Search the Internet on any topic: abortion, homosexuality, election, security, capital punishment or whatever, and what will you find? Your search engine will likely produce a hundred different web pages with half as many positions — all claiming they are “Bible based” or growing from “Biblical Christian Assumptions.” Are they? How can the same Scriptures produce so many different positions? Isn’t the Bible plain and clear on these matters? Or doesn’t the Bible have any fixed meaning at all?
So what does the Bible really mean? How will you decide? Here are some options. Which do you reject or prefer:
1. The Bible means what the writer meant when he wrote it.
To these the Bible means what the writer meant it to mean. Thus to understand what it means one needs to figure out what the writer meant. People holding this position yearn to become experts in Bible languages and culture, for the meaning of the writer’s words are locked up in ancient language and culture. And, they must be prepared to adjust their views from time to time because the view of “recent scholarship” changes every 30-40 years. Also, be prepared to answer the complaint that you’ve lifted the Bible’s above many ordinary people, reversing the gains of the reformation, merely giving the authority this time to the scholars instead of the Pope. But by far the most common view of middle aged folk, this view holds that the Bible means what the writer meant it to mean.
2. The Bible means what the first readers understood it to mean.
Some think it’s easier to figure out what the original readers would have understood the Bible to mean than what the writer intended. That is, to these folk, God was communicating to real people in Corinth, and thus he “carried along” the writer to say things in a way the Corinthians would have understood what God meant. This view isn’t that different than above and most “modernists” combine the two so fluidly that you can’t tell which they are using. Opt for this view and you’ll also need a thorough understanding of the culture and thinking modes of ancient times. You may not need to become such an expert in Paul’s thinking as in the thinking of the Greco-Roman world. The goal here is to exegete the culture as well as the verses — the original culture, attempting to read the words the way the first readers would have read and understood them. To these “Thou shall not commit adultery” is read from the mind set of an ancient person who likely did not think of having sex with a prostitute as “adultery.” Or “Honor your father and mother” is seen as instructions for dealing with elderly parents, not a command for children to obey their parents. To these folk the Bible means what it meant: what the first readers thought it meant.
3. The Bible means what God meant it to mean.
OK let’s add the Sunday School class answer: “The Bible means what God meant it to mean.” Cute, but is there anything to it? Does the Bible mean what God intended (through “inspiration”) it to mean, even though sometimes the original writer and readers may have missed it? Could Scripture have meaning now in a way nobody ever before understood it? Hmmmmmmm…. To these folk there may be “hidden meaning” in the Scripture which God is waiting to reveal to us in the ‘latter days.” To them the meaning is in the intentions of God — His inspiration, not the words or understanding of 2000-4000 years ago. But these are not the only folk who opt for bringing the meaning nearer to present times.
4. The Bible means what the Spirit teaches me it means.
These folk take a more dynamic view of the Bible’s meaning and aren’t sure the Bible has any fixed meaning at all — one verse can mean many things to many people. They believe the Bible is a living book, packed with meaning for all ages, and even a person totally ignorant of first century agricultural practices can figure out the “spiritual meaning” of the parable of the soils. To these folk, the Holy Spirit teaches truth directly from the words off the pages, “inspiring the reader” to see meanings even the original writer never intended. Some of these folk admit there might be a “near and far meaning” — an original meaning and a distant one for today, but others unabashedly announce they understand a passage’s meaning because “the Lord told me so.” He gave them this as their “life verse.” To these folk the Bible means what the Lord tells them personally it means, sometimes called “devotional” reading of the Bible. It leads to great spiritual intimacy with God. It also leads to Waco Texas.
5. The Bible means what the Body of Christ says it means.
Others who yearn for a more contemporary view, widen the circle of authority to include God’s whole church — both now and through history. To these the Bible’s meaning is found with one part tradition: what Christians down through the centuries have taken it to mean, and one part contemporary scholarship: what Christians all around the world today hold it to say. This view is a sort of democratized exegesis: the majority view becomes the right one. They argue that God not only trusted human beings to write the original words, and human beings to determine the holy canon, but has also delegated to His church the responsibility to determine what the Bible means for today. These folk have no difficulty rejecting slavery even though the Bible seems to accept it, or condemning alcohol even through the Bible seems to allow for it. To these people church creeds, denominational positions, and the collective view of the world-wide Christian church have heavy weight. To them the Bible means what the church collectively says it means.
6. So what is your position?
Where do you come out on this one? One of the above? Or a combination? Are you moving from one toward another position recently? Where do you stand? What does the Bible really mean?
So what do you think? To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu
©Keith Drury, 1999. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.