Biblical Interpretation & Translation:
Definition of Terms:
- Biblical exegesis: an explanation or interpretation of particular Bible verses
- Perspicuity of Scripture: Protestant belief in the clarity of Scripture as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith; “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them”.
The process of Biblical exegesis is complex and can involve various methods. One primary difficulty is due to the fact that the Bible is not a single book, but rather a collection of books that were written by many different authors over the course of hundreds of years. Some books, such as Isaiah, seem to have been written by two or three authors from different time periods. To further complicate the matter, there is a wide range of differences between the historical and cultural context, language, literary style, and theological themes used by each individual author. Therefore, in order to better understand the meaning behind certain texts, scholars have attempted to employ many different methods of exegesis, some of which have been debatable amongst theologians. This article will look at two of those approaches that have gained widespread attention; the Fundamentalist approach and the Catholic approach.
Fundamentalism is a movement within Christianity that can be traced back to the late 19th century, starting among conservative Presbyterian theologians such as Charles Hodge at the Princeton Theological Seminary. By the 1920’s, it had spread to conservatives among the Baptist, Methodist, and other denominations. The movement’s purpose was to reaffirm key theological tenets and defend them against the challenges of liberal theology and higher criticism. It put special emphasis on the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, perspicuity, historical accuracy, and literal interpretation of the Bible. The movement gained momentum throughy the publications of twelve pamphlets known as “The Fundamentals” by brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart as well as a legal battle in the 1920’s over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools known as the Scopes Trial. Historian George Marsden defined fundamentalism as “militantly anti-modernist Protestant evangelicalism” in his 1980 work Fundamentalism and American Culture. Fundamentalism arose from a variety of factors including influence from Scottish and English Enlightenment and a general reaction to the perceived threats of theological liberalism, cultural modernism, and the higher critical method. Factors included;
1. Modernism and Secularism: As the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of scientific advancements, industrialization, and increasing secularization, many conservative Christians felt threatened by what they perceived as a departure from traditional religious values.
2. Evolution and Creationism: The theory of evolution, particularly in its association with Charles Darwin, became a central point of contention for many fundamentalists. They rejected the idea of human evolution and insisted on a literal interpretation of the biblical account of creation.
3. Theological Challenges: As liberal theology, through the use of the higher critical method, began to reinterpret Christian doctrines in light of advancing scientific and archeological breakthroughs, Fundamentalists sought to defend what they believed to be the “traditional” literal interpretation of the Bible in a strictly wooden sense.
4. Social and Cultural Changes: Fundamentalists often felt a sense of cultural displacement and sought to preserve traditional values, including opposition to social changes such as women’s suffrage, changing gender roles, and increasing secular influence in society. They saw themselves as defenders of moral and social conservatism.
5. Influence of the Baconian scientific method: Developed by English scientist Francis Bacon, the Baconian scientific method involved collecting and classifying facts, ideally without interpretation or preconceived notions, then analyzing the data to draw empirical conclusions. Fundamentalists applied this to the Bible by gathering verses on a given topic into a composite list of facts or factual-seeming statements, whose meaning is taken to be clear without additional information and then presented with a conclusion that is taken to be obvious. This often resulted in conclusions that seemed completely disconnected from the dozens of unrelated verses that mentioned the subject matter.
6. Influence of Common Sense Realism: Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense, taught that the world that we experience is the world that exists. Because of this direct knowledge, if sane, unprejudiced people have the same set of facts, they will all come to the same conclusions about those facts by using their common sense. This led to the idea of Bible Perspicuity; that the Bible is clearly expressed and understandable to ordinary readers without specialized knowledge due to common sense and the indwelling Holy Spirit.
7. Dispensationalism and End Times Theology: Some strands of Christian Fundamentalism were influenced by dispensationalist theology, which was an End-Times theology first developed by John Nelson Darby, spread by the Plymouth Brethren movement, and made popular by the Scofield Reference Bible. It interprets the Bible in a framework of distinct dispensations or eras and emphasizes the literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, the imminent return of Christ, the Rapture, the restoration of Israel, and the end times.
