Interpreting the Bible: Who is Right?
Interpretations differ. Better understanding comes from better hermeneutics.

DADEEN asks: When Christians disagree on the Bible, how do I know who is right? my sister-in-law always disagrees with my dad about bible stuff. Who is right?
Question about A General Question: Methods of interpretation
Motivation - Interest in religion: Interest in Christianity; Something happened: I heard something said
Bible view - Ancient literature - [question 10, Sunday, 03-Jul-2011]

The question actually raises two questions. First, why do Christians disagree about the meaning of a specific Bible verse(s)? Second, how can a person know who is correct or if any one in the discussion is correct?

Why Do Christians Disagree Over a Specific Bible Passage?

Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'
- Matthew 7:21ff [NASB]

While there may be more, we recognize four basic explanations for why people who claim to be Christians disagree about a Bible passage.

First, a person may claim to a Christian, and yet, not be a Christian. In Matthew 7 (box at right), Jesus refused to accept some who genuinely thought they were Christians.

A person who is not a Christian may know many facts about the Bible. However, such a person cannot gain illumination, which only the Holy Spirit provides, about biblical texts. For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, 'I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.' Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. [1 Corinthians 1:18ff, NASB]

It thus makes sense that if one or both of the participants in the discussion are not Christians, disagreements will naturally ensue. This, of course, brings up the question:

… so what must happen for me to become a Christian, i.e., a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?

The following is a concise description of what must happen to you and why:

  • In the beginning, God created man (Adam) and there was harmony between them and God. But, your ancestor (Adam) rebelled against God, i.e., sinned, thereby placing all of humanity at war with God, and that war still exists today because the sin of Adam has been passed along to you.
  • God is righteous and just, and someday you will stand before Christ to give an account of your life, which contains sin. The penalty for sin is death, i.e., an eternity in hell, and it must be paid. Hell is a place of eternal torment, which includes unbelievers, and from which no one can ever escape.
  • There is absolutely nothing you can do on your own to make peace with God. You cannot live a life good enough to satisfy His standard of perfection. In the absence of divine intervention, your eternal destiny is hell!
  • God is also merciful. In His mercy and love for you, He sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to live the perfect life under the law and die on the cross as payment for your sins, and be resurrected so that you will have eternal life.
  • Merely hearing the Gospel will not give you eternal life, you must respond to the Gospel by repenting of your sins (i.e., turn away from sin and toward God) and trusting in Christ alone that His death is sufficient payment for your sins and through His resurrection you will have eternal life. If your repentance and trust are in heartfelt sincerity, then you have eternal life without any chance of losing it.

The following reasons for disagreement assume both participants are Christians.

Second, another reason is that the participants in the discussion may not have actually studied the passage-in-question. Their understanding of the text finds its basis in what someone told them in a sermon, in a discussion around the dinner table, etc. An understanding about a passage even if it is correct, but developed without actually studying the Bible, is called folk theology. A formal definition of a folk theologian is

Folk theolgian: One who uncritically and unreflectively constructs his or her theology according to tradition and religious folklore. The Folk Theologian is often very dogmatic about his or her beliefs. Introduction to Theology, The Theology Program, Biblical Studies Press (2004), p. 27.

Modern day examples of folk theology are Peter standing at the pearly gates of Heaven, guardian angels, all people are good at heart, God helps those who help themselves, etc.

The origins of a folk theology can be extremely varied, which inherently results in sometimes vastly diverse view points. When your dad and sister-in-law begin to disagree over the Bible, ask them if the source of their understanding is actual Bible study or is it something someone told them, i.e., folk theology. If folk theology is the basis of their understanding, then it is no surprise there are disagreements.

Third, the participants in the discussion may have studied the passage-in-question, but they had an agenda when they developed their interpretation. In theological language, eisogesis (or eisegesis) is the interpretative process by which a person interprets a Biblical text to make it say what he or she wants it to say. Eisogesis is an incorrect way to interpret the Bible because through it, one does not ascertain what the Bible says, but twists the Bible to say what the interpreter wants it to say.

