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Is One Interpretation of the Bible as Good as Another?

Is One Interpretation of the Bible as Good as Another?

Is One Interpretation of the Bible as Good as Another?

Should we follow feelings and emotions as authority and guide in religion? Should we design worship according to what excites moods and feelings

Is truth subjective so that whatever one person believes is as good as other beliefs? How important are knowledge and understanding of truth, and is it possible to understand the Bible alike? What does it mean to interpret the Bible? Do religious division and confusion matter? Does the Bible contradict itself? Will God accept everyone who is sincere and has a good conscience?


Introduction:

Many people believe the idea that truth is subjective, especially in religion.

So some think that whatever you believe to be true, to you it is true. But what another person believes to be true, that is true for him. So, everybody has his own "truth," even if it flatly contradicts other people's "truths."

For years people used this idea to justify disagreements and contradictions between denominations. They say: "One person sees the Bible one way, and others see it differently. One interpretation is as good as another." In effect, this means that people cannot understand the Bible alike; so whatever it means to you is right for you, even if it contradicts the way other people see it. As long as you practice what you honestly believe the Bible says, God will be pleased.

As a result, some people will not even seriously listen to views that differ from their own. They think it does not matter anyway, so why discuss it?

The purpose of this study is to examine the idea that one belief or interpretation of the Bible is as good as another.

Let us examine what the Bible itself says. Many people have never considered that the Bible itself may speak about this issue.

Obviously, different views of the Bible do exist. The question is whether or not all these views are acceptable to God. Is it possible that we may be lost, even though we follow a view of the Bible that we sincerely believe to be true?

What does it mean to "interpret" the Bible?

"Interpret" is defined: "to set forth the meaning of; explain ... to translate what is said in a foreign language..." (Random House College Dictionary). An idea or meaning may be properly expressed using different words, but to "interpret" properly one must give the true meaning.

Illustration: If a speaker expresses an idea in one language, an "interpreter" may express the same meaning in the words of a different language. But if the "interpreter" gives a different meaning, then his interpretation is inaccurate. It is wrong!

So, it may be proper to "interpret the Bible," provided one gives the same meaning as is in the original language. For example, most of us do not speak Greek or Hebrew, so we need an "interpretation" or translation of the Bible into English. This is fine, as long as the translation accurately conveys the meaning of the original languages.

Furthermore, even in the same language it may be proper to use various different words, illustrations, and applications to help explain the meaning of the Bible (cf. Neh. 8:8). But proper interpretation requires giving a true and faithful explanation of the real meaning and intent of the original message. To change the meaning or to express a different meaning would be improper interpretation. It would be a "perversion," not a true "interpretation."

What do people mean when they say, "One interpretation of the Bible is as good as another"?

The statement is nearly always made to justify people who defend conflicting and contradictory views of the Bible. This is clear from the way the people make the statement.

For example, one person may say that baptism must be an immersion, so sprinkling or pouring for baptism is not valid. Then another person says they believe sprinkling and pouring are acceptable forms of baptism. Then someone concludes, "Well, it really isn't important. It's all 'a matter of interpretation.'"

In short, people are saying that truth is subjective and varies from person to person. This approach has been used to justify people who contradict one another regarding whole hosts of beliefs and practices.

So the real question we are studying is: May people get conflicting and contradictory beliefs, doctrines, and practices from the Bible, yet all be pleasing to God? To answer, let us consider some more specific questions and see what the Bible says about them.


Question #1: Does the Bible Contradict Itself?


If the Bible actually contradicts itself, people could properly interpret the Bible and end up disagreeing with one another, simply because the Bible disagrees with itself! Since God wrote the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21; 1 Corinthians 14:37, etc.), this would mean that God contradicts Himself. But consider:

A Kingdom Divided against Itself Cannot Stand - Mark 3:24,25.

If a person works against himself, how will he accomplish anything?

When parents give contradictory instructions, how will the children know what to do?

If a mechanic "fixes" your car so it goes into forward and reverse gears both at the same time, how could you go anywhere?

So, if God contradicts Himself - if He teaches people to believe and practice opposite things at the same time - how can He expect to accomplish His purpose?

