Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.
This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.
If each generation has to interpret the Bible in the light of their experience, isn’t its authority lost in the psychology of those interpreting it?
Daily life forces us to interpret all the time. And while our interpretations are subjective and relative, the thing we interpret is usually objective and real. The fact that we need to interpret, say, black and white lines on the road doesn't mean that zebra crossings are useless. The point is that we need to get the interpretation right.
In a similar way, the Bible has divine authority, regardless of how we understand it. A verse or passage may allow for more than one reading; and inevitably we’ll sometimes miss what it’s saying, but that doesn’t mean the meaning isn’t there. The text exists in its own right.
Secondly, we need to be wary of simply interpreting the Bible in the light of our experience. The original experience – that of the writer and their audience – has to take priority.
The Book of Revelation is a classic. Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist. And I’ve heard people equate anything from the expansion of the EU to a special constellation of Jupiter and Saturn in the 1980s with the Second Coming. Going back to the biblical writer’s original situation, intention and audience can help immensely in clearing up a few misunderstandings.
I once read about a Religious Education teacher telling their class that the moral of the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand was to follow the crowd’s example by picking up their litter whenever the children had a picnic. Hmm … What the teacher apparently didn’t do was to make sense of the story by interpreting it, not in the light of the children’s experience, but of those who heard or read it first.
Tell the story to a first century Jew, and chances are they’d have gone: Jesus feeding the crowds from virtually nothing? Sounds a bit like Moses and my ancestors in the desert when God rained manna from heaven! Might Jesus be the new Moses and lead God’s people out of slavery from Rome?
So, in order to get closer to the meaning of Scripture, it helps to ask: what did a verse or passage mean to the writer and their first readers, back then?
As a rule, then, it’s advisable to stick to the following principle: don’t take a Bible text out of its context in order to proof-text your own pretext. Having said that, God is free to break that rule at any time. He can use his word to speak to different people in different situations in different ways. So, although originally a particular Scripture may have referred to the Midianites on 16 Nisan, 1,234 and a quarter BC, God can still get through to that shopkeeper in Hackney with the same Bible verse and touch them like never before.
In other words, the truth of the Bible needn’t always be compromised by the filter of human psychology. It would appear that God loves working with human psychology, penetrating our brain-fog with his truth. To take that momentary, personal experience and turn it into a general interpretation of a specific Bible verse, however, would be an entirely different matter and is generally not recommended.
In summary, the Christian conviction is that God’s word is timeless and true, regardless of how a particular generation interprets it. That apart, we’ll do well to view a Bible verse, passage or book through the lens of the author and their original audience. Even then, however, our interpretation will always be coloured by our own experience – but who’s to say that God can’t use that experience to get his point across?