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How should we interpret the Bible?
February 8, 2023
There are three helpful principles that can guide us as we seek to correctly interpret the Bible. But we will never fully understand the Bible unless we understand its central theme.
For many people, the biggest problem they have with the Bible is not so much with Scripture itself, but with the way in which it is interpreted. We all know how people can pick and choose the parts they are willing to accept. And sadly, we have all seen how people can misuse the Bible to pursue their own interests and take advantage of others. So is there a right way to interpret the Bible?
Some would say, you have to read the Bible “literally,” but taking it “literally” can be misleading. It is better to speak of the “natural sense” or the “plain sense” of Scripture. Why? Because sometimes the natural sense is figurative. For example, in a well-known story in John 3, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ teaching because he is overly literal. He thinks he must enter his mother’s womb a second time in order to experience the new birth Jesus describes.
If the natural sense is best, then what principles should guide us as we interpret the Bible? Let me offer three.
- First, you must read the Bible in light of its literary context. Like you would with any other text, pay attention to the grammatical structure of a sentence or paragraph, and observe the genre of writing or the literary devices the author employs. When you pick up a newspaper or an anthology of poems, you understand that you have two different genres of writing in your hands and that the two should be interpreted differently. It is the same with Scripture. The Bible contains a variety of genres: narrative, letters, history, poetry, proverbs, parables, songs. The way in which you interpret a parable is not the same way in which you read a historical account of a battle.
- Second, you must read the Bible in light of its historical context. The Bible was written by a variety of different authors stretching across vast centuries and diverse cultures so we should be careful not to universalize our own time or place. Rather, we should expect that some things in the Bible will be harder or easier for us to understand depending on our own cultural context. We should strive to determine the original context in which the words were written in order to figure out the meaning and how it applies to our own day rather than looking for a convenient excuse to lay it aside.
- Third, you must read the Bible in light of its Biblical context. Though the Bible was written by many different human authors, God remains the single, primary author which means that the overarching message of Scripture is consistent and coherent. We can derive an important principle from that truth. Scripture interprets Scripture. There are many difficult passages in the Bible, but the central teachings are clear–especially concerning God’s plan to rescue fallen humanity from sin, evil, and death. Therefore, we can use the clear teachings to interpret the confusing ones. And we should always consider the core claims of Christianity first before deciding on more peripheral issues.
So if you want to read the Bible rightly, you have to interpret it in light of its literary context, its historical context, and its Biblical context. But you will never understand the Bible unless you know its central theme—to reveal Jesus and his mission to the world.
Some verses point directly to Jesus, others are more remote, but eventually they all lead to Jesus. Old English commentators liked to use this analogy. Just as every little lane and road in England, not in isolation, but linking up together, will eventually lead you to London, so every verse and chapter, not in isolation, but linking up together, will eventually lead you to Jesus. So how should you interpret the Bible? The same way Jesus did. It’s not a book of moral instruction. It’s a book of Christ. So when you read the Bible, look for Jesus. And keep looking until you find him.
Written by Jason Harris
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee
Filmed and edited by Andrew Walker