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Does Reading the Bible Require Personal Interpretation?

private interpretation of bible

It is common to hear Evangelicals say that they are “Bible believers” — that they read the Bible and believe and accept what it says without personal interpretation. Appealing to 2 Peter 1:20,21:

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Written by God himself, the Bible doesn’t need interpretation, just obedience on the part of the Christian. Years ago, an Evangelical man and his family visited the church I was pastoring in West Unity. After the service, the man engaged me in a theological discussion. I suggested the titles of several books I thought would be helpful. He quickly replied, “All I need is the Bible.” He was a man of one book — ironically, an English translation that required translators to interpret the meanings of Hebrew and Greek texts. This man wrongly thought that the Bible was the very words of God; and that reading the Bible was the same as God directly speaking to him.

All written words require interpretation. It is absurd to suggest otherwise. The moment we read a written text, we are interpreting what it says and means — be it the Bible or texts written by Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry, or Bruce Gerencser — to name a few. I am certainly not in the class of these authors, but I know understanding my writing requires interpretation on the part of readers. Whether these interpretations align with what I meant to say is a whole other story. People can and do interpret my words in a variety of ways, often leading to conclusions that bear no resemblance to my intent.

The moment you read the first word, sentence, and paragraph of this post, you began the process of interpreting my writing. How could it be otherwise? Should we treat the Bible differently? It is, fundamentally, a collection of written texts, each requiring interpretation on our part hopefully to understand what it means. I say hopefully for this reason: Christianity is 2,000 years old. Every sect, preacher, and parishioner interprets the Bible for themselves. So much for no “private interpretation.” Put a hundred Christians in a room, ask them what a particular Bible verse or passage of Scripture means, and you will end up with a plethora of answers. There is no such singular thing as Christianity or the Bible only having one meaning. Christians can’t even agree on what the Bible says about salvation, baptism, communion, church government, the law of God, or end times. Hopelessly fractured and divided, Christians fight internecine wars over the teachings of the Bible. What are the criteria for determining who is right? Drum roll, please . . . personal (private) interpretation.

The moment any of us read a written text, we are interpreting said text. It is impossible to read a text without interpreting it. Behind every text are the personal experiences and beliefs of its author. People who best understand my writing are those who know and appreciate my backstory. They understand the lenses through which I view life.

Evangelicals argue that the Bible is different from all other books; and that it is of supernatural origin. Thus we can just believe what it says — no interpretation needed. However, the people reading the Bible are quite human — fallible, frail, and ignorant. We require interpretation to understand anything in life. Polly and I have been married for forty-five years. Both of us speak and write words to each other. Understanding these words requires us to process them through our interpretive grid. Otherwise, we might misunderstand what each of us actually means.

These things seem obvious to me, yet millions of Evangelicals disagree. In their minds, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me.” However, unknown men wrote the Bible. The original texts no longer exist. All we have are copies of copies of copies and translations of translations of translations. Scribes, and later translators, determined what the Bible said, and not the Evangelical God. These historical facts are without dispute. Yet, Evangelicals ignore these facts, choosing instead to ignorantly (and naively) believe that the Bible is somehow, someway, different from the 160,000,000 books written since the invention of the printing press. Every year, over 2,000,000 books at added to humanity’s library. (How Many Books Exist in the World?)

I will leave it to readers to “interpret” this article. While I am Bruce Almighty, I make no claim of supernatural origin. This blog is the writing of “one man with a story to share.” How you understand my words is up to you.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    People who put their faith in only one book don’t want to think. It’s easier to obey archaic rules than to accept that humanity may never have all the answers. It’s also easy to obey outdated rules that conveniently tell you to hate whom you already hate. That’s why the Bible reigns supreme.

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    When we see obvious typos in an article we don’t attempt to interpret what the ‘wrong’ word means, we simply change it in our heads to what was really intended. That’s interpretation. When a particular sentence or phrase appears not to make sense we re-read it, perhaps thinking of commas or context, then ‘interpret’ it. I find it amazing that we actually have a bible at all, given the fact that we have not a single original document, that the copies we have are written in so many different languages and dialects, that so much text was omitted from the final ‘anthology’, and that there have been so many translations of translations. All I can say is that people like Bart Ehrman are a beacon for those who want to understand!

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    Ted M. Gossard

    Yes. Right on. You see that when Evangelicals pray that God would help them to THE RIGHT interpretation of Scripture. That’s a huge bugaboo to me. I think you best might begin to understand the meaning of written texts by a community of readers, scholars, etc. And depending on the book, what you personally get out of it for your own edification or enjoyment or whatnot is entirely another matter.

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    If Christians can just read the Bible and understand it all (thru the Holy Spirit as they claim), why bother going to church and listen to a pastor and Sunday school teachers explain it to you?

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Here is something you might find sad, funny or simply cringe-y: As an undergraduate, I was studying literature and history (my majors) as I was transitioning (such a loaded word for a transgender woman!) from the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised to the Evangelical Christianity in which I would spend the first years of my adulthood. I “compartmentalized,” as I did with so many things in my life: I knew that reading literary, historical, scholarly or even scientific texts was inextricably linked with interpretation. Yet I somehow managed to believe that one could, and must, read the Bible without interpretation. Never mind that I was reading an English translation–and that I had read Spanish and French poems, plays and stories in the original as well as in translation: While I knew that, for example, one translation of a Rimbaud or Neruda poem could differ from another entirely because of the translator’s interpretation, I somehow convinced myself that there was “only one way” to read anything from the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy to the visions in Revelations in the translation (KJV) the church I attended was using.

    Of course, I now know that even a completely un-literary or “spiritual” work, such as an instruction manual for a rifle (which I used as an Army reservist), can be interpreted in ways I never could have imagined!

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    Ben Berwick

    You’re absolutely right Bruce. The proof of interpretation lies in how many different versions of Christianity exist. People who ignorantly proclaim they and they alone have the truth forget there are many different religions, all of which can proclaim the absolute truth. There is no greater evidence for the literal interpretation of the Bible than there is for the Qu’ran.

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    my experience, especially with people who claim to know the bible, is that the “correct” interpretation is the one that everyone agrees is the correct interpretation, even if the actual words say something completely the opposite, and if you interpret it any other way, you’re asking for trouble.

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