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The B-I-B-L-E #1

2006 March 7
by Mike

The B-I-B-L-E

Here is one of the most shocking discoveries of my early life: the Bible has to be interpreted.

I know that’s a no-brainer. But I grew up thinking that what set us apart from all other religious groups is that we just believed the Bible. God said it. We believed it. That settled it.

Other people had creeds. Others twisted it because they liked musical instruments or didn’t like baptism. They put their trust in commentaries–the words of mere humans. But we just read the Bible.

It helps to live an insular life if you want to hold onto that belief. Because when you begin engaging Christ-followers from other groups, you quickly realize that many of them think about the same thing.

But the Bible has to be interpreted. In a sense, that happens even in the earliest stages of translation. Those translating the Bible from Hebrew (and a bit of Aramaic) in the OT and Greek in the NT have to make choices. How do they translate a passage when it’s ambiguous? How do they express in English a word that seems to have a wide range of meanings?

Several times I’ve heard people jealous because I can read the Greek New Testament. Hey, seven years of Greek and you’d be there, too! They wish they could just read what the text says.

Guess what? It’s a blessing to be able to do that and it’s helpful to know what the original text said (as best we could piece it together from manuscripts–since we don’t have any original copies of the NT books), BUT . . . you still have to interpret. Reading Greek rarely makes things more obvious. Otherwise, all the Greek-readers would be unified.

We are not unique because be follow the Bible. Or because we’re nervous of creeds. Or because we like the “plain meaning of the text.”

As I’ve led discussions about the ministry of women, I’ve often heard people say, “We shouldn’t make the Bible say what we want it to say.” I agree. Absolutely. But let’s also be honest about this: none of us comes to scripture completely objective and unbiased. All of us are having to use tools of interpretation.

I don’t want to twist scripture. I want to live under its authority. But I also have to humbly admit that this is harder than I might have imagined.

This recognition demands two things from us:

First, it demands community. We need to read scripture together–with other Christians we know and with believers from other times, places, and denominations. As people seeking to follow Jesus, we need to rely on the insights of the larger community of faith.

Second, it demands humility. Before I write off other people who disagree with me, I’d better realize how very challenging this whole task of biblical interpretation has been. And it wouldn’t hurt me to remember that so many wars in the world have come because everyone has their own holy book that they believe they have the inside track on how to interpret.

More later . . . .

34 Responses leave one →
  1. March 7, 2006

    Growing up I saw very little of either….Community or Humility….rather I witnessed inward, self-righteous thinking and a boat-load of arguing over riduculous things about the text. For awhile, it was funny for us younger kids to watch adults behaving like kids, but then as we grew older, it became very discouraging. Someday I should chase down all of us that grew up in this enviroment and see where we are now in our faith. I suspect the results would be troubling.

    Thankfully, this place and others continue to challenge me to move beyond this history and become a Christ follower.

    Thanks Mike

  2. March 7, 2006

    Mike, thanks for these thoughts. I do wish I could read in the original languages. I believe we all need to be open to understanding for which we pray. It is difficult as best to read with understanding and almost impossible to read with wisdom. I enjoy your web log. Thanks.

  3. March 7, 2006

    I am currently teaching a class we call “Bible: Book of Books” at a Christian school in Chattanooga. I have around 30 eleventh and twelfth grade students (in two separate classes) and we have been studying this subject of the interpretation of Scripture recently. It has been AMAZING to listen to their comments and to read their interpretation of different passages of Scripture. A bottom line conclusion which I had already come to but which now has been confirmed through observations in this class: we must have the grace of God for shortcomings and limitations in interpreting Scripture just as we need the grace of God in our attempt to live Scripture.

