How can two astute people read the same passage of Scripture and arrive at two different interpretations?
The short answer is because people usually tend to use one of four ways to interpret the Bible – the literal, moral, anagogical or allegorical approach. The literal approach looks for the plain meaning of the text, the moral approach draws ethical lessons from the text, the anagogical approach searches for a mystical meaning in the text, and the allegorical approach looks for a second level or typological meaning in the text.
Decades ago, when I first learned about these four ways to interpret the Bible my blood pressure went up! I had many questions: What was the right approach? Could two or more approaches be right? If two or more approaches are right, what happens when the interpretations clash? How can a literal approach be used with poetic literature? How can an anagogical approach be a valid way to interpret didactic material? And so on.
My questions increased my level of frustration. As I thought about the matter, I became convinced that a Bible text, rightly read in its context, could only have one intended and definite meaning. There was no way a text could have different, conflicting, or ethereal meanings.
Despite my hermeneutical concerns, I gradually developed a method of interpretation that applied literary, historical, theological, grammatical, contextual, translation, and supernatural considerations to my reading/hearing and preaching/teaching of the Bible. I felt like I was making progress, but I still wondered if I was missing something. Then the Scriptures themselves revealed the right way to interpret the Bible.
The right way to interpret the Bible isn’t a literal, moral, anagogical or allegorical approach. The right way to interpret the Bible isn’t tied to an approach, it’s tied to a person. Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the Bible.
To correctly handle God’s Word (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15) we must engage with it as the message, from beginning to end, about Jesus. This is essential. A Christocentric outlook is vital to understanding every page of the Bible. Any effort to determine the meaning of a text divorced from a Christocentric outlook leads to a distortion of its meaning.
This isn’t my opinion, it’s grounded in the Scriptures themselves. Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the Bible because He claims to be the subject of the Bible (cf. Luke 24:25-27). Because Jesus claims to be the subject of the Bible, the only adequate way to interpret the Bible is to consider every passage of scripture in the context of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of Jesus. As the Australian Evangelical theologian Graeme Goldsworthy says, “All biblical texts testify in some way to Jesus Christ. This makes him the center of biblical revelation and the fixed reference point for understanding everything else in the Bible.”
So what are some practical and theological implications?
- To properly understand the Bible, saving faith in Jesus, coupled with the empowerment of the Spirit, is required
- “We affirm that the Person and work of Jesus Christ are the central focus of the whole Bible” – Article III, Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics
- Jesus is the only one who can mediate the Word of God to us (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5-6)
- The person and work of Jesus must, directly and indirectly, inform our interpretation of a text
- The meaning of a text is always linked to how God reveals Himself in and through Jesus
- The main interpretive question is, “How does this passage attest to Christ?”
- The Gospels are the methodological starting point for interpreting the Scriptures because this is where Jesus is seen most clearly
- If an interpretation intentionally denies or ignores the person and/or work of Jesus, it’s a false interpretation
- When we study, preach, or teach the Bible we should always link our studies, preaching, or teaching to Jesus
- The application of the Bible to our daily lives must be connected to Jesus
The long and the short of it is this, Jesus is the linchpin to correctly understanding everything in the Bible. As Goldsworthy aptly says, “No Bible passage yields its true significance without reference to Jesus Christ in his gospel.”
Goldsworthy, Graeme., Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.
© Scripture Union Canada 2020