The lay-Christian’s guide to Biblical interpretation

If you’ve never gone to seminary or studied ancient languages, it can be difficult to know how to interpret the Bible. There are so many interpretations that many critics of Christianity claim the Bible is essentially meaningless, since people can use it to justify anything.

I’m not a theologian. I’m just a lay-Christian, as most Christians are. We read books and listen to sermons by people who have studied ancient texts. We try our best to figure out what our stances should be on various issues in modern life based on what was written in cultures removed by time and often place as well.

I don’t know that my interpretations of the Bible are always right. Some passages seem to need reconciling with other passages (an eye for an eye or not?). Some passages seem to need reconciling with the common sense of everyday life (I don’t plan on literally gouging out my eye any time soon). So the way I make sense of the Bible is to look at what priorities the Bible itself places. What is the greatest commandment? What virtue is the most important?

Here’s what Jesus has to say:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40 TNIV)

Loving the Lord your God is quite abstract, and the implementation of that principle is subject to interpretation. But loving your neighbor doesn’t seem too difficult to understand. Who’s your neighbor? Well, the person you’re supposed to hate, of course (read the parable of the good Samaritan, if you don’t believe me). You can see this shown through the stories of Jesus’ own life. Whom did he scorn and publicly humiliate? The people with theological authority who judged others as morally inferior. Whom did Jesus love and associate with? Just about everybody else—the outcasts, the “sinners,” the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers.

So try to think about, in today’s society, who the theological authorities are who judge others. Then think about who the outcasts and “sinners” are. Love the latter. Associate with them. Then call the former on their bullshit, just as Jesus did.

Let’s take a look at what Paul says:

If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body [to hardship] that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13 TNIV)

Yup. That’s right. All that religious stuff you do? Pretty cool stuff. All that stuff without love? Worthless. Love trumps all. If you don’t love, as far as I can tell, you’re not a Christian, just a religious legalist. So the basic guideline you should have when struggling with scripture, working out interpretations, trying to resolve apparent discrepancies, figuring out practical applications to life: love. Make sure you remind yourself that both Jesus and Paul have said the greatest thing is love. That’s the priority.

I may not have seminary training. I may occasionally get some biblical interpretation wrong, but if I love people and God, I know I’m on the right track.

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14 Comments

  1. Well said. And that can apply to atheists and other religions as well. If there is a God, I’m sure he’d prefer we spend our time loving one another and helping the poor and the outcast, instead of bickering about how many days it took Him to make the Earth.

    “Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
    Take control of your mind and meditate
    Let your soul gravitate to the love.”

  2. Does any Christian love his neighbor as himself? If so, how could you justify buying an iPhone or having a fancy dinner? YObviously in the world there are not only neighbors without iPhones, but neighbors without food or housing. If you really were to treat those people as you would treat yourself, you would be spending money on them and not on life’s little luxuries, no?

  3. Loving someone as yourself doesn’t mean doing exactly for others what you do for yourself. I love both my teeth and my fingernails equally. Yet I do not brush my nails or clip my teeth.

    An iPhone may be a treat for you, but it would be an unwanted gift/waste of money for me. So you may think you’re “loving” me as you would yourself by treating me to an iPhone (just because you want an iPhone), but you’d actually be just throwing an expensive piece of electronics at me that I wouldn’t use.

  4. I believe that the point of loving your neighbour is to care for them, treat them with respect and to act with humility. To love one’s neighbour means to put others ahead of yourself.

    Certainly one can take this to an extreme and live in poverty while you give service to the poor, sick or homeless, or one can give all of one’s money to charity. In the real world this isn’t desirable or practical, by performing small acts according to time and means is more than accessible to most people.

    The question that bothers me with a religious rather than humanist approach to good acts is one of motivation. Surely it is better, at least more noble and, dare I say, more moral, to love one’s neighbour without the prospect of reward, than to do so in the belief that it will win favour with your chosen deity?

  5. Atomac:

    No. That goes against the teaching. This very post shows that – you can help the world and it’s people, for the sake of personal gain (both now and in the after life) and for the sake of boasting, but they mean nothing without love, and by extension, without true meaning and a genuine desire to help.

    Doing so purely in the favour of a reward is exactly that, and thinking both Heaven and current life as purely that the same also. There is no guarantee no matter how strong your belief is, and even if God were to be true, even in that there is no guarantee that anything good that happens to you is purely a reward.

