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!