Interpreting Scripture

[God] cannot deny himself.”

- 2 Timothy 2:13b

Nearly everyone who has been a part of a small-group Bible study or Bible discussion group has heard these words spoken: “To me, the verse means. . . .” Sometimes this is said innocently, and all the speaker intends is to convey what he thinks the author of the text is teaching to all people. All too often, however, people who say such things are actually reflecting the radical subjectivism to which they hold, whether consciously or unconsciously. In such cases, the person assumes that the verse can mean one thing to him and something completely different to someone else without either of them being wrong.

Such a radically subjective view ends up divorcing all meaning from the text. If the text can mean many different things at the same time, it can mean anything, and if it can mean anything, it really means nothing. Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text.

Yet, if the Bible is the Word of the God of truth, such subjectivism cannot stand. The Lord “cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). Therefore, no text of Scripture can have many different, mutually contradictory meanings. A text might have a complex meaning that can be summarized in different noncontradictory ways. The text’s meaning might have different practical applications to different people depending on their particular situation. But if two people read a text and find contradictory meanings, one or both of the readers must be wrong. They cannot both be right.

Knowing how to interpret Scripture correctly, therefore, is as important as knowing that the Bible is true. And since the Bible was written by authors with specific intents, the way to determine a text’s meaning is to discern the original author’s intent for it. To do this, we employ the grammatical-historical method, which examines the writer’s historical context and the text’s grammatical structure. We treat verbs as verbs and nouns and nouns, for while the Bible is God’s Word, it is written according to normal grammatical conventions, not in some esoteric tongue. Moreover, we look at the historical setting of a text so that we can discern the issues the author is addressing. Such things help us get into the mind of the author so that we can know what he means.

Coram Deo

If we divorce the meaning of the biblical text from its author’s intent, the text can mean anything we want. This happened during the medieval era, when all sorts of fanciful allegorical readings were used that had little if any connection to the author’s original intent. To obey God rightly, we must know what the author He inspired meant, so learning how to interpret the Bible rightly is as important as knowing Scripture’s content.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 6:6–7
Ezra 7:10
Nehemiah 8:1–8
2 Timothy 2:15

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