By the Book | Lesson 5

4 Barriers to Interpretation

A seasoned old preacher was dining in a restaurant when in walked the local atheist, who thought he'd have a little sport with the preacher. So the skeptic sat down, pointed at the pastor's Bible and asked, "Rev, you still believe that book?" "Absolutely," the old gentlemen replied. "You mean you believe everything in it?!" "Every word." "Well," said the atheist, "Is there anything you can't explain?" "Oh there are lots of things I can't explain, " the preacher responded. Then he opened his Bible and showed the fellow all the question marks in the margins.

Surprised, the atheist asked, "Well what do you do with all the things you can't explain?" "Simple," said the preacher, "I do the same thing I'm doing with this fish I'm eating. I eat the meat and push all the bones to the side of the plate, then let any ol' fool who wants choke on them."

People are really blown away that we can't explain everything in the Bible. So to provoke their thinking, ask a question, "Does it really bother you that I as a finite person cannot fully understand an infinite Person? it would bother me more if I could, because then I wouldn't need God! I'd be as smart as He is."

Truth is we shouldn't get tied up in knots over the problems and unanswerable questions that come up in your study of the Bible. The miracle is that you can understand all the essential things that God wants you to understand for your eternal salvation and your daily living. Why can't we just open the Word, read what we're supposed to do, and then do it? Why do we have to go to so much trouble to understand the text? The answer is that time and distance have thrown up barriers between us and the Biblical writers, which block our understanding. We need to appreciate what those roadblocks are because although they are not insurmountable, they are substantial.

Language Barriers - If you've ever learned a foreign language you know that learning the words is not enough. You have to learn the mindset, the culture, and the worldview of those who speak if you really want to understand what they are saying. In the same way, when it comes to the Bible, the English text leaves us a long way from a complete understanding. That's why the process of interpretation often involves a Bible dictionary and similar language resources. We have to go back and recover the shades of meaning that translated words alone cannot convey.

Cultural Barriers - These are closely related to the problems of language because language is always culture-bound. The Bile is as a product of presentations of cultures that are dramatically different from our own, an even different from each other. To appreciate what is going on in Scripture we have to reconstruct the cultural context in areas of archeology communications, transportation, trade, agriculture, occupations, religion, the perception of time and so on.

Literary Barriers - Another problem we run into is interpreting Scripture is the variety of the terrain. If it were all mountains or desert or location, we could outfit ourselves appropriately and have at it. But the literay genres of the Bible are quite diverse and demand vastly different approaches. We can't read the Song of Solomon with the same logic that we bring to Romans. We won't get the point of the parables through the same exhaustive word studies that might unlock truths in Galatians.

Communications Barriers - It's the age-old problem. Even though God Himself is peaking through Scripture we still must contend with breakdowns in the communication process. As finite creatures, we can never know what is going on in someone else's mind completely. As a result, we have to settle for limited objectives in our interpretation of Scripture. Can we interpret anything? is it possible to interpret the Bible? of course. But you need to know you will always encounter problems and never answer every question.


Dr. B's Personal Perspective

"I'll never forget this old warhorse professor that I had at seminary. The class was studying the Book of Romans, and one day in describing it Dr. So-and-so took off and started quoting scripture. 5 chapters later...he stopped~!! And I distinctly remember thinking, 'Oh man, if that's the standard I've got a long way to go! (gulp~)' Then one day he looked us all in the eyeballs and said in humble admission, 'You know, boys, one thing I've learned for sure after studying the Bible all these years and getting all these degrees -- is how little I know and how far I still have to go...' Talk about perspective? The experience I had that semester with this Scholar of Scripture really shaped the way I approach God's Word. Do my best? I try to. But realize I will always fall short? I do that as well. If we believe that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that' sin, Christ Jesus, our Lord (and I do) -- then we have to also believe that Promise is sufficient to hold us in our feeble attempts at interpreting God's Word. Give it your best, and let God do the rest."