Even in the 1st Century some people had an agenda when using the Scriptures:

… and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.
- 2 Peter 3:15ff [NASB]

When your dad and sister-in-law begin to disagree over the Bible, ask them if someone had an agenda when they studied the Bible. If they did, then their position finds its basis in a preconceived agenda and not what the Bible says.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.
- 2 Timothy 2:15 [NASB]

Finally, both participants in the discussion may have studied the passage-in-question with the goal of understanding what the Bible says. In theological language, exegesis is the interpretative process by which a person interprets a Biblical text to determine what the Bible says. Exegesis is the correct approach to interpreting the Bible because it lets the Bible speak for itself. However, differences can still arise when people exegete a passage because of different rules of interpretation. In theological language, hermeneutics is the particular theory, method or rules of Biblical interpretation. The use of different hermeneutics can easily result in different interpretations.

It is well beyond the scope of this answer to discuss the history of hermeneutics. Among numerous contemporary hermeneutical methods, in our view, the grammatical-historical approach is the correct hermeneutic to use for interpreting the Bible. This is the approach by which one seeks to interpret Scripture by studying the text in its original historical and grammatical context, which includes the original languages and not English, in order to discover the author’s original intent.

A detailed treatment of the grammatical-historical approach is far beyond the scope of this answer. There are many good resources available. The following are good books that pertain to Biblical interpretation: Kay Arthur, How to Study Your Bible, Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon (1994): Walter C. Kaiser and Moisés Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1994); Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis, 3rd Ed., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky (2001); Gordon. D. Fee, New Testament Exegesis, 3rd Ed., Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky (2002); R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1977).

If the analysis using the grammatical-historical approach develops timeless principles, then those timeless principles can be contextualized meaning they can be applied to our 21st Century setting. Even though a passage has a single authorial intent, it can have a number of different present-day applications that stem from that authorial intent.

When your dad and sister-in-law begin to disagree over the Bible, ask them to identify the hermeneutics they use to interpret the Bible. Using different hermeneutics likely will lead to different interpretations. Even if they use the same hermeneutics, their disagreement may be based on different applications rather than a different authorial intent.

How Do I Know Who Is Correct?

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.
- Psalms 1:1ff [NASB]

As an initial comment, while it is possible that either your dad or your sister-in-law may be correct, there is the possibility they both may be incorrect. Two different interpretations may both be in error.

In short, there is no easy way to know who is correct. One must diligently study the Bible. In the context of knowing that he would soon face execution, Paul wrote to Timothy:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:14ff, NASB]

The Psalmist wrote about the importance of diligent Bible study in Psalms 1:1-2 (box above at right).

Through diligent Bible study one can better know who is correct. The reason we use 'better' is that for some issues, we may never come to the conclusion that we absolutely know what is correct. There are issues upon which sincere, scholarly people have disagreed for centuries and will continue to disagree. For example, the debate over unconditional election and conditional election will carry on until Christ returns. Each position has Scriptural support. See Soteriology, The Theology Program, Biblical Studies Press (2004), pp. 27-52.

In some discussions, possibly your dad and sister-in-law each have positions backed up by Scripture. In that case, only through diligent study can you better know who is correct.

Conclusion

We hope this 'answer from the Book' has been helpful to understanding why people disagree over the Bible. We also hope that this will cause you to begin to undertake serious Bible study.

Finally, and most importantly, if you are not a Christian, we sincerely urge you to accept the invitation that Jesus Christ is offering to you right now. Eternity is a long time, and you certainly want to spend it in His presence as opposed to an eternity of separation from God.

by Steve Belsheim

Mon, 26-Jun-2017 03:44:55 GMT, unknown: 642328 ABDbwNuK.W4eY
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