Anyone who has invested serious time into studying Scripture knows that it isn’t always easy to understand. For sure, there are core ideas in the Bible that are straightforward and quite within the grasp of most readers to understand. But to be honest, most of the Bible isn’t like that. You can’t just immediately understand the content of its pages after one read. A number of passages take sustained attention for days, weeks, months, and perhaps years. And in some cases, even scholars can’t agree, which is why the meaning of certain passages is still being debated thousands of years after they were written.
Why is Bible interpretation so problematic? Why didn’t God make his Word easy to understand in every passage?
You’ve probably asked this question before, perhaps under your breath in frustration at some point in your own Bible study, or perhaps of your pastor. It would be easy to offer typical explanations, such as a failure to study a passage in the original languages or not using scholarly resources, like commentaries that engage the original languages. Those responses aren’t adequate, as they overlook the fact that scholars do such things and there is still plenty of disagreement.
4 considerations when interpreting the Bible
The difficulties in interpreting problematic passages are more complex than these responses suggest. The real reasons for the struggle are due either to our own limitations or inherent in the Bible itself.
1. We forget that the biblical writers were from a time, place, culture, and worldview far removed from our own—and they were writing to their contemporaries, not us.
This is a roundabout way of saying that we are outsiders when it comes to the content of the Bible. It is not only foreign to us; we are foreign to it. The disconnect between the ancient contexts of the biblical writers and us concerns far more than how they dressed, how they cooked, how they fought in battle, or what social customs they practiced—the sorts if things that Bible students typically think of when being told to “get in touch with the context of the Bible.” What I’m talking about is more fundamental. For example, biblical writers did not look at the world the way we do. They weren’t a product of modernity, especially when it comes to anything that gets filed under a scientific understanding of how the world works—including our own bodies. The Bible knows nothing, for example, of male infertility. If a couple had no children, it was because there was a problem with the woman—most likely divine judgment was the cause behind a barren womb. Few Christians today would draw such a conclusion, and the reason is simple. We know more about how conception works, and so we parse such a problem in light of our modern cultural knowledge. Like their ancient Near Eastern neighbors, the biblical writers used the language of “planting” for conception. A man deposits the “seed” into a woman where it grows. It is for this reason that the Bible portrays full human persons present within the bodies of their male ancestors (Heb 7:4-10), an idea absolutely irreconcilable with the well-known science of how a child is conceived from the genetic material of two separate individuals, male and female.
2. We’re raised to think about the Bible in a rationalistic mindset that the biblical writers didn’t share.
An equally important illustration is how the ancients were predisposed to a supernatural worldview—a world in which spiritual entities regularly interacted with humans. We aren’t. Instead we tend to accept the supernatural ideas we need to be Christians in the first place (e.g., Trinity, virgin birth, the incarnation, deity of Christ), but we label other passages that deal with geographical dominion of divine beings (gods or otherwise), or contact with the spirit world (including what we would call ghosts) as “weird” or “dangerous” and summarily dismiss them. I have written at length about this disconnection in my book The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. The true explanation behind many strange passages of Scripture is apparent only when one is able to think more “cosmically” about places, place names, and the ancient predilection for tying heaven and earth together as one (“as in heaven, so on earth”). That isn’t how we are raised to think, and so we miss the meaning of what’s being written by people who were raised to think that way. We fail to think “spiritually” as biblical writers often did—beyond what we experience with our senses. In other words, we often end up reading the Bible in ways the writers never intended it to be read, not because we haven’t used the right method or tool, but because that’s just the way things are. We aren’t them, and they weren’t us.
3. We default to interpretations that derive from the ways the Bible has been filtered to us, or that help us stay comfortable.
This problem is derivative of the first one. I put it this way in The Unseen Realm:
We talk a lot about interpreting the Bible in context, but Christian history is not the context of the biblical writers. The proper context for interpreting the Bible is not Augustine or any other church father. It is not the Catholic Church. It is not the rabbinic movements of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. It is not the Reformation or the Puritans. It is not evangelicalism in any of its flavors. It is not the modern world at all, or any period of its history.