God Is the Author, Not of Confusion, but of Peace - 1 Corinthians 14:33.

Is the existence of many conflicting doctrines a source of confusion? Of course. Yet if proper Bible interpretation leads to all these contradictions, then who would be to blame for the confusion? God would!

But the Scripture says we should not blame God for the existence of confusion. He is the source of peace. So God is not responsible for conflicting Bible interpretations. He never wanted it this way.

It necessarily follows that God's word has a true and correct meaning. Since the Bible does not contradict itself, then when we interpret it correctly, we will not contradict one another. Conflicting explanations are not correct, not true. And since contradictory views are not from God, they must be from men. But in religion, doctrines from men make our service to God vain (Matt. 15:9).

[See also John 17:17; Psa. 119:128,137-144,151,160; 19:7-11; James 1:25.]

Christ Is Not Divided - 1 Corinthians 1:13.

Paul was not crucified for us, nor are we baptized in His name. Likewise, Christ is not divided. He does not conflict and disagree with Himself.

To say that Jesus contradicts Himself would be to say that He is either ignorant or hypocritical. Either He is not intelligent enough to know that He contradicts Himself, or else He is so morally bankrupt that He does it on purpose! Both views are blasphemous.

But if Jesus does not contradict Himself, then people who properly understand what He says will not contradict one another either! If people do contradict one another, it must be because someone misunderstands what Jesus said.

God's will for man's salvation, as revealed in the Bible, is unified and harmonious with itself. It does not contradict itself. It has a real and true meaning such that all who understand its meaning will understand it alike. When people disagree about its meaning, we should conclude, not they both have equally valid "interpretations," but rather that one or the other or both have misunderstood and misinterpreted its meaning.


Question #2: Is It Necessary to Understand the Bible?


Could it be that God does not really care whether or not we understand His word? Perhaps one interpretation of the Bible is as good as another, because God accepts everybody regardless of whether or not we understand the Bible. But consider:

The Importance of Knowing the Truth

Since God's word has a true meaning, how important is it for us to understand that true meaning?

Ephesians 5:17 - We should not be unwise, but understand what God's will is. So, God has a will for our lives, and He expects us to learn what that will is.

John 8:31,32 - We must know the truth in order to be made free (i.e., free from bondage to sin - v34). We all need to be freed from sin, because we have all committed sin, and the wages of sin is eternal death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

God's word is truth (John 17:17), and only truth can set us free from sin. But Jesus said truth frees us only if we know the truth. If someone does not know the truth, but believes error, is he saved from sin? No, only by knowing the truth can we be saved. This is why knowing the truth is so important.

1 Peter 1:22,23 - To be purified from sin, we must be born again by obeying the truth of God's word. But again, you can't obey the truth if you don't know it. So one who fails to know what God's word tells him to do to be saved, is a person who cannot be purified from his sin. He is doomed to eternal death (Rom. 6:23).

[See also Col. 1:9,10; Prov. 23:23; John 4:23,24; 14:6.]

The Danger of Not Knowing the Truth

If conflicting "interpretations" of the Bible are acceptable to God, then it really would not matter whether you accept the truth or false teaching. What does the Bible say about this idea?

Galatians 1:8,9 - A person is accursed if he preaches doctrine different from the true meaning of Jesus' gospel. So the idea that people can preach and practice things that contradict the gospel, yet still please God, just simply is not so!

Hosea 4:6 - God said His people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

Romans 2:6-10 - At the judgment, those who have not obeyed the truth will receive indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish. So knowing and obeying truth leads to eternal life, but failure to know and obey truth leads to eternal punishment.

To say that "one interpretation is as good as another," would be to say that people who do not know and obey the truth, are just as well off as people who do know and obey the truth. The Bible says this simply is not so! To be saved, we must understand what God says for us to do to please Him. So proper interpretation of the Bible leads to eternal life, but improper "interpretation" leads to eternal punishment.

[See also Psa. 119:104,128; Acts 17:30,31; Matt. 15:14; 2 John 9-11; 1 John 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:8,9; 2:10-12; John 6:44,45; 2 Pet. 3:15,16.]


