Our Pages

Is all Scripture ‘open to interpretation’?

Video Series

Posted on June 23, 2019  - By Dr. Barry K. Creamer


Well, there are two things to consider in talking about interpretation. You know, first is to acknowledge that everything is interpreted. So, by the time you read a sentence, you have already applied an interpretation to it. And there is a variety, a domain, within which it can be understood.

That said, the other half of it is: there is still content in that sentence — and it still does mean something specific. So, on the one side, I am saying you always have to understand what it is that’s shaping your interpretation of something in Scripture, of some claim in Scripture — and by doing that, you develop a means for understanding the rest of Scripture consistently.

Adopt the right attitude

If you don’t do it, what we end up failing at is thinking, well, it just says what it says and it means what it means — not recognising that we’re very often giving it what it means, and it’s not at all what the author said to his original audience or what God intends for us to receive from the text, where we are deliberate about saying, “When I read a passage, I want to understand its historical background; I want to understand what the author intended in it; and I want to understand how it could be applied to me in a different context in a different world.”

If you do that, and then you still acknowledge, “But I can’t make it say whatever I want, it has specific content to it and I need my life to be conformed to it in that way”, then you can bring a legitimacy to the interpretation and application of Scripture that you miss otherwise.

And when people don’t do… when people fail on either one of these, they make huge mistakes. Reading the Old Testament and thinking that we should do some of the things God commanded His prophets to do, merely as symbols for His people, would be a huge error for us to make. And, in the same way, reading the New Testament about, for instance, the resurrection and thinking, ‘It’s just an image of what it means for us to be born again’ — we’d be making a huge mistake.

Jesus literally rose from the dead. The Israelites literally walked across on dry land when the Red Sea parted. But, at the same time, we have to learn that we don’t just walk up to an ocean and start walking and count on the water party. What does it mean for us to have faith?

Applications from a different era

That implies interpretation — but interpretation that has to be understood within the context of the passage itself. It requires extra work, but that’s what we sign up for when we say we’re going to submit to the authority of Scripture — and not just the way we prefer reading Scripture.

Interpretation has to be understood within the context of the passage. It requires extra work, but that’s what we sign up for when we say we’re going to submit to the authority of Scripture — and not just the way we prefer reading Scripture

So, when we are reading a passage in the Old Testament about a prophet who interacted with the people in a certain way and pronounced a condemnation on them, for instance, or a blessing. So, when God says to Israel that He’s going to bless their land and that when they approach Him in prayer in the temple, He’s going to send rain and He’s going to give them an abundance and that when they disobey Him, He’s going to curse them. That’s a prophecy about Israel. It’s to Israel. Why would we apply that to ourselves?

Well, partially, because God gave it to them and then recorded it in a Scripture, which He wanted to come to us. So, there is a sense in which we know that should come forward to us in some way. But what way? How does it come forward to us? How does it apply to us?

And, oddly, we think that, sometimes, when we get to the New Testament that we don’t have to draw that same conclusion, that when Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, we just read what it says to the church at Philippi and think it applies directly to us. In truth, Paul wrote it to the church at Philippi. He didn’t even write it to the church at Galatia. He just wrote it to the church at Philippi.

But we know, because of how the letters were circulated, how he gave it to them and told them to share it with other churches in different context, we know that he intended for that to apply, not just to that church, but to other churches — and not just to other churches, but to churches that would exist in the future, which would be us.

So, we’re a little more comfortable saying, “So, what Paul said to the Philippians, he was also saying to us and we understand pretty directly how to apply it, because our faith in Christ and the resurrection is the same as their faith in Christ as the resurrection.”

But we still have to take some steps to say, that happened historically and yet it applies to us, because we’re in the big narrative — the meta-narrative it’s called — the big story of Christ’s redemptive act for His church. So, we’re a church, they were a church; he wrote it to a church, so it applies to us.

All about the framework

When we go to the Old Testament, it’s a little more challenging; when we’re reading the Gospels, it’s a little more challenging — because Jesus is doing things with the disciples before the church even exists as a church. So, how do those things apply directly to us when he says, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you’ll move mountains”? In what way does that apply directly to us?

How do those things apply directly to us when he says, “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you’ll move mountains”?

Sometimes, we can get the interpretation of it simply by reading the epistles that Paul wrote to a church or that James wrote to the early believers in the church and they relate directly to us. But, other times, we have to back up and say, “Well, how would they have heard this? Because He spoke it to them, so they would understand it on the sea that day, on the Sea of Galilee. He spoke it to them so they would grasp what was going on — but He spoke it to them so they would grasp what was going on in a way that Luke or Mark recorded for us, so that we could see how that applies to us as well.

And so, it’s not easy, but we have to take time to learn how to read a narrative in the framework, a story in the framework of all the other stories that are told in light of the clear doctrinal teachings that He’s given us, for instance, in the epistles — so that what we apply to ourselves is what He intended and not just what we wanted to read into it.

Consider the culture

Again, the most important part of this is understanding that God has given us all of Scripture so that we will change the way we think and the way we live. But it’s important for us to submit our understanding of that Scripture to what He intended for us to get, not just what we feel like taking from it. And that takes a lot of extra work. And one of the biggest steps in that is what we call worldview.

Other people use other words for it, but it means that when you grow up in one culture — if you grow up in American culture, if you grow up in Indian culture, whichever culture it is — when you grow up in that culture, you understand everything in light of what you’ve been taught since you were a child. That’s how you interpret things. But the people to whom Jesus spoke or to whom Paul or Peter or James were writing or the Old Testament prophets, they didn’t grow up in an American or an Indian culture. They grew up in a Semitic culture, a completely different environment.

And unless we go back and do the historical work to say that this kind of reference means this to them and that changes the way then that we understand how this passage would apply to us — ‘Greet the brethren with a holy kiss’ [for example]. In some places, that is going to mean walking up and giving someone a hug and a cheek, a kiss on the cheek. But in other places, it’s going to mean giving a nod and an acquiescence that I’m coming in peace and that I love you and care about you.

It’s different in different cultures, but the truth is the same. Greet them with love. That’s the idea. So, understanding the worldview can help us avoid making errant applications out of Scripture.

(Video courtesy: Steve Thomas)

Dr. Barry K. Creamer

About Dr. Barry K. Creamer

Barry Creamer serves as president of Criswell College in Dallas, Texas. A trained philosopher and historian, he holds an M.Div. from Criswell College, and a Ph.D. in Humanities from the University of Texas at Arlington. His writing has been featured on numerous print and electronic platforms.



Get a notification in your Inbox

A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.