Understanding the Bible in Modern Times

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  May 4, 2013

             The Bible is the word of God. As such, it remains the foundational document of faith that supports and defines the Christian faith. As Christians, we understand the importance of applying the truths of Scripture to our life, faith, and worship. We recognize the stories, myths, doctrines, histories, proclamations, and statements of faith contained within the Bible have relevance and should be understood by God’s people. Yet, we rarely agree on just how that is to be done.

            There are three general challenges regarding modern application and interpretation of scripture. While it would be easier if different Christian traditions were in total agreement on how these challenges were to be addressed, the fact is clear—we do not. This conflict between scriptural interpretations across the broad spectrum of Christian traditions does not invalidate Christianity or the Bible, rather it strengthens it.

            First, all scripture is contextual. Any time we lift a passage of scripture out of its literary, cultural, or historical context, there is a great possibility that we unwittingly strip away a part of its actual meaning. Students of scripture take seriously the fact that understanding and appreciating the setting in which the original story took place is critical in interpreting the meaning for modern times.

            Second, scripture has been transmitted by human minds for hundreds of generations. There is no known original manuscript of scripture. What we do have are very old copies of copies. Scholars of these ancient documents have found several discrepancies and subtle changes to the wording as new copies were generated or text was translated from one language to another.

            Third, scripture was written without any comprehension of how 21st Century language, culture, and knowledge would read it. This reality does not invalidate any part of the sacred Word, but it does mean modern interpreters of scripture must recognize that assumptions and institutions today are vastly different from when Scripture was first written.

            Today, when Scripture is read, studied, and preached, these three factors have a tremendous impact on how individuals may finally interpret, understand, and apply the sacred truths to modern life. Consequently, it is expected that we will frequently have different understandings of how scripture is interpreted. This explains, at least in part, why two different churches will celebrate such diverse applications of God’s Word.

            Of course, this creates an additional quandary for believers and non-believers alike. If two faithful Christians both read the same Bible and each come up with a fundamentally different (even opposite) interpretation, what is a Christian to believe?

            There is no easy answer. This is where the shared witness of the community of faith is so vital. Any time singular authorities proclaim an absolute, unquestionable, and once-and-for-all dogmatic application of a specific passage of scripture, the shared witness and Spirit-filled faith of the gathered community of believers is compromised. In the opposite extreme, anytime the church writes off Scripture as irrelevant because interpretations are too suspect and influenced by subjective interpretation, the vital importance of God’s sacred Word is compromised.

            What is needed when it comes to the Bible is not absolute clarity when it comes to scriptural interpretation. In fact, it is just the opposite. Christians do best when we are prayerfully engaged in faithful, critical, honest, and shared study of scripture.