The Bible: How Should We Interpret It?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg / Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2002
It’s one thing to have an accurate translation, but why is there so much disagreement over what the Bible says? Dr. Geisler gives principles you should use to determine what the Bible means by what it says.

The Bible: How Should We Interpret It?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome. How do we know that the Bible came from God? What’s the evidence? In the past five programs we’ve been presenting that evidence, and today we have an equally important question: “How Do We Interpret the Bible?” Dr. Geisler introduces this question. Listen:

Dr. Norman Geisler: The Bible: How should we interpret it? In the big chain from God to us we’ve discovered who wrote the Bible. Men of God inspired by God. Did they copy it accurately? Is anything missing? Are there any errors in it? Has it been translated cor­rectly? So we’ve got a Bible in our hand that is substantially the same as the original that was given by God that was infallible and inerrant.

Now the question is, How do we interpret it? We’ve got cults all over the place. We’ve got different denominations. Whose interpretation of the Bible is correct? The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the infallible interpreter of the Bible. Then we have all these fallible interpretations. How do we know what it really means? That’s the question we’re going to discuss in this program.

Ankerberg: Now, if the Bible is God’s Word, “How should we interpret the Bible?” Why do so many Christian denominations disagree? Many of you in our television audience have asked this question. Dr. Geisler received his Ph.D. in philosophy and is both a phi­losopher and a theologian, and is Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary. He has written two comprehensive books on this topic in which he answers this question in detail. I asked him to give us three simple principles to use when we read and interpret our Bible. Listen:

Geisler: Okay, let me lay down some simple principles to try and put the cookies on the bottom shelf here, because we could talk in scholarly language and everybody would be confused. Someone said the definition of a scholar is teaching something he doesn’t understand to people who don’t understand it either and that’s not funny. So I’ll try not to be a scholar here and put the cookies on the bottom shelf.

Number one: in the Bible the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.

Don’t worry about all the little details. Scholars will argue from now until Doomsday what the seven thunders uttered, who the rider on the red horse and the white horse is, which end of the Tribulation we’re coming out of. Don’t worry about those things. The main things are the plain things and the plain things and the main things. In other words, if you get scholars who have a good translation of the Bible, and most of them are, and they approach the Bible in the correct manner to try and find out what the author said–which I’ll speak about in a moment–they’ll all conclude that this is what the Bible teaches on those things. You can’t read the Bible and understand what the author meant and not come to a conclusion there’s a God, miracles are possible, Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus died on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus is coming again. Okay. So, the fundamentals are all there if we just keep this principle in mind: The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.

The second part of that principle is that if it’s not a main thing, it’s probably not a plain thing. But don’t worry about it. As Mark Twain said, and we quoted it in a previous pro­gram, “It’s not the part of the Bible I don’t understand that bothers me the most, it’s the part I do understand that bothers me the most.” So get hung up on the main things and the plain things.

Third, when you read the Bible or the newspaper or a magazine, you ought to keep one principle in mind. You don’t have to think of a hundred things. What did the author mean by it? It’s not, “What does it mean to me?” Not what I would like it to mean. But our obli­gation is to find out what the author meant.

Now, we’ve got a group of people today that–to use a ten dollar word–are called Deconstructionists. They’re trying to deconstruct the meaning of the Bible. They say the author is dead, the reader is alive. It doesn’t matter what the author said. What does the reader say?

Only one problem with those people. When you read their books, do you know what they want you to believe? They want you to understand what the author said. They don’t want you to put your meaning and read it into their writing, they want you to read their meaning out of their writing. They should treat the Bible and everybody should treat the Bible the same way. The author’s meaning is the true meaning, not what the reader wants it to mean.

