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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Understanding the Bible: Can we just read it? Or do we need to interpret it?

I thought my comments about the distinction between the Bible itself and theology would be rather self-evident. But I guess not.

I posted a comment that echoed these thoughts on a blog post that expressed disapproval of Dr. Jay Wile's defense of Dr. Peter Enns against what Wile sees as an unfair attack by Ken Ham.

Anne Elliott wrote,
I’ve been watching with great interest some interaction online between Ken Ham (Answers in Genesis), Jay Wile ([author of] Apologia’s high school science curriculum), and Peter Enns (the author of Peace Hill Press/Well-Trained Mind’s “Bible” curriculum):
Based on some further comments by readers, I responded,

I urge you to read what Wile wrote and is continuing to write on this subject. He is not defending Enns’ book. He is seeking to make a point about theological differences. Just because one person (for example, Wile) is an Arminian, doesn’t mean he has to label Calvinists “compromisers.”

Now. Is Wile aware of the kinds of things Anne or, before her, LeaAnn, have brought to our attention? Honestly, I doubt it.

Rather, he recognizes that there is a difference between theology (the [hopefully Holy Spirit-inspired, but still, man-made!] interpretation of Scripture) and the Bible (the fundamental data upon which theology is to be built).

Mr. Ham, I’m afraid, has rarely, if ever, acknowledged the distinction. And so he and AiG have had a long history of labeling as compromisers and apostates and unbiblical (or antibiblical) anyone and everyone who happens to disagree with their peculiar (man-made!) interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Such language, on those grounds alone, is unwarranted.
Shortly afterward, Kathy Bryson replied,
Dr. Wile believes that the Bible must be interpreted and that is the reason we have theologians. [Comment by John: I believe she meant theologies or theological differences of opinion. Wile, as far as I'm aware, has never spoken about the advent of theologians!]

Many of us disagree. I do not need a man with a degree from a manmade school to explain to me how I should read my Bible.

Can we be nicer in this disagreement? Maybe. But those of us who take the Bible at its word cannot sit by comfortably and say nothing.

How to respond?

I sense that either I don't understand what she is saying, or, if I do, I am unable at this time to believe she really means what she seems to be saying.

She seems to be saying that we don't have to interpret the Bible.

Really? Is that what she means (or thinks she means)?

Or is her comment meant, more, to protest the idea that she--or anyone--needs the help of someone else to help her understand how to read the Bible?

Either way, I'm finding her comments hard to believe.

To help guide the conversation--so Kathy or someone else can help me understand what she meant and/or how to interpret her comments correctly--let me offer some illustrations that seem, to me, to demonstrate why her comments are so difficult for me to believe.

If I have completely misunderstood your point, Kathy, please forgive me and help me to understand what you really meant. [NOTE: I am attempting to notify Kathy of my post, here. I don't think it is right to attempt to "take over" Anne Elliott's blog with a stream about a comment I make. But I think it is appropriate to invite people who want to continue the conversation to come here!]

I would want to argue that the Bible (as every form of communication) absolutely must be interpreted if it is to be understood. We all--all of us who read it!--interpret the Bible. We can't escape the necessity of interpreting Scripture. There is no “uninterpreted” Scripture. Even if we possessed the original manuscripts, our English translations include more than literal, one-to-one, mechanical substitutions of English words for Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words. In other words, the translators themselves have to engage in at least a little interpretation. They make decisions--they can't escape having to make decisions--that reflect their (hopefully best) guesses at what the authors meant when they wrote what they did hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Several years ago, I wrote an article that, among many other issues, dealt with this matter of interpretation. I think that portion of the article is appropriate here:
Anyone who has engaged in any type of serious translation work--especially a translation between widely divergent cultures--can understand the difficulties of the task. In case you are not aware of the kinds of difficulties cultural differences may create, let me illustrate.

A Bible translator was working with a tribal group in Southeast Asia. The translator, as all good translators do, would regularly read his work to a group of informants to see if they understood his translation and to ensure that what he had written was conveying accurately to them what he thought the original text meant.

The translator had come to Luke 13:32 where Jesus is said to have referred to Herod as a "fox." As he read his translation of Luke 13:32, the men who were listening burst forth with laughter. And not just a little laughter. Some of the men were holding their bellies as they rolled around on the ground.

"'Herod, that fox' is a funny turn of phrase," the Bible translator thought to himself, "but it is not that funny! I wonder why these men are laughing so hard?" --So he asked them: "Why are you laughing?"

One of the men was able to control himself long enough to choke out a reply: "If a man is a 'fox,'" he said, "it means"--and here the informant spoke in a high falsetto--"he speaks with a high voice." And the implications of a man speaking with a high voice? Why, he is effeminate!

"No! No!" the missionary protested. "Jesus didn't mean that! He was saying Herod was sly, crafty, deceitful."

"Oh!" the men replied. "Well, in that case, then, you need to say 'that mountain lion'! Herod was a mountain lion."

