The Necessity, Purpose, & Nature of Scriptural Interpretation

by Glenn Conjurske

The time was, when I was young and ignorant, and knew a good deal less than I thought I did, that I denied the propriety of interpreting the Scriptures at all. Said I, it is not our business to interpret the Bible, but to believe it. I was doubtless driven to this position as a reaction against seeing the Scriptures so often interpreted in such a way as to deprive them of their obvious meaning. But reactions against error are usually over-reactions, and almost invariably lead us to a false position on the other side. Augustine’s reaction against Pelagius produced Calvinism. Martin Luther’s reaction against the legalism of the Romanists produced an antinomian gospel. The modern reaction against the liberalism and unspiritual intellectualism which produced the modern Bible versions has produced all the errors of the King James Only movement. My reaction against the abuse of interpretation led me to deny the use of it.

I believe there was some truth in my position, for the plain fact is, the sense of many things in the Bible is so plain and obvious that they give us little to do of interpreting. Yet the fact remains that even where the meaning is perfectly plain, the words employed are grammatically capable of being taken in another sense. We say that the plain, obvious, and natural sense is the true one, but in so saying we grant that other senses are possible, and it so happens that our prejudices may make a very unnatural sense quite natural to us. Even the plainest scriptures, then, require to be interpreted, though it may well be that the main ingredient in the interpretation is simple faith.

Neither was my position a harmless one. It obliged me to profess one thing, and practice another—-for (as I shall demonstrate as we proceed) the Scriptures must be interpreted to be used at all. While I professed that I did not interpret the Bible, but merely believed it, the fact was, I interpreted it as much as my neighbors did. It may be that I interpreted it on sounder principles; it may be that I interpreted it more faithfully and truly; it may be that I interpreted it with a higher and nobler purpose, to ascertain its true meaning rather than to set that meaning aside; but still I interpreted it, while I supposed I did not.

But what harm was there in this? Not a little harm, surely, for it led me to regard my opponents’ position as their own interpretation, while I held my own position to be the very word of God. Such a position naturally fosters pride.

No only so. Such a position also naturally confirms us in our errors. Any position which claims infallibility confirms men in their errors. The Romanist will never be delivered from his errors, so long as he regards the interpretation of the church as infallible. The King James Only man can never be delivered from his errors, so long as he arrogates to himself, as a “covenant-keeping Christian” (a Baptist, that is), “the infallible teaching of the Holy Ghost” (as William Van Kleek does). We rightly impute infallibility to the Bible itself, and we may do this safely, for the Bible is an objective standard, which contains within itself all that is needed to correct our errors, but when we impute infallibility to any subjective process outside the Bible, we have actually removed the Bible out of court. No doubt the teaching of the Holy Ghost is infallible, but my apprehension of it is not infallible, whether I am a “Bible believer” or a “covenant-keeping Christian” or not.

But granting that we may safely attribute infallibility to the Bible, it remains a fact that the Bible must be interpreted to be used at all. The very nature of language necessitates this. Words do not have one narrow and invariable meaning. A single word possesses many meanings, or many shades of one general meaning. Its exact meaning must be determined by the context. A sentence consists of a number of words, every one of which is subject to more or less variation in meaning. A single sentence, then, may have more meanings than one. The same Hebrew word stands for both “God” and “gods,” and it is purely a matter of interpretation whether we render Genesis 3:5 “Ye shall be as gods” or “Ye shall be as God.” And here we must interpret before we translate, though that is not usually the case.

It is no doubt true that the meaning of many sentences is obvious, but this is certainly not true of all. And even where the meaning may be said to be obvious, it is obvious only to those who understand the matter which is spoken of. The fact remains that most if not all sentences contain within themselves a broad range of possible meanings. In every sentence there is a maximum which the words may mean, and a minimum which the words must mean, with a range of possible meaning between those extremes. It is the business of interpretation to ascertain the true meaning, the meaning intended by the author. To do this we must consider something more than the mere words which make up the sentence. Those, confessedly, may be legitimately construed in more ways than one. We must consult the immediate context, the ways of God and the doctrines of the Bible in general, and of course common sense.