Ankerberg: Now, when some people try to interpret the Bible, they will wrongly say, “Well, that’s what the Bible says but I don’t think that is what the author meant.” Dr. Geisler says such well intended people are just wrong. Listen:

Geisler: Many people say, “Well, get back at the purpose of the author. The purpose of the author is what it really means. The intention of the author.” And I would like to suggest that the purpose does not determine meaning. If I said to you, “Why don’t you come over to my house tonight?” Everybody understands the meaning of that. But do you know the purpose? Am I inviting you over to give you a million or to hit you for a million? Am I invit­ing you over for toast and tea or are we going to have prime rib? You don’t know the purpose. You can know the meaning of a statement without knowing the purpose. And the reason they say this, that you need to know the purpose of the Bible, is because they don’t believe the Bible is without error. They believe it intended to tell you the truth and some­times it doesn’t. Like if I drew you a map of how to get from Atlanta to New York and the main roads were all correct but some side roads were wrong and some misspelling on it and you’ve got to New York, according to these people who deny the inerrancy of the Bible, they would say, “Well, the intention was fulfilled. I got you from Atlanta to New York even though there were errors there.” The Bible is not like that. The Bible is not just a road map that gets you there, it doesn’t make any mistakes. God can’t err. The Bible is the Word of God, therefore the Bible can’t err.

So, we’re not looking for the purpose of the author behind the text, we’re looking for the affirmation or statements of the author in the text.

Ankerberg: Now, why is it that so many different Christians disagree about some simple statements in the Bible? I think it’s because you’ll hear some of them say, “I FEEL this is what the Bible is saying.” But when you look at the words in the Bible, they don’t seem to be saying that. I asked Dr. Geisler to talk about people who say, “This is what I FEEL the Bible is saying.” Listen:

Geisler: Let me talk about something else that you hear a lot of people say. “Well, I feel it means this.” And it doesn’t matter what you feel. It even doesn’t matter what you think. The question is, what did the text say? What did God mean? What did God through that writer affirm is true? Today we have a sea of experientialism that is fed by existentialism, and pragmatism, and mysticism and all of these various…pietism. And people are swim­ming in this sea, or better yet, they’re on a rudderless boat with no sail and no compass in the sea of experience and they’re interpreting everything by their experience. We should let the Bible be the interpreter of our experience. Our experience should not be the inter­preter of the Bible. So many people say, “Well, this feels right to me.” Suppose Ed McMahon knocked on your door and he said, “I’ve got $10 million for you.” How would you feel? Great! Suppose tomorrow he’s back and he says, “Oops! Right name, wrong per­son.” Now how do you feel? Terrible. Question: Which feeling is the best feeling? The one yesterday where you felt good but it wasn’t based in fact or the one today where you feel bad and it’s based in fact. I say the bad feeling based on truth is better than a good feeling based on error. Your feeling is not a good way to test for truth. Luke Skywalker said, “Stop thinking. Just feel the force flow” – in the Star Wars series. And in the last episode of that first one of Star Wars in the Star Wars series he drew on all of his training as a Jedi pilot, which was, “Don’t use your senses.” He had to pull a visor over his face to levitate things. Don’t trust your mind. He turned off the computer, because you can’t trust technology; he stopped thinking, he closed his eyes, and he felt the force flow. And do you know what’s wrong with that? Put yourself on a 747. You look out the window and there’s a dense fog. The P.A. comes on and the pilot says, “Now, we’re lost, we don’t know where we are but relax back there because up here in the cockpit I told the co-pilot to turn off the computer. I told everybody to close your eyes, stop thinking, and just feel the force flow.” In other words, we’re just about to crash and that’s exactly what’s wrong with our day. We’ve put feeling over fact. We’re reading our own meaning into the Bible on everything else rather than meaning what God wants us to know out of it.

Ankerberg: Now, when should we read the Bible literally and when should we read it allegorically or symbolically? That’s a great question. Listen:

Geisler: Here’s another rule of thumb to keep in mind. If the literal sense makes good sense, seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense. You’ve got all kinds of interpreta­tions of the Bible. Why? They’re not taking the literal meaning of the Bible. They’re taking allegorical meanings, or mystical meanings, or parabolic meanings and all kinds of crazy meanings. They’re looking “behind” the words instead of “in” the words. They’re looking beneath the words instead of in the words. They’re looking around the words instead of at the words. Look at the words! Get a text in context. Find out what it says and take the literal meaning, because if the literal sense makes good sense, seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense.

Now, that’s not to say that the Bible doesn’t use figures of speech. It does. Jesus said, “I am a vine.” The literal truth there was that we can literally tap into Him and get spiritual power for our life. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” But there’s a literal truth there. He is the sustenance for our life. He used figures of speech. The Bible uses metaphors but behind a metaphor is a literal truth. For example, God is a rock. Well, He’s not literally a rock but He’s solid. He’s stable. You can count on Him. If the literal sense makes good sense, don’t seek some other sense lest it result in nonsense. The literal sense can use figures of speech, can use similes, can use parables, but it’s conveying a literal truth and that’s the truth we want to get.