Question #3: Is the Bible Impossible to Understand?


Some people believe that it is not possible to determine exactly what the Bible really means. If this were true, then any interpretation would be "as good as another" simply because nobody could figure out what it means!

But we have just learned that we must understand the Bible to be saved. If in fact we cannot understand it, we are all doomed! But consider also the following evidence that we really can understand the Bible:

God's Word Accomplishes His Purpose - Isaiah 55:11.

God's word does not return to Him void, but it accomplishes His purpose and prospers in the thing for which He sends it. But what is its purpose? He sent it to make known His will for man (2 Timothy 3:16,17; Romans 16:25,26; Colossians 1:26-28; Ephesians 5:17).

If the average person cannot understand the Bible, then the Bible has failed and has not prospered in accomplishing God's purpose at all. But God expressly said it would not fail. So, people are able to understand it.

God's Testimony Enlightens Men & Makes Us Wise - Psalm 19:7,8.

It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). How could the Bible enlighten and guide us if we could not understand it?

Jesus Commands Us All to Understand His Words - Mark 7:14.

Jesus here addressed great multitudes of common, ordinary people. The Bible was written, not just for specially trained religious leaders, but for all people. Every one of these people that Jesus addressed were commanded to hear and understand what He said.

Jesus' teachings were worded such that the average person can understand them if he studies and meditates diligently (cf. Acts 17:11). It simply is not true that His teachings "cannot be understood."

The Scriptures Are Inspired to Profitably Teach Us - 2 Timothy 3:16,17.

This passage, like many others, tells us that the Scriptures (written words) contain the very words of God Himself (cf. 1 Cor. 2:13; 14:37; 2 Pet. 1:20,21; Matt. 10:19,20; 1 Thess. 2:13). If these words "cannot be understood," then either God could not or would not express Himself clearly.

But we already know that God intended to reveal His will understandably. To say He wanted to do so, but could not do so, would be to deny that He is all-wise and all-powerful (cf. Matt. 19:26; Job 42:2; Jer. 32:17).

Further, 2 Timothy 3:16,17 clearly says that God's inspired Scriptures are profitable to teach and instruct us, and to provide us completely to all good works. If we cannot understand the Scriptures, how could they profit us in any of these ways?

Instructions for many products now come written in many foreign languages. How profitable are those instructions to you if they are written in a language you cannot understand? But God's word is profitable, so we can understand it.

We must conclude that the Bible has a true meaning that we can all understand. If we contradict one another about what the Bible teaches us to do to be saved, it must be because someone does not properly understand. That misunderstanding would be our fault, not God's. Either we did not study enough or we do not have an open, honest heart. In any case, it simply is not true that "one interpretation is as good as another." [Cf. Eph. 3:3-5.]


Question #4: Is Sincerity Enough?


When people "interpret" the Bible in contradictory ways, other people often try to excuse the conflict on the grounds that the people who hold the views are so sincere.

But we have seen that God requires men to understand and obey His will to be saved. So the question now is: will God overlook a person's error as long as he is sincere? Put another way, will error save as well as truth saves, as long as a person really believes the error to be true?!

Ways That Seem Right Often End in Death - Proverbs 14:12

Suppose a man accidentally boards a plane for Los Angeles, sincerely thinking it is a plane for New York. Will that plane really take him to New York just because he sincerely believed it would? Of course not.

And likewise in religion. If a course of action is sinful, following that course still leads to death, no matter how sincere the people are who follow it.

Zeal Without Knowledge Is Not Enough - Romans 10:1-3

The Jews had zeal, but not knowledge. Were they saved? No, they still needed salvation.

A visitor in our home once went to brush her teeth. She found a tube in our medicine cabinet that she sincerely "interpreted" to contain toothpaste, and started brushing her teeth ... until she realized she was brushing with diaper rash medication! She made a wrong interpretation, but I'm confident she did it in all sincerity. Was her "interpretation" just as good as the truth?

Sincerity does not make a belief true. One must sincerely know and obey the truth.