Ah. Exactly. Just so. . . . Or not? For our purposes here, we will try to sidestep the theological and practical difficulties that the informants' reply raised (since the Scriptures tell us we should neither add to or subtract from God's Word: Would it be a sin to use the word that refers to mountain lion in place of fox? Would it be better to translate fox as "that sly and crafty man"? . . . ).

My point is simply this. People around the world often use linguistically identical words to achieve very different purposes. Clearly, Herod was neither a mountain lion nor a fox. But in one culture he could be characterized as the one animal, and in the other culture he could be characterized as the other. Was Jesus lying when he referred to Herod as "that fox"? Was he seeking to mislead those of us who are alive today by using this figure of speech? My conviction: no, on both counts.

But similar problems in translation and interpretation occur in many areas that we, in our culture, think ought to be crystal clear and beyond misunderstanding.

The fact is, the same words in different languages really and legitimately may have completely different meanings. No one is "lying." No one need charge the other with "misleading." But we must, in one way or another, address the fact that a person who is a fox in one culture and language is a mountain lion in another.

When it comes to dates and ages and chronologies, we must address the facts that, for example, a baby that has just passed through the birth canal may be zero years old (literally speaking) in one culture and a full year old (literally speaking) in another. And a baby born one day in one culture (on "New Year's Eve") may be two years old the very next day! (In China, babies are one year old on the day of their birth. They advance a year in age at each New Year. (All the babies born during a particular year are the same age.) So a baby in China born on New Year's Eve will be two years old the very next day, while your baby, born on New Year's Eve will have 364 days to go before s/he is even one!)

My purpose, here, is to illustrate the truth--well-recognized by cross-cultural missionary Bible translators; not so well-known by others--that translation and interpretation is not a "simple" or "mechanically accurate" function. It takes real skill, and knowledge, and insight, and research. And sometimes we just don't know.

Evangelical Bible scholar Roland K. Harrison once wrote:

It would seem evident that while the numbers assigned to the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis had real meaning for those who were responsible for their preservation in the first instance, they cannot be employed in a purely literal sense as a means of computing the length of the various generations mentioned in the text.2
And those of us who are attracted or committed to a Young-Earth or "traditional" (Western!) interpretation of the Bible, may want to say: "The man is simply trying to cover his own disbelief. He is saying what he is because he has some preconceived notion (evolutionism!) and he wants us to think he still believes in the Bible, even though, obviously, he does not."

I ask you to be careful before you make such a charge against your brother in the Lord. Can you be sure you are correct?

I first read Harrison's comment years ago when I was a student in seminary. In 2002, I came across a book by Jacob A. Loewen, a missionary and Bible translator. Loewen tells a story that touches on the same issue we're discussing here. He isn't talking about the age of the Earth. He's talking about translations and culture.

When we look at the Bible "through the eyes of our own culture" only, he says, we miss a goodly portion of the Bible's message.
Africans, for example, have great interest in the genealogies of the Bible, and find them significant. I first noticed this when I observed committees of African translators working on the Gospel According to Matthew, with its genealogy of Jesus' ancestry. Matthew lists fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and a final fourteen to the birth of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17).

When one group of African translators read the three sets of fourteen generations listed there, they held a long discussion, speculating about why the people in the Bible remembered only fourteen generations, when African people like themselves remembered sixteen. Did that imply inferior memories, or what?
[Comment by John Holzmann: Notice how the Africans' cultural assumptions affected their interpretation! Notice how they placed great emphasis on a feature of the text that we will barely notice. Moreover, they interpreted this feature in a "scientific" (or medical/biological) manner. They assumed the number implied something about the mental capacities of Jews! . . . But back to the story.]
I was intrigued because for me biblical genealogies were totally uninteresting and of no significance. "What do you do when you reach the seventeenth generation?" I asked.

"Oh," they said, "we consider sixteen to be the maximum that a non-literate person can remember, so when the seventeenth king dies, the elders of the tribe review the sixteen. If one of them is not considered important, but the king who has just died accomplished a great deal, they eliminate the unimportant one from the genealogy and add the deceased king. If the recent king is not very important, they don't count him."
[Comment by John Holzmann: Notice how the Africans' culture is at work! They are asking completely different questions about the genealogies than we do! Moreover, the fact that each set of names includes "only" fourteen generations causes them no difficulties at all. They don't ask "why" each set includes that many names--a question that we in the West are prone to ask. They assume the answer. They "know" it: "Fourteen is all the names that people in that culture can memorize." And rather than asking whether these lists are "accurate" or not, or "complete" or not, they innately recognize that certain names have been left off: "No big deal!" . . . But to us in the West it is a big deal! Everyone is important. Completeness and accuracy is important. We may be bored to tears when we have to read the genealogies of the Bible; we may avoid them as much as possible; but we are pleased to know that they exist and that Biblical scholars can puzzle their way through and use such lists to calculate (what we hope is) an accurate age of the Earth. . . . ]3.
Does the Africans' interpretive scheme make no sense? Are you willing to charge them with some kind of ungodly prejudice that leads them to interpret the Biblical genealogies in such a way that they can "force" an Old-Earth interpretation on an obviously Young-Earth Bible? I hope not!