Ankerberg: Now, when you’re reading the Bible, where does the Holy Spirit come in? What do you say to people who say, “This is what the Holy Spirit told me this passage means, but the plain words don’t seem to support it.” Well, here again, we need some help. Listen:

Geisler: “Well, where does the Holy Spirit come in?” you may be saying. “After all, the Holy Spirit inspired this. Doesn’t He help us to interpret it?”

Yes. But remember one thing. The Spirit of God who wrote the Word of God doesn’t bypass the Word of God to get it to the people of God. So many people today are saying, “Oh, thank you, Lord, for this revelation from you.” And then they close by saying, “Now would you give me some new revelation.”

Do you know what I think God is saying? He’s saying, “How are you doing on the old one?”

“Oh, not too good, Lord.”

Well, He’s not going to give you any new revelation if you’re not even living up according to this revelation from God.

The second point to remember is not only does the Spirit of God not bypass the Word of God when He speaks to the people of God, but He doesn’t bypass our mind. Jonathan Edwards said it so beautifully: “God wants to reach the heart but He never bypasses the mind on the way to the heart.”

We have a whole generation that wants to bypass the mind. Shirley MacLaine says, “Put your left brain aside [that’s the rational part] and just use your right brain.” That’s the mystical or intuitive part. She said, “As a matter of fact, don’t think.” There’s a recipe for disaster, as I said in the Luke Skywalker illustration.

We have to remember that the God of reason who created reasonable people is not going to bypass our reason in order to reach us: “Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18). “Give a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). “What­ever things are true, think of these things” (Philippians 4). “Love the Lord with all your mind.” God doesn’t bypass the mind on the way to the heart. That’s why He wants us to, “Study to show ourselves approved unto God.” That’s why I spent the last 40 years of my life teaching at Christian colleges and seminaries so that we could get people to under­stand God’s truth then apply it to their lives. To get the Morocco leather of the Bible transformed into the shoe leather of human experience.

Ankerberg: Next, do we need an infallible interpreter to interpret the Bible correctly? That’s what the Roman Catholic Church says. Is that true? I’d like you to listen:

Geisler: There are many people out there who are saying, “Well, you need an infallible interpreter of the infallible Bible.” The Roman Catholic Church claims that very thing. That the Pope is infallible. The College of Cardinals with him can pronounce once and for all for all the Faithful infallible truths–to which I say, remember the following: If the Roman Catho­lic Church is an infallible interpreter of the Scripture, why have they made so many mis­takes? Why have they said things contrary to the Bible like, “You need faith plus works to be saved.” Romans 4:5 says, “But to him that works not but believes on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Why have they made so many mis­takes where Popes have actually held things that were heretical, that were against the faith, and a Pope has actually believed it and pronounced this? Why have they had two Popes at the same time, one condemning the other one, the other one condemning him back, if it was an infallible Church. Why have they made so many mistakes, like in Galileo and pronouncing that Galileo’s teaching was unorthodox and punishing him for believing what modern science had taught by looking through a telescope.

No. There are no infallible interpreters of the Bible. There are good interpretations and bad ones. There are adequate ones and inadequate ones. There are orthodox one and unorthodox ones. But there are no infallible interpreters of the Bible here on earth. God never gave any. He gave us only an infallible book, not infallible interpreters of it.

Ankerberg: When two Christians disagree over a certain topic, how do you determine who is right and who is wrong? I asked this question to Dr. Geisler. Here’s what he said:

Geisler: I met someone once who disagreed with me on a certain topic. We were dis­cussing it for a while and I decided we’d better get back to the basis of it. This was at a Bible conference in Muskegon, Michigan many years ago. I said, “Do you believe the Bible is infallible?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Well, good. Then we have a basis for our discussion. If my view is in accord with God’s infallible Word, then mine will be right. And if you’re opposing view is not, then yours would be wrong, and vice versa, right?” He agreed.

