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The Practical Christian Life

Jacob Ninan


Interpreting the Bible rightly

The Bible (with its 66 books – 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament) is the word of God for man. The Bible itself says that every part of it was inspired (God breathed) by God “for our teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2Tim.3:16,17). In it God reveals Himself to us, and He also tells us about His expectations from us and His actual dealings with man from the time of creation. This word of God is the basis on which we live, and form our doctrines and practices; the Bible forms our final point of reference with respect to the whole of our life as Christians. It is clear that how we interpret the Bible will be of paramount importance to us in every area of life.

One of the first things that we notice in the Bible is that all parts of the Bible are not of the same nature. Each part has its own value in God’s revelation, but certainly some parts are more critical for us to understand than others. Another thing we notice is that different books in the Bible follow different styles and approaches – some are historical, telling us of what happened in the past, some are instructions for man to follow, some are prophetic about what is going to take place in the future; some are prose, some are poetry, some use plain language, some figurative language, etc. It must be obvious straightaway that we cannot interpret all parts of the Bible in the same way.

Another important point to understand is about the mechanism by which ‘inspiration’ took place. A common teaching on this subject says that even though God used human authors to write down the different books, He supervised the process in such a way that the final output was exactly what He wanted, word for word. This can be somewhat misleading because God was not using the authors as writing machines that moved according to His control, but He had to give some amount of freedom for the authors to use their own vocabulary and writing style within the scope of their understanding. This ‘freedom’ is obvious if we compare the different books. If God had dictated every word in some way, all books would have been the same in style, accuracy and precision. What we see is the use of human language, with its limitations in precision and accuracy. Some parts of the Bible use a more precise language than others. This has to be taken into consideration when we interpret any part of the Bible. One cause of much error is the assumption that every word or sentence in the Bible is equally precise and accurate.

When God inspired the authors (more than 40 of them who lived in different places over a period of 1500 years) to write the scriptures, another issue He had to face was how to convey what He had in His mind using the limited understanding and abilities of the human authors. Most of the times what He had in mind was far greater than what they could comprehend even if He had tried to explain to them. So He chose to work within the limitations of man in such a way that what He had in mind would come out somehow but not as perfectly as He would have done without these limitations of man. One of the practical results we see is that the truths of God are revealed in the Bible not in a precise unambiguous way such as in the form of a text book, but spread throughout the Bible in bits and parts. To understand what God has to say, we need to read the Bible as a whole, and not take verses from here and there independently. If we fail to understand this point, we may make many mistakes in interpretation.

More details of the principles of interpreting the Bible are given in my books Understanding the Bible – for ordinary Christians, and Understanding the Bible – and where people go wrong.

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