Light for our path: Church’s approach to biblical interpretation

Is there a simple answer why many mainline Christian denominations either remain silent or now actually officially teach morality contrary to Scripture?

James F. Pope

While there are certainly other contributing factors to the situation you describe, a simple answer can be found in a church’s approach to biblical interpretation.


The most common method of biblical interpretation for churches under the umbrella of Christianity is the historical-critical approach. This approach has two underlying premises: Any account in the Bible that contains supernatural content is fiction and not fact, and God did not inspire the writers of biblical books by giving them the exact words to write down.

Those who subscribe to this approach maintain that miracles recorded in the Bible are merely the reports of superstitious people with scant scientific information. They further assert that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the gospels that bear their names, but individuals who never knew Jesus personally and who lived decades after his earthly ministry penned the gospels.

The historical-grammatical method, on the other hand, takes a drastically different approach toward the Bible. It treats Scripture on its own terms: that all of it is truth (John 17:17), inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), and centers on Jesus Christ (John 5:39). The historical-grammatical method examines the words of Scripture in their historical context and seeks to understand and apply those words as they were originally intended—regardless of how unpopular the content might be today.


With this very brief background of biblical interpretation methods in mind, consider what I could do if I interpreted the Bible according to the historical-critical method. If I came across a Bible passage with moral content I did not like—whatever it happened to be—I could amend it in ways that appeared to be credible and legitimate for me today. I could ask, “Would it be loving to others to accept as truth and to implement in life what this passage is saying? Or would it be more loving to find a different meaning and application?” To some people, that could appear to be a sound and noble approach to biblical interpretation.

But you see what is happening, don’t you? People are approaching the Bible with their minds made up regarding what Scripture should and should not say. And, if Scripture does not agree with their opinions, then they believe they can—with self-asserted scholarship and stated sincerity—propose a meaning that lines up with their ideas.

Is that how biblical interpretation is to work? Isn’t it to be just the opposite? King David implored of the Lord: “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me” (Psalm 25:4,5). Proper biblical interpretation approaches God’s Word with a student-like attitude, seeking to be taught by God and to have him replace our ideas on subject matters—including morality—with his.

When that happens and we profess what the Bible says, we may find ourselves standing up for a message that is unpopular for some. Does that mean we change the message to make our lives easier or to attract people who have itching ear syndrome (2 Timothy 4:3)? Not at all. We hold to the Lord’s teachings (John 8:31) out of love for him and others.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm, Minnesota.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

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