So I thought I’d ask him another question. “Do you have an infallible interpretation of the Bible?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Oops! I’m in trouble. I’ve got an infallible Bible but I don’t have infallible interpre­tations. I’ve been wrong at least three times on the sons of God in Genesis 6.” Some say angels, some say the line of Seth, some say great men of old, some say demon possessed people. I’ve held all four views over the last 40 years. I had to be wrong three times. I’m not infallible in my interpretation of the Bible.

So I thought, well, before we go on, I’d better ask him some more questions. He has an infallible Bible and an infallible interpretation of it. I said, “I’m taking to the Protestant Pope so let’s ask him two more.”

One: Is God infinite? Is He without limits? “Yes.”

He knows everything?


So God knows everything and He has given us an infallible Word. Last question: Do you have an infinite knowledge of the Infinite?

Sure enough, he said, “Yes.”

I said, I’m not talking to the Protestant Pope, I’m talking to God. He has an infallible interpretation of the infallible, and an infinite understanding of the infinite. I’m sorry, friends, I have a fallible interpretation of the infallible and a finite understanding of the infinite: “Now I see through a glass darkly, then face to face.”

Ankerberg: Next, I asked Dr. Geisler, “Over the many years you have taught, what single question have your seminary students asked the most?” He said, “It’s how can I know the will of God?” Would you like to hear how he has answered that question? Listen:

Geisler: Probably one of the questions asked most of me over the 50 years that I’ve been serving the Lord is, “How can I know the will of God?”

The answer is so simple people miss it. You don’t have to be going through the geogra­phy room, stumble over the globe, and your nose hit Ecuador to know you have to go to Equador. You don’t have to have a brick fall off a building and hit you on the head with a little note tied on it, saying, “Go to Bongo Bongo” to know what to do. The will of God, listen to this, is the Word of God–nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. If He wrote it, if it’s inspired, if it’s inerrant, then He wants us to live by it. “The entrance of thy word giveth light,” the Psalmist said. “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

Probably the most powerful missionary message I ever heard when I was a student in Bible college. The young man said, “I’ve been a missionary for 14 years and I was never called.”

And I was a little shocked. I said, “Never called?”

I’ve heard of people called and didn’t go, like Jonah. This guy went and wasn’t called.

Then he paused and said this. “I was a missionary for 14 years and I was never called. I was just commanded like the rest of you.”

I’ll never forget that. Never called, just commanded. The commands are here. God has made them very clear. The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. It’s our obligation to do what Jesus so often said to the religious people of His day: “Have you never read….have you never read.”

Ankerberg: Now, here is an interesting and serious question many people ask. Do new revelations come to certain people from God today? I asked this question of Dr. Geisler and here’s what he said:

Geisler: Another question a lot of people ask is, “Are there new revelations coming from God?”

People claim it, but look at what happens. We had the Kansas City Prophets who claimed to be prophets. What happened. False prophecy.

Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet. What happened? False prophecy and teachings contrary to the Bible.

We had David Wilkerson saying he was getting revelations from God in his book, The Vision. And he said one third of the United States will be a disaster area with an earth­quake within a few years. That was almost 20 years ago. Never happened.

So what happens? What happens is, it undermines the Bible and it undermines the credibility of the person.

The Bible: Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. There aren’t any new revelations, there is just God’s complete old revelation.

Well, how do I know whom I should marry? What school I would go to? The Bible doesn’t say, “Go to X college” or “Y seminary.”

Draw three circles. One circle is the Bible. Another overlapping circle is your gifts. Another overlapping circle is your circumstances. Where all three of those circles overlap, that’s the will of God.

Why is the will of God different for me? Not because the Bible is different. I have differ­ent gifts than you do. Why is the will of God different for someone with the same gifts? Because they have different circumstances. The specific will of God is where those three circles overlap: God’s Word, your gifts, and your circumstances. The general will of God is found in the Scriptures, but unless it’s inside of that circle of Scripture where your gifts and your circumstances overlap and in accordance with the Word of God, it’s not the will of God for you.

Check in the Theological Dictionary section for four articles by Dr. Geisler on “Alleged Errors in the Bible.” (August and September 2000)

This article is part of the transcript for our series “Is The Bible Unique or Just Another Religious Book?” Check our catalog for the complete series which is available in video, audio and transcript formats.

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