By Jim Eichenberger
A story tells of a dissatisfied customer returning a chainsaw to a hardware store. “I was promised that this saw could cut down trees in a fraction of the time that it takes me now. If anything, it takes me longer!”
The clerk assumed that the saw was faulty. Carefully he checked the tool to look for defects. Finding no obvious problems, he pulled the starter cord. The engine roared to life.
The shocked customer responded, “What’s that sound?”
We doubt that anyone would be foolish enough to use a chainsaw without turning it on! But over the centuries, many have approached the Bible in a similar fashion. Without fully understanding the true nature of Scripture, they have used it in ways never intended. In doing so, they have not unleashed the book’s complete power.
How we approach the Bible makes all the difference in how we interpret it. One method is to see the Bible as certified testimony—having human authors but kept without error and with content revealed by God to those authors. A second is seeing the Bible as a divine oracle—a mysterious device that communicates directly to people from every age.
These terms and definitions are extremely important. One view unleashes the power of God in the lives of believers. The other forces believers to use their own effort to attribute meaning to Scripture.
Historically mainstream Judeo-Christian thought has viewed the Bible as certified testimony. God revealed his message through a prophet. Usually (if not always) God certified the testimony of said prophet through unmistakable signs and wonders. Once the testimony was certified and put in writing, the prophetic word was passed to others from place to place and from generation to generation.
Each prophetic message built on those preceding it, revealing the nature, power, and plans of God in increasing detail. Therefore the Bible unfolded over a period of centuries. During those centuries, different prophets arose, speaking in differing literary styles, using vocabulary that was theirs, and referring to specific issues and places of their time. Yet the ultimate author is God, the giver and authenticator of revelation, not the deliverer of revelation.
This process is of great significance. It allows the plans of God to be revealed, taught, and tested over an extended period. It maintains a consistency of message without contradiction. Earlier revelation is expanded by later revelation.
Certified revelation also has a fixed meaning—that which the original author intended and that which the original audience understood. For any expansion or double meaning of the revelation not intended by the original author to be valid, that expansion must be recertified. For example, the prohibition of muzzling a threshing ox was originally given as a command for humane treatment of farm animals (Deuteronomy 25:4). The expanded interpretation of that command to mandate providing for Christian workers became authoritative Scripture because it was recertified by an authentic prophet (1 Corinthians 9:9, 10).
Nevertheless, both well-meaning and purposely deceptive Bible students throughout the ages have introduced another idea into Bible interpretation. They have portrayed the Bible as a magic book, one that holds direct, personal messages to specific people without regard to its historical or literary contexts.
Viewing the Bible this way is similar to how astrologers view the stars or mystics view tealeaves, tarot cards, or chicken bones. It is how texts like the I Ching have come to be approached. This is not reading or interpretation, but rather divination. Approaching the Bible this way is not only wrong—it is dangerous and divisive.
This view is dangerous because it reduces the Bible to a collection of disconnected verses. The whole message of a book becomes unimportant. The meaning of words or phrases in the original language becomes irrelevant. The literary style of a book ceases to matter. When the Bible is viewed as a divine oracle, all that matters is the meaning given to a few words by the one receiving or proclaiming it. As an oracle, Bible verses have no fixed meaning. The one reading or quoting a sentence from Scripture can say, “this means that,” giving a meaning to the words unintended by the author.
The view is divisive because it robs the Bible of its true nature. Instead of using objective methods such as examining history, literary styles, and the original language, spiritual authority is assumed by the reader. A well-meaning friend might offer a few words of Scripture saying, “God gave me this verse for you.” While that may sound benign, it is far from it. It is in effect a demand to accept an interpretation based on claimed inspiration of the giver. The Bible is no longer inspired; the interpreter is!
In a more significant way, this method of interpretation allows latter-day prophets to take isolated sentences from the Bible and create new doctrines for another religion or a cult. For example, Jesus’ promise of a coming Advocate (John 16:7) is interpreted by many in Islam as a reference to Muhammad. Seventh Day Adventists take the words “spirit of prophecy” in Revelation 19:10 to be a title for their founder, Ellen G. White. Mormons isolate the phrase “baptized for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29) and create their unique doctrine of proxy baptism.
So how can a correct understanding of what the Bible is help us understand what the Bible says? How do we approach the Bible to find guidance for our daily lives? Here are a few implications:
• Seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for understanding how the Bible applies to your life rather than what a verse of the Bible means. While every verse of the Bible has but one meaning (that which was intended by the original author), how that verse applies to one’s life may differ from person to person. The Holy Spirit can clarify how a verse applies to one’s life through prayer, personal insight, and counsel of godly friends and leaders. But the Holy Spirit will never tell a person that a verse means what it has never meant.
• Make use of commentaries and other helps to understand the message of individual books and of the whole Bible. Bible study, like gaining any kind of skill or proficiency, takes work. Study Bibles with comments, book introductions, time lines, and other such helps can aid one to grasp the intended meaning of what one reads.
• Refuse to rely on a single translation. The fact is, few Christians will become proficient in the original languages in which the Bible was written. One way to overcome that lack is to compare multiple translations. Even the best Bible translation is an interpretation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek texts. Therefore comparing multiple translations is helpful in clarifying the meaning of a text.
• Read it for yourself! Others can help us deepen our understanding of Scripture. Sermons, Bible studies, and small group discussions are of great value. But unless people read the Bible for themselves, they are relying on others to read it for them. We cannot allow the Bible to direct our paths with only secondhand knowledge of God’s Word.
So how does one best understand Scripture? It starts with an understanding of what this remarkable collection of God-inspired books is. It works best when we know how to unleash its power.
Jim Eichenberger is the author of many Bible reference books and Bible studies and resides in Hamilton, Ohio.