The Bible is made up of 66 different books, has about 40 different authors, and was written over a time span of several thousand years. It contains detailed history, beautiful poetry, and prophetic literature, each account revealing the characteristics of God, his chosen people, and his love through Christ. The Bible has been printed more than any other book in history and is common in many households. Scholars have been studying the Bible for centuries, and Jewish scholars have studied the Old Testament for centuries even before that. Many different interpretations of the passages within the Bible have arisen over the years. This can often cause disputes between fellow believers and non-believers alike. Churches have split and denominations have been formed from such disputes. Many times, in and out of church, I have heard phrases like “that’s your interpretation” (borrowed from Jason Lisle’s Understanding Genesis) or “Well, that’s not how I interpreted it.” All these different views and thoughts lead to the question: Is there a correct interpretation?
To answer this question, we must look at the goal and rules for interpreting the Bible, or any piece of literature, for that matter.
Hermeneutics: Tools for Interpretation
When you read any piece of literature, you use hermeneutics, even if you don’t realize it. Hermeneutics are simply tools that are used to interpret writing. Let me give you an example: Let’s say you are trying to put together a swing-set for your child or family member. The swing-set comes with a set of directions so that you may put it together correctly. When you read it, you read the steps as literal directions. You do not read them as a poem whose words lead you to some beautiful story or allegory about some sort of playground equipment. That wouldn’t make any sense. That analogy is crude, but it shows that you used the Genre Principle. The directions were written to be taken literally with literal language devices, so that’s how you read them. In the same way, I wouldn’t read Shel Silverstein’s poem “Falling Up” as a literal account of a boy who, because he tripped on his shoelace, flew over the mountains. Before I even read Silverstein’s writing, I know it is poetry and I should read it that way.
Another example would be the Context Principle. A single word can have several different definitions with each definition becoming the correct one based on the context of its usage. For example, If I say, “I want to drink some punch,” I would hope that someone wouldn’t assume “punch” meant “to strike with a fist” or even possibly “a device or machine for making holes.” Neither of these definitions make sense. One of them isn’t even a noun and one would place me stating I wanted to drink a machine. No, instead, context states that “punch” is a delicious fruit drink.
These principles are just a couple of many hermeneutic rules we use when we read any piece of writing or literature. Hermeneutics has been defined as “the study of the principles of the interpretation of a text” (1. pg 11). The goal of using hermeneutics is to arrive at the original meaning the author intended. Going further, the entire goal of reading or writing anything is to exchange ideas and thoughts in written form from one mind to another. Without proper hermeneutics, such as reading poetry as a literal account, I will not arrive at the original meaning of the author’s writing. In fact, communication in this way is impossible if we don’t use correct hermeneutics. There’s no point in attempting to communicate ideas via writing if someone is going to read it incorrectly.
Logically, there must be a single interpretation for a proposition, or stated another way, there is a single, correct meaning for any piece of writing. In fact, “it is our natural tendency that a given proposition has only one primary meaning.” Otherwise, communication would be impossible. When you read these very words, you are reading them as having a single meaning, one about hermeneutics. If I intended them to have a second meaning where this whole blog post is really an account of me eating cereal this morning, reading this would be pointless. Words would have no meaning and, thus, communication of my ideas would be impossible.
Therefore, the definition of the “correct interpretation” of something is “the interpretation that matches the meaning of a text – the one that is faithful to the author’s intention” (1. pg 29, Emphasis original).
This definition leads to the question: How can we know the original intentions of an author, especially if they have since passed away? Dr. Jason Lisle describes this as such:
The purpose of words is to reveal the thoughts and intentions of the speaker/author. That is the entire point of communication – to transfer thoughts from one person’s mind to another. Therefore, if we are to understand an author’s intention, which is the goal of hermeneutics, we must take his words as the primary means of revealing his intention. A correct hermeneutic must be based principally on what the author himself has written (1. pg 47, Emphasis original).
A look at Genesis
As we look at the Bible, we must first acknowledge that it too is a piece of literature. As I stated before, the Bible records historical events, poems and songs, and prophecies. They each have their own genre and should be read according to that genre. Specifically, I will be using Genesis as it is often claimed to be a book with several interpretations or that any number of interpretations is allowable. Remember, the goal in reading Genesis should be to arrive at the original intended meaning of the author.
