Some have said there are 30,000 Protestant denominations in the world. That’s a staggering number! Why so many? In short, it’s mainly due to their different doctrinal beliefs. What’s even more alarming to the average church-going Christian is that all the denominations claim to have the same Source from which they form their doctrinal standards. How is it possible for one particular denomination to employ the same Bible as the other and yet, in reality, be doctrinally separate and distinct from one another? Here are 5 explanations that will help you understand why there are so many different interpretations of the Bible:
To put another way, lost people (i.e., unbelievers) cannot interpret the Bible correctly because they are “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1; Colossians 2:13), spiritually blind (2 Corinthians 4:4), and the things of God are “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). We have to keep in mind that a truly unregenerate mind cannot understand Scripture. This is the biggest reason why there are so many different interpretations, so many theologies, so many ideas, so many opinions, and so many theological systems in “Christendom.” A spiritually undiscerning, dead, and blind man cannot even begin to rightly handle a living, inspired Book.
Therefore, if that is the case, we cannot expect there to be any like-mindedness or agreement among actual Bible-believing Christians and people who only say they “believe the Bible.” Example: prior to my conversion at the ripe young age of 22, I would have given intellectual assent to the Bible all day long. I would’ve dogmatically stated that Jesus is God and Savior. I even would’ve called myself a sinner. After all, “nobody’s perfect, right?” I thought. But it wasn’t until I was born again did I understand what it really meant to be a sinner in the sight of God. It wasn’t until I was spiritually alive did I really grasp the gravitas of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Interpreting the Bible is hard work. In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul commanded pastor Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” That verb translated “Be diligent” in the NASB is the Greek word spoudázō which means “to give maximum effort.” So, any Christian handling God’s Word while attempting to come to a theological conclusion must give his best effort.
This means taking time wrestling with the text, reading and re-reading it in its narrow and broad context, asking the who? what? why? where? and how? questions along with the other several key factors that go into interpreting the Bible correctly. One has to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and political background. If you’ve ever had to stand up and teach or preach, you know just how daunting it is to stand in front a group of people and declare, “Thus says the Lord.” Interpreting the Bible is serious business and demands maximum effort. Bible study is not for lazy people.
It’s sad to see countless Christians spend endless hours working, playing games, reading books, or watching TV but spend a fraction of the time in deep, focused Bible study. James 3:1 should be a verse in the mind of everyone, not just public teachers, because every Christian in some way at some time will communicate God’s truth.
Everyone faces the battle of bringing his own personal bias to the text of Scripture. To one degree or another, most of us have been guilty of this. Our biasness can be theological, cultural, or traditional. It’s too easy to interpret the Bible based on our favorite systematic theology or ecclesiastical tradition. Many who are brought up in or have aligned themselves with a denomination that’s reformed or confessional must be careful to interpret the Bible completely divorced from creeds and historic confessions. They have their value, but if a creed is true it’s because it’s biblical not simply because it is creedal.
The job of a preacher/teacher is to proclaim the Word, not the Westminster Confession of Faith. On the flip side, many who grew up in or have aligned themselves with a denomination where passionate feelings and ecstatic experiences are elevated and emphasized need to be extra cautious to check fickle human emotion and subjective, unverifiable empiricism at the door of the study. The goal of sound exegesis is to only take out of the text what the original author intended. We become eisegetes when we allow our personal biasness to influence our biblical interpretation.
4. Personal Rebellion
Some people, due to pride or worldly pressure, attempt to find “fresh and culturally relevant” ways to deal with the hard and unpopular truths contained in the Bible. There are a plethora of examples. One of the most common, incessant discussions heard among Evangelicals is the issue of women in ministry.
In our age, it’s ludicrous to say that women are limited in what they can do, especially if they are willing and able. Our culture is so vehemently against having different gender roles that “Christendom” is succumbing to a universal form of vitriolic egalitarianism (the idea that men and women are equal in roles). The effect? A sound, reasonable, exegetical interpretation of passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not even part of the discussion anymore. The mere mention of gender roles solicits strong disagreement at best or a visceral retaliation at worst. Sadly, I’ve seen both — from professing Christians. When one comes to a doctrinal position completely dissociated from the Bible, it’s nothing but pure rebellion to the clarity and submission to the authority of the Scripture.
The rules and principles one uses to come to a biblical interpretation plays an indubitably significant impact in one’s understanding of everything revealed in Scripture. How wooden-literally do you take the Bible? How figuratively? Allegorically? Do you think the original language is important? What about the syntax (the structure of the text) and semantics (the range of meaning of a word)? What do you do with idioms and strange symbols? Have you considered the genre? How do you view prophesy? Already fulfilled, being fulfilled, or going to be fulfilled? What about the covenants? How many are there? How many are still binding?
All of these questions, just to present several, are answered according to your school of hermeneutics. I’m convinced that the most honest and sure way to arrive at the accurate interpretation of the Bible is what’s known as a “literal-grammatical-historical” hermeneutic. By “literal,” we mean we understand the Bible in its normal/plain meaning and shy away from over-spiritualizing the text when it should be taken literally. By “grammatical,” we mean we need to pay attention to the rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages. By “historical,” we mean we must understand the background and context of the passage.
One example of a differing doctrinal conclusion based on differing hermeneutics is the debate regarding the mode of baptism. The paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism) would say, “We baptize babies because it’s biblical.” The credobaptists (those who practice believer’s baptism) would say, “We baptize only those who have believed the Gospel and repented because it’s biblical.” How did each one arrive to an antithetical interpretation while citing the same Source? Answer: different hermeneutics. They’re really important.
These are 5 explanations that have addressed the question of “why are there so many different interpretations of the Bible?” Can you think of any more?