Is It Possible to Understand the Bible?

In my last post I took up the topic of interpretation. We considered the interpretive philosophy of Supreme Court justices as they interpret the US Constitution. Let’s now turn our attention to what is ultimately a more significant task: interpreting the Bible.

The Bible is a big book, made up of 66 smaller books, written by a minimum of 40 different authors, composed in three different languages. Those who wrote it lived halfway around the world, on three different continents, and lived in a dizzying array of cultural contexts. The Bible was written over a minimum of a 1600 year span. It contains an enormous variety of different kinds of literature: poetry, law code, historical narrative, letters, apocalyptic, etc. There are hundreds of different English language translations, each of which differ from one another in a variety of ways.

photodune-2390881-bible-xsWhat hope is there for us to derive meaning from the Bible? How can we begin to get meaning from it? Is it even possible?

Sure it is. In fact, I will argue that many of the challenges outlined above are grossly exaggerated. We need not despair of finding meaning – we humans are remarkably adept at sending and receiving messages through a variety of media. We all do it every day through conversation, through the internet, through TV, radio, etc.   What’s more, in the case of the Bible, not only are there the human authors, there is also the divine author – God. And for a believer there is the Holy Spirit of God who lives in us and who (Jesus taught us) will teach and guide us into all truth.

And it is also true that while there are enormous challenges when communicating across cultures, languages, and continents, it is certainly possible. Sometimes this is even true when you don’t speak the same language (it is incredible how much can be communicated with nods, points, and smiles, as anyone who has ever been abroad on a short-term mission trip can testify). After all, as different as the biblical authors were from us, they were still human – what we share in common is far more significant than those things which divide us.

When we talk about how to derive meaning from a text we are engaging in interpretation. The technical name for this is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. When applied to the Bible this discipline is called Biblical Hermeneutics.

The Greek verb hermeneuo occurs many times in the New Testament – usually translated as “to translate,” or “to interpret.”  The term hermeneutics is just the Greek word transliterated into English. Transliteration means substituting the equivalent letters of one language for another, preserving the term. Other examples of this in English would be words like kimono, blitzkrieg, wigwam, pueblo, etc. We often transliterate words for which there is no real equivalent in the receptor language. Additionally we sometimes transliterate words simply to add variety (we really don’t need the word “hermeneutics” when we have a perfectly good word “interpretation,” but do you really need all of the shoes in your closet?). We all use many hundreds of English words every day that are really transliterations from another language.

When people hear the word hermeneutics, they may assume that we are talking about some difficult and complicated concept. But the art of interpretation is really not that complicated. In reality we are all doing it all the time. You are doing hermeneutics right now – as you read this article you are seeking to understand the meaning of what in the world I’m trying to say (I hope successfully!). We can make it seem complicated, but we really don’t need to. We’ll keep it as simple as possible.

Here’s a for instance (drawn from Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible). Imagine you hear someone say, “Aren’t oak trees wonderful?” What exactly do they mean when they say this? Well…it depends. It depends an awful lot on who is saying it and in what context. The meaning is very different if it is spoken by an energetic boy, a carpenter preparing to build kitchen cupboards, a civil engineer concerned with flood control, or a sentimental couple enjoying a picnic. For the boy the meaning may be focused on the way the branches spread making the tree good for climbing. This doesn’t relate at all to the civil engineer who is concerned with the fact that oak trees help with water absorption and the prevention of erosion. There are factors (like the context of the author) that dramatically affect the way in which we interpret any message.

Duvall and Hays (Grasping God’s Word) repeatedly use the illustration of a river. On one bank of the interpretive river we stand in our world – with our language, our culture, and so on. On the opposite bank of the river stands the world of the biblical text – with its geography, genre, language, etc. One of the tasks of the interpreter is to assess the width of the river. How far apart are our world and the world of the biblical author at this point? Sometimes the distance will be very short – the river is a puddle easily leaped. We will not have trouble in interpreting the biblical text. In other instances the river will be very wide indeed, and a great deal of effort will be required in order to accurately understand and ultimately apply the message of the biblical author. Whether wide or narrow, hermeneutics is the discipline of crossing the interpretive river.

In the next post we’ll take up the nature of communication. This is of use not only for interpreting the Bible, but for having a conversation with your spouse, for teaching your kids, for interacting with your boss, or for any social interchange of any kind. In other words, a consideration of hermeneutics can enrich your life!