The Difference between the Bible and Bible Interpretation

The Difference between the Bible and Bible Interpretation June 2, 2023

The Difference between the Bible and Bible Interpretation

This is an illustration of critical realism (explained in an earlier but recent post here) and its application in theology, especially theology that seriously attempts to base itself on the Bible as the inspired Word of God written.

When I was growing up…my spiritual mentors (pastors, denominational leaders, speakers, accepted authors, etc.) did not make a distinction between the Bible itself and THEIR interpretation of the Bible. “My Bible says…” was the phrase often heard. What followed that opening phrase was often what I later discovered to be a debatable interpretation of the Bible.

Only when I was halfway through seminary (at an evangelical but non-fundamentalist Baptist seminary) did I discover that there is always a distinction if not a difference between someone’s interpretation of the Bible and the Bible itself. (Yes, my teachers excluded Jesus from that; he alone had the perfect interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.)

Over my many years of studying evangelical Christianity, including fundamentalism, I have concluded that this is a big and important difference between theologians. There are those who seem to think their interpretation of the Bible is simply what the Bible clearly says put in different words with illustrations. I’m sure there were theologians who treated their own interpretations of the Bible that way before Charles Hodge, but I trace much of this confusion (conflation) back to him. It seems to me that Hodge thought of the Bible as HIS systematic theology unorganized and HIS systematic theology as the Bible organized into a system.

There is an opposite error, of course, and that is liberal theology that seems not to acknowledge any really correct interpretation of the Bible except that “seen” through modern “eyes.” But, even many liberal theologians can be quite dogmatic about their own treatments of the Bible.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am NOT suggesting that a preacher in the pulpit should be like the one I saw depicted in a humorous one-frame cartoon in some Christian magazine years ago. It showed a preacher slumped down in his desk chair, behind his study desk, with an attendance chart on the wall behind him. The chart showed attendance declining rapidly and dramatically. A deacon or elder sitting across from him says “Well, pastor, maybe it would help if you didn’t end every sermon with ‘But what do I know?’”

I’m talking about theologians, both “popular” and “scholarly” who write and speak AS IF their explanations of the Bible, especially in very obscure places and about highly debatable subjects, were exactly what the Bible says and with a mentality of authority.

I really ought here to give at least one example after Charles Hodge. Well, I won’t name him, but there is an extremely influential Baptist pastor-theologian-Bible scholar with a huge following who speaks and writes in the manner I’m describing. Every time I watch and listen to him on Youtube (and I have read several of his books), I get irritated by his “voice of authority.” On no subject does he seem to admit that his own interpretation might be wrong.

I know that man personally. We had a two hour face-to-face conversation (really a confrontation) during which it seemed clear to me that he thought his own view, contradicted by equally informed and serious evangelical scholars, was infallible. Let me contrast him and that with another equally influential New Testament scholar who writes about theology. I know him, too. I’ve heard him speak in person and had dinner with him and talked with him at length. I will name him: Tom Wright (N. T. Wright). He speaks and writes with authority but without the implication that his interpretation of the Bible is incontestable because it is simply “what the Bible says.” At least in person he comes across as very humble and open to dialogue about subjects he speaks and writes about. I am not aware of any case in which he has tried to get a fellow evangelical expelled from a professional society or fired from his position over a matter of Bible interpretation.

I was taught, growing up and in college, that “the rapture” was right there—in the Bible. But I studied the Bible looking for “the rapture” and could not find it. I was taught that dispensationalism was the only right interpretation of the Bible and that the Bible could only correctly be read AS TEACHING dispensationalism. In my family, church and denomination the footnotes to the Scofield Reference Bible were treated as just as authoritative as the text of the Bible itself.

Among evangelical theologians world wide, there is a divide between those of us who believe everyone’s interpretation of the Bible is distinct from the Bible itself and that no interpretation is sacrosanct and those who believe their (or for example Charles Hodge’s) interpretation of the Bible is simply what the Bible says put in other words. The latter tend to be “fundamentalish” (a term I coined and explained here earlier) if not full blown fundamentalists while the former tend to be moderate to progressive evangelicals.

Karl Barth famously said that his expansive interpretation of the Bible in Church Dogmatics was not infallible and that every generation would have to develop its own interpretation, possibly different from his own. Charles Hodge, on the other hand, wrote his systematic theology AS IF it were simply the Bible’s truths rationally organized and re-stated. And some of Hodge’s contemporary fans treat his systematic theology as if it were just that: “The Stout and Persistent Theology” for all times.

None of this means that a preacher or teacher must end his or her sermon or lesson with “But, what do I know?” It means that he or she ought to show some intellectual humility and be open to revision of thoughts and expressions by fresh and faithful biblical interpretation.

*If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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