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Interpreting the meaning of Bible passages


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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 means.

In interpreting the Bible:

bullet Some conservative Protestant faith groups follow two of the main slogans of the Reformation:
bullet "sola scriptura:" Faith is to be based on the Bible alone.
bullet "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.

bullet 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
bullet Still other Christian faith traditions base their beliefs on some combination of:
bullet Specific passages in the biblical text
bullet General themes in the Bible;
bullet Church tradition;
bullet The local culture ;
bullet Reason, including findings produced by the scientific method; and
bullet Personal experience.

Depending upon the particular denomination, and the particular wing within that denomination, a different weighting is given to each factor.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 gestation.

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 Earth.

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 Anglican Communion:

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
bullet Same-sex marriage for the membership and clergy,
bullet Ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians to the priesthood, and
bullet 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 Communion.

As expected:
bullet 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.
bullet 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:

bullet Zero in on a particular biblical passage, story, or theme;
bullet Carefully employ an accepted technique for determinining the meaning of biblical passages;
bullet Interpret the same passage in very different ways;
bullet Be absolutely certain that their analysis is correct; and
bullet 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.

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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 groups:


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 inapplicable.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. 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 online book store
  2. From the "Decrees of Council of Trent," Session IV, and "Dens Theo.," Tom. 2., N. 80 and 81.
  3. Scot McKnight, "The Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and what you tend not to see," Leadership Journal, at:
  4. Scot McKnight, "The Hermeneutics Quiz" at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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