It Does Not Matter What the Bible Means to You

I was teaching the other day on hermeneutics (the science and art of biblical interpretation). More specifically, I was teaching on the importance of what is known as “authorial intent” or “historical grammatical” hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a fancy word that has to do with one’s method of interpreting the Bible. An “authorial intent” hermeneutic simply means that we must seek to understand what the text meant from the standpoint of the original author and audience before we can apply it to our lives. This involves an understanding of many things, including the argument of the writing, the situation of the audience, the rules that govern the particular genera (type of writing), the culture in which the book was written, issues of grammar and syntax, and personality and mood of the author (and how he was feeling at the time he wrote it). Sometimes this is self-evident, and sometimes it takes a lot of leg work. Sometimes you are sure, but sometimes there is some ambiguity that tempers your assurance.

While I was explaining this, many people were becoming very uncomfortable and squirming in their seat. One lady would have none of what I said, but continually pleaded that she does not need this. God simply speaks to her when she opens the Bible, bypassing all these difficulties and roadblocks that I was suggesting. She insinuated that if what I said were true that she would have to quit reading the Scriptures. Ouch! As an Evangelical Christian teacher, this is the last thing that I want someone to do.

Today’s reaction was not unique by any stretch. I have taught on this dozens of times and most people feel very uncomfortable with this presentation. I understand where they are coming from. Heck, I even find these propositions difficult to swallow sometimes. Why? Because the Bible is God’s word. Because we are taught that the Bible is “living and active.” Because we believe that the “Bible is God’s love letter to us.” This means that when we open it up, it becomes God’s message to us.

Most people normally don’t practice authorial intent hermeneutics when we read our Bible. We have a different hermeneutic altogether. It is a subjective, reader-response hermeneutic where the Bible speaks magically to us. In our mind (although we would never admit it as such), God bypasses the original intent of the author and opens our eyes to His teaching just for us. This is a “secret” hidden message that only Christians can find. One of my friends in seminary used to call this “lucky-lotto hermeneutics.” To play the ”lucky-lotto,” you simply pick up the Bible and the first thing you read will give you the answers to the questions you are after: God will speak directly to you.

I often tell people that if we were going to practice this type of hermeneutic, we might as well use Moby Dick. As a matter of fact, if this is our method, God can use any writing whether it be Harry Potter, the Dallas Morning News sports page, the Yellow Pages, the billboard as you are driving down the road, or the ticker at the bottom of the screen while watching FOX News (not MSNBC though :) ). All of these would carry the same validity as God’s message if we are going to use a subjective hermeneutic which disregards what the text meant in its original context. If God is going to bless us and give us a message in such a way, He is doing it graciously in spite of our methodology, not because of it.

Where does such a hermeneutic arise? Why do we feel as if we can violate the Scriptures in such a way? Where do we come up with this method of mining out God’s “secret” hidden message?

I believe that Gnosticism, at least in the West, is the biggest problem in conservative Christianity today. To make a very complex subject overly simple, Gnosticism is a ancient Greek philosophy that separates the world into two categories: good and evil. All that is evil is associated with the mundane existence of a material world. All that is good is that which transcends the material world, being spiritual in nature. Therefore, Gnostics believed that the body, being material, was inherently evil. They believed that the earth and creation were evil. They believed that our goal was to transcend this material existence in every discipline of life, thus escaping the mundane. The ultimate redemption would come at death when our spirits would finally be released from our body.

In the New Testament, we see the Apostle’s having to battle this type of philosophy time and time again. Paul was scoffed at as he preached the resurrection of the dead to the Athenians. “Why would some one want to resurrect their evil body?” was the argument of the philosophers on Mars Hill. “That is ridiculous. We just got rid of our body; why would we want it back?” John had to defend the fact that Christ actually took on real flesh, a true material existence. Those Gnostics who wanted to be faithful to their philosophy of dualism (good=spirit and evil=physical) yet accept Christianity produced a new Christ. To them, Christ only seemed to have a body, but He really didn’t because a good God could not take on a physical existence since physicality is inherently evil. Yet John proclaimed that they had “seen” Christ and that their “hands have handled him” (1 John 1:1-2).

Where am I going with this? Hang with me…

It is my contention that we are still struggling with the basic presuppositions of a Gnostic worldview in the church today. Right now, I am simply dealing with this with regards to our Bibliology and Hermeneutic, but we can find the influence of Gnosticism infecting our view of Christ, Humanity, Culture, and the end times. As I mention above, most Christians are reading the Bible with a subjective hermeneutic. They read the text as if there is some secret, hidden, underlying meaning in the text. This hidden meaning is the true “spiritual” meaning that transcends the ordinary, physical, evident, mundane reading. This hidden meaning can only be discovered by Christians. Why? Because Christians have the secret decoder ring. We have the Holy Spirit who meets us at the text and whispers in our ear what the meaning really is.

This hermeneutic started very early in Church history in Alexandria and was predominant until the Reformation. Many in church history laid it out logically in this way: Just as the body has three parts—body (physical), soul, and spirit, so the Scripture has three interpretations—literal (physical), moral, and spiritual. While the literal was not completely disregarded, it certainly took a back seat to the more important spiritual meaning. The problem quickly became evident as people would search for this deeper hidden meaning without any rules or reliable guidelines for finding such. The result was that everyone came to different conclusions about what it meant (sound familiar?). The Reformers led the Church back to authorial intent hermeneutics, claiming that it is the only way for us to understand what the Scriptures really mean.

Today, I believe that we (evangelicals included) are dangerously close to Gnosticism with regards to our Bible study. We have lost the spirit of Reformation hermeneutics, especially in the pews. We sit around in Bible study circles and ask “What does this passage mean to you?” We applaud as someone gives their answer and then move on to the next and ask the same question. “What does it mean to you Billy?… And what does it mean to you Sal?… What does it mean to you Kevin?” We affirm each person’s response even if it means something different to each person. Can the text have different meanings? Only if you are practicing a Gnostic hermeneutic where the Bible becomes a magic book with a secret spiritual meaning that transcends the literal.

While the Bible can have different and subjective applications, it cannot have different and subjective meanings. It means what it meant. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no person, group, denomination, tradition, or magisterial authority who has a magic decoder ring. There is no secret hidden meaning. The only meaning that we can discover is what the original author meant.

While this does produce fear of the Scriptures, I believe that this is a healthy fear. After all, the Bible is God’s word, isn’t it? We can’t take it lightly.

152 Responses to “It Does Not Matter What the Bible Means to You”

  1. I am currently reading the updated HOW TO READ THE BIBLE FOR ALL ITS WORTH, and your post is an additional inspiration to read-study the Bible correctly. Thanks, Michael.

  2. Hi Michael,

    Nice post. It is good to see that although we might disagree on particular interpretations, we at least approach scripture in the same way.

    I am not sure though that I would agree with the statement that “most Christians are reading the Bible with a subjective hermeneutic” at least not in the circles in which I have traveled.

    One final note: Knowing that you are a complementarian (if I remember correctly), do you know what a complementarian calls hermeneutics? Hiswomeneutics! :)

  3. There is no secret hidden meaning. The only meaning that we can discover is what the original author meant.

    There is much truth in what you have written Michael, but I think there is a supernatural element which you appear somewhat sceptical of.

    I am a strong believer in authorial intent. Note that with Scriptures we have dual authorship. Thus there may be meaning that the human author was not aware of. There may be a double meaning intended by God.

    Further, I think that substandard hermeneutics, while not preferable, can be overcome by the Spirit working in those who truly desire to follow Jesus and understand God’s word.

    Lastly, while I am cautious how I would teach thus, God is able to use his own word to specific people that may not apply generally. I would argue that people have had God speak into their situation through Scripture that may not be applicable to all people.

    I do agree that the Bible does not give contradictory teaching, all interpretations are not all valid. And we should fight against the popular false philosophy known as pluralism. And we should teach what does the Bible mean, not how do I see it, or how does it make me feel. But I would be cautious in your reaction against modern Gnosticism not to dismiss concepts excessively.

  4. Michael,
    I think you’re being a little disingenuous when you speak of having lost the spirit of Reformation hermeneutics and spend the previous part of the article championing historical-critical methods. Reformation hermeneutics, as I’m sure you’re aware, were most definitely not historical-critical. They often relied heavily on such approaches as typology. This, I would suggest, has nothing to do with authorial intent.
    I also think that your opening statement betrays the basis of your approach. By calling hermeneutics a science (albeit qualified by also calling it an art) you fall into the same trap as the enlightenment thinkers whose positivistic outlook led them to dismiss the ‘woolly’ thinking of religion and champion ‘the truth’ that can be discovered through scientific analysis. Give due consideration to any more contemporary literary theories and you’ll soon discover that ‘authorial intent’ is about as far from a science as you can get.
    I am not suggesting that your approach isn’t valuable, but it needs to be tempered with the knowledge and understanding that, at best, we can only make a good guess at what the author intended, and that we bring so much of our own baggage to a text that we can never ‘know’ what an author intended. Where such an approach is indeed enormously valuable is stopping us from stepping too far beyond the boundaries of the text. It offers us some of the checks and balances that keep us from applying whatever interpretation we like to the text.
    As always though, a good and challenging article.

  5. John, I agree somewhat, and might I say that I have made a “good guess” about what you intended.

    You can thank me later!

  6. A clear and powerful demonstration that modern Evangelicalism has becoming self-centred is when everyone’s favourite question is now “What does this mean to you?”

    And this viewpoint is everywhere – even sometimes represented on this blog (of course not by the beloved authors of this blog). If anything it is rather disingenous and narcissistic.