First, the Bible clearly teaches that Scripture is not easily understood and that the common reader should not approach it without some instruction. It even confirms that there is a wrong way to read Scripture;
“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.” – 2 Peter 1:20
“There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” -2 Peter 3:16
In addition to these passages, when Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), Peter asks Him to explain the parable’s meaning (vv. 36-43). On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walks with two of his disciples and, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Scripture did not interpret itself to the disciples, but rather Jesus interpreted it. Similarly, when St. Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to an Ethiopian eunuch; “So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31). The Eunuch sought Philip’s aid in understanding Scripture. Modern day “Biblical scholarship” and the extreme variations in Biblical interpretations is a testament to the falsity of Biblical perspicuity.
Second, Scripture would also seem to indicate that a strictly literal interpretation may not be the best method for interpreting Scripture. Saint Paul, who used to read Scripture literally before his conversion when it came to commandments like stoning Sabbath breakers (Exodus 31:14-15, Numbers 15:32-36), now states that it is the Spirit that gives life while the letter leads to death;
“Who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” -2 Corinthians 3:6
An example of when Jesus Himself did not interpret the Old Testament literally, but rather relativized it, is when the Pharisees asked Jesus why Moses allowed divorce, which they believed to be the law given to Moses directly by God (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), Jesus says to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:1-8). Another example of Christ not interpreting the Old Testament literally is his interpretation of Malachi 4:5-6 which predicts the return of Elijah. When the disciples ask Jesus about this, however, He states that the prophecy had been fulfilled by John the Baptist (Matt 17:10-13). This is an example of Typology, which is a form of allegory.
In Judaism, bible hermeneutics notably uses midrash, a Jewish method of interpreting the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish Kabbalah, there four meanings of the biblical texts; literal, allusive, allegorical, and mystical. The early Christians inherited from late Judaism this tradition of seeing allegorical meanings in the pages of Scripture (seeing meanings that went beyond what the words of the text themselves conveyed). Church Father Origen of Alexandria presented 3 senses in which the Bible could be interpreted; literal, moral, and spiritual. Augustine of Hippo would later develop the doctrine which became the four senses of Scripture;
1. Literal Sense: This sense focuses on the straightforward and historical meaning of the text. It seeks to understand the intended message as it was originally written.
2. Allegorical Sense: The allegorical sense seeks to find symbolic or hidden meanings in the text. It looks for connections between the events or characters in the Bible and broader theological or spiritual truths.
3. Moral Sense: This sense explores the ethical or moral teachings found in the biblical text. It seeks to apply the lessons and principles conveyed by the Scriptures to one’s own life and conduct.
4. Anagogical Sense: The anagogical sense deals with the spiritual or future implications of the text. It looks beyond the immediate context and explores the text’s ultimate significance in terms of salvation or eschatology.
The Catholic Church has continued to uphold that there are multiple layers at which the Bible can be read and has continued to use the “4 senses of Scripture” method when interpreting Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 115–119) provides this brief overview:
“According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses” (CCC 115)
Catholics continue to be free to interpret the Bible however they want as long as it does not contradict dogma. Because Catholics are constrained within the limits of Sacred Tradition and the Teaching Magisterium, there is no fear of individual interpretation “going off the rails.” This was an obvious fear of early 20th century Fundamentalists as they tackled the problem of Liberal Theology because they recognized that Scripture could be interpreted to mean any number of things. Without an authority to determine how a certain text should or should not be interpreted, each individual becomes their own authority, leading to different opinions on how a text should be interpreted. Whether one interprets a verse as literal or metaphorical can have vast ramifications on one’s theology.
Translating the Bible:
We are all prone to confirmation bias and can, at times, read into the text preconceived notions rather than drawing from the text. Differences in interpretation have led groups to conclude multiple contradictory beliefs, such as whether or not creation took a literal six days, or if baptism is essential to salvation, or whether baptism should be given to infants, and whether or not salvation can be lost, or will there be a Rapture, and what part works play in our salvation, and whether Christ is truly present in communion and, if so, to what degree, and even whether or not Christ is divine, which in turn has led to the uncontrolled fracturing we see in Christianity today.
