Bible Basics 1 – Who Decides What the Bible Means

The goal of biblical interpretation is simple:  to understand what God meant by each thing He said in the Bible. Here’s one of the most important things to keep in mind when interpreting the Bible:  God is the one who decides what a passage means.  He’s the ultimate author of the Bible, so God…and the men He inspired to write the different books in the Bible[1]…are the ones who decided what a passage means.  Responsible biblical interpretation seeks to understand what the author of a passage of Scripture intended to communicate.  When your interpretation of a passage matches up with what the author was intending to communicate, your interpretation is right.  When your interpretation of a passage is different than what the author was intending to communicate, your interpretation is wrong.

A Little Reader-Response Excursion:

This question of what makes an interpretation right or wrong is distinct from the question of whether or not – or to what degree – we can be confident that we have rightly discerned the intended meaning of a passage.  Some skeptics rightly point out that recovering the intentions of an author who lived long ago in a culture vastly different from our own is sometimes a challenging task.  Some critics even go so far as to say that the author’s intention is irrecoverable and therefore should no longer be the basis for meaning, proposing instead that meaning must be rooted in whatever individual readers take away from a text (Reader Response Criticism).  Ironically, those who argue that meaning cannot be dependent on an author’s intention do so with rhetoric that they expect us to interpret according to what they were intending to communicate; that is, they argue against the very thing they are depending on to make a meaningful argument!  While I acknowledge that there are times when we cannot be dogmatic that we have perfectly discerned the A(a)uthor’s intended meaning of a biblical passage, I see no reason to despair about recovering this intended meaning in the vast majority of instances.

Here’s an example:  Suppose I said, “today was cool.”  You might read that and think, “oh, he’s saying today was chilly” or “oh, he’s saying today was awesome.”  Those are very different interpretations, but unless I was trying to be clever – and I wasn’t – those two interpretations can’t both be right. So, who gets to decide which one is right?  The answer is:  I do!  Because I’m the one who said it.  The author is always the one who gets to decide what his or her words mean.  Just because something can be interpreted in multiple ways doesn’t mean that all those possible interpretations are equally right.  Only the interpretation that matches up with what the author was intending to communicate is right. That’s not exactly quantum physics – in fact, it’s one of the most basic principles of everyday communication – but it’s surprising how often we forget to approach the Bible this way.  Christians often ask questions like “what does this passage mean to you?”, but that’s a bad question.   The question we should be asking is, “What did God[2] mean by this passage?” and we have to understand that our answers to that question are right or wrong, depending entirely on the degree to which our answers match up with what God intended the passage to mean. That’s the goal of biblical interpretation:  to understand what God meant by each thing He said in the Bible.


[1] In my opinion, the fact that the Bible is inspired does not suggest that the men God inspired were unaware of the meaning of the things they were writing.  Each human author was intentional about communicating something, but what they intended to communicate – and how it was communicated – was carried out under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit.  They only place where you might make a plausible argument for the human authors being unaware of the meaning of passages would be in the case of what we might call the dictation model of inspiration; that is, when God simply dictated what they were supposed to write, as in theophanies or in some of the prophetic texts.
[2] It is also perfectly fine to ask questions like “what did Luke mean by this passage?” since in most cases, the human author of Scripture was fully aware of what he was trying to communicate even though that meaning was inspired by God.  Asking about the intention of a human author does not necessarily push God out of the picture – assuming that a belief in inspiration is the backdrop to the whole conversation – but only serves as a convenient way to discuss meaning.