The stakes are high when we’re reading the Bible. We’re not just reading any old book—we’re dealing with God’s word, and what God says really matters. So what happens when I’m not sure I’ve read the Bible correctly? What happens when the person next to me is sure that I haven’t read it correctly? How can I know I’m right?
Firstly, it’s helpful to frame the question. Interpreting the Bible is a human activity within God’s economy. It’s something we do that fits within the broader context of what God is doing: the Father glorifying the Son in the Spirit by creating, upholding and perfecting the church.
Like all human activities, our biblical interpretation is affected by sin. As our faith is mixed with doubt, our works of service with selfishness, our knowledge with ignorance and error, so our interpretative zeal is mixed with sloth, our interpretative openness with prejudice, our interpretative insight with blindness. We cannot be justified on the basis of this activity. Our interpretation of the Bible is a human work: we cannot hold it up to God in the expectation that he will declare us ‘right’.
But there is good news! Through faith in Jesus Christ, there is blessing for “the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6). As with faith, works of service, and Christian knowledge, we depend on God’s merciful kindness in our interpretation of the Bible. We call on God to graciously forgive and accept us and our efforts—in the face of all their obvious inadequacy, in the name of Jesus Christ—and he is “a God ready to forgive” (Neh 9:17).
So God’s grace goes before and after all our efforts. Of course this is no reason not to strive to do as well as humanly possible—just the opposite! Grace puts us to work (Eph 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14). What does it look like to pursue good biblical interpretation by the grace of God, especially where there are multiple interpretative possibilities?
First, we recall that reading the Bible fits into what God is doing: saving a people for himself. God’s purpose is to create and preserve and perfect the church. This happens as people encounter Jesus, and in God’s wisdom the place we encounter Jesus is in the Scriptures. The Father and the Son have poured out the Spirit of witness, by whom the Scriptures were written, preserved, and recognized as God’s word to the church—and by whom the Scriptures are rightly read today (John 16:13-14; 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Cor 4:14-18). In the purpose of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, we can depend on the Scriptures doing their job: bringing us face to face with the Son, God’s Word to us. This is the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture.
The Bible’s message is clear: God is with us—in other words, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. We interpret the parts in light of the whole, the ‘unclear’ in light of the clear. Some biblical words, phrases, verses—even whole books (looking at you, Ecclesiastes!)—are tricky to pin down. But we know that the notes they sound, however strange and even dissonant they are to our ears, must ultimately harmonize with the Bible’s great theme: the loving kindness and mercy and faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. We call this principle ‘Scripture interpreting Scripture’.
Because Scripture is given to the church, and is for the church, interpreting Scripture is a church activity. The ‘communion of saints’ stretches across time and space. To read the Bible is to enter into an ongoing conversation with brothers and sisters throughout history and all over the world. Because the theme of the Bible is so rich and so profound, it is more than any one person or group can grasp and articulate. After all, it takes four Gospels to tell the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Other saints at other times in history or at other places in the world—or just other members of my Bible study group—may interpret the Bible in a way that would never have occurred to me, but in such a way that some new aspect of the grace of God suddenly becomes clear. This is a good gift of God, and to be received with thanksgiving.
But what about specific differences over the meaning of a passage? What about the real possibility of interpreting the Bible wrongly and destructively? “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
In light of what we have already said, our default posture must be charity and optimism. Perhaps the divergence is more apparent than real, and both parties have grasped some different aspect of the fullness of God’s meaning. Making this judgement will require time and expertise.
Perhaps the difference cannot be simply resolved, but is ultimately of little consequence. We can cheerfully await the perfection of our knowledge at the return of Christ.
Perhaps the difference in understanding is significant; we do not regard each other’s interpretation as ‘a different gospel’, but nevertheless as flawed and misleading. We can no less cheerfully part ways, each with prayer for the other, to serve the one God in parallel (the different evangelical denominations represent the endpoint of this kind of process).
It may be that a misreading of the Scriptures is so grave that in it we detect the activity not of the Holy Spirit but of another spirit; we do not recognize the gospel of Jesus Christ but “a different gospel—not that there is another one” (Gal 1:6-7). Here we can only do what we must always do in reading the Scriptures: call on the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to preserve us from error and lead us and all God’s church into the truth (John 16:13).
When it comes to reading the Bible, ‘getting it right’ is beyond us. But it is not beyond the God of the gospel. ‘Right’ reading of Scripture has less to do with confidence in our technique and more to do with confidence in God’s power and goodness. As we come to our Father’s word in prayer, we can trust him that we will meet his Son, in the power of his Spirit.