First, we must look at genre, and in order to do so, we must look at the language being used. Many individuals claim that Genesis is poetic in nature and meant to be read allegorically. Okay, what does Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament) poetry look like? A definitive mark of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. I just opened a Bible to Psalm 92 and found a good example: “For you, oh Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.” Lisle states that “The two parts of the verse are connected; they mean basically the same thing but use different words to say it” (1. pg 85). You find this same style all throughout Hebrew writing both in the Bible and extra-Biblical Hebrew writings. Lisle also points out that Hebrew writing, whether it be poetry or historical account, normally announces itself. For example, the Psalm I used in my example even states “A Psalm. A song for the Sabbath.” If the structure isn’t enough to tell you its poetry, many times the passage plainly announces it.
Let’s take a look at Genesis to see what genre it actually is. Parallelism is almost completely absent within Genesis, except for a few times when certain individuals speak poetically. In these cases, the change in structure from historical narrative to poetry is obvious . In addition, many times throughout Genesis, the Hebrew word or structure known as a Toledoth is used. It basically means “This is the account of…” or, when in reference to a person, “These are the generations of…” This is comparative to the announcement before a Psalm. The accounts in Genesis are announcing what they are: A Historical record. Also, the verb tenses of the Hebrew are indicative of a historical record or account. Genesis also contains copious amounts of very specific details of locations, names of individuals and nations, dates, numbers of objects and people, buildings, battles, etc. These would be unnecessary in poetry, while helpful for an accurate historical account. Taking the above evidence into consideration, Genesis is Not poetry. Therefore, if we have determined that the author intended for Genesis to read as the historical account that it is, why should it be read any differently?
But, what about…?
Many individuals, in spite of the above evidence, continue to reinterpret or read Genesis in another fashion. Most times it is due to some influence or presupposition outside of the Bible. Below are a few arguments that come up:
- But what about human fallibility?
This argument states that since man is fallible and able to make mistakes, we cannot have confidence in scripture since it was written by human hand. Therefore, we can then reinterpret certain parts of the Bible. This issue of human fallibility has a very easy answer. The Bible states that “all scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). This passage states that all scripture is inspired and written by God. The Apostle Peter further describes this process of the Holy Spirit inspiring the Biblical writers: “men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Dr. Jonathan Sarfati explains that the English word of “moved” is not strong enough to describe how the Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical writers according to Peter. Sarfati states “Actually, the translation ‘moved’ doesn’t convey the force of the Greek phero, meaning to bear along – Luke uses the same word to describe Paul’s ship ‘driven along’ by a gale (Acts 27:15 – 17) (2. pg 11).” Again, the Apostle Peter states in Acts 1:16 that the Holy Spirit led David: “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David…” Therefore, the scripture explains that the Holy Spirit directly influences and strongly moves the Biblical authors to write exactly what God intended.
Overall, if I can believe that God spoke creation into existence, regardless of how long it took, it doesn’t seem hard to believe that God can overcome our inability to correctly write words down the way he wants via the Holy Spirit. Christians also believe that same Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in the womb and raised him from the grave. Bypassing our fallibility seems like child’s play to a God who can do all these things.
2. But what about what science says?
Another argument that is often used to justify reading Biblical passages such as Genesis is the appeal to the currently accepted opinion of scientific “facts.” The argument goes as such:
- Genesis teaches that creation was made in six 24-hour days.
- Currently accepted theories state that the Universe was formed from a Big Bang billions of years ago.
- Genesis conflicts with currently accepted theories.
- Therefore, the true meaning must not be literal should be reinterpreted to fit the “fact” of long ages.
First, science doesn’t “tell” us anything and doesn’t have an opinion on a topic. Science is merely observing phenomena in nature and attributing propositional truths to them based on interpretations. It is our interpretations of these observations that “tell” us what is “fact.” Second, this view of Genesis leads to many allegorical interpretations that push aside the details of the accounts and instead look at the overall general meaning. Basically, God created and that’s all that is important. If that was the case, why write anything past the first verse? All God would need to say is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” We’ve already seen that there is no reason within the text to read Genesis as poetry, an allegory, or a metaphor. The literary structure for such an interpretation is absent.
This view of scripture can also lead to the idea that God merely explained creation to his people in this fashion (I.E. six-day creation) because they wouldn’t understand the idea of long ages and the Big Bang. This would seem to make sense, however, it means that God is using lies to teach truth, which would make him a deceiver. This goes directly against what the Bible says about God’s character: He cannot lie. Also, if God wanted to explain vast time, there is an easy way to do this in Hebrew. As Dr. Jason Lyle states, “If we wanted to a indicate long, finite period of time, we could say ‘thousands upon thousands of days.’ If we wanted to indicate billions of years, we could say ‘the days are uncountable, like the number of sand grains on the beach” (1. pg 264). Indeed, God did this very thing when explaining to Abraham how many descendants he would one day have. Let me ask this: If God actually wanted to explain he created in six 24-hour days, how could he have explained it in a more simple way than he already has?
