Are there common rules for interpreting books that we can also apply to the Bible? I think so. In fact, I was reminded of that in a surprising way recently, so let’s work through that today.
Studying for an upcoming engineering exam has taken me deeper into some of the various standards and codes than I’ve previously needed to go in my job. Focusing on concrete in particular recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the American concrete code. Unable to find what I needed to solve a practice problem, I turned in desperation to Chapter 1. For many code books, chapter 1 is pretty general, introductory stuff unlikely to help with a particular equation, but I thought maybe there was some helpful tidbit, “misfiled” there, as it were. Well, my answer wasn’t to be found there, but I did come across section 1.5 on “Interpretation”, where, in a book dealing with concrete design, I found the following three truths that can be helping for interpreting the Bible.
- Distinguish between the Code and the Commentary. Our American concrete design code, referred to as ACI 318, is arranged in 2 columns on each page: a left column that is the official design provisions (i.e. “the Code”), and a right column that is any applicable background or explanation for that section of provisions (i.e. “the Commentary”). This particular section reminded the reader that the code is mandatory, while the commentary is not. While the code provisions are binding and enforceable, the commentary is simply there to help the reader understand the code. Now, I have several excellent, time-tested commentaries on the Bible from some brilliant theologians. But this distinction applies here especially. No matter how much you may appreciate a particular preacher, teacher, or commentator, no matter how helpful their words are, no matter how universally accepted they are – comments on divine revelation are not on par with divine revelation. This is especially important to remember with the plethora of “study Bibles” on the market now that combine a lot of extra-biblical material into the Bible as section introductions, margin notes, informational sidebars, passage commentaries, and so forth. Being included in the Bible directly can sometimes cast a reflection of inspiration on these generally helpful additions, but it is important to keep the sources of each in mind. 100 years from now, a view stated in a note in your study Bible may be proven false, but “the Word of our God stands forever” [Is 40:8].
- Interpret coherently. This section clarified that “This Code shall be interpreted in a manner that avoids conflicts between or among its provisions.” code committees aren’t perfect, but their intent is to write a coherent, noncontradictory standard. Interpret accordingly. This statement has bearing on interpreting the Bible for both the skeptic and the Christian.
- For the skeptics, don’t interpret two Bible passages in such a way as to paint them as contradicting if there is a third interpretation that reconciles both. Just as I shouldn’t interpret the concrete code in the worst possible light, looking to fabricate contradictions where there aren’t any, the skeptic should refrain from doing so with the Bible.
- For the Christian, this is a word of caution that we shouldn’t interpret Bible passages in isolation. You can see this in the false “prosperity gospel” so popular today, that latches on to verses about blessings, to the exclusion of all the many passages that speak of good and faithful servants of God suffering tremendously for obeying God. You simply must interpret all the passages that deal with a particular topic in a coherent manner. Ignoring ones that don’t fit your interpretation is no better than the skeptic trying to create textual problems.
- The concrete code made another statement in that paragraph worth noting here to skeptics and Christians alike: “specific provisions shall govern over general provisions.” In other words, don’t think the code is in error because some general provision doesn’t work for your odd situation, if there is a specific provision that does address it. Similarly, sections like the Proverbs are general rules of life, not guarantees for every possible situation. It is no error in Scripture if a child, “trained up in the way he should go” [Prov 22:6], does, in fact, depart from it when he grows up.
- Use the “plain meaning” of words. ACI instructs the reader that their code is to be interpreted straightforwardly, per the “plain meaning” of the words, unless noted otherwise. Moreover, if a term is specifically defined in the book (and they do that in Chapter 2), then that definition applies to their use of the word regardless of how the rest of the world uses the same word. This is important, because words can have many different definitions, applicable in different contexts. This is especially true in technical documents where jargon – specialized terms for those “in the field” – is used as a shortcut to convey big ideas quickly and succinctly. However, our default assumption should be the simple “plain meaning” unless the context makes it clear that something else is meant. Moreover, this also means that we shouldn’t try interpreting the author’s intent based on our own “pet” definition. Atheists often want to define faith as “belief in spite of contrary evidence,” or some similar nonsense, and then decide that Christianity is simply unintelligible. Indeed, it probably won’t make sense if you read your own contradictory definitions into it first. But when trying to interpret something – anything really – you should always do so with the goal of understanding the author’s intent, not reading your own views into their work.
And there you have it – 3 tips on correctly interpreting the Bible… tucked away in with a bunch of guidelines for designing concrete structures! Till next time, keep “examining the Scriptures daily” like the Bereans [Ac 17:11], “accurately handling the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15], striving to interpret what you read correctly [2Pe 3:16-17], and applying it in your daily life, “being doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” [Jm 1:22]. Blessings on you.