Inspiration and Interpretation 2

Continued from “Inspiration and Interpretation 1.”


The biblical writings leave open all kinds of possibilities for thinking about the ways in which God may have related to their authorship. In the Bible / science relationship, it is crucial that Bible readers be aware of their view of inspiration, and how their view influences the outcomes of the Bible / science relationship. If a particular view of inspiration renders impossible a harmonious relationship with the best science, then the person’s view of inspiration may need to be questioned. To ask serious, self-reflective questions about oneself is not an admission of defeat, but a courageous act of humility and a meaningful expansion of faith and truth.


To ask serious, self-reflective questions about oneself is not an admission of defeat, but a courageous act of humility and a meaningful expansion of faith and truth.


Interpretation. “Interpretation” refers to the way in which people make sense of and respond to experiences, such as the literature they read or the actions of others. “Interpretation” also calls to mind the communication that takes place between people who speak different languages. In fact, in this scenario, word-for-word translation will accomplish very little. Individual words and entire phrases have to be interpreted into their nearest and most faithful equivalents in other languages. To communicate effectively across languages, interpretation must take place. As anyone who has done any translating knows, translation is interpretation.

Perhaps it often goes unnoticed that, by reading the Bible in English translation (regardless of version), Bible readers are reading someone else’s interpretation of the Bible before they do their own thinking about what they read.

Now, for this post, and for my blog more generally, “interpretation” refers to the way in which people read the Bible in relation to scientific discoveries, questions, and claims. It turns out that foreign-language interpretation is an apt analogy here, for natural science and biblical nature passages are speaking different languages and need interpreting for good communication to take place between them. They refer to the same world, but often in different ways, with different words, and for different reasons and goals.

Everyone who reads the Bible interprets the Bible. In the Bible / science relationship, it is not uncommon for some Christians to claim that they “just read” the Bible, that they do not interpret it. Now, this claim tells us something important about the people who make it. It may reveal the hope that when a person reads the Bible, it has something to say to him or her, and that he or she can make sense of that message. I find this hope understandable and respectable.


Everyone who reads the Bible interprets the Bible.


Without diminishing this legitimate hope, the claim that a person can “just read” the Bible without interpreting it is false. A person who makes any attempt to understand what the Bible was trying to say and do in its original context is interpreting: drawing on all available resources to comprehend the message. Likewise, a person who makes any attempt to apply the Bible to his or her life today is interpreting: once again, drawing on all available resources to make a good and faithful use of a biblical passage. And, any attempt to put the Bible into conversation with, or response to, modern scientific claims and discoveries is an act of interpretation.


Any attempt to put the Bible into conversation with, or response to, modern scientific claims and discoveries is an act of interpretation.


In the Bible / science relationship, then, the question is not, Will you interpret the Bible?, but, Will you interpret the Bible well?

Expectations. Part of good interpretation of the Bible is coming to terms with one’s expectations of the Bible. In the Bible / science relationship, Bible readers may have expectations of biblical nature passages that differ from the intent of those passages. For instance, if natural science prompts Bible readers to take another look at Genesis 1, they do well to ask whether they are expecting Genesis 1 to say and do things it was not intended to say and do.

I once watched a well-known young-Earth creationist leader respond against evolution with the statement, “It’s about the authority of the Word of God.” Careful analysis of this man, his organization, and his interpretation of the Bible reveals more to the story. It would be more accurate to say, “It’s about the authority of my way of reading the Word of God.” He insists that other ways of reading biblical passages cannot be right. He requires that the Bible meet his expectations. It may well be, then, that his concern with the authority of the Word of God is really a concern with his own authority as an interpreter of the Word of God.

In dealing with expectations of the Bible, the Bible itself contains an instructive passage. In Isaiah 55:10-11, the prophet indicates that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose.


For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 NRSV


I take it to be included and implied in this message that, even if God’s word did not accomplish the expectations of the people who heard it, it would accomplish God’s purpose. By extension, in the Bible / science relationship, if a biblical passage does not meet someone’s expectations of it, it will still accomplish God’s purpose for it. God’s word will survive and outlive our unmet expectations.

History of Interpretation. The “just read the Bible” mindset runs up against another serious obstacle: history. For centuries, Jews and Christians alike have acknowledged that they were interpreting the Bible, and have left considerable evidence behind of how they went about interpreting the Bible. There are histories of interpretation available for those who wish to learn more. Two examples are given here, and are very readable and beneficial.

  • Michael A. Singer, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Jewish Tradition,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Christian Tradition,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

What is more, the Bible itself contains openly acknowledged interpretations of other biblical writings. For example, in Galatians 4, Paul engages in an allegorical interpretation of Genesis (!), and specifically the Genesis stories of Sarah and Hagar. To understand what is happening, I encourage readers to read the stories of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis first, next to read Paul’s allegory of them in Galatians 4 , and then to notice how different Paul’s allegory is from the stories as they actually occur in Genesis.

In short, the Bible contains interpretations of the Bible, Jews have always interpreted their Bible (Hebrew Bible =  Old Testament), and Christians have always interpreted their Bible. Not only does everyone interpret the Bible; everyone always has interpreted the Bible. To interpret the Bible consciously and intentionally is to do the very thing that those devoted to the Bible have always done. It is an act of faith. It is an act of devotion.


To interpret the Bible consciously and intentionally is to do the very thing that those devoted to the Bible have always done. It is an act of faith. It is an act of devotion.


