Do We Interpret Scripture?

This is one of those questions that require more than a one word answer. One could properly answer “yes” and “no,” depending on how our terms are defined. People use the same words to mean different things, so we must be crystal clear as to what exactly we mean. If we use “interpret” to mean “explain what you feel this passage means and thus your explanation is just as good as mine," the answer is a resounding “no.” Yet, if we define “interpret” as the dictionary does—“to explain or tell the meaning of, present in understandable terms”—we must say “yes.”

Perhaps Jesus’ conversation with the religious expert in Luke 10:25-28 can help. The lawyer tested Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The way Jesus worded His response is enlightening: “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” To turn the tables, Jesus asked two very different, but very related, questions. The first is strictly objective: “What does the Book say?” The second is subjective, in a way that challenged the lawyer to take this objective truth and apply it to his specific question: “How would you explain what the Book says?” In this second part, we might say, Jesus asks the lawyer to interpret the objective truth of the Law.

Also instructive is the way Jesus concluded this part of the conversation. Following the lawyer’s answer quoting the greatest commands (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” Notice carefully: the lawyer’s answer was correct. The fact that the lawyer interpreted the Book did not mean just any answer would do; there was a right answer and a wrong one. In His second question, Jesus was not asking the lawyer to tell him what he thought about a passage based on his feelings, or how the “inner light” was guiding him to understand it; He was asking him to draw a logical conclusion based on the objective, unchanging truth found in what the Law said.

Sometimes we wrongly conclude that if we must interpret (here, simply explain) Scripture it justifies any interpretation even if they all contradict one another.  Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer shows the fault in this thinking. We must make plain what the Scriptures say, as Ezra and the priests did as they “read from the book, from the law of God, translating [or, explaining] to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). Without explanation, or interpretation, how do we know how to apply Scripture? When Jesus spoke with the two disciples travelling to Emmaus, he "interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27, ESV). Surely, there is only one way to interpret the prochecies concerning the Messiah's coming--and this is precisely what Jesus told these two disciples. 

2 Peter 1:20 says “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” We must understand that Peter is not addressing how we use or explain the Bible; he is telling us where Scripture comes from. “For no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (v. 21). Though we must explain and apply Scripture, the words of Scripture themselves do not originate in man but in God.

What many people overlook at this point, however, is that truth is objective--meaning that we do not read meaning into the Bible because the meaning is already there for us to pull out. This is what sets the Bible apart from a piece of modern artwork. We commonly apply the term "interpret" an abstract blob displayed at the museum, in which case the observer brings meaning to the art based on his subjective perception and how the colors and shapes make him feel. The Bible doesn't work that way: God has a clear message to communicate, and it is our job to study and determine what that message is. It is not a guessing game. 

Because the Bible came from God, we must not misinterpret it (and yes, mishandling it is possible). We cannot argue with what the Book says. Sometimes the Bible is clear enough that it explains itself. For example, when Peter writes “baptism now saves you” in 1 Peter 3:21 the only proper interpretation to this passage is that baptism is necessary for salvation; any other explanation contradicts the clear meaning of those words. Because truth is objective, we cannot read into the Bible what is not there; nor can we perform verbal calisthenics to somehow skirt around an interpretation we disagree with when it clearly comes from the Bible. That is a fool-proof way to distort and twist the Scriptures to your own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Clearly, “your interpretation is NOT just as good as mine.” There are some explanations of Scripture that simply do not match what the Bible says. Those we must reject.

“But that’s just your interpretation” is the repeated refrain from anyone who disagrees. Perhaps so, but is it consistent with what the Book says? And, if that’s my interpretation, what’s yours? How did you reach your conclusion based on what this passage says? Asking these questions, we might find honest people reconsidering their original conclusions.

This is the bottom line. Anytime we study the Bible, we need to start with Jesus’ first question: “What is written in the Law?” Then, and only then, can we ask, “How does it read to you?” There is a reason why the second came after the first.