March 5, 2011 in Features

Interpreting the Bible takes more than words

Paul Graves

Interpreting the word of God can be more difficult when the words of the Bible get in our way.

Put another way: God’s word is so much more than words.

I began to realize that back in the mid-’80s after hearing theologian Charles McCoy make a good case for “God’s Word” meaning “God’s Faithful Action.”

I’ve tested that phrase out each time I read of “God’s Word” or “the Word,” as in John 1:1 and elsewhere.

I suspect McCoy’s term was based on the ancient Jewish understanding that a word was more than a sound expressing an idea; a word actually did things.

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with “God said…” and, as a result, creation happened, or “God spoke…” and someone was healed, or some other action occurred.

I belabor this only to illustrate that when we read the words of the Bible, we should not assume those words have no more meaning than the meaning we bring to them. If we don’t have even a clue as to what the words meant when the stories were told way back then, we don’t have the fuller story.

Every time we read something in the Bible, we are interpreting those words based on a variety of things.

I get the feeling from some people that when they use the phrase “the word of God,” that is code language that says “this is the only way to interpret these biblical words, because they are the word of God.”

Friends, if you are prone to doing that, take a breath. Give yourself a long moment to realize that God’s word is so much more than the words you read in the Bible.

Interpreting the Bible is easy – as long as you forget the Bible wasn’t written just for you, in this precise moment.

There is so much more to interpreting the Bible than we usually take time to consider. We can quickly do ourselves or someone else harm by quoting a biblical passage out of its original historical context.

Too, remember we bring a variety of images of God to our reading of “God’s word.” We can read about a “God of judgment,” and then read Jesus’ words, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” One extreme or the other may fight with our own primary image of God.

None of us is consistent in how we interpret the Bible. I am far from a “biblical literalist,” but I believe many passages are more accurate when taken literally.

Yet I know many “literalists” who cringe at what it would mean if we took every word literally in the “Holiness Code” of purity in Leviticus 17-26, from “do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” to “do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.”

“Selective literalism” is a game we all play.

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we need to remember at least three things:

• Biblical truth is so often much more than facts (or imagined facts).

• When we settle only for the literal “truth” we choose to see in the biblical words, we miss so much of the mystery and meaning that live beneath those words.

• The third thing to remember may be the most difficult for many of us: No one has the right to claim he/she knows “the only truth” when it comes to biblical interpretation.

I know that flies in the face of many people’s self-perception. But how we use biblical words can hurt, or they can heal. Jesus used words to heal.

We must treat ourselves and each other with more graciousness when it comes to interpreting the Bible – if we believe Jesus really is God’s “Faithful Action” who fleshed out God’s Radical Hospitality.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is founder of Elder Advocates, an elder care consulting ministry. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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