Stop Telling us What the Bible Means to you!

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How many times have you been in a Bible study and heard someone say something like, “Here’s what this passage means to me.” Or maybe the leader of your study invites the group to share what a certain verse means to them. Maybe you yourself approach Scripture this way. The fact is, the idea being expressed by many today is that impressions from the Holy Spirit apart from careful consideration of the material surrounding a passage and / or one’s private interpretation without reference to the context is an appropriate way to interpret Scripture. If this is your approach, or if you are a Christian who hears others do this and it doesn’t quite feel right, I invite you to continue reading!

Is discerning a passage’s meaning by spiritual impressions a valid way to interpret Scripture? I would make the case that as important and blessed as the comforts of the Holy Spirit are to a Christian’s soul, what the Bible has to say about itself rules out such an approach! How then are we to go about understanding what the Bible says?

To consider how to properly interpret Scripture I believe we need to start from the beginning with a very basic question—What is the Bible? Evangelical Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God—that Scripture has been breathed out by the Holy Spirit. And as such:

…no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20b-21 NASB)

In other words, perhaps the most basic understanding the Bible has of itself is that it is a revelation from God to mankind through the means of human authors. This means that in a very real sense, the Bible is a human work. That truth in no way diminishes the reality that the Bible is also the infallible, inerrant, Word of God. Part of the marvelous wisdom and power of God in the inspiration of Scripture is that God used the agency of real men with unique personalities writing to real people in real situations to perfectly communicate HIS Word. With this in mind, let’s consider an ordinary human interaction and see if the private interpretation approach works.

Let’s say you and a friend walk past a lemonade stand and he says “I love lemonade!” No one in their right mind would hear their friend say those words and conclude that what he’s really trying to tell you is that he hates sci-fi movies. His meaning isn’t determined by how his speaking made you feel, or by any form of private interpretation. The meaning of your friend’s words is the meaning he had in mind when he spoke them. And that meaning is understood by considering the actual words spoken, and the context they were spoken in. That may feel like a silly illustration because this principle is obvious to us. If we truly want to understand our friend we do so by discerning the intent behind his words.

We do this all the time without even thinking about it. Being a married man, I will be the first to say that misunderstandings abound in human communication. I’ve had my fair share of both misunderstanding and being misunderstood in my relationship with my wife! But the fact that we are prone to misunderstand doesn’t change the reality that we intuitively know how to understand others. Understanding takes place when we consider the words spoken, and the context in which they’re said. This same dynamic is essential to interpreting written communication, including Scripture. In fact, this kind of Scriptural interpretation is exactly what Peter is calling us to practice in 2 Peter 1.

So, just like your friend at the lemonade stand, the authors of Scripture had a specific point in what they communicated. And what they communicated is what God is communicating. We don’t get to arbitrarily assign meaning to Scripture. Its meaning was established as God breathed it out through the agency of the Bible’s authors! The meaning of a passage of Scripture is not determined by our subjective evaluation of it, but by what its authors intended to say as they wrote it.

But can’t the Holy Spirit impress a different meaning on my soul than what the original author intended to say? If the Holy Spirit inspired His word perfectly through the means of real people writing to real people, we know that the message that the author intended to communicate is the burden of the Holy Spirit! If you want to see what the Spirit has to say in a text of Scripture, you do so by determining what the author intended to say as he wrote, not by an impression you might get while reading it! Our impressions are fallible, but the “the men moved by the Holy Spirit [speaking] from God” are not. I praise God for spiritual blessing and impressions given while reading Scripture, but the meaning of a passage is determined by authorial intent—any impression must be subjected to that!

So how do we get at the author’s intended meaning? Primarily through considering his words in relation to the passage’s context. The closer we examine the ongoing argument our particular passage is a part of, and how the book fits in the overall story of Scripture, the better we will be able to discern what the author intended to say by what he wrote.

Since Scripture has been breathed out by God through the agency of human authors writing to a specific human audience, beware the notion of, “Here is what this passage means to me.” In fact, beware of interpreting the Bible in any way other than through discovering the authorial intent and discerning the implications of the author’s message for today!

6 thoughts on “Stop Telling us What the Bible Means to you!

    Ben S. said:
    June 4, 2015 at 5:22 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! In 1 Corinthians 2:14 Paul talks about a gnostic knowledge of significance imparted by the Holy Spirit. Most Christians I have met want to extend the Holy Spirit’s role to *interpretation*–that interpretation and application are both gnostic exercises. You would think interpreting the Bible in context would be an obvious necessity, but most evangelicals I know consider it “elitism” that God would make acedemic study a prerequisite for understanding much of His word.