  4. March 7, 2006

    More and more I’m convinced of the truth in “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. It’s up to us. No preacher can form our beliefs, no creed can can be so complete as to always direct us in our decisions. After Sunday’s service surrounding the “Lord’s Prayer”, I more convinced than ever that we should call it “Our Prayer”. The sovereignty of the Father, our Father, the importance of the Kingdom arriving in us every day, the desire that God’s will is done, the need for satisfaction with enough today, forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness. I think the “Lord’s Prayer” can be found in John 17:20ff: All of those who believe in me because of the messages of the Apostles (in short, the bulk of the NT) should be one. One like the Father and Son. Not identical, but one. Seeking the values found in “Our Prayer”, seeking a common forever. That requires a different attitude; concern, acceptance, love, peace, celebration. No room for denominational bickering and finger-pointing. What would the world be like if we could do that??
    Thanks for what you do, Mike.

  5. March 7, 2006

    I definately agree with that. I used to try to argue some points in the scripture (that I think are worth arguing) with some friends of different denominations and now I believe that more importantly than argue some doctrines that time should be spent telling someone about Jesus that doesn’t know anything about Him or at least has no special beliefs about certain scriptures.

  6. March 7, 2006

    Thanks for another great post. I agree. I’m working through the book of Mark with our youth group and like Jeff, I am amazed at the thoughts rolling through their heads. How could I ever pressume to know all their is to know? Community is vitally important when we engage scripture. And we can’t have that community without humility, right? If I’m not even willing to hear someone else’s side of the story, haven’t I cancelled both out? We are Christ followers, and I’m pretty sure he heard both sides of the story before He offered any comments.
    Thanks again Mike.

  7. March 7, 2006

    thanks a lot Mike, now I have the B-I-B-L-E song in my head:)

  8. March 7, 2006

    Good thoughts, bro.

    Good to see that published your thoughts from a couple of days ago on handling crisicism.

    Interpretation is indeed where the challenge lies. I have found that my frustration can be alieviated when I realize that some individuals that I attempt to engage in conversation are using an interpretation schema that varies a good deal from my own.

    Love and acceptance must be extended in this situation to understand that even though many of us don’t see eye to eye on the “issues” we are all covered by the abundant grace of God.

  9. March 7, 2006

    I’m with you on the greek thing! I’m in my fourth semester, and all I have is more questions from the text. Yet it’s also so much more beautiful in it’s original form, so much more poetry in the text.

  10. March 7, 2006


    I took 2 semesters of NT greek while in school and my instructor, Duane Warden, said that reading the greek NT and the english NT is like color TV and black and white TV.

  11. March 7, 2006

    We had a spaghetti supper Sunday nite. Amazing how many different ways spaghetti was interpreted–some unfamiliar with the law of exclusion added meatballs and mushrooms. No mention of sauce had been made but evidently, sauce was necessarily inferred. It was a good dinner for our community and most folks humbly admitted each recipe was good.

  12. March 7, 2006

    Mike, just read your article on Heartlight this morning. A great piece for us preacher-types. Just a few Sundays ago I had a gentleman come up to me and tell me that he was glad I finally just let scripture speak that day (I happened to close with a few verses strung together). I couldn’t tell whther he was OK with me speaking some of the other time or he just wanted scripture?! Then I thought, if we just let scripture speak, I’ll be out of a job! Oh well, thank you for encouraging us and letting us know we’re not alone in those backhanded compliments… wait… did I just do that? Sorry, didn’t mean to. Peace,
    Jim MacKenzie, former back-up “Steve Young like” Worship leader @ Highland circa 1991

  13. March 7, 2006

    I didn’t learn about textual variants until I took Greek and Intro to NT Studies at Harding. It was a shock to find out that we didn’t have the original manuscripts. To say my eyes were opened would be an understatement. At the same time, it confused me that I would have professors teach such a strict hermeneutic.

    Great post!

  14. March 7, 2006

    eddy said: “We had a spaghetti supper Sunday nite. Amazing how many different ways spaghetti was interpreted–some unfamiliar with the law of exclusion added meatballs and mushrooms. No mention of sauce had been made but evidently, sauce was necessarily inferred. It was a good dinner for our community and most folks humbly admitted each recipe was good.”

    WOW! What a great analogy. I like the necessarily inferred sauce part. Most important was that each recipe was good.


