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.

2 thoughts on “Inspiration and Interpretation 2”

  1. Interesting concept, reading of the Bible can be a message of so many meanings, depending on the message God has intended for you. Your point in life can bring a total different message with the reading of the same passage, years apart, A Living God, through his word, changes as our needs and acceptance allows. To limit one’s interpretation to meet a particular sect or culture would challenge that the word its self lives and has infinite meaning we are charged with reading and applying in our own situation and belief.

    1. Brenda, thank you for your comment. I find helpful your emphasis on God and his word as both being fully alive and capable of engaging people in meaningful ways, despite the differences that different people bring to God, or even the differences that the same person brings to God throughout life.

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