    Sometimes I wonder whether it is just laziness, selfishness or both that lead us to this conclusion that unless it speaks to me directly, it means nothing. Personally, were I a pastor (and thank heavens I am not), every new convert to the faith would get a Bible, Wayne Grudem’s Christian Beliefs (the mini-systematics text) and How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. It would save them a lot of spiritual shipwreck.

    P.S. The lady from your post saddens me. Why stop reading the Word of life just because it won’t tell you X and Y?

  7. It’s a scary thing to see such in “black and white.” It makes me rethink and double-check my method. I agree that “authorial intent” is important, as much as the enviroment in and to which the author wrote. Our senior pastor loves the quote, “Text without context is pretext.” Thanks for your candor and courage.

    P.S. I agree with Douglas K. Adu-Boahen, it IS sad that someone would decide to stop reading the Bible just because one could not render it to one’s own feelings. May God protect us all from coming to that point.

  8. rayner markley May 18, 2009 at 7:06 am

    Jesus Himself gave us the secret decoder ring when He left His Holy Spirit with us. We must guide our lives and our interpretations in line with that Spirit, which has to be within us. We see that Spirit in the way He lived His life. Still, hermeneutics is valuable in helping us understand how the Spirit has guided other people, i.e., the authors. Its strengths are in the areas of doctrine, but we have become almost too dependent on the written word.

  9. CMP,
    As much as you probably feel safe in your teaching, do you have a greater grasp of scripture than I do even though I have been reading it since I was 15 and now am 40? That seems to be the core issue, your interpretation vs. my interpretation. The thing is, when we say “what does this mean to you?” is exactly that, what does it mean?

    If we take the Bible on the merit of being a textbook that needs to be studied so we can learn the meanings of the Greek and Hebrew and why the author used the words they did then we do miss out on the wonderful meaning of what it means for us today in our situation today. If we limit God’s revelation to just for them back then, it no longer applies to us.

    Should we no longer be seeking revelations or deep meanings just on the basis of us not living in the right century or being in the original location? The Bible itself says there are mysteries of God. It does seem to me your position is one of “it’s impossible for there to be secret meanings because the authors do not imply so”. If that be the case, why did Belshazzar have Daniel translate the handwriting on the wall? That was a secret meaning even though there were Hebrew speakers among his own council. But the words were supernatural, by a supernatural author, with a supernatural meaning…all leading to a natural consequence.

    And as for the person above suggesting extra-Biblical books to understand how to read the Bible is the same as accusing Mormons of reading the Book of Mormon. Same concept.

    The Word of God is sharper than any two edged sword. It cuts truth from lie and it cuts good from bad. If we then sit and study the way swords are made, what they are made from and the metal from the country the author came from then we miss why the sword is being used and how to avoid being hurt from it.

  10. Leslie – it is a great book

    Second, a qoute for the day

    The text doesn’t mean one thing today and something else tomorrow. Whatever it means, it means forever. But you will never cease the process of applying the truth to your life (Howard and William Hendricks)

    When people ask “what does this mean to you?”, are they really suggesting some secret message, or are they asking the Hendricks second point?


  11. I just have one more question…
    Why are we asked to question the motives of Bible authors (even though the Bible plainly states they were given the words by inspiration of the Holy Spirit as God moved on them), but we are never expected to question motives of theologians?

  12. I think, Michael, that what you are saying is that no verse or passage is a matter of private interpretation.

    That sounds familiar, although I must confess that its meaning does depend on one’s hermeneutic. Oh, the irony.

    But I suppose we could fall back on the “to each his/her own” style of understanding Scripture and remain in our private, special, insider-trading view of God. Truth is not universal but changes according to private interpretation.

    One more thing: you are right, Michael, to call the privatization of interpretation “magic.” That is exactly what it is, not much different from the pagan practice of cutting out a lamb’s liver and determining a message from the gods by how the liver quivered. The Bible becomes our own little talisman when we treat it in such a way. Or to pay for someone to interpret the ramblings of an oracle who perches above a volcanic vent and babbles incoherently while under the influence of toxic fumes.

    That is not rightly handling the word of God. But I confess that I am limited by my hermeneutic and not privilege to the special knowledge that the initiated seem to possess.

    Woe is me.

  13. Gnosticism? Perhaps. I’d be more comfortable chalking it up to the post-modern obsession with relativism and a thoroughly 21st-century discomfort with stepping on anyone’s toes. Black and white are no longer socially acceptable. Then again, neither is Christianity. Interesting post.

  14. “Why are we asked to question the motives of Bible authors (even though the Bible plainly states they were given the words by inspiration of the Holy Spirit as God moved on them), but we are never expected to question motives of theologians?”

    This is an excellent example of what Michael is saying, Kara. You have read into Michael’s words meaning that was not present. You have failed to understand his intent and therefore failed to understand his post.

    Michael said we need to discover the author’s intent, not question it. But you, assuming that however you take something is the way it was meant, are corrupting the meaning of Michael’s words. You assume your understanding equals his intent. I assure you it does not.

