A brief note re Biblical Interpretation

A brief note re Biblical Interpretation

A common title of articles and books on biblical topics is something like, “What the Bible says about. . .”

Most such writing comprises little more than quotation and discussion of scriptural passages that deal directly with the subject at hand. For example, I just now was reading an article that arrived unbidden in my email: “What the Bible says about transsexuality.” The article contained nothing but biblical quotations about sexuality, accompanied by extensive discussion of each. But that is too simplistic an approach to understanding scripture.


Consider slavery. If we wanted to know “what the Bible says about” slavery, we would miss the mark by looking only at statements that deal directly with slavery, failing to consider broader biblical principles that, most of us would agree, amend or even overrule the explicit biblical references.

It is probable that most modern believers would eschew slavery in any form—although a few ultraconservatives insist that, since the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn slavery, it must be OK as long as we follow strictures described in the Torah and in Paul’s writings. I have nothing to say to that group of ultraconservatives. This essay addresses only the larger group of mainstream believers who would agree that slavery is not acceptable today.

But why not? The Bible in no way condemns it! And although most believers give a variety of reasons why owning other humans is now contrary to God’s will, those reasons rest on other biblical principles, especially those elaborated by Jesus, that say nothing about slavery.

In other words, people permit a more comprehensive understanding of scripture to inform and in fact preempt explicit references to slavery. That is a perfect apologia for not interpreting scripture simply by summarizing every direct biblical statement about a given subject.

We all engage in such reinterpretation; we just aren’t sufficiently perceptive to recognize that, in doing so, we’re contravening hermeneutic principles accepted by many if not most Christians, especially among Fundamentalists.


Nearly everyone readily accepts that, in spite of what Jesus said, we shouldn’t always turn the other cheek and shouldn’t always take literally the statement, Do not resist an evildoer  —Matthew 5:39.

And most believe that we shouldn’t always give to anyone who begs from us  —Matthew 5:42.

Few believers today accept at face value the command in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 that parents should have a consistently rebellious and disobedient son stoned to death. (Presumably also few Israelites accepted it at face value, since there is no indication that such a stoning ever happened.)

Few of us expect that Jesus, when he appears at the end of time, will actually have a sword protruding from his mouth  Revelation 1:16, 19:15,21.

Most of us interpret various biblical statements by waving our hands and insisting, “Well, of course it doesn’t mean that literally. . .” Rightly or wrongly, most of us call upon more universal biblical and/or logical principles that, we believe, controvert or at least mitigate certain passages or principles or commands in the Bible.

That is precisely what biblical scholars are doing when they claim that various scriptural principles or commands should not be followed slavishly, but rather must be interpreted in light of broader, more universal biblical understandings—questions about pacifism, for example, or sexuality, or women’s positions within the church, or attitudes toward immigrants, or believers submitting to government authorities, or indeed even questions of biblical inspiration.

Most of us tend to feel that when I reinterpret a scriptural passage in order to make it more palatable or more reasonable, that’s just common sense. But when you do that, you are failing to accept the plain words of scripture; you are “adding to” what the Bible says!

It is important that we all (1) become self-aware of how we reinterpret scripture when it is convenient for us, for few believers accept every biblical statement at face value; and (2) become more humble (and less censorious) when confronted with other people’s reinterpretations of biblical statements—especially those that are our favorites.

And we must always remember: Highly accurate understanding of biblical theology is way down on God’s list of virtues he wants for us.