Is there a universal way Christians should interpret the Bible?
If there is, what does Genesis say?
Recently, while responding to a Christian defending Theistic Evolution (TE) who’d written in to criticize our biblical (young earth) creationist stance, I received an all too familiar type of reply (below).
“ … I am questioning the authority of your interpretation of scripture. You state that YEC is the only conclusion one could arrive at using sound exegetical principles. Given all the Biblical scholars who are both well educated on the topic of scripture and sincere in their faith who are in favour of TE, I am immediately suspicious of the authority of your claims.”
“Furthermore I must ask: from whence did these principles come? The Bible does not contain a ‘Book of Exegesis’, and for my part I can’t think of anywhere in the Bible where it expounds upon how to interpret scripture. From this I can’t help but notice that your claim of Biblical authority is entirely dependent on the authority of your exegesis. If said exegesis is not outlined in scripture, then it is a creation of man. Therefore you are in fact relying on the authority of man.”
It is true that CMI’s views are dependent on our exegesis of Scripture. And we believe such exegetical principles are derived from scripture, are logically supported, and can be soundly defended against anyone questioning those methods. However, we (and Bible skeptics as well) could ask many difficult questions to Christians holding the views like the person above. For example;
- Is there a universal method of interpretation (a set of sound, exegetical principles) outlined in scripture?
- If there is, what is it?
- If there isn’t a universal way of interpreting scripture, doesn’t that mean that all interpretations of scripture are simply a ‘creation of man’ and therefore not authoritative?
- If there isn’t a universal way of interpreting scripture, what does ‘scriptural authority’ mean?
- If an educated Bible scholar sincere in their faith says for example that homosexual marriage/abortion/euthanasia etc is proper, does that mean those views are viable for a Christian to hold to? If not, why, and what principles of exegesis would lead to that conclusion? If yes, explain.
- Does the simple fact that there are well educated Bible scholars sincere in their faith that teach theistic evolution as a viable interpretation of Genesis mean that TE has been derived from a sound exegetical derivation of scripture?
To be a Christian means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. To be a true follower of Christ requires accepting who Jesus is and following His teachings, beginning with the understanding that you are a sinner in need of salvation, that Christ the eternal God-man died for your sins and that He rose from the dead allowing your salvation from eternal punishment, and that this salvation is by grace not by works.
This knowledge is given through revelation in the Holy Scriptures, but there would be no way to verify this if the words in the Bible could not be taken at face value. If there was no way to know who Jesus is and what He believed and taught there would be no way to be a Christian.
This is why true Christians throughout history have held to the same core beliefs, and why their writings acknowledge such beliefs. For example the ancient Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried … the third day He rose from the dead … ” etc. This Creed echoes the plain reading of Scripture, and does so because the New Testament describes a clear account of Christ’s life and teachings.
It should be obvious that if there is no definite way to interpret the majority of Scripture, then Christians are truly without hope regarding biblical understanding. All things (including Christ’s death and resurrection) would become open for anyone’s interpretation, and so the fundamentals of the faith could not be truly known.
Methods of interpretation
Foundational to all theological studies is the concept of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation), a formal process by which biblical interpreters employ certain principles and methods in order to derive the author’s intended meaning. This is foundational for any Christian that truly wants to hear what the Scriptures are saying (and not what they ‘want’ or ‘feel’ they should say).
A critical difference between methods of interpretation is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a method of interpretation that strives to understand the original meaning out from the biblical text. Eisegesis is an interpretation of Scripture that reads the interpreter’s own ideas or bias into the text. Exegesis says; “This is what the text means”. Eisegesis says; “This is what I want the text to mean.”
Any method of interpretation that allows allegory to be imposed on the text is obviously unverifiable. Each person’s allegorical interpretation can be different because there are no rules of interpretation to which they must adhere to, so such interpretations can have no more authority than the one proclaiming them. Anyone claiming a personal allegorical meaning of the Bible is actually claiming their mind (rather than the text) as the source of the authority of the interpretation.
The Bible needs to say the same thing in each language it is translated into, or it cannot be the means of communicating the truth to us that Christians believe it to be. Ultimately anyone accepting someone’s personal allegorical interpretation really trusts the interpreter rather than the text itself.
