Many skeptics contend that, given there are so many different and conflicting interpretations of the Bible, it is clear that no consensus has been reached - or perhaps can be reached - in regards to what the message of the Bible is. How then can Christians seriously expect unbelievers to hold that the Bible is true, that God exists, and to live according to the instruction of Scripture? Skeptics will also point to the myriad of church denominations as proof that there is no unity of belief and practice in Christianity. How then can one claim that the Christian faith is the one true way to God and heaven?
These are some serious objections. How should Christians, who are looking to share the truth in love, respond?
Firstly, it’s important to point out that these contentions and arguments misrepresent the matter by failing to take into account a number of key facts.
The great majority of Christians and church denominations have no problem agreeing on the central teachings of the Bible. Investigate every branch of Christianity and you’ll find the same basic understanding as to what the Bible teaches:
(1) God is the sovereign creator of all;
(2) God made man in His image, with the freedom to either choose or reject Him;
(3) Man rebelled against God, thereby bringing sin and death into the world and corrupting God’s perfect creation.
(4) God, because of His everlasting love, launched a rescue mission to save humanity and all of creation; entering into the dysfunction of this world by becoming a man in the person of Jesus Christ; defeating sin by dying a substitutionary death on our behalf, paying the penalty for sin.
(5) People can have their relationship with God restored by placing their faith in the saviour Jesus Christ.
Secondly, not only do Christians and churches agree on the central teachings of the Bible, but almost everyone who actually takes the time to read through the Bible, even those who in the end don’t hold it to be true, have no difficulty discerning the main message. It is simply untrue to say that there is no consensus as to what the Bible teaches. The message of the Bible is clear for anyone who reads it carefully, and honestly seeks to discover and understand its true meaning. Problems arise because individuals and groups misinterpret the Bible. But how does this happen?
There are two crucial mistakes people often make when trying to interpret the Bible:
(1) They take a Scripture verse or words out of context.
(2) They inject their own views or emotions into the text.
When God inspired the Biblical authors he no doubt wanted us to understand His intended meaning. 2 Peter 1:20 states, “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own opinion.” We all must, just as the apostle Paul challenged us in 2 Timothy 2:15, be diligent, accurately handling the word of truth to discover God’s intended meaning. So, how do we correctly interpret the Bible?
To correctly interpret the Bible and draw out God’s intended meaning, we must not create the meaning ourselves or read into the text what we feel it is teaching. As individuals we are all different and distinct. If we fall into this trap it’s not hard to see how we can end up with a myriad of different and conflicting interpretations of the Bible. To avoid misinterpreting the Bible in this way, it is helpful to always follow an interpretative process called 'exegesis.'
Exegesis is from the Greek word exegeomai, meaning “to make known, to unfold in teaching, to declare by making known.” In John 1:18 the apostle John used this word to declare that Jesus “has revealed God to us.” So, to correctly interpret the Bible and draw out God’s intended meaning, we must engage in this process of exegesis. We do this by asking various questions about the passage of Scripture we are reading to determine answers to what, where, when, why, how and so on.
The process of exegesis involves several steps including:
(1) examining the text to understand its grammatical construct;
(2) understanding the meaning of individual words - literally, figuratively, culturally, etc;
(3) discovering the historical context, such as the author, cultural setting, time frame, etc;
(4) examining the message within the context of paragraphs, chapters, individual books, and the entire scope of scriptural truth; and
(5) understanding how a particular teaching of Scripture applied to those it was first written to and then understanding how that same truth applies to us today.
So much more can be said in regards to the proper interpretation of God’s word. For now, keep these 5 points in mind whenever you’re reading the Bible, in order to more accurately understand what God has revealed to us in Scripture.
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Further reading recommendations
'How to read the Bible book by book' by Gordon Fee
'How to read the Bible for all it's worth' by Gordon Fee
'How (not) to read the Bible' by Dan Kimball
'40 questions about interpreting the Bible' by Robert Plummer
'Introduction to Biblical interpretation' by Robert Hubbard, William Klein, and Craig Blomberg