Question of the Week: How do we know what the Bible means when there are so many different interpretations?
It is easy to confuse interpretation and application. If we make two different words mean the same thing, it is only natural for things to become confusing. Interpretation is the author’s intention for the passage in the most plain and literal sense given the overall context. Application is how that interpretation is lived out. The Bible affirms that there is one sound interpretation for what we read in scripture in the Old and New Testament.
All the words of my mouth are with righteousness;
Nothing crooked or perverse is in them.
They are all plain to him who understands,
And right to those who find knowledge.
Proverbs 8:8-9 (NKJV)
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
2 Peter 1:19-21 (NKJV)
Both of these passages establish within their context a sound approach to the Interpretation of scripture. And in order to verify this, we will use the passages themselves to demonstrate the difference between interpretation and application. The context of the passage in Proverbs is apart of a parable, or an illustrative story where wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the public square to be heard by the simple for their help. This is how the chapter begins in the immediate literary context. We clarify the author of this Proverb all the way back to the beginning of the book in Proverbs 1:1. The type of literature is poetry given its categorization in the Kethuvim in Jewish Tradition. And the reason this woman used by Solomon to illustrate wisdom could be soundly applied to the Word of God is that both within Proverbs itself and the writings of the Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth, both are plainly referenced as the source and standard of wisdom.
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
By understanding He established the heavens;
By His knowledge the depths were broken up,
And clouds drop down the dew.
Proverbs 3:18-19 (NKJV)
…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Colossians 2:2-3 (NKJV)
If Jesus is where wisdom is to be found and is so fundamentally a part of His nature that it was how He created the universe, His methods are going to be as consistent as His nature. There can be things we don’t know about scripture, but the things God explains to us will be plainly understood to those who are looking for it. That is our hermeneutical key, or how we understand the meaning of the Bible.
Going back now to 2 Peter, the Apostle clarifies that the Holy Spirit moved these men to speak. In the immediate prior passage, he also clarifies that there is no private interpretation to these passages. The authors were moved by the same mind who plainly stated what He intended. Given that information, where does the diversity come into play? The differences are in the application. If God spoke plainly, then I can read the Bible literally like I would regarding any other piece of literature. If God spoke through these men, then I can trust their words for the same reasons I trust God. If scripture isn’t of any private interpretation, then I can challenge cults and liberal groups that form conclusions about God by making passages unclear rather than plain and direct. All of these are correct applications given a plain Interpretation of the text.
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