author intended.  But we have a hard time.

So, I want to acknowledge, there are different levels of difficulty in the Bible.  Along those same lines, I want to acknowlege that the fact that the Bible was written so long ago makes is more difficult than, say, a converstion.  With a conversation you have the person right there to clarify what they meant.  With the Bible, we have to work at it a little harder.

So, I’ll put this notion out to you.  It is possible to interpret the Bible, and be pretty darn sure of what the authors intended us to understand.  But, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

Some passages are easier than others.

And we can thank God that the most important truths have been written in the Bible in very straightforward language, over and over again, so that there can be no mistaking what the Bible is trying to say.

This is one of the things that helps us determine the difference between what we call an essential, central teaching of the Bible, and one that is more peripheral or tentative.  I don’t want to say unimportant, because many important things are said in a way that makes them hard to understand.

But we know some things so clearly because the biblical authors state them so often and with such a blunt style.

God loves us

For one, the Bible is ultimately clear on the fact that God loves us.  This is a message that screams so loud, many people would call that a fair description of the entire Bible: God’s message of love to us.

Let’s look at how simply and straightforward this is said is many places.

John 3:16: I’ll take one that, as Jeff said last week, is real famous from football games . . . “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Rom. 5:6-8 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  (NIV)

I John 4:10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  (NIV)

All these verses are talking about the fact that God loves us so much, he came here in the form of Jesus Christ and died for us, so that we could be forgiven and have eternal life.

The Bible is clear from beginning to end that God loves us.  Jesus told stories that were powerful illustrations of it.  He told stories like the prodigal son, in Luke  15, which I’m not going to read now.  But you should because it’s strong.

God loves us.  The Bible says it over and over again.  You can’t miss it.  And yet, I’ll bet some of you who aren’t very familiar with the Bible may have thought something else.  A lot of people think the Bible is a book of restrictions.  A lot of people think the Bible is a book of outdated stories.

But the Bible is about God’s intense love for us.  The Bible is a challenge, a proposition from God to us, “Will you lay aside your pride and accept God’s love?”  Will you come to him and acknowledge that you need his forgiveness?  Will you believe him when he says that he loves you so much, he wants to completely accept you and have a relationship with you?

That’s without a doubt the central message of the Bible.  I hope that you will leave here tonight considering it.

So, the Bible has a central message that is often repeated and very clear.  That is certainly something to focus upon.

And, if you want to get more into the Bible, Jesus Christ, etc., let me suggest a book of the Bible that is very, very easy to understand and very instructive: John.  It’s easy to remember, just look it up in your table of contents in that big old white thing that gathers dust on the family end-table.

A basic approach to interpretation

I want to leave you with an outline for understanding the Bible.  This will be quick.  But it should get you on your way to interpreting the Bible.  If you want to go further, I am going to suggest a couple books.  I will also tell you about a couple classes.

But you should know, in response to the dilemma of understanding someone’s communication, countless hours of brilliant people’s time has gone into developing a science of interpretation.  The Bible has been poured over by some of the most brilliant minds that this world has known.  And, while they don’t all agree on everything it says, there is substantial agreement on how we should go about understanding it.

This is the science of interpretation, or hermeneutics.

What about the text?

The first step in understanding the Bible is to make sure that we have a good text to read.  Lot’s of people you hear say things like, “How can you trust the Bible when it has been copied by so many people all through the ages?”  Or, “There are so many versions of the Bible, how can you trust any of them?”

There are two issues here.  The first is the question of how reliable the copies of the Bible we have today are.  And to that question, I smile and say, the text of the Bible we can work from today is so reliable it is hardly even worth quilbling about anymore.

You probably know that he Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Greek and a few parts in Aramaic.  The science of working from our copies back, to try and reconstruct the originals, is called “textual criticism.”

Now it just so happens that some of the most meticulous, anal retentive people in the world’s history decided not to become accountants and have instead become text critics.

They have taken from the thousands and thousands of manuscripts we have of the Bible (by far more than any ancient text), and made charts, tables, comparisons and little precise measurements of everything.

It’s to the point that of all the 10’s of thousands of words in the Bible, less than 5% of them are in question at all.  Only about 1% are actually in serious debate.  And when you take all of those that are in serious question, only about 5% of them are important or significant words.  In other words, they are mostly “a” versus “the,” or a plural versus a singular.

So, you can rest fairly confident in the fact that we know what the authors wrote, in the original languages.

A good translation

But, that still says nothing about your English translation.  And there are a lot of problems there.

Let me tell you a couple things that I stay away from.

I stay away from translations that are done by one denomination.

Example: Some of you may have Catholic Bibles.  I believe that the Catholic scholars have done a very good job with their translation.  But, I feel much safer when a Bible is translated by a board of scholars from many different denominations.  That way they have to argue about it and find a compromise.

I stay away from translations that are too hip and groovy.  Some translators have gone real far in making the Bible readable.  I think this is an honorable goal.  But you should realize that the more a translator re-works those words to make them understandable to you, the more he is interpreting.

So, some of the English translations we have are highly interpreted by their translators.

Let me give you here a scale.  It’s kind of a subjective scale.  But it’s a scale which tells us a little bit about the popular English translations.  On the one end would be those translations that are highly readable, but are also for that reason highly interpreted.  On the other end are those translations which are very literal in their approach, but they sacrifice some readability.

I believe that if you want to work on understanding a passage, compare at least two translations.  I use both the NIV and the NASB.

Read it

When we are talking to each other and we fail to communicate, what is the single greatest barrier to understanding?  What is it that time after time foils our attempts to get through to someone?

We don’t listen.

Example: Haven’t you ever been talking to someone and their mouth is open?  What does that mean about how they are listening?  Can you listen through and open mouth?

What it means is that we are so consumed with our thoughts.  We are so set on being heard, that we can’t hear other people.

That is the problem with biblical interpretation.  It’s more of a problem with the Bible than any other communication because people already have ideas on how they want things to be.  In the arena of the spiritual, God, the afterlife, and weighty issues like these, people have a way they would like things to be.  Or, at the very least, they know the things that they don’t like.  And they come to the Bible with all those things.

“I’ve got a fistful of ideas that I’d better not find here.”

“I’ve got a bunch of things I really like and really believe are true.”

So we bring all those things to the Bible.  We have our mouth wide open while we’re supposed to be trying to listen.  We’re waiting to talk.  We’re waiting to interject.

This is where I suggest reading the Bible.  So many of our problems with interpretation would be solved if we just read the Bible.

Example: I see this all the time, because I lead Bible studies.  We’ll often read a passage and then I’ll ask people what they think it means.  Someone will say, “Blah blah blah.”  And I’ll ask, “Where did it say that?”  And they look at me with their mouth open.  They have their mouth open.  Just put your finger on the text and show me where it says that.

I think this is why it’s really good for people to read the passage they want to look at, at least twice.  At least twice.  That does two things:

It makes us slow down and shut our mouth.

It makes us understand things in terms of their context.  We take the time to get the bigger picture.

Study any words that are unfamiliar to you

The third step on understanding the text would be to study any words or phrases that are unfamiliar to you.  There are obviously English dictionaries if you are unfamiliar with the English term.  But there are also dictionaries that help you to understand what the term meant in the original language.

Here are two of them . . .

Compare your findings with others

Finally, compare your findings with others.  You need to consult commentaries, tapes or other interpreters to bounce your ideas off them.

Make sure to announce the new series.

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