    Therefore it is naive to act purely for reward, and as shown by this very blog post, against it’s own teachings, as they would be without love, merely desire and possibly greed.

  6. “An iPhone may be a treat for you, but it would be an unwanted gift/waste of money for me. So you may think you’re “loving” me as you would yourself by treating me to an iPhone (just because you want an iPhone), but you’d actually be just throwing an expensive piece of electronics at me that I wouldn’t use.”

    …that may be true that someone doesn’t want an iPhone, but nobody can deny that a starving person would want food… and there are certainly plenty of starving people. So how can one justify buying anything “extra” for oneself when that money can be used to buy food for someone in need? If you were to treat someone as a priority over you, I assume that if you were starving to death, you’d want someone to “put you first” in denying a luxury for himself and using that money to keep you alive.

  7. I’m trying to challenge your assumption that loving people as you do yourself means treating them exactly as you do yourself. You seem to be stuck on that point. Frankly, I would be annoyed if, out of guilt, a rich person treated me to a meal every time she went out for a meal or bought me a car every time she bought a car. That isn’t really what Jesus is talking about at all.

    Jesus gives a practical example in the Good Samaritan story of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

  8. Obviously you don’t have to do the identical thing… but can you say that you are loving your neighbor when you know that lots of people are starving and you could easily donate money to them online, but choose instead to spend that money on cable television, fancy meals, or vacations? Does loving your neighbor mean only giving to that person if you have extra after taking care of your own needs AND your own personal luxuries? In the case of the Good Samaritan, that person came across someone destitute. Presumably if that Good Samaritan came across 2, 5, or 10 more of the same, he would continue to do likewise with whatever goods he had. In this day, people know of poor and can take action by sponsoring children online or what not. Would the Good Samaritan just help a couple of them and then say that’s enough… I still want to have some money to buy some videogames and go golfing? It doesn’t seem that modern Christians spend their money any differently than non-Christians. They give a little to charity, but probably not anymore percentage-wise than a lot of non-Christians give to other charities.

  9. Barb:

    There is no way to help everyone all of the time. We only ever have limited resources, and yes, we should work to keep ourselves being in need too.

    Why? Because it would be an endless cycle – you give away, but to such an extent that you yourself become needy, and then no problems get solved, they just get moved to a different group, who are then helped out to the extent that the helpers now need help, and so on. Helping people is to help stop or minimise suffering and need, doing it to the extent that you yourself become needy kind of breaks the point.

    Then of course the idea of helping being purely about money is naive – from simple things like helping someone move in next door, or actually becoming a missionary in person are other ways, possibly more impactful ways of helping than donating money, especially when you consider how much money when simply given anonymously to charities might only end up in helping quell administrative expenses rather than actually helping.

    It’s about finding a balance – between what is within your reach in what you can do whilst remembering to also take care of yourself. If you don’t, then to some degree it becomes pointless because again, it’ll just become a cycle and nothing really changes. Help from those who can, sympathy and help for those that can’t.

  10. I didn’t say you had to give everything away. The question is how you can justify keeping luxuries and I brought up iPhones, cable television, and fancy dinners as examples. Certainly tons of Christians have those things and could cut them out and not be in need. And yes, there are other ways of helping other than money, but I bring up money because it is one thing that forces a huge lifestyle change and is an obvious sign of excess. Rather than take it to the extreme of giving everything away, try looking at it the other way — giving $1 more than you do. How do you justify holding on to $1 more and using that to go to the movies when that could be feeding a starving person? Supposedly Christians give 10% to tithes. If you do… why don’t you give 11%… or 12% (not to the church necessarily but to other needy groups — and u could find ones that don’t have bloated administrative costs if u really want to). I’m sure most Christians could easily give 20% more than they do and still have food, clothing, transportation, housing, etc. They just might not be able to afford the latest videogames or what not. My question is more how a Christian justifies those dollars that are spent on unnecessary things while others are in need. In the Bible it says “They made it their practice to sell their possessions and goods and to distribute the proceeds to anyone who was in need.” If this is outside the scope of your discussion, it would be interesting to hear a blog post on tithing / giving. Thanks.

  11. I think that if an American can see themselves as the Christian, and when it comes to “Love your Neighbor…” Who is the neighbor? I’d say your neighbor would be the Iraqis, North Koreans, Libyans, the Muslim world, etc. In other words, the “enemy” is your neighbor too.

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