“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
2 Peter 1:20-21.
I was asked recently “Is okay to interpret the passages in the Bible how you see fit?” I felt confident in answering—“most people do.” To be fair and for the sake of discussion here—that is not an answer to the question. The question is not do people interpret the Bible as they choose, but is it okay to do so. Ah, there’s the rub!
Does “okay” mean permissible? That is, do I have permission to interpret scripture as I wish? It’s certain no one is going to stop you. But the question isn’t really about permission, is it? I think the question really goes to the nature of scripture. Is scripture pliable or rigid? Is there one interpretation or many? Is it subjective or objective?
My assumption of the role of an expert is dubious. Nevertheless, I have no qualms about expressing my thoughts on the subject.
There is a truth to scripture. Where that truth is complete and explicit, it is not subject to private interpretation, and is for all practical purposes a take it or leave it proposition. For example, when the Bible says, “In the beginning God…” that can only be correctly interpreted as God exists—the reader is left to believe it, suspend disbelief and read on in search of the truth, or shake their head and walk away. There’s no middle ground.
Not all scripture is so explicit and specific. This is because scripture is spiritual as well as literal. Of this, Paul wrote that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. That does not annul the literal, it is a call to open the door to the spiritual. That is, its interpretation needs the reader to engage in a partnership of sorts with the Holy Spirit. This is how the scripture was written and so it is the way it should be interpreted.
Many verses are like David’s famous affirmation:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” Psalm 23:4
What constitutes the “shadow of death”? The scripture nowhere spells this out for the reader. Is it correct to interpret that the shadow of death is the low places in life, the end of life, or the normal course of a limited physical existence?
The answer is, “yes.” It can be any of these, all of these, or a thousand different ideas. The valley of the shadow of death is whatever the Holy Spirit reveals to the reader. It may even vary from reading to reading, drawing the reader ever deeper.
Is it okay to read the 23rd Psalm and interpret the shadow of death as you will? Absolutely—with the caveat that the Spirit not be excluded. The author is available to take your questions and steer you to a sound interpretation.
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraided not, and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5)
Likewise, is it okay to read Genesis 1:1—“In the beginning God…” and interpret it as God does not exist or is not self-existent? No. It is not that one cannot do that, only that you are in error. So, scripture is subjective, but not wholly subject to the whims of the reader.
Jesus once told scriptural scholars, “…Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.”
One last thought. Does okay mean that God will not call down divine wrath on me? Absolutely. God will smile at the simple fact that you are reading scripture. Reading is seeking truth—whether we set out to prove or disprove something, find direction or seek to vindicate ourselves. The Spirit invites us to taste and see that God is good.
No one can do that for you. You must taste for yourself, and so the scripture is made for such experimentation. The Author will hand you a test tube if you ask.
For the sake of openness, I will tell you that I believe about our little taste of subjective scripture used here. I believe that from the moment we can conceive of the concept of physical death we enter into the shadow of death. Death—the passing from physical existence—casts a shadow over human life that is (or should be) a motivator for the manner in which we live.