Understanding the Bible: interpretation for everyone


Having recently discussed the necessity—indeed, the inescapability—of interpretation, it’s time to examine it more closely.  What is interpretation, and how does it work?

Stated plainly, interpreting is deciding “what we make” of something—it is reading or seeing something as something.  Interpretation applies not only to texts but to situations, and its scholarly study (the field of hermeneutics, which is the theory and practice of interpretation) includes the branches of legal, biblical, and philosophical hermeneutics—the latter being the interpretation of existence.

Crucial to this decision of what we “make of” something is the setting, or context, of the object or situation being interpreted.

As I noted in my last post, interpretation is important because it allows us to gain meaningful connection to ourselves and to others, and to evaluate how (and how authentically) they connect with us.  When we consider biblical interpretation, however, we often think of it as understanding the Bible’s meaning—getting at its t/Truth in terms of ideas.

But this is only part of the picture.

Particularly, if the God of the Bible “is love” and wants to be in relationship with humanity, then the focus of the Bible itself is for readers to understand the meaning of its truth claims and adjudicate their value in order to assess whether God is real.  More so, to asses whether this God is an entity with whom I want to engage—whether God’s love is authentic and God’s offer for relationship is genuine!

Such assessments require two types of interpretation: interpretation of texts and interpretation of experience (or existence).  So a) we interpret the Bible in order to determine its truth claims and then, for those claims that are experiential—such as God loving us—b) we interpret how such claims “play out” in everyday life in order to assess their truth value.

Let’s consider the first step—textual interpretation.

As context is key to proper interpretation, so interpreting the Bible requires reading its various books in context—reading them as ancient texts written according to various literary forms (narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, etc.).  Moreover, it means reading these texts as documents containing various literary features (hyperbole, parable, chiasm), composed for a particular audience, to certain ends (to inform, persuade, denounce, etc.).

As the Bible was not written in English, readers need to understand—or at least be aware of—the nuances of the original languages.  Further, understanding its words requires recognizing that we make sense of a given portion of text on the basis of the text that surrounds it: the “co-text.”

For example, by interpreting Romans 8:28 without duly considering its setting in Romans 8 (and indeed, in the whole book) and without due attention to its grammatical nuances in the Greek (note particularly the word “work”), we risk misreading this verse as endorsing the ‘greater good argument‘.  So we risk viewing the Bible as explaining—or explaining away—bad things as necessary for the sake of some greater good.  It does not.  I’ll explain this in detail in my next post.

Also, especially with ancient texts, we must be not only open to its words but conversant with its setting.  So we must understand the society / culture within which it was created to know the cultural expectations and understandings of its author and audience.

For example, without understanding the role of honour and shame in 1st century Palestine, we risk misreading Matthew 5:39 (when “struck on the right cheek, turn the other also”) as advocating pacifism or even abuse.  Again, it does neither.  And again, more details to follow.

Finally, the upshot of the preceding is not that we have to be biblical scholars in order to interpret the Bible well.  Instead, seeking the truth value of various truth claims is something everyone does all the time, so everyone has some experience and skill with it.  And like interpreting situations, textual interpretation is a skill that can be cultivated and improved.

11 thoughts on “Understanding the Bible: interpretation for everyone

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  2. In my experience, the ability to personally interpret sacred text is a crucial part of any spiritual practice. It is during this process that an individual may discover ways in which a particular “story” plays out in his own life… and as a result, develops a kind of intimacy with scripture. While finding this common thread in the bible, one moves naturally closer to God… The practice of interpretation can increase and deepen understanding of biblical truths while at the same time encourage the discovery and even validation very personal truths.

    Not sure if that makes any sense at all as I find it challenging to express what I need to say in words. I think I get what you’re saying and I totally agree… Sounds like common sense to me.

    • Hi Mama,

      Thanks for this comment and Yes, I think you make good sense. In my experience people tend to view the interpretation of sacred texts, like the Bible, in one of two ways. It is either an austere process of fact-finding (almost strip-mining the text for “data”) or the text is mostly used as a prooftext to validate my own experiences of “the divine” (the text acts to confirm what I think and believe, but never to critique it).

      Instead, my is that we need both (and more). So on the one hand I have to be careful not to attribute to God (or at least, to the God that the text depicts) a nature or character that that God simply is not shown to possess. IOW, I have to take the text seriously.

      On the other hand, if God is not simply an idea but an entity, then I know this God not simply through the depictions and stories of the text–no matter how novel or compelling–but through experience, just as I know my children, spouse, friends, etc. And this is where, for me, the “personal truths” that you mention come into play. Because no matter how grand or how perilous a sacred claim may be, it must be something that I can grasp (and indeed, be grasped by) if I am to see it as truth.

      It must be true-for-me in a way that both confirms my best and fullest understandings of myself, my fellows, and my world, and which surpasses my understandings in the direction of their truest fulfillment. And as far as I have experienced (or can understand), the greatest truth-for-me is to be deeply loved by one whom I love deeply.

      Your point, too, about the way that sacred stories interplay with (and I inform) our own stories is really interesting–a topic that I have been meaning to post on, in fact.

  3. This blew my mind…

    ” Because no matter how grand or how perilous a sacred claim may be, it must be something that I can grasp (and indeed, be grasped by) if I am to see it as truth.”

    I had never really thought of the ‘being grasped by’ concept… Wow. That is powerful for me. I like it. A lot. This idea of being grasped by the connection I feel to scripture and the truth I discover within it feels very life giving to me. I love this image… It seems to evoke in me a physical sense of being “held” by scripture… held and inspired to my highest and greatest good. I like that and it is a truth I have never put into words. Brilliant!

    Along the same lines, I dig this…

    “… surpasses my understanding in the direction of their truest fulfillment.”


    Again, I had never really considered this and you’ve put it into words so very very well. “Truest fulfillment”… Hmmm… All of a sudden, I am feeling inspired to break out the sacred text and move closer to who I truly am…

    Thanks, G

    • Thanks for your enthusiasm.

      And I like your final comment about opening the sacred text and moving closer to who you truly are. I think that the question of identity is huge and, particularly with a story that seems to be so overarching (like the Christian story), understanding identity is key.

      For me, we must eschew the view some Christians hold that my story is “swallowed up” by the Biblical story. Out of this idea and the like all manner of problems arise. So some Christians claim that they must oppose Postmodern thought because postmoderns are “incredulous” towards metanarratives, and what could be more metanarratival than the Bible? This is thoroughly wrongheaded.

      Or the idea that a Christian’s identity is “in Christ” and so their personal story and history must be subordinated to the Christian story and Christian history. Not so. In brief (I’ll save my thunder on this one for a future post) there is an interweaving of biblical and personal (hi)story: I remain myself yet am altered.

      So as a Christian, making moral choices is less seeing as God wants than being as God wants, and then seeing as we see it, with all the creativity and responsibility this implies.

      In other words, I do not try to “do what Jesus would do!” Rather, in seeking to be most fully myself (where my identity is informed by truth and shaped by love, and my character is informed and inspired by the biblical text), I try to do what I most would do, using all of the creativity and unique personality with which I have been endowed. That’s how I see it.

  4. “Rather, in seeking to be most fully myself (where my identity is informed by truth and shaped by love, and my character is informed and inspired by the biblical text), I try to do what I most would do, using all of the creativity and unique personality with which I have been endowed. That’s how I see it.”

    And that… is how I see it as well. That has been my commitment from the very beginning of my sacred journey. Happy to find someone walking the same path.

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