Reading preconceived notions into the text has led even good intentioned Christians to produce faulty translations of the Bible in order to support their theological views. Most Christians would agree that we ought to draw from the words of the Bible rather than reading our own bias into the words of the Bible. For example, some Protestants complain that the Revised Standard Version translation of Luke 1:28, where it calls Mary “full of grace”, has a Catholic bias (even though this translation was the result of a committee of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America). They fail, however, to recognize the Church’s complaints when it comes to traditional Protestant translations such as Luther’s Bible, where he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 or Tyndale’s Bible, where he purposely mistranslated words such as “love” rather than “charity”, and “congregation” rather than “church” (Greek ekklesia).
Another example is the NIV Bible, where the word paradosis is translated as “tradition” in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, but then is translated as teachings in Thessalonians 2:15 so that it reads: “stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you,” instead of traditions. The NIV also translates the Greek word ergon as “work” in Romans 4:2 -“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works (ergon), he had something to boast about—but not before God,” -where it’s used to reinforce the Protestant doctrine of “faith alone”, but it’s translated differently when it would serve Catholic doctrine, such as in Romans 2:6-7 where it’s translated: “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done (erga).’ To those who by persistence in doing (ergou) good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” If these erg- derivatives were translated consistently as “work” then it would be clear that the passage says God will judge “every person according to his works” and will give eternal life to those who seek immortality “by persistence in working good”.
Protestants and Catholics find common ground, however, when it comes to the Watchtower’s New World Translation, which is often translated in a way to deny the divinity of Christ. For example, John 1:1 in the NWT reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god,” compared to the King James Version (KJV): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It goes on to render John 8:58: “Jesus said to them: ‘Most truly I say to you, before Abraham came into existence, I have been.’ Whereas the KJV: “Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” Here, Jesus harks back to Exodus 3 where God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush as I AM.”
It is for these reasons that the Catholic Church claims the right to not only interpret Scripture, but also to authorize any translations. It is the Church’s book; written, collected and preserved by the Church, handed down faithfully through the Church’s Tradition and maintained by it’s authority via Apostolic Succession. The Church, therefore, has the right to safeguard its content and uphold its original interpretation.
The Historical Biblical Interpretation:
Martin Luther (1483-1546), Father of the Protestant Reformation & Founder of Lutheranism
“We are obliged to yield many things to the papists (i.e. Catholics)—that they possess the Word of God which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing at all about it.” -Commentary on St. John (Chapter 16).
Thomas Cranmer, Protestant Reformer & ArchBishop of Canterbury
“The Holy Bible was translated and read in the Saxon tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof their remaineth yet divers copies found in old abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking that few men now be able to read and understand them. When this language waxed old and out of common use, because folks should not lack the the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.”. -“Preface to The Great Bible of 1539
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), Lord High Chancellor of England
“The whole Bible long before Wycliff’s day was by virtuous and well learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read.” –Dialogues III
“The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as be already reproved for naught as Wycliff’s was. For, as for old ones that were before Wycliff’s days, they remain lawful and be in some folks’ hand. I myself have seen, and can show you, Bibles, fair and old, which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the diocese, and left in laymen’s hands and women’s too.” –Dialogues III by Sir Thomas More
Non-Catholic Biblical Scholars:
Alister E. McGrath, Calvinist Historian
“Luther and Zwingli were unable to agree on the meaning of such phrases as “this is my body” (which Luther interpreted literally and Zwingli metaphorically) and “at the right hand of God” (which—with apparent inconsistency on both sides—Luther interpreted metaphorically and Zwingli literally). The exegetical optimism of the early Reformation may be regarded as foundering on this rock: Scripture, it seemed, was far from easy to interpret.” –Reformation Thought: An Introduction. Fourth Edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
John Henry Blunt, Anglican cleric & historian.
“But as of the earlier period, so of this, there are none but fragmentary remains, the ‘many copies’ which remained when Cranmer wrote in 1540 having doubtless disappeared in the vast and ruthless destruction of libraries which took place within the few years after the date.” -History of the English Reformation (1868).