    Is this what you do to Scripture, too? If so, it is a dangerous practice.

    We all want to find what we’re looking for in the Bible and, without discipline (i.e., hermeneutics), we’ll “find” it whether it’s actually there or not. Reading our own meaning into God’s word makes discovering His meaning virtually impossible.

    A good hermeneutic honors the Holy Spirit by respecting what He has written and not imposing our own ideas upon His message. That is what Michael is saying.

  15. The Jews say that Christians took the Old Testament out of its historical and religious context when creating and writing the New Testament, and continue to do so in their exegesis and interpretation of it, and hence misuse and misinterpret and misapply it.

    The Catholic and Orthodox Christians say that Protestants took the Bible out of its historical and religious and conciliar and ecclesiastical context, and hence misuse and misinterpret and misapply it.

    Evangelical Protestants theologians say that individual Christians who don’t adhere to a historical-grammatical authorial intent hermeneutic take the Bible of its context, and hence misuse and misinterpret and misapply it.

    Pots and Kettles and Black, oh my! :D

  16. Is there a fancier name for that subjective, “luck-lotto” hermewhatics???
    Sometimes I will be reading something (not necessarily the Bible) and Something jumps out to my mind as TRUE. Or I will hear the words of a song on the radio, and it speaks to ME as if It were composed and written and played over and over again on the radio–just so that I might hear it at that exact moment when I needed to hear it.
    This revelatory epistemology does seem contrary to what you are saying is proper… But what about prophecy? Isn’t there a verse in the New Testament that says something about prophets not understanding the meaning of their message? How can you determine the intent of the author in that case?

  17. (1 Cor 2:14) But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

  18. William S.:

    And that raises another issue: It does not appear that the NT authors bound themselves to a historical-grammatical authorial intent hermeneutic.

    Is it possible that the NT was given to us not only as the canon/rule/measure of the faith, but also as an example of how to read the Bible, both Old and New Testament?

    See, e.g., Beyond The Obvious: Discovering the Deeper Meaning of Scripture by James DeYoung and Sarah Hurty (out of print or Wipf & Stock) for a critique of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic as the be-all and end-all of interpretation.

  19. This is a complex and relevant issue in my own little Christian circle. We want people (in my case, women since that’s the ministry I’m involved in) to read their Bibles. In fact, we insist on it because of the vital, indispensable role it plays in spiritual growth. And we don’t want people to feel like they have to be Michael Patton ;-) to get something out of their Bibles. But on the whole I think we (meaning my church) err on the side of not giving enough instruction as to how to read it well. So you do get a lot of “what this means to me is…”

    Nevertheless, I have some issues with authorial intent. Part of that is from my own academic background that was heavy on reader-response. And although I don’t think reader-response is the way to go (a little disrespectful to Dickens if you read A Tale of Two Cities that way, but potentially dangerous is you read the Bible that way.) I do see many of the criticisms of authorial intent as worth considering. I think Michael is being balanced in his approach in that he recognizes there is some subjectivity at play (here, I go ascribing intent!). But the biggest issue I have is the way the New Testament authors frequently quote the Old. Matthew and Hebrews in particular can leave you scratching your head.

    I’ve been reading/listening to Carson, Keller, Goldsworthy, and Clowney talking about typology. Michael, I would love it if some day you would give your perspective on this approach.

    Always on the journey,

  20. I really appreciate this post. This is certainly an issue that needs to be dealt with in local churches. I’ve heard so many times people say “Just listen to the Holy Spirit”. What does that even mean?

    I like to use a phrase that I heard once. I can’t remember where I heard it. It is, “What would this passage mean if you were dead?” :)

  21. One minor point–No matter how objective an approach we take to understanding scripture, faith, doctrine, etc. it eventually goes through the subjective lenses of our own eyes. At the same time, the more objective beginning we can get the better. I think the Holy spirit does help us see the truth in scripture but should begin with understnading what the Spirit was doing when the authors originally penned their various parts–thus authorial intent.

  22. Bravo, Michael! I have not yet had time to read through the responses yet, but I will add my support to this post whole-heartedly. As one with a degree in ancient history and a background of researching the literature genres of the ancient near east (ANE), I can say that much damage has been done in the evangelical community by their misinterpretations of much of the OT. And, this is caused almost entirely by the subjective, modernistic reading of what are ancient texts. I even wrote a long post one time about how the young earth creationist movement is a classic example of modern gnosticism.

    While there are many current evangelical scholars reversing this trend (like Peter Enns) and pointing out the actual authorial intent of the writers of the early OT, we still have too many out there insisting on reading from Genesis 1 onward as one simple genre – literal historical narrative. They rely entirely on “what makes sense to them” and what seems like the “plain meaning”, not taking into account that what makes sense, or seems plain, to them is entirely dependent on being raised in a modern, and Modernistic, culture.

