CAN THE COMMON PERSON CORRECTLY INTERPRET THE BIBLE?
In the Middle Ages, illiteracy was widespread so Roman Catholic clergy interpreted the Bible for the people. With time people believed that the clergy were the only ones qualified to read and interpret God’s sacred Word. It became assumed that the common person couldn’t correctly interpret the Bible themselves.
After the Bible was translated into Latin, it was read in Latin during Mass. Priests were the only ones that knew Latin, and they were indispensable for understanding Scripture. Because of this the Bible was generally not available to most people, who wouldn’t have been able to read it anyway. In fact, Bible reading by the common or average person was even discouraged. In some cases, it was forbidden.
Evangelicals and the Bible
During the Reformation and into the 20th century, the Bible was translated into common languages. Believers were then encouraged to read and study it on their own. This led to a revival of knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. Evangelical Christians today generally accept that anyone can pick up the Bible—in any of its numerous translations—and read and interpret it for their own use and understanding.
But in the 19th and 20th centuries many evangelical pastors and Bible teachers of certain denominations or those trained at certain theological seminaries started to insist that their approach to Scripture and their knowledge of the original languages (Hebrew and Greek) made them indispensable for understanding the Bible. A popular belief is that knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is essential to arrive at the “full” meaning of the Scripture. Some teachers have even implied that the common person does not have the skills and training to correctly interpret and expound the Bible for themselves.
Hopefully, my posts will persuade you otherwise—that the common person can correctly interpret the Bible.
Who was the Bible written to?
First, it is also important to remember that the authors of the Bible, especially the New Testament, wrote for the common person. They didn’t write it to be interpreted to the people by highly trained scholars. It was written to be read and understood by common—average people.
With such important topics as the identity of Jesus and eternal salvation, the authors God used to transcribe his Word had the average person in mind when they wrote. The Bible authors wrote not mainly to theologians, but to the human race. Because of this, the great majority of the Bible should be easy to understand, assuming that we start with a good translation of the Bible.
For what purpose was Scripture written?
The gospels, especially, were written so that people might believe and find salvation.
… these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name. (John 20:31)
We need to remember that the four gospel writers:
- wrote out their accounts in the terms they felt would be most understandable by their readers.
- recorded the information about Christ’s coming into the world that was essential for our salvation.
So, those that lived at the time easily understood the terms and concepts used in the gospels. The Apostle Paul stressed that fact when he wrote to the Corinthians:
For we did not write you anything that you cannot read or understand. (2 Corinthians 1:13)
He always wrote his letters with the goal that the readers would understand them. Also, he insisted that any communication during public worship be intelligible to those that were present.
Basic essentials for understanding Scripture
Let’s look at some of the main essentials for understanding the Bible.
Regeneration means that the believer in Christ is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Those that possess the Spirit are spiritually regenerated or born-again. It is the Holy Spirit who gives understanding, and without his illumination, the Bible will not make sense. Since God is the author, the Spirit of God is the primary interpreter of Scripture. Jesus told his disciples:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (John 16:13)
A desire to know the truth
Yet, God is generous with truth and wants all to come to a knowledge of him. Those who are not presently indwelt by the Holy Spirit can certainly receive truth from the Spirit, if they desire to know the truth and diligently seek God. As Jesus promised:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)
We should pray for God to help us understand what we are reading. God is more than willing to meet us and give us understanding if we submit to him in prayer. He is not trying to hide from us, and delights in answering a prayer for understanding, since this is always within his will.
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask of God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given unto him. (James 1:5)
Faith is the most basic and essential component in not only understanding the Bible, but in seeking and finding God himself. A sincere faith will motivate us to seek God and his truth, because we believe that he will reward our quest.
Those who come to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
Commitment to God
We need to be willing to give in to God’s leading and guidance. As we read the Scripture, we will have a much greater understanding if we have a heart of submission to him. But without a submissive heart, worldly desires and distractions easily cloud our spiritual eyes.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge… (Proverbs 1:7)
Our willingness to obey and please him will to a large degree determine our level of understanding. But if we come to Scripture with our minds already made up and our hearts already set, we will not hear what God has said in Scripture.
If we are fearful of submitting to God, Christ himself assures us:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30)
By submitting to Christ we are in the hands of a loving Savior.
We are all fallible creatures and prone to failure. We are fallen humans and—even as Christians—each of us has only a partial view of the truth. All of us need to cultivate a humble, sensitive—teachable—attitude as we approach Scripture. A person who lacks humility will easily miss the way because he reads with the assumption that he already knows the correct meaning. He will also not ask the opinion of others.
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 26:12)
Love for God
Our desire to understand God’s Word will to a large degree depend on our love for God. In our earthly lives we really try to understand a product that interests or attracts us. But we will not take interest in understanding something that we don’t really want. We will also try to understand someone we want to please or someone whose love we hope to win. In the same way, those who love God will pursue him and seek to know everything they can about him.
If you love me you will obey what I command… (John 14:15)
An honest person will not distort or change the meaning of the Bible to suit their own likes and tastes. He or she will seek to understand the meaning intended by the writer, and faithfully convey that same meaning to others.
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God… (2 Corinthians 4:2)
The condition of our heart
Notice that these elements are all related to some degree to the condition of the heart. The heart is the center of our desires. If we truly desire to know the truth, God promises that understanding is available to us. These principles do not have anything to do with intelligence, training, gender, social or economic status, or age.
Can the common person correctly interpret the Bible? Yes. Anyone who sincerely desires to know God and know the truth of God can find it in Scripture, if the above elements are present in their life.
Correctly handling the word of truth
The Apostle Paul urged Timothy, his disciple and close associate in the work of the gospel:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)
Paul implies that there is a correct way to interpret Scripture. And if that’s true, then there is also an incorrect way.
There’s a term for the study of Bible interpretation: hermeneutics. Using proper hermeneutical methods is important in reading and interpreting Scripture. They are not highly complex concepts or methods we need specialized training for. They are common sense rules that anyone can follow. In my book Interpreting and Applying the Bible, I outline all of these important principles. In other blog posts, I explain some of these principles and apply them to important Bible passages.