So can we use currently accepted opinions of science and currently held theories to interpret the Bible? I would say no. They are absolutely irrelevant to the author and what they intended when they originally wrote it. Lisle sums this topic up well, “But more importantly, modern ‘scientific’ opinions about age have no bearing on the meaning of scripture” (1. pg 271 Emphasis original).
This often leads to the next argument: “Well, what if God’s meaning for ‘days’ or time are different?” Again, I would say that is invalid. If God had a separate meaning for words then he could never communicate properly with us. Here is another great quote from Lisle:
Since God is beyond time, when He communicates units of time it is always for our understanding and therefore to be understood on human terms. It’s absurd to think that because God is beyond time He cannot communicate time events in ordinary language. God is beyond space as well. So can we conclude that when God speaks of locations in Scripture, we need not take these locations literally? Context does not support such interpretations. (1. pg 270).
Also, placing science as the best form of interpretation and thus above the authority of Scripture, we place the true meaning of Scripture in the hands of an elite group of scientists. In doing this, we are saying that no reader or listener of scripture could ever obtain the true meaning until modern science developed. This goes directly against what Paul states to Timothy, “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul states that all of scripture is not only from God, but is understandable. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be good for teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training. Lisle poses the question, “How do we know that we currently have sufficient scientific knowledge to understand the Bible?” (1. pg 64 Emphasis original). He goes on to say that 500 years from now, current scientific thought will be extremely outdated and “primitive” in comparison to what is known in the future. Why do we assume that we now have enough knowledge or understanding to reinterpret Genesis and Scripture via science? Lisle wraps it up by saying “So, the problem with assuming that advanced scientific knowledge is necessary to understand Scripture is that we could never know if we had reached that level, and thus we could never have any confidence that we understand the Bible at all” (1. Ibid). If we look back on history, the scientific “fact” throughout the years has always been proven false or modified. Thus, so would the interpretation of the Bible. There would be no true meaning and, again, God would not be able to communicate with us.
A good example from history when the church decided interpret scripture according to it currently accepted scientific theories is the controversy between the Catholic church and Galileo. To summarize the account, Galileo stated that it was the Earth which orbited the Sun, while the church viewed Earth as the center and everything else orbited around it. These two views are known as Heliocentrism and Geocentrism, respectfully. However, the church did not get their ideas of geocentrism from the Bible. There are several passages that show this is an incorrect interpretation. Instead, the church had accepted the idea of geocentrism from the teachings of Aristotle and the scientists at that time. The church was “reinterpreting the Bible with the science of the day” (2. pg 203). In fact, many of the “church’s intellectuals were on the side of Galileo” (Ibid).
A negative view of Scripture.
Overall, these views that justify reinterpreting scripture to fit a presupposed idea or belief lead to a very poor view of Scripture and remove the authority of God from it. It leads to the view that the Bible is incorrect and thus can be changed or reinterpreted for any reason. I don’t understand reading the Bible with the lens that you will find something that is incorrect or a contradiction. If the Bible is the truth and is actually what it claims to be, why do we immediately assume something is incorrect? Many times, someone will come to me with a problem in the Bible hoping to prove it wrong in an attempt to justify their interpretation. They try to point out some contradiction or inconsistency. Almost always, it is a result of them reading a passage and not understanding the language, misinterpreting a word or concept, or not understanding hermeneutics. Lisle addresses this, “It is appropriate to presume that any perceived contradictions within a given text are resolvable unless and until it can be demonstrated that they are not. The reason for this is that people don’t often consciously contradict themselves” (1. pg 37).
To summarize, the “apparent contradiction” or issue within a passage of scripture is probably due to one of the reasons I already stated. When a passage doesn’t make sense to me or, at a first glance, doesn’t seem to agree with other passages, I don’t immediately parade it around as an example of how the Bible is fallible and thus can be reinterpreted. Instead, I look at the structure, context, and the language of the passage to glean further understanding. I might even do a word study of the passage. This is because the original audience of the Scriptures was one that knew the context and the language. They understood historical references and cultural mores. We do not. Therefore, we should do a little bit of studying to understand it, especially if we come across something that seems like a contradiction. God states that his word is truth and it will not pass away. If God states that his words, the book that he has inspired and therefore authored, is perfect, why do we immediately assume it is contradictory? Is our view of human fallibility that much higher than God? Or is our view of God that much lower than our own understanding? Especially for Christians, the lens for reading the scripture should be one of authority and awe, not one of staunch criticism that sometimes resembles the view of those who are anti-Bible.
