I was asked, “If there is a way to correctly interpret Scripture, then why do so many ’learned’ people come away with different interpretations?” Variations of this question come up from time to time: If a god had really inspired the Bible, wouldn’t he have written it clearly enough for everyone to understand? Don’t disagreements on the meaning of the text disprove its divine origins? People can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say; doesn’t that prove there’s no one correct interpretation?
If God intended to communicate a particular meaning through the biblical authors, and if God inspired their writing, why do people interpret the Bible differently? The fault lies not with God or with the text but with us. Here are three reasons why this happens.
1) We’re sinful. Our sin keeps us from seeing things clearly. We want certain things to be true, and we close our eyes to other things we don’t want to be true. I see this happen all the time. I see people’s ability to reason go down in proportion to how strongly they’re resisting God and His authority over their lives, and Romans 1 confirms this pattern.
The scary thing is, I’m certain I’ve done the same with parts of what I believe because I know I’m also a sinner. But I can’t see which of my ideas have been compromised. Because I know this happens, when I face temptations, I remind myself that I’m putting my ability to see truth in jeopardy. And I pray all the time that God will keep me from sin and humble me so that I can see and accept what He’s saying to me through the Bible.
2) People often have a second authority, in addition to the Bible, to which they’ve granted the final word on their interpretation. Whether that authority is parents and family, church tradition, ideas in the culture, or the head of a denomination, if the Bible is interpreted through and under something else, the result will be distorted (particularly when coupled with reason #1).
3) Not everyone is using good hermeneutical skills to interpret the Bible. Being “learned” doesn’t guarantee you’re using what you’ve learned, or even that you learned it in the first place. When you see that people have different interpretations, dig a little deeper. Why do they interpret the passage the way they do? Ask questions and follow the trail of their reasoning. Do they stay within the text to make their case, or do they appeal to something else? Can they show you how the biblical writer’s train of thought leads step by step to their conclusion? Are they considering the passage in the context of the chapter, the book, the Bible? Are they interpreting it in light of the genre (type) of the writing (history, wisdom literature, Gospel, etc.)? Are they taking the author’s time and culture into account?
This is how you can compare the different interpretations. Usually, if you start digging into the reasoning behind the conclusion, it doesn’t take long to discover who seems to be making the better case. But give yourself the best start possible by learning some skills. I recommend Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth or Walt Russell’s Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul.
Here’s my prescription for coming as close as possible to the meaning intended by God: Pray for sanctification and submission to God, come to the Bible with a willingness to sacrifice the theological ideas you’ve gleaned previously from other influences in submission to what you find in the text, pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate what He has written, and then use every hermeneutical tool to the utmost of your reasoning ability (including considering the arguments of people who have thought through this before you).
[Adapted from a post originally published here.]