'That's Only Your Interpretation!'
How often have we heard or read these words! Normally, they do not come from unbelievers but from Christians. You have been asked for your view on a particular passage of Scripture or the meaning of a particular verse and the rejoinder comes ‘That’s only your interpretation!’ Nearly always this is hurled at one when the questioner finds that the interpretation given is not to their liking. It is meant to close the matter on a decisive note. I think that there is profit to be gained in giving some thought to this matter.
If I get the response ‘That’s only your interpretation!’, then literally that is partially true: it is my interpretation, although it may be that of others as well. However, look at the clear inference behind the words. The impression that the speaker means to convey is that I cannot be sure that my interpretation is correct. It is to instil within me doubts as to whether my view is right. Let me ask my reader, ‘Can a believer be absolutely sure that they have got the true meaning, the correct interpretation, of any passage in the Bible?’ If your answer is ‘No’, then I have another question for you: ‘If I cannot be sure that my understanding of what I read in the Bible is correct, then what is the purpose of reading it?’ If I cannot know with absolute certainty about what I read, I may as well throw the Book away! Indeed, if I am unable to determine whether or not I have got it right, then the Bible is not the Word of God. My reader may well respond with ‘Well, how do you know? Just what makes you so certain?’ I’ll come to that shortly because it is of vital importance, but first let’s see what is behind this inference of uncertainty in the statement ‘That’s only your interpretation!’
The very first question that was asked in the Bible was asked by the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “Is it even so, that God has said …?” (Gen. 3: 1)—and the Devil has been asking that question ever since. His first line of attack is always to instil uncertainty in the Word of God. While a believer may not know it, if that challenge comes in the way that I have described, then in reality the challenger is asking the Devil’s question for him! What is the next thing, once the seed of doubt has found root? The authority of the Word of God will be denied. Hence a handful of words later we read “Ye will not certainly die” (Gen. 3: 5). Satan firstly questions the Word and then he denies it.
My reader may well protest ‘I do not question that the Bible is the Word of God but I just do not see how you can be sure of the meaning of every passage’. Well, what do you mean when you say that that Bible is the Word of God? You mean that God is its Author, that God wrote the Book? ‘Yes’, you answer, ‘though he employed different and varied human pens over many centuries of time, I believe that the hand that determined exactly what was written was God’s’. May I ask then, ‘Can there be any errors in the Scriptures?’ ‘Only through the various translations of men’ you reply. Thus what God has written is absolutely perfect and complete without a single mistake. (What men consider errors, inconsistencies, and contradictions are found on examination to be always mistaken or false.) But we will not stop there. Let me now ask a more searching question: ‘Is the Bible crystal–clear? Is there any passage or verse in the Word of God that is unclear? Or does it convey its meaning to the reader with the utmost lucidity?’ Before I give my answer, allow me to introduce a parenthesis.
I spent many years teaching technical subjects at various levels and during that time I must have written dozens of explanatory notes for my students. Obviously, I tried to make what I wrote as clear as possible, especially as many of my students did not have English as their first language. Still, there were occasions when students would come to me and point out a section of what I had written that did not appear clear to them. Sometimes they had not read the piece carefully enough, but at other times the fault was mine: what I had written was not clear. Can that happen with the Bible? No, because God wrote it and what God has written is not only correct but clear as well.
Just as I wrote my explanatory notes with my students in mind, so God has written his Book with all men in mind. The Bible is written by God, for you and me. The Book is not all about me, but it is all for me. Even though it was completed nearly two millennia ago it is absolutely up to date. There are no passages that are redundant and have no relevance for the present time.
Now we come back to this important question as to certainty. Firstly, I will freely confess that I do not understand everything that is in the Bible but I believe everything. If you do not believe what is written, you will never understand what is written. However, if I do not understand everything in the Bible, whose fault is that? Mine or God’s? Clearly mine, for if all is clear, then the fault lies with the reader and not the writer!
There are, of course, many Scriptures that I think I do understand. How then, can I be sure that I understand them correctly? I will draw an analogy—a poor one I freely admit. A jigsaw puzzle may have a thousand pieces that go to form the picture. Each piece makes a contribution to the whole picture, and every piece has only one place in the puzzle. The place of an individual piece in the puzzle is determined by the shape of the piece and by the colourings on the piece. In simple puzzles, every single piece has a different shape but in more complex puzzles, some pieces may have identical shapes and thus their correct place in the puzzle is determined only by the colourings. The wise puzzler normally selects the pieces with a straight edge first so that he gets the borders of the picture.
It is the same with the Scriptures. Timothy was told “Have an outline of sound words” (2 Tim. 1: 13). Reading through from Genesis to Revelation secures the outline, the overall understanding of what the Scriptures are about. Just as every piece in the jigsaw has one place, and one place only in the puzzle, so every book, every subject, every passage and even every word has its correct place in the Word of God. Nothing is superfluous. Certain verses may be repeated word for word in different books of the Bible just as different jigsaw pieces may have identical shapes yet occupy different places in the puzzle. Put a piece in the puzzle in the wrong place and it will throw the rest of the puzzle out. So it is with the Scriptures. Scripture must be read and understood according to the context. If my interpretation of a particular verse is right, then it will blend in with the rest of the passage—indeed its understanding will be essential for the passage itself. If my interpretation is wrong, then the more I persist with my wrong interpretation, the greater the difficulties I will experience with the passage, the book and ultimately the Bible itself.
Let me take a very simple example from a well–known passage to illustrate the principle. I read “for all have sinned” (Rom. 3: 23). Now what is the force of that word all? With no reference to the context, perhaps someone may reply ‘It means everyone without any exception, it is absolute.’ ‘So is God included then?’ ‘No, of course not’ you reply ‘and before you ask, neither is the Lord Jesus Christ.’ ‘But you only know that Christ is excluded by what you have read elsewhere in Scriptures such as 2 Cor. 5: 21; 1 Pet. 2: 22; 1 John 3: 5. So does Rom. 3: 23 mean that all morally responsible creatures have sinned?’ If your reply is ‘Yes’, then I will ask ‘Are angels included?’. However, I read in 2 Pet. 2: 4 of “angels who had sinned”, which demonstrates that not all angels have sinned—hence the passage in Romans cannot apply to angels either. However, if I read Rom. 3: 23 in the context of the whole of the epistle, having read the previous verses first, I know that the writer is referring to man as a race whether they be Jews or Gentiles—that is to whom the “all” refers. Is my interpretation correct? Can I be absolutely sure that I am right.? I answer unhesitatingly ‘Yes’.
If there is one thing that the Devil seeks to undermine it is the believer’s trust in his Saviour God through the Scriptures. Of course complete honesty must be exercised if our understanding of a passage is not as yet certain, but we should not believe the lie of the Enemy that certainty is not possible. The Bible was not written for theologians and academics but for all men, and hence all can understand what it says, and be certain in their belief. If there is no certainty, then the Scriptures will be just whatever we want to make them—and worthless.