By Brian Walters, MBC Loudoun Director of Discipleship
One of the strongest contributing factors to disunity in the church throughout the centuries has been inconsistency in how people interpret the Word of God. Not only does this contribute to disunity in the church, but it also hinders our witness to the lost world because people don’t know what or whom to believe.
The first reason there is disagreement about interpretation is because a variety of methods are used to analyze Scripture, resulting in different interpretations of the Bible. Throughout history, theologians have established principles of interpretation, or hermeneutics, which help with proper exegesis. Exegesis means examination of a text to discover the author’s intended meaning in the original context. The ultimate goal is to understand what God wants to communicate to us.
There are four main hermeneutics styles:
- Allegorical – Words are not taken literally, but in a symbolic sense.
- Literal/Plain/Normal – Words are taken in a normal sense, like our everyday language.
- Semi-allegorical/Semi-literal – Words are taken literally, except in the case of prophecy, which is interpreted allegorically.
- Theological interpretation – Words are taken semi-allegorically, but the interpreter may also interpret symbolically those things that don’t fit into his theology.
So which method should be used? In all but the literal or plain method, the normal meaning of the words may be deemed irrelevant and be replaced with whatever meaning the interpreter gives to symbols or whatever meaning suits his theological viewpoint. Such methods are dangerous because they can lead to contradictory interpretations. Thus, the literal or plain hermeneutic is recommended.
Here are two guidelines when interpreting Scripture using the normal hermeneutic:
- Interpret Scripture with Scripture – The meaning of a passage must harmonize with other passages in the Bible. If you interpret a text to mean something that contradicts the rest of what Scripture says, then your interpretation is most likely incorrect.
- Context is King – The meaning of a passage must be determined in proper context by reading the surrounding passages. This extends to the theme of the chapter, to the whole book, or even to the entirety of Scripture. Note: there are other types of context (e.g. historical, cultural, etc.) to take into account as well.
This is only a brief summary of hermeneutics. There are entire theology courses and books dedicated to this topic. Living by the Book, by Howard & William Hendricks, is one of the best books on the art and science of reading the Bible.
A second reason why there is disagreement on the interpretation of Scripture is because many are not knowledgeable about God’s Word for themselves. When people don’t know what the Bible says, they believe whatever they are taught and then teach others the same, which may propagate false interpretations.
If we are honest, we must admit that what is taught is not always biblical. How can you know what is biblical if you are not studying God’s Word yourself? There is no substitute for being in the Word, and if we are not, we can be led astray by slick talkers (Rom. 16:17-18) and misled by popular trends (Eph. 4:13-15). Remember that Satan disguises himself to trick us (2 Cor. 11:14), and he would like nothing better than for us to have an incorrect view of Scripture. Satan is always looking for an opportunity to pounce (1 Peter 5:8), so protect yourself by arming yourself with knowledge of the Word (Eph. 6:17).
Thirdly, there is disagreement on Scripture interpretation when man puts society’s culture and values in authority instead of the Word of God. As Christ followers, we can’t pick and choose what is true in the Bible as it suits our purpose. It is all true and God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). God tells us not to conform to this world (Rom. 12:2) or love the things of the world more than Him (1 John 2:15-16). It may not be easy to live out His Word, but we must never sacrifice its truth for what the world deems appropriate.
Finally, keep in mind that there may always be disagreement about Scripture interpretation. God uses truth as a dividing tool to identify genuine teaching, which ultimately unifies the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:18-19). Again, this is why there is simply no substitute for studying the Bible yourself using literal hermeneutic principles to determine the most accurate interpretation and to judge whether what others are teaching is true. A whole lot of disagreement would disappear if everyone practiced a proper exposition of Scripture.