The latter alone should be sufficient in most cases, but it seems that common sense is most often thrown to the winds in the interpretation of Scripture. The primary place of common sense is just this: it possesses an instinctive recognition of the fact that common language is not meant to be pressed in any absolute or technical sense. The meaning of most sentences is neither the maximum which the words can mean, nor the minimum which they must mean, but lies somewhere between them.

As an example of all of the above I may use a very simple text, which has been often misinterpreted. The Bible says “Thou shalt not kill.” Common sense instinctively understands this to mean not to commit murder. But I have known it to be pressed to a much more absolute meaning, and understood to teach “Thou shalt not kill at all, under any circumstances or for any reason.” I once knew a man who was a “conscientious objector,” refusing to go to war because the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Common sense, I say, ought to have kept him from such an interpretation, but in the failure of common sense we must turn to the rest of the Bible. There we find that the same God who wrote “Thou shalt not kill” prescribed also both war and capital punishment. The same God who said “Thou shalt not kill” said also, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” The same God who said “Thou shalt not kill” said also, “The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.” (Num. 15:35). Clearly then, “Thou shalt not kill” has nothing to do with forbidding capital punishment. The text has nothing to do with war, either, for God in numerous places commanded his people Israel to go to war. He commanded Saul, for example, to utterly exterminate the Amalekites, and rejected him from being king for his failure to do so. Not that I think the saints ought to go to war today. I was a “conscientious objector” myself, but on a sounder basis than “Thou shalt not kill,” which really has nothing to do with the matter.

But to use this text against war or capital punishment does not exhaust its possible meaning, for such interpretation limits it to the killing of men. I have known it pressed much beyond this, and understood to mean not to kill at all—-not even a mosquito. I worked once, in a hospital kitchen, with a man who interpreted it so. He was of course a vegetarian. I once heard him ask one of the hospital cooks if there was anything from an animal in bread. She, knowing nothing of the reason for his question, responded innocently, “Maybe milk,” to which he replied sarcastically, “Did you have to kill the cow to get it?” To his mind “Thou shalt not kill” must mean never to kill anything at all, and this we must grant is a possible meaning of the sentence—-the same words might actually mean that in a Buddhist work—-but that is certainly not its meaning in the Bible.

It is a plain fact, then, that the mere combination of words “thou shalt not kill,” divorced from common sense or from the doctrines of the Bible, may mean much more than it actually does mean in its place in the book of Exodus. The words must be interpreted to ascertain their true and intended meaning.

But the learned men of the present day will doubtless tell us that if the verse were but “more accurately” translated, we should have no such difficulties of interpretation. The Berkeley Version, the New American Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New King James Version all remove the ancient landmark “Thou shalt not kill,” and give us in its place, “You shall not murder.” This we suppose, according to the “consensus of modern scholarship,” must undoubtedly be the “more accurate” translation. But in fact it is nothing of the kind. The Hebrew çöÇøÜ does not mean to murder, but to kill—-to cause the death of, whether by accident or design. The same word is used in Deut. 4:42, where we read, “That the slayer might flee thither, which should kill his neighbour unawares, and hated him not in times past; and that fleeing unto one of these cities he might live.” This has nothing to do with murder, and of course none of these four modern versions use “murder” in Deut. 4:42. They all have some form of “kill,” except the NASV, which substitutes the more archaic “slew”—-though it reverses the process, and substitutes “killed” for “slew” no less than eight times in the Pentateuch alone, altering it also to “slaughtered,” “took his life,” “struck down,” “put to death,” etc. We might suppose this mere caprice, except that we think we understand too well the animus which led to it. A version which alters “killed” to “slew” and “slew” to “killed” shows a little too plainly that it is moved by the determination to depart from the old version.