    While I think that the basic truths of the salvation message in Scripture are there for everyone to read and understand (I do believe that God made sure of that), to think that this collection of ancient texts written over a 1,500 year period by dozens of authors in more than one culture, would be readily understandable in all of its nuance to a modern reader is not realistic. Even St. Augustine pointed out that Scripture was not always clear, and I believe the Westminster Confession states the same thing.

    God created a community of believers. Why would he mandate a role for “Teachers” if everyone could understand it all without the need of teachers?

    We have a responsibility as believers to read and study Scripture, and to believe it, but God also appointed teachers over us to help us along the way with the more difficult areas. Just like pastors, of course, these must be worthy of our trust.

  23. Michael: I seem to remember you posting about the same subject a while back. I believe that I mentiioned the manner in which certain NT authors certainly drew meanings from OT passages that were surely not intended by the authors. If I remember correctly, you said something to the effect that they were a different story because they were the NT authors. I’ll check the archives and see if I can find the post, but has your position changed since then (if I’m remembering it correctly)? Do you think that the NT authors get a free pass to go beyond authorial intent while we don’t?

    Kara: Read more broadly and you’ll find a lot of people suggesting that we should question the motives of theologians. BTW, were the Bible’s authors not theologians?

  24. If the ticker at the bottom of the news channel is God’s way of speaking to us, then we we should all be very, very scared.

  25. The problem that I run into quite often is when people say something to the effect of “The Bible means X to me.” they exclude the community, they haven’t checked their interpretation with the interpretative tradition in the church. As a Lutheran, I believe that biblical interpretation happens within the community, not a vacuum. There is a long history of biblical interpretation for one to go back and check their personal interpretation. Without checking ones personal interpretation with the community, it’s hard to tell if it is the Holy Spirit working or if it’s just indigestion.

  26. What happens when God actually does use a Scripture verse to speak to you outside of its context?

    For example, God spoke to me from a simple phrase in Isaiah 43:9 – ‘I will make a way.’ In the context, it is speaking of the restoration and return from exile. We could go on to say that this could be divided into the initial restoration of Israel in mid 5th century BC and those of us in Christ being restored, though some might disagree, which is fine. But God spoke to me completely out of those two possible contexts. Something difficult was going on in my life and, lo and behold, God leads me into Isaiah 43 and to vs19.

    I hung on to those words tightly for a few weeks, and still remember them at times when I hit difficult times.

    The Spirit can subjectively speak to people, right? I love hermeneutics and teach them to people all the time. But we would want to guard against swinging the pendulum too much, right?

  27. ScottL:

    I think God can and DOES speak to us using Scripture in that way, even out of context. As much as I agree with Michael in this post, I agree entirely that God works the way you describe as well.

    But what we are pointing out is that this subjective use of Scripture, or use out of historical/genre context, is not the proper basis for doctrine or foundational beliefs.

    So, while God may legitimately use a single Scripture to speak to you in an “out of context” manner for a personal purpose, it would be inappropriate to then argue that this particular meaning was THE meaning and begin teaching it in that way (which I think you would agree with).

  28. Dr._Mike,
    I as a Christian take my Bible study very seriously, and yet if you and I read the same Bible word for word, why do we come to different conclusions? And if we do come to different conclusions, why?

    So is it because one of us is more or less intelligent than the other? Or is it because one of us is more or less taught than the other? I reiterate…it is because we innately understand differently.

    Do not think by telling me that I need to learn by reading Wayne Grudem, do you know the motive and intent and place of mind he was in when he wrote it? Or Sproul, or Spurgeon or any other theologian? So by placing them on equal standing with the Bible authors, are we saying then they have just as good as understanding as the original? So then would I not as well? If Sproul and I read the same Bible, is he better than I?

    If a=b and b=c, then a=c. Would you not agree? So then by telling us who don’t read extra-Biblical that we are wrong in our approach are you simply telling me that I am wrong because I don’t agree?

  29. Kara, yes, sometimes there ARE folks much better at understanding what God is telling us in Scripture than we can know ourselves. God established the structure of the Church as He did for a reason. There are pastors and there are teachers. Why would we need this guidance and leadership if each of us were entirely self-contained “interpretive units”?

    Every time you pick of a bible, you are relying on the expertise of hundreds of scholars, unless you are reading straight out of the original Greek off of the original manuscripts. You are placing your trust in the collective checks and balances of the Church as a whole to weed out faulty translations or to guide you to the most accurate translations. Even then, it is just that: a translation. Sure, God can guide that process, but you then have to decide WHICH end product is the one God guided, since they are all different!

    Similarly, we must trust those with expertise on historical setting, cultural background, etc, to get the most out of Scripture. And, on theological matters, you can’t expect Joe-six-pack, or my sixth-grade educated grandmother, to grasp the nuance and often contradiction that is Paul. Yes, the Gospel message is there, but for the full richness of Scripture, we often must place our trust in the structure of teaching and preaching that God has established, using our own wisdom and discernment in choosing which teachers are providing the closest thing to God’s Truth most consistently.