Changing One’s Reading. Finally, then, a word about changing one’s reading of the Bible in response to science. Bible readers have always needed to ask how best to read a biblical passage. Science is not forcing Bible readers to do something they have never done before. Bible readers may modify their reading of any passage for any number of reasons. As a rule, learning more about a passage or about one’s world or oneself may change one’s reading of the Bible. Science is one of many things that may teach people better ways of interpreting the Bible. In this, science is a gift.

Contrary to how some people are treated, changing one’s reading of the Bible in response to science is not an act of cowardice, of giving up on the Bible, of losing faith. It is an act of courage, of keeping the Bible, of continuing to believe that it has more to say, that it has more to teach. It is a tragedy when a change of interpretation is treated as a weak faith or an act of heresy. It is a tragedy when inspiration and interpretation are confused, when people think that reading a passage differently is the same thing as denying that God has anything to do with the passage. In the science / faith relationship, no one wins when inspiration and interpretation are confused, misunderstood, and acted poorly upon.


In the science / faith relationship, no one wins when inspiration and interpretation are confused, misunderstood, and acted poorly upon.

Inspiration and Interpretation 1

For many people in my context, the science / faith relationship directly touches people’s views of the Bible. In particular, scientific questions and discoveries push people to clarify how they read the Bible (interpretation), and how they think God relates to the Bible (inspiration). This outcome is to be expected, since both the Bible and science — natural science especially — refer to the same world, and to some of the same features of the world.

As people work through the Bible / science relationship, however, it is not infrequently that a confusion arises: many people of Christian faith confuse inspiration and interpretation. In short, many of them think that the inspiration of biblical passages is the same thing as their current way of reading and applying those passages. As a consequence, they might resist different ways of reading the Bible as threats to, or denials of, inspiration.

Inspiration. When reading the Bible and various biblical-theological works, “inspiration” can refer to the wide variety of ways in which God is believed to relate to the biblical writings. For instance, the word “inspiration” might refer to God’s relationship to the writing of a particular passage. It might also refer to the belief that God continues to use these writings from the past to convey messages and meanings in the present. I include both of these angles in my use of the word “inspiration” here.

In general, as you read through the Bible, you will notice two features relevant for how you imagine God inspiring various passages. (1) The Bible is not one writing, but a collection of writings with varying literary genres: e.g., narratives, genealogies, hymn-poems, laws, wisdom-poems, prophetic oracles, and more. However you think about God inspiring the biblical writings, this variety of genres needs to be accounted for. God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre. This is especially so when you consider the second feature.


God’s inspiration of one genre may not work the same way as his inspiration of another genre.


(2) While some biblical writings make claims for God’s relationship to their origin, many of them make no such claims. So, for instance, you will read passages in which God speaks to Moses and Moses speaks to Israel and/or writes down for Israel what he has heard (Exodus 24:3-4). You will read passages that report God speaking to a king (1 Kings 11:9-13) or a prophet (Jeremiah 1:4ff.). These passages present one form that inspiration may have taken.

Numerous biblical passages make no claims that God told an author which words to speak or write. As an exercise in noticing this feature, when you read various narratives, psalms, and proverbs, to name a few examples, you will see how often the narrative is just simply told, or the psalm presented, or the proverb given, without any reference to how God related specifically to the author’s own thoughts and actions. Is this to deny God’s action or influence in relation to what has been written? No. It is to engage thoughtfully with the passages as they present themselves to the reader.

In my experience, many believers obligate themselves to singular views of inspiration, imagining that God inspired different biblical passages in much the same way each time. The biblical writings themselves resist this view: not only because most of them do not specify God’s inspiring activity, but also because the biblical writings portray God acting in the world in so many ways, using so many means and agents, that it becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres. Is this a case of simplifying one’s view of God to make God — and belief in God — more manageable?


It becomes hard to appreciate why Christians would think that God would resort to one way only of inspiring numerous writings composed of numerous differing genres.


Even New Testament passages that address the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21) do not require a singular view of God’s inspiring activity. So, when Paul describes Scripture as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed,” he does not specify how God inspired or breathed into the various messages contained in Scripture. Similarly, when 2 Peter 1:21 (in referring just to prophecy, mind you) describes the prophets as “moved” (NRSV) or “carried along” (ESV) by the Holy Spirit, how they are moved or carried along is neither specified, nor limited to one form of activity on God’s part.

When Christians respond to scientific discoveries, questions, and claims, then, they have options available to them for thinking about the inspiration of the Bible in relation to science. Moreover, if Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible. For one, this is a logical error: reading something differently is not the same thing as denying God’s role in its origin and ongoing use.


If Christians witness other Christians relating the Bible to science differently than they do, they should not conclude that those other Christians are denying the inspiration of the Bible.


For two, this response is hasty, immature, poorly thought out, and potentially manipulative: the Christian who thinks this way may be drawing “heresy lines,” making decisions about which Christians are on God’s side, and which ones are compromising. Not that Christians should never concern themselves with defining God’s side. But it is awfully convenient when Christians who classify other Christians in these ways always wind up on the right side, while people who read the Bible differently wind up on the opposing side, effectively amid God’s enemies. Convenient indeed. And self-serving. It makes one wonder what these response are really about. Are they really about truth as such, or about self-validation?

Commitment to the inspiration of the Bible should include a commitment to a God whose inspiring work is inexhaustibly creative and resourceful. A small view of inspiration may reflect a small view of God. And if, in response to science, Bible readers never let a text say something that they do not like, it may not be a commitment to inspiration that drives them, but a commitment to keeping God and the Bible in place so as not to disrupt, disorient, and inconvenience their beliefs. Could it be, though, that science is one of God’s gifts to do these very things to us, so that our views of him do not sit still and stagnate into idols that do not demand anything new of us?


Continued in “Inspiration and Interpretation 2.”