Friday, February 29, 2008

Same Bible - Different Interpretations - Why?

When you look at the picture to the left, what do you see? Do you see a vase or do you see two faces? If you see a vase, but your friend sees two faces, are you right and he's wrong?

On a related issue, why do two different people read the same bible but come to two different interpretations about what it is saying?

Here is a hypothetical, but reasonable, situation: two friends are reading the same bible. They are both Christians - they have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior based upon the orthodox, biblical meaning of the gospel (see I Cor. 15:3-4, II Cor. 5:21, and Rom. 10:9). Thus, they are both indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who assists them in interpreting the meaning of the scriptures.

We also must realize that any scripture has one true meaning: what the original author meant when he wrote it. For example, when John wrote (in John 1:1), "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," he meant one thing. The real, objective meaning of this verse is not open for discussion; it means what God says it means.

However, that does not mean that we always get it right when we try to interpret any verse or passage. Now let's return to the two friends. They both have the Holy Spirit helping them interpret a verse, passage, chapter, or book of scripture. They both believe that the bible is literally true. They both honestly want to interpret a passage correctly.

However, when they read a passage of scripture, they continue to come to different conclusions. Maybe they speak about a particular issue for hours or even days, but they cannot come to agreement. Why is this?

If you have spent any time in church, you know about some of the different disagreements. I'm sure you have experienced some differences of interpretation when it comes to the bible. Some that come to mind are infant baptism versus believer's baptism, Calvinism versus Arminianism, complementarianism versus egalitarianism, and Premillennialism versus Postmillennialism verses Amillennialism.

When the two friends disagree, three options are possible: friend #1 is correct and friend #2 is incorrect, friend #1 is incorrect and friend #2 is correct, or they are both incorrect. They cannot both be correct about an interpretation of a passage if they think it actually means two different things.

So we return to our question. Why do they disagree? Why don't these Christian brothers or sisters come to exactly the same conclusions?

I know what I believe on these issues mentioned above (in case you are curious, I hold to believer's baptism, Calvinism, complementarianism, and Premillenialism). However, I know of people far wiser than I am who disagree with me on some of these issues. We must also keep in mind that most of these issues are not black-and-white. For example, a Christian does not have to be either a Calvinist or an Arminian.

So why do Christians with good intentions of determining the truth come to different conclusions about the meaning of scripture? The answer must be that we are fallen creatures. Even if we are redeemed sons and daughters of King Jesus, we are still affected by sin. This sin impacts not only our moral judgments, but also our intellect. We do not interpret perfectly. In fact, we don't do anything perfectly. We are created in the image of God, but marred by original sin and our continued sins. When we come to Christ, we are somewhat restored, but not completely. That will only come when we die and go to be with Christ. Then we will no longer "see in a mirror dimly" (I Cor. 13:12).

Our remaining sin ought to make us humble when we take certain positions based on what we think scripture says. We should realize that our Christian brother or sister may be correct, and we may be incorrect. Let it be clear: I am not arguing here for relativism; I am in no way suggesting that we cannot know what is true. For example, I think the Holy Spirit testifies to us about the truth of the gospel (see here). What I am saying is that on issues that are secondary to the gospel, we should be humble in our positions.

Sin causes faulty judgments. Let's be careful in thinking that we interpret scripture perfectly. May we take pause and humbly assert what we believe, understanding that we may be incorrect.

For a great discussion of what factors affect what we believe, click here.


Alan Knox said...


This is a great post! In fact it parallels something that I've been working on for the past couple of days which I will probably publish the first of next week. Someone suggested to me recently that the reason that Paul called believers to unity is because the differences they were facing (one day more special than others, eating meat sacrificed to idols) were not as important as the differences that we face today. I think the way Paul dealt with those two differences in particular can help us understand how to deal with "doctrinal" differences today. Thank for linking to my series also.


Eric said...


Thanks a lot. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. As I read the Christian "blogosphere," I see a lot of disagreement by Christians who believe the bible is true, love the Lord, and are led by the Holy Spirit. These disagreements are often nasty in tone. This seems ridiculous to me. For one thing, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. For another, the other person probably has just as much reason to believe they are correct as we do.

As for the link to your series, it seemed appropriate because you were dealing with things that many Christians often don't even consider when they make statements and/or decisions.

BTW - Rachel C. is coming to visit for tomorrow. We're all looking forward to it.

Joe Blackmon said...


This is something I have been thinking quite a bit about lately. While I certainly think that truth is "knowable" (I'm not sure if that's a word), I totally agree that due to our sin nature, our perspective is clouded. I think it would do all of us well regardless of what side of the theological fence we fall on to eat an extra slice of "humble pie" regarding issues secondary to the gospel. I can imagine that when we get to heaven at the wedding supper of the Lamb we'll have a Calvanist on our right, an Armenian on our left, and we'll be sitting across the table from a Charismatic. And at that point, we can all have a good laugh when we see and understand that there was so much more to the glory and majesty of God than our mind could've ever truly comprehended and that none of us understood everything perfectly while we were on Earth. Most importantly, I don't think it'll matter to us then since we'll all be spending so much time praising God for His salvation of us.

Eric said...


Amen, brother!

Aussie John said...


Joe stole part of my thunder, I was once roundly criticized by the deacons of a Baptist church when I said there will be no Baptists in heaven, whether Calvinistic or Arminian, only God's children. I affirm that comment today!

You said, "When the two friends disagree, three options are possible: friend #1 is correct and friend #2 is incorrect, friend #1 is incorrect and friend #2 is correct, or they are both incorrect. They cannot both be correct about an interpretation of a passage if they think it actually means two different things."

You left out #4! Either, or both could be partially CORRECT or INCORRECT, to a greater or smaller degree.

Why do we continually think in terms of being CORRECT or INCORRECT? Is it because of our stinking pride?

Both Calvinists and Arminians are insistent that they have the mind of God when it comes to doctrine and other theological matters, and because their historic position is thus and thus, their system has, not quite, but very near equality in authority as Scripture.

Eric said...


Thanks for your comment. You are right - I did leave out #4. There are certainly times when people are partially correct about what they are discussing.

Pride really is a sin that we all have to deal with on a regular basis. I hope that being aware of that is a step toward dealing appropriately with it.

I'm sure there are biblical issues, outside of the gospel, that I am incorrect about. Humility is something we all need to take a healthy does of each day.

Thank God that He has made the basics of the gospel so simple to understand. We can be certain that we know what is correct about that.