  30. AMEN!

    Thanks Michael for this challenge!

    It means a lot to me! (just joking)

    It really me when doing small group bible studies how people draw out meaning that IS NOT INTENDED and is not present. Even if the “meaning” is good, it can lead to serious doctrinal error if this hermeneutic is applied everywhere.

    Often we think of our hermeneutic in deep studies or sermon prep, but Thank you for this reminder to continually be looking at our hermeneutic even in our private devotions & small group bible studies.

  31. Amen Vance! 1 Corinthians spells out the various gifts given by the Spirit for the common good which include prophecy, the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom. These gifts have to do with rightly handling God’s word and revelation.

    Kara, there are those in the church that God has appointed to exhort the Body of Christ through the study and teaching of His word. Paul tells Timothy to use the word to correct those in error. Clearly, Paul trusted that Timothy’s inerpretations of the word were more objective than those he was correcting. I really struggle with this concpet as a Sunday school teacher as I feel that as a “teacher” God will reveal His word to me in a vaccuum – without commentaries, etc. Humbly, I have learned that I need to seek the counsel of others to temper my reading of the Bible. I want to be faithful to God, His word and those he has given me to teach. That is not to say that it is not accessible to all of God’s people but it ought to be done in the conjunction with those whom God has gifted in understanding His word.

  32. Scott L,
    The problem with reading a promise into scripture that was not intended is that you essentially create a god in your own head who is not the real God. Eventually this god you’ve created is bound to fail you in some way because he doesn’t live up to the promises you’ve attributed to him. This happens to many people and it is at this point they lose their faith and walk away.

    You indicated that if you and someone else, both Bible-believing Christians, sat down and read the Bible word for word you would come to different conclusions about its meaning. This is undoubtedly true and I think is exactly the problem CMP is getting at. We must get out of relying on simply what it means to us because we will end up with a million different and often contradictory meanings. To do this we must to some degree rely on fallible experts in the areas of history and theology. Yet it is not any one expert anyone should rely on, but rather the collective knowledge of thousands of learned individuals over two thousand years of church history. There is always of course going to be a degree of gray in determining original meaning, but it is far superior to the anything goes of personal meaning interpretation.

  33. Vance,
    Again, because someone has a better understanding, does that negate us from our own personal examination of the scripture? You feel very comfortable when you do understand something you ask someone who might. I stated in another post that I do the same thing.

    The point is not in your understanding, which is going to be limited anyway, but in the person you have put your trust in to explain it to you. And to assume that God speaks only Greek and Hebrew you miss what He is saying in English. There is a reason we have the Bible in English and what is wrong with studying it in English, or Russian or Tagalog…whatever language you speak you should know what the Bible says in your own language.

    Now that being said, do you fully understand all the nuances of English? Can you using English tell a Chinese speaker what it says and stay true to the message? Well not unless you speak perfect Chinese (Mandarin or Catonese). Language is a nuance, is it not always directly understood.

    For example, remember the passage in the Bible where the Israelites were testing certain people and asked them a word…well they said the wrong word…not that it was a different word but a different inflection of the same word and therefore they were killed. Because it detracted from a meaning understood only by the speakers. And that is where we are. We must understand an important concept about linguistics…many words have more than one meaning. Communication is not always straightforward in singular meaning. Think of the Navajo code talkers.

    We need to look at the Bible as it is living today. What is the meaning today? Where you are in your situation, how is it going to speak to you and lead you…today?

  34. Kara,

    I’m curious. What do you think was the point Vance was trying to make in his comment (#30)?

  35. Michael,
    You bring up a very good point. But I have to say this, I write plays. I explained before how I understand context and subtext and implied meaning and meaning that shocks but only to those who understand the meaning.

    I am not comparing the Bible to a play, but it seems we are applying literary composition and technique to Bible study when we say context. So if I look at the Bible in almost a secular way of study then I have to begin looking for context. And by doing so I will indeed find it. But God is a great author. He does use context (because people keep saying we need to take the context meaning). So then it becomes secular on that merit. We are no longer studying the Bible to learn how to apply it to ourselves and we look for meanings that might not even be there, but superimposed or interpolated by a previous commentator.

    Text is the written
    Context is background
    subtext is author hidden meaning.

    When Jesus said “It is finished” what did He mean? Just on that merit alone, without interpolating anything else you know about the Bible or the history of the times. What did He mean?

    If you approach the Bible only academically then you end up with a show on the History Channel.

  36. CMP

    FYI – my pastor, who is teaching a 4 week Wed Morning class on basic bible reading, likes your post so much he is handing it out at our last class on Wed.

    He has been teaching the authorial intent method to about 25 men, focusing on getting each of us on how to follow the basic steps

  37. Just to reiterate my point…the link in the other post says exactly what I said and it is written by Thomas Aquinas.

  38. “If you approach the Bible only academically then you end up with a show on the History Channel.”

    True. And if you approach the Bible only subjectively, you end up with a cult.

  39. Note: exaggeration for effect.

  40. There’s also a bit of a difference between reading the Bible to understand what it says, and then seeking to understand how that applies to your own heart and mind and life.

    I suppose they can happen simultaneously, but I think of the first part as the first step. Then: “Ok, now that I understand what it says, what does that imply for me? How is the Spirit of God convicting me through the Word?”

    In those terms, Michael’s post about hermeneutics is dealing with the first step. And I agree with him: Learning those steps and tools will help each one of us to better understand the Scriptures. (I don’t know that it means I’ll understand it better than you do, but I’ll understand it better than I otherwise would.) And “talking to other people about the Bible” is also important. I don’t just read it by myself, I talk with other people about it. Consulting helps. And reading commentaries is part of that. It all helps us to see the things that we might have otherwise missed. (Though we must be discerning! Commentaries aren’t inspired.)

    Kara, if your concern is, “Don’t leave out the rest!”, then I completely agree that it needs to be said. (1 Cor. 13:2 and James 1:22 come to mind.)

    But Michael was addressing the first part–and I can’t tell from your comments whether you agree that that’s a real concern, too.

  41. In other words:

    The academic part is the hearing-to-understand. The rest is the hearing-to-be-changed.

    If we only hear-to-understand, it’s worse than faith-without-works—it’s understanding-without-faith! Unbelievers can do that.

    But if we only hear-to-be-changed without doing the best we can to understand, then how can we claim to respect & love His Word? “Sure, I’ll follow your guidance. But no, I can’t be bothered to correctly understand it first.”

  42. CMP,

    I realize that “Gnositicism” is fast becoming the trendy insult for conservative Christians to throw at anything they don’t like, but this connection is tenuous at best.

    That woman in the audience you talk about didn’t like what you were saying about hermeneutics because she was secretly combing the Bible for a “hidden decoder ring?” And since only gnostics believe in “that hidden knowledge stuff” the woman in our example must be a gnostic!


    Where on earth did you pull that conclusion from?

    Did it ever occur to you that some people just open up their Bibles and let the sight of the familiar words invoke all of their years of reading the book? Not to get some “secret code.” But simply to connect their minds and thoughts with the God they’ve come to know and love through a lifetime of pondering and study of scripture.

    It actually works, believe it or not.

    I’ve at times simply opened up my scriptures and the mere sight of the familiar language has brought flashes of scripture-based insight into problems I might be thinking about or questions I might be wrestling with.

    And, dare I say it, such a mental state even invites the witness of the Holy Ghost promised by Jesus Christ. God can speak to us if we are willing to listen. But we can tune him out if we are too obsessed with our own study agenda.

    Do you think that what God has to say to us is limited by what page of the Bible we happen to be parked on?

    Like God is up there thinking “Oh, I’d just love to give Sally some inspiration about how love is patient and kind – but unfortunately, she’s reading Revelations right now… Darn it, I’ll just have to wait until she hits 1 Corinthians 13 on her next read through…”

    Is that really how you think God works?

    And… sigh… mandatory public service disclaimer: yes, I am a Mormon. Hopefully you’ll find my comment useful in spite of that fact.

  43. Great post and lots of good comments

    How about this passage ? For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 1Cor 11:6
    Do you always cover your hear when attending Church ?

    All kidding aside. Without knowing the context (call it authorian intent if you like), this passage has been misinterpreted, misused and completely mistaking for centuries in European Roman Catholic environments. First hand witness to that.

    However you do point out a little later that We need to look at the Bible as it is living today. What is the meaning today? Where you are in your situation, how is it going to speak to you and lead you…today?

    Yet I pose you can’t do that without understanding what it meant back when it was written. It is divinely inspired, but written by human hands for a human audience.

    The Spirit definitely plays a role in this process. Jugulum put it quite well.
    Ok, now that I understand what it says, what does that imply for me? How is the Spirit of God convicting me through the Word?

    I believe that’s the correct way to interpret Scripture. And yes it can be done in English… and ESV is perfectly acceptable to me.

    Anything outside that… we’re on the History channel, either as a documentary on historical events or as a cult. Thanks for that quote Vance !! 8-) I may use !

    In Him

  44. MichaelL

    Very good point about understanding how it would be applied then to know how to apply it now. And the verse you gave is a very good example. Some would say, “well, it says women should stay covered, and the Bible says what it means and means what it says, so I guess all the women should have their heads covered in church!”

    And, without some historical context, I don’t see how any woman today blithely goes uncovered.

    With historical context, which is NOT in Scripture, and has to come from historical analysis, we see that in the culture at the time it was written, a woman coming into church uncovered would be a complete and utter distraction and very damaging to worship. Going in with a bare head would be like a woman today showing up to church in a bikini! So, the message is not “women should be covered” but “women (and men for that matter) should be appropriately dressed for the culture and time so as not to be a detriment to the worship”, or some such.