Saul Was Sincere, but He Was Still Lost - Acts 26:9; 23:1

As a Jew, Saul really believed he should persecute those who believed in Jesus. Was God pleased, just because Saul was sincere? No, Saul was "the chief of sinners" because he was "ignorant" of the truth (1 Timothy 1:13-15). Sincerely believing a lie does not change the fact that it is a lie, nor does it change the consequences to our soul if we practice that lie.

None of this means we should be hypocritical or should deliberately violate our consciences. The point is that being sincere is not enough. We may be wrong even while we do what we sincerely believe to be right. We are right only when we know the truth, and then sincerely obey it.

Error is still error, no matter how sincerely we believe it to be true. Jesus said we must know the truth to be saved. So we must not accept just any "interpretation" of the Bible, but must diligently seek for its true meaning.

[See also Matt. 7:21-23; 2 Cor. 10:12,18.]


Question #5: Is Division Acceptable?


What is the real reason that people say, "One interpretation of the Bible is as good as another"? It is because they hope that all sincere religious people will receive eternal life, despite the fact that they contradict one another. The doctrine is an attempt to justify people despite their religious divisions. But what does God think about division?

Jesus Prayed for All Believers to Be One - John 17:20,21

He prayed for unity as He and His Father are one. But when people say that all different "interpretations" of the Bible are equally good, they actually justify and perpetuate division because people see no reason to change. The result promotes the very opposite of what Jesus prayed for.

There Should Be No Divisions Among Us - 1 Corinthians 1:10,13

We earlier discussed verse 13, which says that Jesus is not divided. He does not contradict Himself. So if we all follow what He has really revealed, we will be united, not divided. Division is here condemned. We must not accept doctrines that rationalize division.

We Must Strive for Peace Based on God's Plan for Unity - Ephesians 4:3-6

True unity is based on seven things of which there is only one each in God's true plan. This includes "one faith." Just as surely as there is only one true God and Father, so there is only one true faith. But there may be many false ones!

We have learned that this one true faith has a true meaning that is revealed in the Bible in a way we can all understand. To be saved, we must study it, understand it, believe it, and obey it. When we do so, we will be united in faith and practice.

Since God rebukes division and demands unity, we displease Him whenever we promote doctrines that justify division. But the doctrine that "one interpretation is as good as another" is a doctrine that justifies division. God neither teaches nor accept that doctrine. On the contrary, He requires unity based on the proper meaning of His word.

Conclusion

When two churches or teachers disagree about what people must do to please God, one of three possibilities must be true: (1) the first view is correct and the second view is wrong; or (2) the second view is correct and the first view is wrong; or (3) they are both wrong and some other view is correct. But it is not possible for two contradictory views to both be correct!

Every accountable person needs to truly understand what God teaches about how to be saved. That requires us to study and meditate diligently. When we do understand, we will be united with all others who understand.

What does the Bible teach about salvation? God says you must:

** Hear the gospel - Romans 10:17; John 6:44,45.

** Believe in Jesus and His gospel - Mark 16:15,16; Romans 1:16; John 8:24.

** Repent of sins - Acts 17:30; 2:38; 2 Peter 3:9.

** Confess Christ - Acts 8:37; Romans 10:9,10.

** Be baptized (immersed) in water for the purpose of having your sins washed away in Jesus' blood - Romans 6:3,4; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16.

** Continue serving God faithfully - Matthew 28:20; 6:33; 1 Corinthians 15:58; Revelation 2:10.

Have you learned and obeyed God's true plan for your salvation? Are you living faithfully as a Christian?

(C) Copyright 1980, 2011 David E. Pratte
Local churches and individuals may, within limits, distribute this Bible study guide for free, but not for sale.  Web sites may link to this page but not reproduce it. For details click here for our copyright guidelines.

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Topics for further Bible study

The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
The Claims of the Bible
Tradition as Religious Authority
The Inspiration of the Bible
Can We Understand the Bible?
Authority of Teaching of Apostles & Paul
Are Bible Examples Binding Authority?
Necessary Inference/Conclusions as Authority

Photo credit: William Hoiles distributed under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

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