    Liked by 1 person

    David Epp said:
    June 6, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    There is a level that I agree with you on. I believe that the Bible says certain things. I believe that it does not say one thing and at the same time say the opposite. I do disagree with the logical conclusion to this that the only way to teach scripture is for someone who is well trained in it to lecture. Imagine you are teaching on Phil. 4:19, But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. You have expounded on this scripture, giving the context, insights from the original Greek, some examples from Scripture that support, and an example of how this Scripture has proved true in your own life. Now do you ask “What does this mean to you?”?

    Consider the following people in your class:

    Bobby listens to Creflo Dollar along with your teaching and preaching. She accepts the prosperity gospel and somehow has missed how it is inconsistent with what you teach. Obviously, it will be dangerous to have Bobby say what this means to her and leave it unchallenged. It is also dangerous not to hear what she thinks this means.

    Walt is a multimillionaire. He also has a chronic disease and a rebellious son. The example of how God met a financial need in your life does not mean a lot to him or his buddy, Jack, who is in a similar situation.

    Lisa has just seen God meet some needs in some miraculous ways. She knows that she should share this with some unsaved family members but is too shy to do so. Sharing her story in the safe environment of your class will help give her the boldness to share with others.

    John is a new believer. He has been told that he should read his Bible but he is not so sure. It seems that every scripture has so much more to it than a simple reading shows. Maybe he would be better off leaving this to the professionals and just coming to church and listening.

    We believe in the priesthood of the believer. This does not mean that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. It does not mean that error should go unchallenged. I do believe it means that all should be heard.

    David Epp

    Liked by 1 person

      septemvc responded:
      June 6, 2015 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks for the reply Dr. Epp. I greatly value your opinion and the pushback you’ve offered here.

      I can see how the conclusions reached in my post can seem daunting to apply, and how you could thus conclude that I’m arguing that only the well versed are qualified to teach. I don’t necessarily believe that, nor is that what I intended to argue for in my post. What I am calling for here is a reorientation of our convictions concerning how Scripture is interpreted. The good thing is, the approach I’ve called for in my post is completely scalable with a person’s understanding. One with very little understanding of the Scriptures can still approach them with the mindset of trying to discern what Paul is trying to communicate, for example. Whether one with very little biblical literacy will get his interpretation right or not is another issue, but the truth is no one always gets it right. But the more we are “…diligent to present [ourselves] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim 2:15), the more clearly we will be able to discern the burden of the Holy Spirit in a given passage.

      I also see how you could assume from the title and tenor of the post that I’m advocating a strict lecture style of teaching here, but that also isn’t my intention. Thank you for helping me be more nuanced here. I think that, especially in a small group setting, large amounts of personal interaction with the material on the part of the participants is to be encouraged! But to apply the point of the post—our group interaction with the biblical material, shouldn’t be allowed to proceed under the delusion that one’s subjective appraisal of a passage is necessarily what the passage means. We need to see and encourage vocalization of how any passage we’re studying intersects with the peoples’ lives, but I would suggest that before anyone can evaluate how the passage intersects with their life, they must first understand what it is God is saying in the passage!

      I suppose the main point I would make would be that vocalizing what a passage means to someone cannot come before the meaning is nailed down and understood! To do the opposite would be like writing a prescription before the patient is examined and diagnosed. Once we have an understanding of what God is saying in a passage (i.e. what the author is saying), then we are in a position to evaluate how that meaning speaks to our particular lives / era. Therefore the implied responsibility of a teacher / facilitator is to lead the group to discern what the author is intending to say by what he wrote so that we can then evaluate how that message impacts us personally. But the point is, we can’t put the cart before the horse.

      Whether I communicated it clearly or not, my intention in this blog post is more to discuss how to do the initial interpretation of a passage, not so much how to put this interpretation into practice in a teaching context. It was very theoretical, not very practical. At the request of another brother, I do plan to do a follow-up “how-to” post to apply the principles in this one, and I would be honored if you would read it when I do and offer any feedback you may have.

      Again, thank you so much for being willing to interact with me, brother. I hope my response clarifies my thoughts in the original post, and I would welcome any response you may have.

      -Timothy (infinite debtor)


    David Epp said:
    June 6, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    There is nothing there I can disagree with.

    Liked by 1 person

    Shawn Eaton said:
    June 8, 2015 at 1:31 am

    Timothy, thank you for your excellent response to Dr. Epp! This cleared up the intent of this post very nicely. I look forward to your follow-up “how to” post!

    Liked by 1 person

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