    That could not be gotten from reading the text by itself, nor can we expect the Spirit to let everyone know that bit.

  45. Kara writes:
    “If we then sit and study the way swords are made, what they are made from and the metal from the country the author came from then we miss why the sword is being used and how to avoid being hurt from it.”

    Maybe so, but if you don’t understand some of the background details of swords and sword-making, you risk going into battle with a stick covered by aluminum foil, thinking it’s the real thing. You either have to learn to make swords or trust someone who has studied sword making.

    BTW, did I see you referring to Aquinas as an authority? You’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t consider anyone better than you regarding theology. So why cite support from Aquinas?

  46. Vance on 18 May 2009 at 6:30 pm #


    Very good point about understanding how it would be applied then to know how to apply it now. And the verse you gave is a very good example. Some would say, “well, it says women should stay covered, and the Bible says what it means and means what it says, so I guess all the women should have their heads covered in church!”

    And, without some historical context, I don’t see how any woman today blithely goes uncovered.

    With historical context, which is NOT in Scripture, and has to come from historical analysis, we see that in the culture at the time it was written, a woman coming into church uncovered would be a complete and utter distraction and very damaging to worship. Going in with a bare head would be like a woman today showing up to church in a bikini! So, the message is not “women should be covered” but “women (and men for that matter) should be appropriately dressed for the culture and time so as not to be a detriment to the worship”, or some such.


    Maybe the message REALLY IS “women should not pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered…because of the angels.” I.e., maybe it’s NOT totally a culturally-dependent instruction. Maybe it’s not simply about not being a distraction in worship, but is instead an instruction about how all Christian men and women are to dress and not dress, or wear or not wear their hair. After all, “does not nature itself teach…?”

    Even though Jews and Jewish Torah scholars know that the kosher food laws don’t fit any consistent logical scheme (per Richard Elliott Friedman COMMENTARY ON THE TORAH), observant Jews still adhere to them because…well, because they’re commanded to.

    Can we be absolutely positively 100% sure that Paul doesn’t have some ontological and Christological and metaphysical and spiritual reason for the instructions he gives in 1 Corinthians 11 re: headcoverings, and that he is only speaking to the cultural mores of his time?

  47. CMP:

    I agree with what you are saying but (you are not going to like this). I have not read or studied the Bible in depth and I had not heard about the historical-grammatical hermeneutic method until recently when I started to take TTP. After taking the Bibliogy-Hermeneutics class I bought several of the books you recommended about hermeneutics.

    Unfortunately, I’m so busy reading Grudem and Olsen for the next class that I hav’nt had time to read them.

    I’m just the opposite of the lady you mentioned. I’ve been reluctant to dive in until I’ve read the textbooks you recommended.

    Probably not what you wanted to hear.

    Despite that I continue to read and study.


  48. Dave Z,
    I merely pointed that out to show sometimes without trying we can be just as smart even though we think we aren’t.

    Yes, you are right about the aluminum foil point. And no I do not consider myself better than anyone concerning theology.

    If you would please listen to me. When I say we have the same God the church fathers did, we are just as intelligent. To say something must be true because they said it is like saying Ronald McDonald is true about Happy Meals. I am sure they invested a lot of time and energy into studying. But why look at it through their narrow scope? We don’t live under their stiff brand of Christianity, we have freedom of religious expression which was granted for a reason. To live in gladly.

    We know the Midrash is a collection of writings by Jewish scholars and the Haddith is a collection of writing by Muslim scholars. Both books are opinion. And that is what I want to know, are the church fathers also writing opinion? You can believe them if you want but I as a Christian have the right to not believe them. Where is the command in the Bible to believe them?

    Dave Z, I would like to think we aren’t ignorant. And I would also like to think we have learned because we trust the Spirit to teach us what is right and what is wrong. Let me ask this…if a person is granted irresistible grace and perseverance that God does it all for the person, why then does He not already give the meaning of His message then why are people investing great amounts of time and energy? Why didn’t God do it already if He covered every aspect already of your salvation?

    Again, do I have to listen to the church fathers? Where is the command from Jesus? Didn’t He say His sheep know His voice, and none other shall they follow? That is what I say, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, let me find Jesus when I read the Bible, and let me find the answer Jesus has for me now in my situation and in my time. I have the right to do so because it’s my relationship with Him. Study all you want with the old “masters”, it’s ok for you. Allow others their right to freedom of religious expression.

  49. Jugulum,
    The whole Bible.

    Eric W,
    Yes, my husband is my covering.

    We are always calling each other’s churches cults. I know what you mean about that. Cults come about because of saying their leader is a messiah and applying all scripture to that one leader. I advocate Jesus as my leader and the Holy Ghost as my teacher.


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