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Posted by on Dec 6, 2014 | 8 comments

Are there really “different ways” of interpreting the Bible?

I want to make an observation about many (not all) of the contemporary controversies surrounding biblical interpretation. I don’t mean historical debates (such as when Paul wrote Galatians or whether John the Baptist was Essene), I mean the application end: what to conclude from the Bible about how Christians should live their lives.

When we say “there are different ways of interpreting the Bible” we often imagine that these alternatives sit alongside one another, like flavours of ice-cream or paths at a fork in the road. We frame the debate in terms of “whether the Bible says X or Y” about a certain topic.

different options as flavours of ice-cream

But this way of picturing different interpretations of the Bible doesn’t capture what goes on for the majority of hot topics in today’s Christian world. Consider this list:

  • Should women be silent in church?
  • Did creation take six literal days?
  • Is there such a place as hell?
  • Is Jesus really God?
  • Is church leadership only for men?
  • Is homosexual marriage sinful?
  • Should women wear head coverings in church?
  • Should Christians care for the environment?

Every item on this list has something in common. They are not really competing interpretations of the Bible, at least, not directly. Of course, those who argue against the above points would say that they get their resources from other parts of Scripture that don’t directly mention these topics. But before they can do that, they first have to show that the Bible verses which do mention the topics are not to be taken ‘literally’. The initial debate is about whether the Bible does or doesn’t speak directly into that topic.

Therefore, the question is really about how closely we can stick to the literal sense of Scripture in our ethical considerations. We should picture the alternatives more like this:

different options as greater and lesser distance

The fundamentalist has an inward movement: sticking to the literal, obvious meaning of Scripture, with as little distance as possible between it and ourselves. But I don’t know anyone who takes the Bible ‘literally’ on all the above points with no cultural distance. I certainly don’t.

Contrastingly, modern exegetical tools of historical criticism push us outwards, making less and less of the Bible’s content directly applicable. We may know more and more about what a Bible text meant in its own context, but we are less and less able to apply it to our lives. Two expert exegetes may agree completely on what a Bible verse meant in its original context, and yet disagree entirely on how to apply it today. It seems that the professional discipline of exegesis does not equip you to make those kinds of judgments.

But if the Bible doesn’t directly forbid/command something, where do we turn for guidance? For Protestantism, or at least for anyone who holds to the sola scriptura principle, there is nowhere else to turn but our own reasoning processes.[1] And the gravitational pull of the surrounding culture’s common-sense assumptions is strong. We almost always end up believing by default what the secular world around us believes. This is usually justified by one or two general biblical principles which secular culture happens to agree with, such as freedom, equality, non-judgmentalism, etc.

So historical criticism, i.e. pure exegesis, has as many problems to solve as fundamentalism. The one-dimensional “conservative-liberal” alternatives lack the depth of perspective to see the above issues for what they are, because both sides remain firmly rooted in the perspective and assumptions of the prevailing culture.

I want to suggest the following ways forward:

  • We must listen to each other’s interpretations across the breadth of the global Church. A good theology is dependent on a solid ecclesiology, which sees the church as united in the search for the will of God, and rejects the individualism which assumes I can find all the answers for myself without anyone’s help or correction.
  • As well as exegesis, which focuses on what makes a text’s context different from our own, we need another discipline which rebuilds the connections, showing us what principles remain the same across all cultures and ages. This is what theology strives to do, and why theology must come both before and after good exegesis.[2]
  • The Christian tradition must be given some real authoritative weight, not just casually listened to for interesting insights. Just because an interpretation of Scripture makes sense in my own head doesn’t mean I can ignore a traditional interpretation which conflicts sharply with mine. This is because the tradition is simply many generations of Bible readers carrying different sets of cultural assumptions. Anyone paying serious attention to the tradition thus has a perspectival advantage over an individual or group which operates in a single generation or culture.

Biblical exegesis must be seen as what it is: an essential piece of a bigger theological organism, each part of which needs the other in order to operate.


[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg makes this point excellently in “The Crisis of the Scripture Principle,” in Basic Questions in Theology; Collected Essays. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1963).

[2] Gerhard Ebeling makes the point that biblical theology cannot survive without dogmatic theology, because all biblical theology begins with the dogmatic underpinning of the authority of the Bible. See “The Meaning of ‘Biblical Theology,’” The Journal of Theological Studies VI, no. 2 (1955): 210–25.

Further Reading

On this blog:


Grant, Robert M, and David Tracy. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible. London: SCM Press, 1984.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Barney, isn’t some of the real difficulty here in the “inward/outward” ways of reading Scripture? As in, those who read as fundamentalists or critical exegetes can’t even agree on that first level of reading? What guides an immanent reading, eg fundamentalist reading, is direct access to application of the text, BUT this kind of reading depending on where and when it is read leads to different sorts of answers to your example questions. Same goes for the critical scholar, who often (sometimes more often than not) cannot agree on what a text meant back then. I almost feel like by separating exegesis/application, or even collapsing the two, you are missing out on the fact that confusion and plurality exists in all levels of our reading–including our reading choices related to theology. I agree with a lot of your conclusions, I am just not sure that what you have presented is the most accurate way of getting there. I think the more accurate way is much more befuddling, pluralistic and difficult to navigate. There is confusion in reading all the way down, and there is no place where “culture” does not pervade the choices we make–even our interpretive choices in which tradition deserves authoritative weight and which does not.

    • Thanks for these thoughtful questions, Rachel. And you’re absolutely right, I have oversimplified the situation. But I am trying to point to an inconsistency which lies deep within evangelicalism, in order to bring attention to the real complexities you rightly insist on. Most evangelicals hang somewhere between fundamentalism and historical criticism on many of these issues – they don’t wholesale accept all of them or reject all of them. But when you push them hard on their reasons, they end up giving one of two incompatible kinds of reasons at different times: what is ‘clear’ from Scripture vs. what historical scholarship denies is clear from Scripture.

      My main point is simply this: exegesis is a lot better at telling us what a text doesn’t mean than at helping us understand what it does mean. This situation isn’t helped by the massive disagreement among exegetes whenever they do try to make a positive assertion. Therefore, exegesis based purely upon historical scholarship is not enough.

      • LA Green

        If this what your post is about, then what is your post about..?

      • not sure I follow?

      • LA Green

        If your main point is what you outlined, then the question of “is there different ways of interpreting the bible” is irrelevant. The question is an easy-to-answer yes, but simply isn’t relevant to your main point: “exegesis is a lot better at telling us what a text doesn’t mean than at helping us understand what it does mean. This situation isn’t helped by the massive disagreement among exegetes whenever they do try to make a positive assertion. Therefore, exegesis based purely upon historical scholarship is not enough.”

      • Yeah maybe you’re right. It’s probably not my most clear post. My point was simply to draw a distinction between two equally applicable interpretations and the presence or absence of an application, and to show that modern exegesis doesnt truly offer “alternatives” as often as many evangelical bible scholars think – rather it simply removes fallacious interpretations and leaves little in their place. But I was deliberately couching the whole debate in an evangelical context, so it may not make much sense outside that.

  • Stephen Van Etten

    Rachel has probably said it better, but it seems that even tradition is a text we must carefully and humbly exegete. It is not simply there for us to check our conclusions against.

    • Thank for your engagement, Stephen! And I completely agree: tradition also needs to be interpreted. I would also add that the whole church needs to interpret the tradition together in order for doctrine to develop properly without fragmentation in the body of Christ. Historically, people have often taken their own individual interpretation of tradition and run with it, even though other Christians disagreed with them. This has led to widespread conflict in the church

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