This is why CMI, (like most evangelical organizations and most evangelical Christians in general) state that the scripture should be interpreted according to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. This doesn’t mean that we interpret everything literally (for instance, when the Psalmist asks God to hide him “in the shadow of your wings”), we don’t think that God has feathers—LHG simply means that we do our best to interpret the text the way the author intended, as indicated by the context. (See Should Genesis be taken literally?) We believe the Bible should be treated in the same way we treat any method of sincere written communication; we take it as plainly written in the context it was given.
Does the Bible say we should do this?
The Bible gives us clear principles of interpretation, for example, in and where it says:
- Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 4:2
- All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge. Proverbs 8:8–9
Some might say that even though these two passages make it clear that we are to take the Bible as plainly written, they are not enough to base our whole understanding of scripture on. But imagine there was a whole book in the Bible that spoke definitively on how we should understand it that read something like the following:
You should not take these words as plainly written! (1st Opinions: 1:1)
If we take the statement as plainly written, we have broken the command given. But if we don’t take it as plainly written, then it cannot mean what it plainly says. This is a self-refuting statement so is valueless.
Similarly, if the Bible stated (anywhere) that we should not take it as plainly written it would be valueless. Here is what it would look like: the New Compromise Version!
So anyone saying that the Bible need not be taken as plainly written is lost (they have given up any authority that the Bible might have conveyed to their later argument because they cannot quote it definitively).
Furthermore, Paul instructed Timothy about the scope and purpose of biblical authority:
How from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:15–17
Theologian Herman Hoeksema put it very clearly:
All of Scripture is given us that we might understand it … all of it is adapted to our human mind, so that, even though there be many things in that revelation of God which we cannot fathom, there is nothing in it that is contrary to human intelligence and logic. … Either the logic of revelation is our logic, or there is no revelation.1
Do we always have to take it as ‘plainly written’?
Those in opposition to the grammatical-historical method (or who perhaps do not truly understand what the method entails) will often bring up objections like; “What about parables and poetic language etc in the Bible? Are you saying we should take that as plainly written?”
Many will argue that because there is symbolic imagery in certain passages of scripture, the grammatical-historical method is unjustifiable. “Jesus taught in parables so it’s obvious you don’t always take the ‘plain reading’ of scripture” they might say. However, this is a misunderstanding of what the method means.
When someone speaks or writes using poetry or parables to teach, we should not cease to interpret their words as plainly stated. Rather, we take their words as plainly stated in context to understand what they mean quite clearly. A simple example of the principle would be if I was out with a friend and said “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” it should be obvious to those versed in common English not to interpret that in a wooden, literal sense (he wants to/could eat a horse). Almost everyone ‘gets it’ (because horses are [typically] large and impossible for a person to eat in one sitting); the plain understanding of such a phrase in context is; “I am very hungry”.
Similarly someone declaring their girlfriend to be ‘their moon and their sun’ will be unlikely to be accused of believing that she is both an orbiting object in near space and an enormous ball of flaming superheated gas that belong to him.
We cannot downplay the fact that the scriptures contain some very sophisticated and sometimes difficult passages to understand. However, we cannot use passages that are hard to comprehend to somehow undermine the truth of our ability to understand passages that are quite easy to understand! (This would be like saying a math student needn’t accept conclusions in basic arithmetic because some equations exist that are extremely challenging to them.)
That’s just your interpretation
Some will say that different takes on Genesis are similar to different denominational stances taken by fellow believers, so what is the fuss? The difference is that during a discussion among theologians from different denominations, each will quote scripture as their guide to their denominational stance (even many cults point to passages in the Bible to justify their views).
However, regarding their understanding of Genesis, Christians often quote sources of information outside of scripture to back up their stance regarding what scripture says (scientists have ‘proven’ the earth is millions of years old, so the word ‘day’ doesn’t have to mean a literal day in Genesis etc). This of course is extremely dangerous, for it could then be applied to any biblical subject one wishes. We explained this further in End-times and Early-times.
We see this same idea in those liberal camps trying to justify their acceptance of homosexuality ‘biblically’ for example. Take well-known UK evangelical Bible expositor Dr Roy Clements (pastor of a leading Baptist Church in England for twenty years) and his view that same-sex relationships between consenting adults can be acceptable before God (rather like Rev. Dr. Keith Mascord, formerly of the compromising Moore College in Sydney, Australia). What is his justification for such a radical departure from what scripture plainly says?