Brooke Foss Wescott, Bishop of Durham
“In order to appreciate the apostolic age in its essential character, it is necessary to dismiss not only the ideas which are drawn from a collected New Testament, but those also, in a great measure, which spring from the several groups of writings of which it is composed. The first work of the Apostles, and that out of which all their other functions grew, was to deliver in living words a personal testimony to the cardinal facts of the gospel- the ministry, the death, and the Resurrection of the Lord. It was only in the course of time, and under the influence of external circumstances, that they committed their testimony, or any part of it, to writing. Their peculiar duty was to preach.” -The Bible in the Church (1864) pg. 53.
“The Apostles, when they speak, claim to speak with divine authority, but they nowhere profess to give in writing a system of Christian doctrine. Gospels and epistles, with the exception perhaps of the writings of John, were called out by special circumstances. There is no trace of any designed connection between the separate books, except in the case of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, still less of any outward unity or completeness in the entire collection. On the contrary, it is not unlikely that some of the epistles of Paul have been lost, and any completeness is due not to any conscious cooperation of the authors, but to the will of Him by whose power they wrote and wrought.” –The Bible in the Church (1864).
Dr. James Gairdner (1828-1912), British archivist & historian
“The truth is the Church of Rome was not at all opposed to the making of translations of Scriptures or to placing them into the hands of the laity under what were deemed proper precautions. It was only judged necessary to see that no unauthorized or corrupt translations got abroad; and even in this matter it would seem the authorities were not roused to special vigilance till they took alarm at the diffusion of Wycliffite translations in the generation after his death.” –Lollardy and the Reformation in England (1908).
John Read Dore, Anglican historian.
“(On Wycliff’s translation of the Bible), The authorities of the English Church took into consideration the desirability of introducing a vernacular Bible into England, and the great majority of the Council were of the opinion that, considering the religious troubles on the continent and the unsettled state of things at home, at this juncture the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue, and its circulation among the people, would rather tend to confusion and distraction than to edification…. there was no anxiety whatever for an English version excepting among a small minority … the universal desire for a Bible in England that we read so much about in most works on the subject existed only in the imagination of the writers.” –Old Bibles: an account of the early versions English Bible. (1888)
David Price & Charles Ryrie
“Unquestionably, anti-Catholic outbursts are sufficiently numerous to make a strong impression on any reader.” -Let It Go Among Our People: An Illustrated History of the English Bible from John Wyclif to the King James Version (2004)
Bruce M. Metzger
“flagrant errors in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses… the system taught by the sect, while liberally buttressed with Scriptural quotations, teems with erroneous and heretical notions. These are of two main varieties. On the one hand, the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although making a pretense of being “all the Bible and nothing but the Bible,” is absolutely silent on several of the most central facets of the Christian Faith… On the other hand, the second main variety of errors in the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses arises not from a minimizing or exclusion of part of the Biblical teaching, but rather from a one-sided emphasis upon certain Scriptural passages, interpreted in a purely wooden fashion without taking into account the context or the analogy of faith. By thus joining together portions of Scripture which were never intended to go together it is possible, of course, to prove anything from the Bible… The whole approach should be that the Bible, properly understood, and the historic Christian faith offer far more than does the distorted and aberrant teaching of Pastor Russell and his followers.” -‘THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES AND JESUS CHRIST: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal’ by Bruce M. Metzger in Theology Today 10/1 (April 1953), pp. 65-85.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses regard The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures as “an accurate, easy-to-read translation of the Bible”. What many don’t realize is that four of the five men on the translation committee producing the complete 1961 edition had no Hebrew or Greek training whatsoever… The fifth, who claimed to know both languages, failed a simple Hebrew test while under oath in a Scottish court… What all this means is that the Watch Tower’s official version of the Bible is “an incredibly biased translation,” –Reasoning from the Scriptures with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
H.H. Rowley, British Scholar:
(on the New World Translation): “a shining example of how the Bible should not be translated… an insult to the Word of God.”