But be that as it may, “You shall not murder,” is not a “more accurate” translation, but precisely an interpretation. This is according to the usual propensity of the modern translators to do our interpreting for us, instead of keeping to their proper business of translating, and leaving the interpreting to the reader. In this case “murder” is undoubtedly a perfectly legitimate interpretation, and in fact the only true one, but it is an interpretation of the Hebrew, and not a strict translation of it. The fact is, the word must be interpreted, whether we interpret the Hebrew, and place that interpretation in the English Bible, or translate the Hebrew and interpret the English.

The words “Labour not for the meat which perisheth” (John 6:27), so far as the bare words are concerned, may mean “Labour not at all for the meat which perisheth,” but it is certain from other scriptures that this is not the Lord’s meaning, for Paul roundly condemns “some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.” (II Thes. 3:11). “Work” and “labour” are the same word in the original. II Thessalonians 3:11 forbids us to take John 6:27 in its absolute sense. It must mean something lower than “labour not at all.” But if we cannot press the words in too high a sense, neither dare we reduce them too low. While the hyperspiritual may wish to exalt the words to their highest possible meaning, the carnal would be glad to reduce them to their lowest. The hyperspiritual may press them to mean “labour not at all for the meat which perisheth,” while the carnal are quite content that they should mean “labour not only for the meat which perisheth, but also for that which endureth unto everlasting life.” The former is against other plain scriptures. The latter is against the text itself, for it really necessitates the introduction of an “also” in the second clause. It is also against the general tenor of the whole New Testament, which everywhere exalts the spiritual above the material. The true meaning must lie between the two possible extremes. It must mean “labour not primarily,” or “labour not unduly for the meat which perisheth.”

I have written elsewhere against the doctrinal interpretation of Scripture, but the doctrinal interpretation of Scripture is both legitimate and necessary within proper limits. Those limits are, in every case, the maximum which the words may mean, and the minimum which they must mean. To consult the doctrine of Scripture in general in order to fix the meaning of a particular text within those limits is perfectly right. The thing to which I objected in my article on the doctrinal interpretation of Scripture is the pressing of a text beyond its legitimate maximum, or reducing it below its legitimate minimum, in order to conform it to our doctrine. This is a great evil, and effectually removes the Bible out of court. The hacking and hewing ought to be done on our doctrine, not on the Bible. It is our doctrine which must be either diminished or augmented, in order to bring it within the limits prescribed by every particular text of Scripture. This requires not only deep thought and study, but an honest heart and unfeigned faith in the Scriptures.

It is common for certain systems of theology to press certain favorite texts to the limit of their maximum possible meaning. By this means they may make a very plausible defense of their errors, and even accuse others of paring down the meaning of those texts. But in order to maintain the system they must either reduce many other texts below their necessary minimum of meaning, or set reason and common sense at defiance. The latter was certainly the effect of Luther’s belligerent clinging to Hoc est corpus meum, and pressing it in its maximum possible sense, to prove that the “sacrament” was the very body of Christ. Such a text in the hands of such a powerful advocate as Luther may have told with great effect, but still it set common sense aside, for when Christ spoke those words he was present in his own actual body, and holding in his own physical hands that bread, concerning which he said “This is my body.”

Some interpretations retain reason intact, but set aside other scriptures.

Solifidiansism, or “easy-believism,” presses every text on salvation by faith to its maximum possible meaning, insisting that all such texts teach salvation by faith only, with no other condition. But all those texts which require repentance and holiness are reduced to nothing, or near nothing.

Calvinism takes two or three texts which affirm that Christ died for his people, and presses them to their maximum possible meaning, namely, that he died for his people and none else. But all the texts which teach that he died for all, or for the world, are by miserable shifts reduced much beneath their necessary minimum of meaning. Such interpretation is not legitimate, but dishonest.

