Why are there different interpretations of the Bible? Is there a right way to read it?

Biblical Interpretation

The Bible has a distinguished status for Christians because it alone holds God’s special revelation. In it, God presents his plan of salvation for the human race. Yet, the Bible is difficult to understand, and people glean different things from it. Everyone concedes that we must interpret the Bible in order to understand what it means. But this task of interpreting the Bible—sometimes called “Biblical exegesis” or “hermeneutics”—is a challenging one.

As with most difficult questions, the Christian tradition has been wrestling with it for some time. Throughout the centuries, Christian theologians have attempted to provide rules and suggestions for understanding the Bible. Almost all theologians agree that the clearest truths in the Bible are those dealing with the salvation of humanity. Many also postulate a “literal” or “plain” reading of the text. Some go on to argue that the plain understanding of the Bible functions as a sign for spiritual truths. Another rule many have recommended is that “scripture should interpret scripture,” in particular, clearer passages should interpret more obscure passages.

We’ve gathered here a few places where issues of Biblical interpretation are discussed directly. Much more is of relevance, though. These passages are, for the most part, not examples of interpretation, but discussions of how to interpret the Bible. Nevertheless, one can learn much about how to read and understand the Bible by reading and studying interpretations of the Church Fathers and major theologians, like St. John Chrysostom’s homilies or Calvin’s Commentaries.

  • Against Heresies by St. Irenaeus (130-200) According to St. Irenaeus, God has ensured that the important truths of Scripture are within the ability of all readers to be understood. He thus suggests that, in order to come to understand these truths through interpretation, we ought not to introduce into our Scripture interpretation unclear or ambiguous language.

  • Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew by St. John Chrysostom (347-407) In his introductory essay, M. B. Riddle explains the impact and nature of St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation style. St. John’s exegesis was both noteworthy for the time and important for later Christian orators.

  • On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine (354-430) St. Augustine argues that, when deciding between two rival interpretations of a passage, we must first turn to the original languages themselves. If that does not settle the dispute, then we next turn to tradition and context. If those do not indicate one rival over another, then the “reader’s discretion” may choose which interpretation to follow.

  • Nature and Grace by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) St. Thomas Aquinas argues that Scripture has several distinct meanings. He suggests that Scripture has one literal meaning, but this meaning can function as a sign for other, more spiritual, meanings and truths.

  • Works of James Arminius, V2 by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) According to James Arminius, the “genuine” sense of Scripture is the sense meant by the Holy Spirit, but that Scripture also possesses two different meanings—the “typical” and the “allegorical.”

  • Westminster Confession (1646) The Westminster Confession states that in order to understand unclear passages of Scripture, one ought to examine clearer passages to understand the more ambiguous ones.

  • Doctrinal Theology by Heinrich Schmid (1811-1885) According to Schmid, the Biblical teachings of salvation are the clearest aspects of Scripture. Thus, when extracting any other doctrine from Scripture, we must ensure that it does not contradict the clear teachings of Scripture upon salvation.

  • Inspiration and Interpretation by John William Burgon (1813-1888) Here Burgon urges that the Bible cannot be interpreted “like any other book;” but that we ought to interpret the Bible in accord with what it says itself, the Christian tradition, and finally, what other individuals have said regarding it.

  • Scripture and Truth by Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) In this long essay, entitled “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” Jowett begins by reflecting upon the history of Christian interpretation before turning to his own views on the matter. He also distinguishes between interpreting Scripture, and applying Scripture to everyday life, and he ultimately argues that the inspiration of Scripture is irrelevant to its interpretation.

  • Biblical Exegesis in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1914) This entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia details the various types of Biblical interpretation. It also describes the different historical schools of interpretation, and the difference between Catholic interpretations and Protestant interpretations.

Written and compiled by Tim Perrine, CCEL Staff Writer