Bible & Theology

Why Do People Interpret The Bible Differently?5 min read

September 8, 2015 4 min read

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Why Do People Interpret The Bible Differently?5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

One man is a member of this church because of this Biblical reason, another is a member of that church because of that Biblical reason. One man believes or practices this, another believes or practices that.

Why do so many people study the same New Testament, but draw different conclusions?

Concerning interpreting the Bible, G.H. Schodde writes,

A person has interpreted the thoughts of another when he has in his own mind a correct reproduction or photograph of the thought as it was conceived in the mind of the original writer or speaker. It is accordingly a purely reproductive process, involving no originality of thought on the part of the interpreter. If the latter adds anything of his own it is eisegesis and not exegesis. The moment the Bible student has in his own mind what was in the mind of the author or authors of the Biblical books when these were written, he has interpreted the thought of the Scriptures. (1489)

If God is the author of Scripture, it is true (John 17:17) and anyone who disagrees with truth believes myths (2 Tim. 4:4). And if Scripture is true, then it does not contradict itself. There is only one systematic message in it; there is “one faith” (Eph. 4:5). God never intended for us to have different interpretations. Instead, His desire is “that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10, ESV).

If I interpret the Bible differently than you, it is either because God was incapable of giving us a book that we could agree upon, or because there is a problem in how one (or both) of us is studying it. I choose to believe the latter.

If God is the author of the Bible, then all diligent students who read the Bible correctly will eventually come to the same conclusion. God does not in one place teach that baptism in essential to be saved, while in another place teach that baptism is optional. God does not teach in one place that we can choose to obey Him, and then in another place teach that He nebulously predestines to save us individually. God does not in one place teach that a Christian can “fall from grace,” while in another place teach that a Christian can never lose his salvation. How could we have confidence in a man – let alone a God – who so contradicts himself?

The idea that there are equally valid different interpretations of Scripture has caused many to disbelieve that the Bible is the Word of God (cf. John 17:20-21).

If the Bible is really the Word of God, then we must believe that the problem of different interpretations rests not with the Bible, but with the people doing the interpreting.

Consider some reasons why there are so many different interpretations:

Ignorance

Both Jesus and the Jewish leaders accepted the Old Testament as the Word of God, but they had different interpretations about the subject of the resurrection. Jesus told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Even the disciples of Jesus did not expect Him to rise from the dead because “they did not understand the Scripture” (John 20:9).

Many today – even religious leaders and scholars – know only the passages that seem to teach what they already believe, but have not fully considered the context of those passages or have not studied other passages that would reveal the full truth.

Disbelief

Many refuse to believe in the power of God. They do not believe in the miracles. recorded in Scripture, and the sovereignty of God over the physical world. Like the Pharisees who denied the irrefutable miracles of God (cf. Matt. 12:24-31) or the spectators who mocked the prophecies of Jesus as He hung on the cross (cf. Matt. 27:39-44), many rationalize away the supernatural power of God. The explains the ridiculous interpretations of the account of creation in Genesis 1 or the great flood in Genesis 6-7.

Sensationalism

The disciples had different interpretations about whether or not Jesus said John would never die (cf. John 21:21-23). The apostle John wrote, “yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” Why did some think Jesus said that John would never die? They wanted to believe the sensational.

Love for sensationalism is what drives many different interpretations. The “Left Behind” books and movies are popular because the false teaching of a supposed “rapture” is sensational. Great crowds will show up to churches to hear about “The Meaning of 666,” “The End Of The World Is Near” or “The Anti-Christ and Israel,” even though such predictions or supposed signs are proven wrong over and over again.

Not Loving Truth

Satan, the “father of lies” (John 8:44), had a different interpretation of Psalm 91:11-12 than Jesus, taking it to mean that Jesus could jump from the temple and not be hurt (Matt. 4:5-7). Satan pursued a lie, whereas Jesus loved the truth of God’s Word (John 6:38).

Today, there are plenty of people who simply do not love truth. As a result, they “twist to their own destruction” the Scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16) and will be eternally lost (2 Thess. 2:9-12).

Bad Attitudes Toward Scripture

Many differences in religion are not a result of differing interpretations, but as a result of a low view of the exclusive authority of Scripture. To defend many of the different religious names people wear, the different churches they attend, and different practices they perform, they appeal not to Scripture, but to their own preferences. “Man can do whatever he wants in religion so long as the Bible does not specifically forbid it,” they say. How arrogant! These differences are not due to interpretation, but due to human additions to Christianity.

Conclusion

While many are honest in their interpretations, it is still possible that they are honestly mistaken. The most important requirement in correctly interpreting the Bible is the desire to know and do God’s will. Jesus said,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt. 5:6, ESV)

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

Sources
Schodde, G.H. “Interpretation.” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Chicago:
The Howard-Severance Company, 1915. Vol. 3.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
2 Comments
  1. Loy Pressley

    Thank you, Brother. Your words are like a breeze of fresh, cool air on a hot day!

  2. Bob Sandiford

    Here's a further consideration on why there are different conclusions from the same text. In the New Testament are contained commands which are obviously contextual and local to the recipients of the letters (often in concluding remarks in the letters - Rom 16:11, for example, 'Greet Herodion, my relative.') These are phrased as commands to the reader(s), but no one today would think that it was meant as anything except a personal instruction to the immediate recipient. So, then, not every 'positive command' in the New Testament is universally and permanently applicable. This then raises the question of how to determine faithfully which commands ARE universally and permanently applicable, and which are not. There are, I believe, sincere and open hearted people who will consider a passage such as 'Greet one another with a holy kiss' (Rom 16:16, I Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, I Thess 5:26) as cultural, the emphasis being on the 'holy' when using the customary greeting of a kiss, and so today the comparable teaching would be that whatever your customary greeting style, perform it in sincerity and not in hypocrisy. Others would hold that the holy kiss is a command for all peoples in all times. Many challenges to the positive commands in the New Testament arise out of this question of how to correctly understand which commands were local and temporal, and which are universal and permanent. Wearing head coverings, washing feet, silence of women in the assembly, and lots of others come under this type of questioning. I've given some thought to this, and haven't come up with a mechanism that would allow me to unconditionally determine how to understand how the writers meant each of their commands. One brother proposed a test along the lines of, 'If the command relates to the work or worship of the church, then it is intended as universal and permanent; otherwise the command is local and temporal.' That seems a fair rubric - except that it's somewhat complicated and not directly supported anywhere in Scripture. So - any thoughts from anyone along these lines? Thanks!

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