SHELBYVILLE, Ky. – Any seasoned attendee of Bible studies knows the scene all too well. The group reads a scripture passage. Then the leader asks, “What does this passage mean to you?” only to receive a collection of answers that are varied, whacky, and even contradictory. Finally, the leader brings discussion to a polite conclusion by saying something like, “The Bible is so rich that it can mean something different to each one of us.” But is that true?
Well, it depends. If the leader means simply that a biblical principle (like “love your neighbor as yourself”) has different applications to each person, then yes, it is true. One person in the group might need to love his boss, another his son, and another her husband. The ways we can apply scripture to our lives are myriad. Yet that’s not what many well-intentioned Bible study leaders mean when they say the Bible means different things to different people. They mean that different readers of the same passage are justified in drawing vastly different theological principles from the text. And that’s a problem.
For example, I have been told by theology professors that in John 20:28, the Apostle John was affirming the deity of Jesus by recording Thomas’s exclamation to the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God!” But Jehovah’s Witnesses who once knocked on my door took the verse very differently. They told me it doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ being divine; it’s just an instance of a bewildered Thomas taking the Lord’s name in vain. So who’s right? My theology professors and these visitors to my house cannot both be correct. Who determines what a Bible passage means?
The obvious, but often overlooked, answer is … the author. Like any other written document, a Bible book means what its author intended and not something that contradicts what its author meant to say. When you write a check for $100, the banker cannot decide that it means he should take $200 out of your account. When you write an email telling someone to meet you at 10 a.m., the recipient should not decide that the email means he should meet you at 4 p.m. In all ordinary writing, we assume that a document means what its author intended to communicate.
Turning to the Bible specifically, that’s how the apostles meant for us to interpret both the Old and New Testaments – according to the human author’s intentions. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter rebukes those who twist Paul’s letters to distort his intended meaning. In Philemon 21, Paul expresses confidence that Philemon will understand what he means in the letter. And in Acts 8:34, an Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip to explain what the prophet Isaiah meant when he wrote Isaiah 53:7-8. For the apostles, it wasn’t the reader who determined meaning, but the author.
Of course, there were times when the Holy Spirit inspired a biblical author to write something with implications beyond what he understood – particularly when Old Testament authors prophesied about Christ. But those implications never contradicted the author’s intended meaning. God revealed His Word using human authors who consciously communicated specific principles.
As you can see, this has major implications for the way we study our Bibles. Rather than asking, “What does this verse mean to you?” Christian Bible studies should first ask, “What did this verse mean to its author?” Contrary to what some claim, it is not an unanswerable question. By studying the language, grammar, context and other elements of any passage – by doing the hard work of Bible study – we can answer this question. And by answering it, we’re in a position to let God’s truth transform our lives. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door had answered this question, it might not only have changed their beliefs about Christ’s deity, but their entire lives as well.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article first appeared at Bible Mesh, an online discipleship resource to help people from all backgrounds grow in their knowledge of the Bible and how it applies to all of life. David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky.)