Where it leads and why this is important.
These views and interpretations of Scripture lead to the destruction and removal of many explicit commands and doctrines in Scripture. For example, explaining away the straightforward historical account of Genesis calls into question many of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Matthew 19: 4-6 records an example of when Jesus was questioned about marriage, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” Jesus not only obviously shows how important reading Scripture is by saying, “Haven’t you read,” but he also quotes Genesis as historical and fact. There is no context that Jesus is merely teaching some moral and not taking it as fact. If you are to reinterpret Genesis as allegory or dismiss it all together, many of Jesus’ teachings, such as this one on marriage, as well as those from other Biblical writers lose credibility and authority. There are many other accounts of Jesus and the Apostles quoting Genesis as fact and historical. To save space, I will be writing an additional post about Jesus’ view of Scripture and Genesis in the near future. Overall, reinterpreting Scripture due to a need to fit it into some preconceived idea or belief removes its true meaning and is dishonest.
To wrap up, I want to clarify a few things and ask a few questions to possibly stir some thoughts and cause discussion. If you agree with me, don’t just take me at my word. go and look it up for yourself. If you disagree, I would love to discuss with you. First, I am not saying that to read the Bible in the fashion I have described is to read every single word as literal. The method of interpretation I have discussed is often called the historical-grammatical approach. It uses grammar and context to decide the original intention or meaning. The judge of this meaning is ultimately the words the author chose to use. This method allows for figures of speech and literary devices.
Secondly, the Bible is not anti-science or against scientists and neither are my views or this post. I am not saying that all scientists are biased and just trying to destroy Christianity and the Scriptures. No, I have a huge respect for scientists and the work they do. However, it makes no sense to interpret the Bible with something that was unknown to the Biblical authors or that is irrelevant to the original meaning and intention of the author. You will never arrive at the correct interpretation. I think scientists do some amazing things today and I am excited to possibly one day be a scientist in the geological field. However, again, I think interpretations and opinions of age are unimportant to correct Biblical interpretation.
Thirdly, I am not claiming that someone has to believe what I believe to be saved. No, God is the one who decides that. Ultimately it will be whether or not you have accepted Jesus. So, again, you do not have to be a young-earth creationist to be saved. Rather, my belief in young-earth creationism is a result of how I read the Bible. Regardless, that doesn’t downplay the importance of correct interpretation and good hermeneutics and further studying of the Bible.
Lastly, I am not saying we should never have doubts about the Bible or challenge what it says. I am merely saying that going into reading the Bible with the view that you will find a contradiction or inconsistency will not lead you to further understanding. Many times, it will lead to someone merely latching onto the first “apparent” contradiction. It leads to a very negative view of Scripture. Mind you, this is the very same Scripture that teaches of Jesus and salvation from sin. Having a negative view of Scripture as a Christian seems backwards to me. So, read the Bible, do further study, come up with questions and challenge your ideas. Allow yourself to be corrected where the Bible shows you that you were wrong. Admitting you are wrong, especially with Spiritual things sometimes, is very difficult. As I have read the Bible in this fashion, I have found many of my original thoughts to be incorrect. And that is OK.
I will leave you with the questions that I think are most important from this post as well as a finishing quote:
- Is there a correct interpretation for Biblical passages?
- Can we use science to interpret the Bible? How do we know that we currently have sufficient scientific knowledge to understand the Bible?
- What is your view or “lens” you use when you read scripture and why?
- If God actually wanted to explain He created in six 24-hour days, how could he have explained it in a more simple way than he already has?
“It is not a matter of opinion, yours or mine. It is what God says that matters. The basis for our thinking should be the principles from His word.” – Ken Ham
- Lisle, J. (2015). Understanding Genesis: How to Analyze, Interpret and Defend Scripture. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.
- Sarfati, J. (2015). The Genesis Account: A theological, historical, and scientific commentary on Genesis 1-11. Powder Springs, GA: Creation Ministries International.
- Ham, K. (2015). The Lie: Evolution/Millions of Years. Green Forest, AR: Master Books.
- The Holy Bible. ESV, NIV, NASB versions.