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That’s Just Your Interpretation

interpretation

It’s all too common for someone to point out something the Bible says and have somebody respond, “Well, that’s just your interpretation,” as if when it comes to what the Bible says there’s nothing more than personal opinion. But is that true? Is interpreting the Bible just the reader’s opinion, completely subjective, so that when it comes to the Bible it’s a free-for-all? Believe what you want, read it how you wish, because it doesn’t say anything definitive?

I’m afraid that’s a cultural myth. There’s an actual field of study for interpretation called hermeneutics defined as “the science of interpretation.” And it is a science—a series of steps, practices, disciplines and rules that apply to interpretation.

But make no mistake—99% of the Bible doesn’t take any heavy lifting in regard to interpretation. Here’s some quick reading. In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy it says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (6:4, NIV). So is there one God or two? One! In the Old Testament book of Exodus it says, “You shall not steal” (20:15, NIV). Is it okay to steal or not? It’s not! In the New Testament book of I Thessalonians it says, “… Jesus died and rose again” (4:14, NIV). Did Jesus die and rise again or not? The Bible says that He did. So is the Bible obscure in its meaning? No.

So why do so many claim that the Bible is difficult to understand? For some, it’s not in trying to grasp the most obvious reading, but in accepting the implications of that reading. It’s interesting how when you don’t like something you read, you can suddenly find yourself having a hard time understanding.

Lee Strobel says to pretend that your daughter and her boyfriend are going out for a Coke on a school night. You say to her, “You must be home before 11.” Now suppose it gets to be 10:45 and the two of them are still having a great time. They don’t want the evening to end, so suddenly they begin to have difficulty interpreting your instructions. They say: “What did he really mean when he said, ‘You must be home before 11?’ Did he literally mean us or was he talking about you in a general sense, like people in general? Was he saying, in effect, ‘As a general rule, people must be home before 11?’ Or was he just making the observation that generally, people are in their homes before 11? I mean, he wasn’t very clear, was he?

“And what did he mean by, ‘You must be home before 11?’ Would a loving father be so adamant and inflexible? He probably meant it as a suggestion. I know he loves me, so isn’t it implicit that he wants me to have a good time? And I am having fun, so he wouldn’t want me to end the evening so soon.

“And what did he mean by, ‘You must be home before 11?’ He didn’t specify whose home. It could be anybody’s home. Maybe he meant it figuratively. Remember the old saying, ‘Home is where the heart is?’ My heart is right here, out having a Coke, so doesn’t that mean I’m already home?

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James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.