The reality for all of us is that, when we come across a serious difficulty in a passage, we will often seek for ways to fit it within (or keep it from offending) the doctrinal preferences of the denomination or faith tradition with which we’ve aligned ourselves. We let a later body of opinion that arose centuries after the biblical period tell us what the biblical writers were thinking. That’s anachronistic, to say the least. We do that not out of some impulse to be intellectually dishonest, but because of the human trait that wants to avoid cognitive dissonance (troubled thoughts). We like the feeling that we have things figured out.
The problem, of course, is that if we are committed to study, we invariably come across defects in traditional interpretations, or are led to think differently about a given passage or doctrinal item when we allow ourselves exposure to different perspectives. I hope you see there’s an even more profound, over-arching problem at that point: if one of those new perspectives isn’t the ancient frame of reference that the biblical writer had in his head, you’re ultimately just choosing which outsider tradition to run with. That really won’t resolve anything.
It takes courage to move beyond our filters. Doing so not only affords some discomfort, but friends, family, and acquaintances will misunderstand the desire to “have the ancient writer in our head” as a criticism of a faith tradition. Be that as it may, devotion to understanding this thing we say is inspired by God should trump devotion to a body of thoughts about that thing, no matter how helpful those thoughts may be at times.
4. We fail to recognize (or resist the truth) that there are ambiguities in the biblical text that make certainty in interpretation impossible.
This final thought runs contrary to certain ideas we’re taught about the Bible, yet it is absolutely true. To take one perpetually vexing problem: the matter of divorce and remarriage. Does Paul mean to include the divorced in his term “unmarried” in 1 Cor 7 (the only place in the New Testament where it is used)? That matters for how 1 Cor 7:27-28 is interpreted. How would we know one way or the other? Was Paul ignorant of what Jesus taught about divorce? Why doesn’t he quote Jesus, or the Gospels, in his discussion? Perhaps none of the Gospels were written yet . . . but I thought Paul was taught by Jesus. . . .? Put simply, we don’t have enough information to draw any certain conclusions. And there are many such examples.
Some readers will presume that admitting this undermines the enterprise of Bible study and its status as God’s Word. Neither presumption is correct.
For example, it makes little sense to say that if you can’t understand something 100 percent of the time with 100 percent clarity you can’t understand any of it. Think about the logic of the objection. Why would anyone get married or have children? Why would do your own taxes (or hire anyone else to do so when they won’t promise inerrancy)? Why would you eat vegetables (they might have bug parts in them)? So why bother studying the Bible when there are things we won’t be able to interpret with certainty? Put simply: to avoid ignorance. We study Scripture not because we are omniscient or seek to become omniscient. We do it to learn as much as we can about how God looks at us, what he has provided for our eternal salvation, what we can learn about his goodness and love, and how to live in a way that honors him and avoids self-destruction.
Why is interpreting the Bible difficult?
But why would God give us a Word that we couldn’t perfectly understand? The question wrongly presumes that God either intended to produce something that could never be misunderstood at any point or that could be written in such a way to avoid that pitfall. The first is something unattainable, since every member of the audience (not God) would have to be perfect and equally possess the same intellectual faculties. The Fall alone ruins that approach. The latter fails because God chose people to write the Bible. Perfection in human communication isn’t possible because the writers and readers aren’t perfect. One cannot appeal to the Holy Spirit, either. John 16:13 (“ When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”) doesn’t mean that the Spirit will guide every believer to unanimously reach the same interpretive conclusion in every verse of the Bible (and you’d need unanimity at the level of every word for that to happen). Not only has this never been the case (Peter had trouble figuring out what Paul meant in some of his letters: 2 Pet 3:15-16), but John 16:13 actually has a specific context of its own.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, all of these problems for interpretation are unavoidable because they are inherent to studying the Bible. The best we can do is to seek to interpret the Bible on its own terms and make that a lifelong commitment. The more we engage, the more we will learn and become more adept at discerning which interpretive possibilities are better than others. Studying Scripture isn’t a destination; it’s a journey.
Learn more about interpreting the Bible in Dr. Michael Heiser’s course Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages.