My friend, you have asked an important question that many Christians wrestle with: Whose interpretation of the Bible is the correct one? There are many different denominations and traditions within Christianity, and they often differ in their readings and applications of Scripture. This can be confusing for believers who genuinely want to understand and follow God’s Word.
As we explore this issue, let’s start by affirming that the Bible is God’s authoritative and infallible Word. The Scriptures are “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We believe the Bible is true and contains God’s message for His people.
However, we must also acknowledge the complexity of biblical interpretation. None of us approaches the text as a blank slate – we all have assumptions, experiences, cultural lenses, and traditions that color our understanding. Humble, thoughtful Christians can and do disagree on the meaning and application of certain passages. This does not mean relativism is true and “all interpretations are equally valid.” But it does mean we should offer grace to fellow believers who interpret things differently.
As we think about who correctly interprets the Bible, here are some key principles to keep in mind:
- The Holy Spirit guides us into truth, so we must rely on Him.
- No single tradition or denomination has a monopoly on insight.
- Interpret Scripture in context – historical, literary, biblical.
- Approach humbly and be willing to learn from others.
- Major on the majors – central truths are clear. Debates often involve minor issues.
- Let the Bible interpret the Bible – use clearer passages to understand ambiguous ones.
- Watch for cultural biases and improper presuppositions that skew understanding.
With these principles in mind, let us explore this issue more fully, looking at why differences arise and how we can interpret Scripture faithfully.
The Role of the Holy Spirit
First and foremost, we must recognize that the Holy Spirit guides believers into truth. Jesus told His disciples that the Spirit would teach them all things and bring to remembrance what He said (John 14:26). The apostle John said the Spirit teaches us about everything and is true, not lying (1 John 2:27). Therefore, we must rely humbly on the Spirit’s illumination to understand Scripture rightly.
No one person or tradition has perfect insight or a monopoly on biblical truth. As Paul wrote, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our knowledge is partial, so we need the Spirit’s guidance.
As you study Scripture, pray for the Spirit to give you wisdom and reveal the intended meaning. Ask Him to shed light on difficult passages and protect you from misinterpretation. We all depend fully on the Spirit to understand God’s Word.
The Problem of Presuppositions
Why do sincere Christians interpret the Bible differently? A major reason is that we all approach the text with various assumptions and presuppositions that impact our conclusions. These include:
Cultural and Ecclesial Biases: Our cultural context and faith tradition often shape how we read Scripture – for better and worse. We easily notice passages that align with our assumptions while ignoring or downplaying ones that conflict.
Individual Experiences: Our personal experiences with church, family, and more impact our lens. For example, those who grew up in abusive environments may struggle with certain passages on family and parenting.
Denominational Distinctives: Our ecclesial tradition emphasizes some biblical truths more than others, skewing our interpretation at times. Certain groups also have distinctive doctrinal stances that color their readings.
Personal Preferences: We are drawn to interpretations that align with our personal preferences, whether about spiritual gifts, worship style, morality, or other issues. We instinctively favor readings that support our existing values.
Hot-Button Debates: Current issues and debates also sway our approach to Scripture. For example, gender debates impact how Christians read biblical texts about women.
As you can see, we all have biases that influence how we interpret the Bible. The key is being aware of them, so they can be identified and corrected through prayer and meditation on Scripture. We must ask the Spirit to remove distorted lenses so we can see clearly.
Principles for Faithful Interpretation
How then can we faithfully interpret God’s Word to discern its original intended meaning? While this is a complex topic, here are some key principles to keep in mind:
Take Context Seriously: Scripture must be understood in its historical, literary, and biblical context. Passages reflect particular cultures, writing styles, and audiences. We cannot just pick verses in isolation or insert our assumptions.
Approach Humility: Scripture interpretation requires humility. We must recognize our limitations and be willing to question our biases. Approach challenging texts prayerfully.
Major on the Majors: Some biblical truths are absolutely clear, while other issues are complex with room for disagreement. We must major on central gospel truths and extend grace for disputes over secondary matters.
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture: Use clearer biblical passages to shed light on more ambiguous ones. Assume Scripture is self-consistent and allow it to clarify itself.
Avoid Absolute Claims: We should be cautious about claiming our interpretation is the “absolute truth” or denying alternate understandings have any plausibility. Humility and grace for other views is crucial.
These principles can guide us as we wrestle with biblical texts. But application will always involve prayer, wisdom, and reliance on the Spirit. Thankfully, God promises that if we seek Him with our whole heart, we will find Him and His truth (Jeremiah 29:13).
Benefits of Diverse Perspectives
Given our human limitations, we should welcome diverse perspectives on Scripture. While embracing biblical truth, we can celebrate that denominations highlight different facets like social justice, personal holiness, the Spirit’s gifts, and more.
Diverse groups also notice contrasting aspects of biblical texts. For example, some focus on themes of God’s eternal security for believers while others emphasize warnings about falling away. There is truth in both perspectives. We need the insights of the whole body of Christ.
Paul explains beautifully that the church is like a human body made up of different parts or members. Each part makes unique contributions so “there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25). Similarly, we need all biblical interpretations that align with apostolic teaching and orthodox theology.
The early church father Athanasius expressed this view when defending orthodoxy against heresy. He said:
“The apostle [Paul] writes expressly that ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.’ It is clear therefore that from that time the holy writings of the Old Testament, and the exposition and interpretation of them by the Fathers, contain nothing but Christ, and all heavenly wisdom.”
In other words, diverse interpretations of Scripture are beneficial if they illuminate Christ and are grounded in apostolic truth. By listening to different voices across place and time, we gain a multifaceted view of biblical teachings. But our interpretations also need to align with the rule of faith handed down through church history.
How to Handle Disagreement
Given the complexity of interpretation, disagreements will arise within the body of Christ. How then should we handle differences over the meaning of biblical passages? Here are some suggestions:
Dialogue in Love: Have gracious dialogue instead of heated argument. Make your goal mutual understanding, not “winning.”
Major on the Majors: Keep central gospel truths primary. Don’t divide over secondary issues.
Hold Convictions Humbly: Have convictions but hold them humbly, not condescendingly. You could be wrong or have much to learn.
Don’t Break Fellowship: Accept that faithful Christians will differ at times. Don’t attack or break fellowship over minor issues.
Focus on Unity in Christ: Emphasize our core unity in Jesus. Recognize the diversity of His body.
Pray for Wisdom: Ask God for wisdom and discernment as you try to understand His Word. Be willing to change if you have misinterpreted Scripture.
If we take this dialogical approach focused on grace and humility, we can learn from Christians who interpret passages differently than we do. As iron sharpens iron, the Holy Spirit can use these interactions to hone our understanding and application of God’s Word.
In Essentials, Unity
In conclusion, we must pray for unity in the church around central gospel truths while allowing for diversity in secondary matters. The 16th century Reformers summarized this well with the phrase:
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Let us be united in the doctrines clearly revealed in Scripture concerning the triune God and salvation by grace. Within this boundaries, let us extend liberty and charity toward those with different interpretations of disputable matters.
As Augustine wisely said,
“In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”
Our passion must be understanding and applying God’s Word faithfully under the Spirit’s guidance. In debatable matters, there is freedom. Above all, let us show grace, patience and love. For we know only in part, and one day we will know fully. Until that day, let God’s Word dwell in us richly as we delight in His truth.