  15. March 7, 2006

    Very well said, Mike. I deeply appreciate it.

  16. March 7, 2006

    Thank you so much for this post, Mike. I’m sorry that I’m just recently realizing what that post and others have helped me understand.

  17. March 7, 2006

    It is just so complicated, Mike.

  18. March 7, 2006

    Community……what’s that? 🙂
    Great post, brother!


  19. March 7, 2006

    Thank you for this post. Interpretations have been on my mind a lot lately. Our church has been wrestling with the role of women for a while, and the leadership is prayerfully moving toward more inclusion. Parts of my Christian family may leave our congregation over this. It breaks my heart that my getting up and reading a scripture or saying a prayer may cause division or hurt some of my closest friends. I wrestle with the questions: Are we right? Are they right? Do we stay the same so we don’t offend? Is it my pride making me want to be up front? Will it be a sin? Could I go to hell for this? Could I go to hell for not doing this? Does it even really matter to God? Finally, after countless discussions with people at church, I just lay it at the feet of Jesus and ask the Holy Spirit to move.

  20. March 7, 2006

    Excellent comments Mike. I’ve recently left the Churches of Christ and embraced the idea that salvation takes place at the point of faith apart from outward works like baptism. I’ve had people ask me why I no longer believe baptism is for the remission of sins. I have to explain to them that I believe that because that is what the Bible says–I just don’t interpret that the way I did when I was in the Church of Christ.

    Salvation is not about a long and difficult theological test in which we have to get all the answers right and only asssociate with those who have all the right answers. Salvation is about God’s work through Jesus Christ to effect His kingdom. Our role is to yield to that work through faith.

  21. March 7, 2006

    It seems that most of us agree that we all bring different tools to the table of Biblical understanding/interpretation (education, intelligence level, all kind of other “baggage”). I, too, get humbled. When you throw in the mix the fact that no originals (or probably 1st generation copies of originals) exist, I get humbled even more. And then when I can grasp the fact that, say, Paul’s letters were not primarily written to me, they were written to the “Philippians” or the “Colosians”, etc. (in other words, I am reading someone else’s mail), then I am really, REALLY humbled. How can we ever begin to think that we have arrived at any kind of absolute truth? Can we arrive there?

  22. March 7, 2006

    Well, I guess we can all just do what we want — it’s open to interpretation!

    It’s like a CoC website FAQ I once read that had a fabulous explanation (with scripture references) of the bible-based reasons for acapella music in worship service, and that the elders had spent “many hours” in prayer and study before deciding that it was scriptural to not have instruments.

    Fast forward a year or so. Their elders and membership decided to go in a more “liberal” direction and NOW the FAQ says that after “many hours” of prayer and study, that instrumental music is all right after all.

    Hm. It makes you wonder what REALLY changed, the Bible, or the people “interpreting” it.

  23. March 7, 2006

    Great words. They make me feel welcome as I struggle with my faith and ask hard questions of myself. The freedom to be honest is freedom indeed.

  24. March 7, 2006

    Praise God for elders and members who continue to spend hours in study and prayer. Praise God that doing such really does change people!

  25. March 7, 2006

    In reference to Lisa’s comments a couple of posts up….We are a weak and sinful people that, hopefully, are trying to find the heart of Christ, and be that love to a lost world – in worship; community; and, in personal journey through prayer, meditation and learning. I just wonder at times if we corporately think we’ve found “it” in worship style; thinking style or communication style?

    In reality, I think it’s just more the fact that our whole outlook and process for now is simply on the wrong side of eternity – that is – it will always be somewhat off, not necesarily “conservative” or “liberal”.

  26. March 7, 2006

    Amen to Kentf. All along Jesus has been teaching us about process, not events and not firm answers. We are either becoming more and more like him or are becoming more and more hemmed in by our own expectations. If we’re on The Way our understanding must necessarily change as we learn more from the teacher. Our weaknesses and misunderstandings are made perfect in Christ, eventually.

  27. Bekki Kearns permalink
    March 9, 2006

    I like the new site (so far)!

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