To press any particular statement to the maximum possible meaning of its words will often lead us astray. Most general statements—-even absolute statements—-will allow of some exceptions. Commandments which are apparently absolute may also allow of exceptions. Yet those exceptions are to be proved, not assumed. They are to be proved from other scriptures, or from the necessities of the case, and of course such interpretation ought to be left to the reader of Scripture. It is none of the business of the translator. Where the Scriptures speak of justification by faith, Martin Luther inserted the word “only” in his translation. We grant that this is a legitimate possibility, so far as the interpretation of the words is concerned, but it is not the only possibility, and when the translator thus engages in interpretation, the reader is shut up to one interpretation, when the truth may be another.

Again, we read in the New American Standard Version, in I Peter 3:3, “And let not your adornment be external only.” This may be a possible interpretation of these words themselves, standing alone, though in the present case it is certainly an unnatural interpretation, for there is no “also” in the following clause. We are not told “but let it be also the hidden man of the heart.” Yet the introduction of the thought “only” in the first clause requires the introduction of the thought “also” in the second. This may perhaps be a legitimate interpretation, but it is surely not the only one, and if this is not an absolute prohibition of outward adornment, any exceptions to it must be proved from other scriptures, or from the necessities of the case, and not merely assumed. Nor is it any of the business of the translators to make that assumption. Until such exceptions are proved to our own satisfaction, it is the safe ground, and certainly the godly ground, to assume that the prohibition is an absolute one.

These texts well illustrate the necessity of interpretation. There is very much in the Bible which is of the same character. The words employed are capable of a range of meaning. This necessitates interpretation. The purpose of interpretation is to ascertain the intended meaning, always within that range. That “interpretation” which consists of shrinking the text beneath its minimum necessary meaning, or pressing it beyond its maximum possible meaning, is of course illegitimate, but so may be the interpretation which presses it up to its maximum possible, or reduces it down to its minimum necessary meaning. The latter is a very sorry business, but the former may be equally mistaken, though on sounder ground morally. To reduce the Scriptures to their lowest possible meaning is generally the fruit of carnality and unbelief, while to exalt them to their highest possible meaning is rather the fruit of zeal without knowledge. The latter is a much more innocent error—-even a noble error in some ways—-yet it is an error, and not a harmless one.

Nevertheless, as a general rule we may safely say that the true and intended sense of any text lies nearer its maximum possible meaning than its minimum necessary meaning. We have no right to reduce the meaning of any text any further than we are compelled to do by legitimate considerations derived from other scriptures, or the necessities of sound reason. It is only unbelief and carnality which desire to do so. We have no right to reduce any text beneath its maximum possible meaning, unless legitimate considerations compel us to do so. Some texts must certainly stand in their highest possible sense. To reduce them at all is to empty them completely. “They shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” must either mean all that it can mean, or nothing at all.

In some scriptures the meaning may be so obvious that to quote the text is practically to interpret it. Some texts are so plain that they could scarcely be misunderstood, at least not by an honest man. But this is certainly not true of all. It is necessary to interpret the most of Scripture in order to use it at all. The purpose of that interpretation is to learn the intended meaning of the words, always within their range of possible meaning. To raise them above this, or reduce them below it, is absolutely illegitimate. The nature of faithful interpretation must consist of allowing the maximum possible meaning, as mandated by the words themselves, any limitations imposed by the rest of the Bible, and the dictates of sound reason. Yet it is a plain fact that much of the interpretation of the teachers of the modern church proceeds in just the opposite direction, reducing the meaning of the Scriptures as low as they can, or as low as they dare.

One final word: I am well aware that the proper interpretation of Scripture is beyond the reach of the mere human understanding. The Bible deals with themes which are above us, and which are foolishness to the natural mind. To interpret the Scriptures properly we must be taught of God. To be taught of God we must be humble, faithful, and spiritual. The above thoughts are not intended to imply any human capabilities in independence of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, there are right and wrong methods of interpretation, as there are right and wrong motives in the use of Scripture. In this article I aim only to describe the mechanical process of true interpretation. I do not suppose a man must understand these things in order to be taught of God. I am sure that I was taught of God myself long before I understood any of this. Nevertheless, I believe that these principles are sound, and that there is value in them, to confirm the faithful in a true course, and to expose the error of the false.

Glenn Conjurske