I have no idea what the Africans' ideas may be about the age of the Earth. Mr. Loewen never tells us. As I said above, his concern, and the concern of the African translators, had nothing to do with how old the Earth is.

My point is simply this: that what many Young-Earth advocates believe is an "obvious" interpretation of Scripture may be wrong. While it is clearly "obvious" to them, it is not so obvious to others! Indeed, some very different interpretations are "obvious" to others (note the Africans' interpretation), and the difference in perspective has absolutely nothing to do with an aversion to a Young-Earth view. While some of those for whom a Young-Earth perspective is non-obvious may be Old-Earth creationists, there are others for whom it is non-obvious who hold no "scientific" prejudices against the Young-Earthers' perspective in the least.

In sum: while the YECs' over-all schema concerning the age of the Earth may be correct, it is possible that they are wrong. And we ought not to assume that those who question their interpretations are anti-Bible. Moreover, we cannot simply decide to trust one interpretation of Scripture (say, the Young-Earth creationists') and say, "They are right, and whoever comes to a different conclusion is a scoffer and an infidel!" But moving beyond translation, let’s talk about what each of us does in his or her own mind every day.

We Christians discuss "gospel and law" and the appropriate interplay between the two. "We are no longer under law, but under grace!" most of us affirm. Yet we have a hard time defining exactly what that means and how the principle should be applied. And so we have major arguments over and discussions about such things as
  • Whether women should wear dresses only.
  • Whether women should wear head coverings at all times.
  • Whether women are permitted to say anything during a church service.
  • Whether tithing (and how much tithing) is required of Christians today.
  • Infant baptism.
  • Beliefs and practices with respect to communion/the Eucharist/the Lord's Supper. (Personally, I was blown away when some Catholic acquaintances of mine pointed out that the Catholic Church takes Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24 more literally than does any Protestant denomination. “When Jesus says, ‘This is my body,’ we take Him literally!” said my Catholic acquaintances. [Ouch!] They were, of course, referring to the doctrine of transubstantiation.)
  • And so forth.
Clearly, it is possible that people who come to opposing views in these matters really are intent on ignoring the Scriptures. Some may, really and truly, hate the Bible and everything it stands for. Maybe they really are compromisers and heretics. But are we ready to charge them with such things solely on the basis of their opinions on matters like these?

Maybe we would like to charge them with being sloppy in their exegesis, or faulty, or lacking in clarity or insight or thoughtfulness. It is quite possible they have failed to work out some of the implications of their thought processes to the same extent we and others with whom we agree may have done.

But to declare on the basis of these items alone that bonnet- and dresses-only-wearing sisters are teaching and/or believing heresy; or to suggest that sisters who find it ridiculous for a church to tell women that they must not even communicate the names of guests with whom they are sitting lest they break the biblical command for women to be silent in church . . .--to suggest that if they protest, they will be preaching "outright liberal theology that totally undermines the authority of the Word of God" and will be launching "an attack on the Word--on Christ" [the kinds of charges Ken Ham levels against those who disagree with his exegesis of Genesis 1-11]: I'm sorry! I think that is going too far!

But, once more, I would like to hear from Kathy or others who might have been tempted to express whatever-it-was Kathy was attempting to communicate by means of her comment. I imagine--I am hoping this is the case!--I must be really and truly misunderstanding her intent.

Tomorrow: Some more on this same theme. But dealing a bit more with issues more closely related to those that Answers in Genesis and Mr. Ham deal with on a regular basis.

2 Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), pg. 152.

3 Jacob A. Loewen, The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2000), 3-5.


  1. Okay, John, one of my biggest arguments against you is that it seems you're saying that no one can really know what truth is. It feels like we're living in the times of the judges of Israel, when every man is just allowed to do what is right in his own eyes.

    The apostle Peter argues that our presentation of Scripture to others is not to be made up of cleverly devised stories, and we are not to have "private interpretations" of prophecy. He seems to be saying that we CAN be agreed on how Scripture is to be interpreted (2 Peter 1:16-21).

    I've written a more full response, back over at my blog:

    ~Anne Elliott

  2. I agree with you in everything but the idea that you have an argument against or with me. And I have written a reply. I attempted to post on your blog--a post that I'm not sure "took." But I intend to post a slightly altered version of that post here as well.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. I took a long and winding road to this post. I recently purchased Peter Enns' "Telling the Story of God" curriculum for homeschooling. That is, after reading many reviews and samples online, and knowing of Enns' other work. I was doing a search on Enns for another purpose and found Anne Elliott's review. Reading through the comments I was STUNNED by the Kathy's comment & I was considering writing a post on this very idea myself. All reading involves interpretation; there's no getting away from it.

    Now I see you've written this post on the subject, and it's so well done! Thank you for articulating this view. If we can't even acknowledge that our beliefs are developed through particular interpretations of the Bible, how can we have respectful discussions about disagreements?