Interpreting the meaning of Bible
About biblical interpretation:
Christians have reached a near consensus on what the Bible says.
However, Christian denominations as well as individual
Christians -- theologians, clergy and laity -- have a wide range of
assumptions about the nature of the Bible. Different assumptions lead to
different methods of interpreting the text. As
a result, they reach very diverse conclusions about what a given passage actually
In interpreting the Bible:
|Some conservative Protestant faith groups follow two of the main slogans of
|"sola scriptura:" Faith is to be based on the Bible alone.|
|"Quod non est
biblicum, non est theologicum: What is not biblical is not theological." 1|
They often consider the Bible to be the Word of God.
|The Roman Catholic Church and some other denominations consider the
Bible to be a main source of information that is to
be supplemented by their church's traditions. The Catholic Church stated at the
Council of Trent (1546-1563)
that the Church is "...the divinely constituted depository and judge
of both Scripture and tradition." 2|
|Still other Christian faith traditions base their beliefs on some combination
|Specific passages in the biblical text|
|General themes in the Bible; |
|The local culture ;|
|Reason, including findings produced by the scientific method; and |
|Personal experience. |
Depending upon the particular denomination, and the particular wing within
that denomination, a different weighting is given
to each factor.
|The more conservative the faith group, the more likely that they would
emphasize the text of specific passages of the Bible and church tradition.
They are most often located in countries where the culture is conservative.
For example, they might believe that homosexuality is a chosen, disordered
behavior, and that human life becomes a human person at conception.|
|The more liberal faith groups are more likely to give greater weighting to
biblical themes, reason, and personal experience. They are most often located
in countries where the culture is liberal. For example, they might believe
that homosexuality is a discovered, normal, and natural orientation for a
minority of adults, and that human life becomes a human person late in
One of the reasons why emotions currently run particularly high in
North America on
topics like abortion access and equal rights for homosexuals is that many Christians on all sides
of the issues sincerely believe that the Bible totally supports their viewpoint.
They believe that they have
interpreted the Bible correctly and have
assessed the will of God accurately.
They also view the "other side" as being in error. Many feel assured that God
agrees with their beliefs. They have no doubts; they beleive that they are acting as God's agent on
There have been major human rights conflicts throughout history in which both or all
sides quoted extensively from the Bible to support their positions. This has
happened -- and in some cases continues to happen -- over human slavery, women's
suffrage, the use of contraceptives, the roles and status of women,
female ordination, how to
discipline children, racial segregation,
inter-racial marriage, abortion access, religious
tolerance, equal rights for gays and lesbians,
same-sex marriage, etc.
An example of conflict: homosexuality and the
The worldwide Anglican Communion was able to survive massive
internal conflicts in the mid 19th century over human slavery. In the mid 20th
century, they survived another major conflict over the role of women. In both
cases, the changes were painful and even threatened the survival of the
Communion. However, the church was able to adapt and survive.
As of early
2009, the major source of conflict in the Communion is over equal rights for
gays and lesbians, including
|Same-sex marriage for the membership and clergy, |
|Ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians to the priesthood, and
|Consecration of sexually active homosexuals as bishops. |
The two provinces of the Communion in North America -- the Episcopal
Church, USA in the U.S. and the Anglican Church of Canada in Canada
are currently going through the beginnings of a schism from the rest of the
|The conservative wing in the schism emphasizes a literal
interpretation of about a half dozen "clobber"
passages in the Bible and church tradition, and lives in an area of
the world where homophobia is pervasive.|
|The liberal wing emphasizes biblical themes of love and justice,
research into human sexuality, and personal experience. They live in North
America where homosexuality is regarded as a
normal and natural sexual orientation for a minority of adults.|
The influence of culture:
An often unrecognized, and sometimes overwhelming, influence is that of the
national culture within which each faith group functions. Individuals can:
|Zero in on a particular biblical passage, story, or theme;|
|Carefully employ an accepted technique for determinining the meaning of
|Interpret the same passage in very different ways;|
|Be absolutely certain that their analysis is correct; and |
|Be unaware how their conclusions were strongly biased by their
national culture, often acting in the background. |
In the case of the
Anglican Communion's beliefs concerning homosexuality,
all 38 provinces of the Communion share the same Bible, the same Anglican
traditions, similar rituals, etc. However, the theological stance of each
Anglican church province towards homosexual rights is very strongly influenced by
their local culture. The theology of the Episcopal Church,
USA and Anglican Church of Canada follows the relatively
liberal culture in North America; most Anglican provinces in
Africa are in cultures that are profoundly homophobic. The result is a
developing schism within the Anglican Communion in North America and an expected schism in
the rest of the worldwide Communion.
This lack of consensus is so extreme that
sincerely and devoutly held beliefs by very liberal Christians may well be considered blasphemy
by very conservative Christians, and vice-versa. One result is that some
Christians view Christianity as a collection of religions, not
as a single religion.
Where do your personal beliefs about the Bible fit in?
Scot McKnight wrote "The Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and
what you tend not to see" in The Leadership Journal. In an earlier
essay he asked the question:
"Ever wonder how two people can look at the same passage of the Bible and
come away with such different applications? The ways we interpret the Bible,
and what enters into our process of applying the Bible, are important for us
to be aware of. Without this self-awareness, we can have blind spots in our
Bible reading and not even know it.
In a more recent version of the same essay, he noted:
"I'm curious why one of my friends dismisses the
Friday-evening-to-Saturday-evening Sabbath observance as 'not for us
today' but insists that capital punishment can't be dismissed because
it's in the Old Testament."
"I have become fascinated with what goes on in our heads
and our minds and our traditions (and the latter is far more significant
than many of us recognize) in making decisions like this. ..."
"If we're all subject to selective perception, at least to some degree,
it's important to recognize what we tend to miss or gloss over, especially
if we're church leaders." 3
They have published a valuable
free, online quiz that may help you understand your personal approach to the
Bible. 4 Each of twenty questions
is be given a value of 1 (most
conservative) to 5 (most progressive).
The creators of the quiz divide individuals into three
Conservatives (score under 53): They emphasize the
"... authority, ongoing and normative authority, of all of Scripture." They
interpret biblical passages as literally true where possible. "If the Bible
says it, that settles it."
Moderates (53 to 65): They struggle to reach what
they feel are the correct interpretations, sometimes siding with
conservatives, and sometimes with progressives. They are sometimes
criticized for being inconsistent.
Progressives (66 to 100): They look upon the Bible
as "historically shaped and culturally conditioned." They try to understand
the culture in which the authors lived in order to interpret what a passage
meant at the time it was written. Then, they struggle to apply these
writings to today's world. Some passages, particularly those related to
human slavery, the treatment of women, the treatment of religious and sexual
minorities, genocide, torture, etc. simply have to be abandoned as
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Richard Muller, "Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:
Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology," Baker, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com
online book store
- From the "Decrees of Council of Trent," Session IV, and "Dens
Theo.," Tom. 2., N. 80 and 81.
Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and
what you tend not to see," Leadership Journal, at:
- Scot McKnight, "The Hermeneutics Quiz" at:
Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson