Tag Archives: Hermeneutics

The Bible is Reliable… or Is That Just “Your” Interpretation?

Several churches in our community have been working through Explore God, a series of questions that seek to spark conversations about God. This past week’s question has been: “Is the Bible Reliable?” Lurking behind this question is often a different question, “Should we really take the Bible literally?”

My typical response is to ask a person, “What do you mean by literally?” Often, to take something “literally” means to read something in a very “plain” sense way. But “plain” according to whom?

Often the pushback I get is that the Bible is simply just a matter of one’s own interpretation. “That is just your interpretation, so why should I believe what you think about the Bible?

Here is the problem with that: It concedes the point that getting at the “plain” sense of the Bible is at least sometimes easier said than done. But it does not follow that Bible interpretation is always simply up for grabs, and therefore the Bible is necessarily unreliable.

What we need to be able to do is to understand the original context in which a particular text was written. It is the purpose and meaning that the original author had in mind, and not our own context, that should govern the interpretation of the Bible. As a result, the possibilities of how to interpret a text are necessarily limited to a certain range of potential meanings: a singular sense for a very clear text, and multiple senses for a difficult text. But with hard work and study, we can come to even a much clearer understanding of the most difficult texts.

Here is a good example of a difficult text, that cause some people to question the reliability of the Bible:

For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40 ESV).

Here Jesus is drawing upon the story of Jonah and the great fish to explain His future crucifixion and ultimate resurrection. A plain, supposedly “literal” reading of the text reveals a problem.  If you take “three days and three nights” in a “plain” sense, it gives you 72 hours. But the standard understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that He died on Good Friday and then rose on Sunday, about a 36 hour time period. Measured in hours, that timing is way off!

Well, there you go. The Bible is wrong here, and therefore is unreliable, and can not be trusted…. But is that a correct interpretation?

Now, there are folks who go to great lengths to show that the traditional interpretation of Jesus dying on Friday has been miscalculated by the church. Some contend that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. Others contend that Jesus was crucified on Thursday.  Sure, you can pull all sorts of evidence together to try to support one of these alternative views, to make the “three days and three nights” work, as a way to defend and prove that the Bible is “literally true.”

But what if you are not convinced?

There is a much simpler solution to consider: Some scholars, like Andreas Köstenberger, suggest that we have evidence to demonstrate that the phrase “three days and three nights” is actually an old Semitic idiomatic expression, that is simply unfamiliar to modern English readers. Any portion of a 24-hour period of time could constitute “a day and a night.” So if Jesus died on a Friday and then rose from the grave on Sunday, that would give you “three days and three nights:” part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. Just because this idiom would be unusual to us does not rule out the possibility that Jesus and/or the biblical writers would have known about such idioms, or metaphors, and used them freely in the Bible.

In other words, when the original Scriptural writer employed so-called “literal” language to describe something, without metaphor or embellishment, we today should cling to interpreting the Bible in the same manner. But when the writer does intentionally use metaphorical or figurative language, to express God’s truth in Scripture, we should cling to interpreting the Bible, again, in the same manner, as in the original.

So, to say that “the Bible is reliable,” is not just a pious excuse for appealing to one’s own interpretation of the Bible. We can appeal to the evidence to build a strong case that the Bible, rightly interpreted, is indeed reliable…. and therefore, trustworthy.

Additional Resources:

Some say that the Bible is unreliable, because they argue that the copying process of the New Testament had so many errors, that we really do not know what the original New Testament even said! The following clip from the documentary “Fragments of Truth,” shows that such claims are wildly exaggerated, as one learns the story of one famous, 3rd century New Testament fragment, P45, which was discovered in Egypt, and currently now on display in Dublin, Ireland (Go here for a critical, yet fair review of the documentary).

Dr. Bill Mounce, a leading English Bible translator, for the ESV and NIV, makes the point that many people, including many Christians, misuse the word “literal” when it comes to describing Bible translations (see the following 7-minute video). For an in-depth look at what Dr. Mounce is saying, listen to this talk he gave recently at Liberty University (you will need to adjust your audio level).

The Gospel Coalition has a bunch of interesting videos that explore this common objection, “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Don Carson, Al Mohler, Robert Smith Jr., Ligon Duncan, and a panel discussion, with Russell Moore, Mika Edmondson, and Ligon Duncan).



The Power of Context

Why is understanding the context so important when it comes to interpreting the Bible? Because it is very easy to think the Bible is saying something that is completely alien to what the original author had in mind. Here is a short but sweet video (less than 4 minutes) by Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason ministries that helps to explain context.

Here are the Bible verses that Alan is talking about from John 14:  John 14:16 and John 14:26. For more detail regarding why Muslims see Muhammad as being predicted by the Bible, look here. Interpreting the Bible is all about understanding the basic concepts of hermeneutics, which is a fancy word that simply refers to the study of the interpretation of texts.

If you are not sure what the big deal is regarding context, see this earlier Veracity post on Taking the Bible “Literally.

HT: Josh Shoemaker at DiscovertheBible.wordpress.com.

Lesson in Hermeneutics: Paris Reidhead

Paris Reidhead 1990

Paris Reidhead, 1990 (courtesy of Marjorie Reidhead)

When you get right down to it, most of us are timid about sharing our faith.

Among the thousands of people I’ve ever met, only a handful have had the character to put their faith out there without first running it through a popularity filter. The world is full of hard-edged egocentrics who feel it incumbent upon themselves to “tell it like it is,” but listening to most of them is painful.  I’m not referring to people like that.

Gary Carter and Paris Reidhead had the courage of their convictions.  One was a superstar athlete who, by the time I met him, didn’t have to prove anything. The other was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who could crush all distractions with his empowered delivery.

I had breakfast with Paris Reidhead 23 years ago at a men’s retreat.  I still remember much of what he said.  When he asked what I did for a living and I told him, he immediately asked if I could design a pump motor for use on a well that could “sustain 1,800 rpm when driven by oxen.”  As an engineer, this sort of question rarely comes up at breakfast.  Trust me.  (For the purposes of this blog I won’t go into why 1,800 rpm is important—let’s just say he knew what he was talking about.)

That weekend Paris Reidhead preached on the ‘S’ word.  A lot.  It helped me get over the idea that Christians are “holier than thou.”  Or that all our problems are solved when we come to faith.  He helped me understand how God has a plan to deal with ‘S’, and that he bankrupted heaven to pay for that plan.

In a world full of self centeredness, where prosperity theology is a ubiquitous salve, Paris Reidhead’s classic sermon Ten Shekels and a Shirt is a hard, cool rain on a scorched worldview. This teaching isn’t for beginners. He uses the ‘S’ word. He yells and slams the pulpit. He convicts every listener. And he reminds me of what Jesus said in John 8:32, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

So the next time you have 50 minutes to yourself, give a listen to this classic, masterful sermon. It ends up on the bottom line of why we are here. 

The transcript is available online at his family’s ministry site, and you can listen to many of his fine sermons here.

As an amateur mechanic, I appreciate when real mechanics talk about the “old school” way of doing things.  It’s a reverent term referring to doing things the tried and proven way—because it works.  The old school approach is based upon real craftsmanship, with an elegance that cannot be cheaply replicated. In the best sense of the term, Paris Reidhead’s hermeneutics were old school. And he was obvously a master of homiletics.

A very special thank you to Mrs. Marjorie Reidhead for providing the above photograph of her husband.  I hope I have framed his work in a way that honors his memory.

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