Just Your Interpretation

There’s a quote that often ends discussion of Biblical interpretation. One party to the discussion will announce: “That’s just your interpretation.” Debate is supposed to stop. Everyone is supposed to realize that their view really has no advantage over anyone else’s, and just let the discussion die. One person with whom I correspond occasionally online will express his pleasure that I’m “getting it” whenever I talk about the subjective elements of Bible study, but then he becomes annoyed when I claim that particular interpretations can be excluded, or that one explanation is more probable than another.

I’m going to deal with this idea very briefly. There are elements here that can be discussed at length, and that can be very complex. But let me suggest that if you’re reading this essay, you probably think that in some way my words have meaning. There is something I intend to communicate, and you can extract at least some of that information from what I write. You may disagree with me completely, but doubtless you think I said something however inane, stupid, or even reprehensible you might think it is.

In Bible study, when someone suggests that a certain proposition is “just my interpretation” I will often ask them whether the verse is talking about pink elephants. My point? Simply that there is some interpretation that can be excluded. We can be quite certain that our text is not referencing pink elephants. Of course some might suggest that some passages in Revelation may just refer to pink elephants. But that is a completely different story. (For my own comments on understanding Revelation see my study guide, Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide.)

The difficulty in dealing with the “just your interpretation” charge is that there is considerable truth in it. Often conservative Christians react very strongly to this comment (and often they should do so), but it is easy when reacting strongly to miss the truth. Any interpretation that I propose is my interpretation. Nobody else is to blame for it. Many people have given input, from my earliest teachers in religious education to people I conversed with yesterday, but they are not to blame for what I have accepted and what I have rejected. It is my interpretation. It is a mistake not to acknowledge that. The person who objects to my interpretation also has a right, in my view, to object to that interpretation, but not because it is my interpreation. He should object because there is some problem with it, that he has found some reason to hold a different opinion. That would acknowledge that there is some meaning (or meanings) intended by the author of the passage, and other meanings are unlikely or excluded. (Note that I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of certain post-modern approaches here in any detail. Suffice it to say that I do believe that authors intend their text to mean something, and that I believe that the communication of that message to those who receive it has a significant value.)

For many, the problem with understanding texts is that they think of understanding and communication as essentially binary: Either you understand or you don’t; you communicate or you don’t. The one who says “That’s just your interpretation” is focusing on the failures; the one who affirms an absolute and correct interpretation is focusing on the successes.

But in real life, we don’t deal with this kind of absolute rightness or wrongness. I attempt to communicate regularly with my wife, and we are substantially successful. Sometimes, however, we are less than successful. When we encounter failure in communication, we don’t give up and decide not to bother to communicate any more. Instead, we live with partial success. The result is neither perfect, nor is it a failure.

Readers of this essay will understand it, some better than others. If someone misunderstands a portion of it, I won’t give up and decide that publishing essays of this nature is useless; I expect that some people will misunderstand. Based on e-mails I get, especially in response to material I post on Bible translation, I suspect that some people’s misunderstanding is even intentional. Sometimes when I read my own material a few weeks later, I wonder how it was that I successfully communicated anything at all! The results are considerably less than perfect, but nonetheless they serve a purpose.

In Bible study, the problem is made worse by the complexity of some interpretation problems. Despite the impression one gets from public debate, there is much about the Bible that a broad range of scholars can agree on. In general, the historical meaning, the meaning intended by the original author for his original audience, produces the best consensus. This does not by any means suggests that everyone agrees on everything at this level; I’m simply saying that the agreement is much broader than is often thought. When interpretation gets closer to application, what a piece of scripture means in our daily lives, the differences are much greater. Application is impacted by one’s theology which involves one’s tradition or the tradition of one’s church. Some students of scripture do not believe that there is any real applicability beyond that of any ordinary piece of literature, while others believe that scriptural commands can be almost directly applied to one’s daily life.

The elements that go into this sort of application are much more subjective than those that go into the historical understanding. Nonetheless they are not totally obscure, and they can be examined. In fact, many heated arguments about scripture occur simply because one person doesn’t bother to check the basic assumptions of the other. When I get into a discussion, or heaven forbid, an argument, I frequently ask just how one goes about applying scripture. What do they think the process involves? Sometimes folks claim that they really aren’t interpreting; they’re just doing what the Bible says. But that is the opposite of “just your interpretation;” it suggests that someone has perfect understanding of scripture. Usually you will find in discussion that there is, in fact, a considerable amount of unacknowledged interpretation going on.

In discussions of scriptural interpreation, there is great value in examining the process. It’s not nitpicking, wasting time, or trying to put the other person down. In fact, it can often bring understanding from otherwise heated debates.


  • It is your interpretation
  • Each writer and speaker means something
  • Communication doesn’t have to be perfect to be adequate
  • Examining your process of interpretation and application can result in improved understanding, even if not in agreement

For more on my own view of interpretation see: Understanding the Participatory Study Method.

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One Comment

  1. Nice post. I was frustrated recently to hear a mis-telling of the Parable of the Talents in a UU church. I posted on it here: http://arbitrarymarks.blogspot.com/2005/10/interpretation-of-talents.html

    Parables seem like aphorisms or fables, so people tend to think they’re able to be pushed into whatever symbolic framework they want. Problem is, the speaker (Jesus) has provided his own decoding key, and it’s not too terribly difficult to see where he’s headed.

    I think that your distinction between application and interpretation fits into this trouble in particular… applying the Parable of the Elder Brother (or Prodigal Son) means interpreting, within the given key, where you fit in, and how you should act… that part isn’t given, so there is room for disagreement.

    Thanks for the post, as always…

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