He says thinking evangelicals:
… have never yielded to the blinkered dogma which insists the world must have been made in seven [sic] days because Genesis says so. [Note that he admits to what Genesis plainly says.] They have recognised that it is no part of Christian discipleship to turn a blind eye to discoveries of science which indicate the earth is millions of years old … a surprising number of our most able scientists are evangelical Christians … thoroughly persuaded of the general accuracy of evolutionary theory.
Therefore he says:
… because the issue of homosexuality, no less than the debate about creation and evolution, raises key questions of a scientific nature … only a fundamentalist would suggest that, because the Bible has no idea of homosexual orientation, that this modern psychological understanding of what it means to be ‘gay’ has to be rejected.2
The implications are clear; ‘Science’ has shown the plain reading of the Bible is wrong, so ignore it and modify what scripture means in order to make it ‘get in line’ with what ‘science’ shows.
This compromise is intellectual suicide for Christians however (very far from what true ‘thinking evangelicals’ should adhere to) because what does a Christian do with the accounts in scripture that violate what modern science professes?
Modern science does not support belief in floating axe heads, talking donkeys, people walking on (unfrozen) water, virgins giving birth, dead people coming back to life etc. To be consistent with Clements’ view (and that of many other professing believers) Christians should say these events never truly occurred, which is to say the Bible isn’t true, Christ isn’t risen and that Christianity is false. That’s exactly how liberal theologians ‘reason’, and they are just being consistent.
So then what does Genesis mean?
Rather than reiterate the work of what many have done far better than I could, I suggest viewing this page containing articles that refute all of the compromise positions on Genesis (Gap theory, Progressive Creation, Framework hypothesis, Day/Age theory, Theistic Evolution, Retroactive Death etc) quite soundly. I also highly recommend Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s excellent work Refuting Compromise (above right) as a definitive work supporting the theological and scientific arguments in support of biblical creation. In the final analysis, Genesis means what it says. God created recently and the earth is around 6,000 years old. That is what the plain reading of scripture says (see How does the Bible teach 6,000 years?).
The creation/evolution, young earth/old earth debates among Christian believers are really arguments regarding sound exegetical principles rather than a battle over scientific evidence, because whatever scripture says on the matter should have ultimate authority. Christians that abandon the grammatical-historical method of interpretation are shooting themselves in the foot, and informed skeptics reveal their inconsistencies easily. Take atheist and anti-creationist biologist Jerry Coyne’s3 review of two books written by theistic evolutionists as an example:
Like Karl Giberson,4 Kenneth Miller rejects a literal interpretation of the Bible.5 After discussing the fossil record, he contends that “a literal reading of the Genesis story is simply not scientifically valid,” concluding that “theology does not and cannot pretend to be scientific, but it can require of itself that it be consistent with science and conversant with it.” But this leads to a conundrum. Why reject the story of creation and Noah’s Ark because we know that animals evolved, but nevertheless accept the reality of the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, which are equally at odds with science? After all, biological research suggests the impossibility of human females reproducing asexually, or of anyone reawakening three days after death. Clearly Miller and Giberson … have some theological views that are not “consistent with science.”6
Christians that abandon the plain reading of Scripture have abandoned the ability to intelligently defend the Bible and hence their Christian beliefs from which they come. But Christians have been commanded to do that as we read in 1 Peter 3:15:
… but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.
Christians need to understand that the debate about Genesis is not about science but rather an interpretation of facts about the past (history). If we believe the Bible’s history in some places (Christ’s birth, death, resurrection etc) why would we not believe them in another?
- Hoeksema, H., The Clark – Van Til Controversy (based on his Standard Bearer editorials from 1944–1946), p. 8; cf. also pp. 26, 27. Return to text.
- www.psa91.com/royclements07.htm. Last accessed 22 August 2011. Return to text.
- See Woodmorappe, J., Why evolution need not be true: A review of Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne (2009), J. Creation 24(1):17–22, 2012, Return to text.
- We have reviewed some of his books in our Journal of Creation, and refuted a major article in Is the Bible one book or 66? And does this affect our understanding of creation? Return to text.
- We have demolished Miller’s books in our Journal of Creation—see the hyperlinks for refutations of his books Finding Darwin’s God and Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Return to text.
- Web Article-Seeing and Believing (The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail) by Jerry A. Coyne. A review of the books Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution By Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul By Kenneth R. Miller. The New Republic-A Journal of Politics and the Arts, tnr.com/booksarts/, 4 February 2009. Return to text.