Scripture (The Word)

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Biblical Interpretation
Culture, Theology, and Tradition

Scripture is God’s interaction with humans. As the section "Arguements for and Against the Existence of God” indicates, even secular sources (including Wikipedia) generally assume that to be the Christian belief system, the most dominant religion in the western world. Christians generally believe that the Bible (Old Testament & New Testament) to be God’s communication (“word”) to humans to be inspired by God. However, as you will see under Biblical Interpretation and Culture: Theology and Church Tradition, there are disagreements on many (generally, relatively minor) points. Today’s collection of books of the Bible - the canon – was not finalized until the 16th century. So, what is the essence of scripture? We can start with the creeds. One of the most popular creeds throughout history is the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

-1975 ecumenical version (ICET) of the Nicene Creed. The original version was adopted at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (the first world-wide ecumenical Christian leadership conference on doctrine) and modified in 381 at the Second Ecumenical Council.

Note that “catholic” with a small “c” indicates universal church.

Biblical Interpretation

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Culture, Theology, and Tradition

Biblical interpretation is the study and interpretation of scripture. There are many scholars who have studied, translated, and/or interpreted the Bible.

Historical background
Today's scripture, especially Old Testament scripture, has been written, copied, collected/canonized, and translated many times throughout history. The King James Version (KJV) was influenced by The Church of England’s desire to reinforce their tradition in the interpretation of certain words.1 It often did not have access to the earliest manuscripts (the KJV has over 20 verses that were found in previous manuscripts, but not in the oldest manuscripts - and were generally dropped or bracketed and/or footnoted in modern translations.2 Fortunately, most of the newer translations trace back to the oldest available manuscripts when there was doubt about the correct translation.3 The collection of the books of scripture (canon) changed a number of times over history and was not finalized until the 16th to 17th century and even then, the Apocrypha books were sometimes included (and still are in Roman Catholic and Eastern & Oriental Orthodox Bibles). Interestingly, Martin Luther (1483–1546) made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola scriptura (the doctrine that the bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice)4 and sola fide (justification by faith alone), but this was not generally accepted among his followers.

Traditions of Biblical scholars, especially in regard to Genesis:
-Very conservative biblical scholars who believe the Bible is “inspired” and “inerrant.”

Most scholars believe that human authors used their own words inspired by God, but not that the words were ‘dictated’ by God. They generally have some allowance for cultural aspects to some passages (like women should wear a covering over their head in church) and genres of literature, such as the Mosaic laws (which include arcane laws that are not applicable since Jesus came) or poetical-figurative sections like Psalms (for example, “God knit me together in my mother’s womb” is not suggesting an actual knitting process).

This is perhaps the biggest group of Bible teachers, at least in the Evangelical tradition. Many, but not all would insist that Genesis 1, including the creation story, should be interpreted as literally six 24 hour day periods, about 6000 years ago (the 6000 years ago figure is based on the genealogies and years listed between births). Many believe that there have probably been some errors in translation that were not in the earliest documents or were translated incorrectly. For example, some believe that the word “yom” usually translated as ‘day’ in early Genesis 1, can be translated ‘epochs’ in some cases. However, others say that the context of the word in Genesis indicates that it is a 24 hour day.

“Inerrancy. The emphasis on “inerrancy” is a relatively recent American view. According to an article in Theology Today published in 1975, “…biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question. It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy.” 5

There are varying beliefs about inerrancy, ranging from a belief that God dictated scriptures word for word, to a belief that “scriptures are always right (do not err) only in fulfilling their primary purpose: revealing God, God’s vision, God’s purposes, and God’s good news to humanity’ 6. In the middle is The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978): “We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu.”

Inerrancy is held by Catholicism, Fundamentalism, and many Evangelical bible scholars, although in many cases there is movement to the less rigid forms of the concept.

Most conservative bible scholars and translators - even very conservative “literalistic” organizations, such as Ken Ham’s young- earth creationist Answers In Genesis (AiG) organization - acknowledge that only the original manuscripts would be considered inerrant and since no original manuscripts exist, todays translations would not be considered ‘inerrant’ 7For example, there are problems with current translations that cannot easily be explained. AiG in responding to these issues, verifies that there are claims that need explanation (which they provide), including: there are hundreds of verses that in ‘plain reading’ appear to have contradictions to other scripture, 8 there is what appears to be contradictory creation stories in Genesis 1 vs Genesis 2, 9 and day and night is created on both Day 1 and Day 4.

-Somewhat less conservative Bible scholars believe in inspiration in the original texts and in the intended message by human communicator (as given by God).
That means that flexibility in considering the cultural aspects that ancients, in their culture, believed and are included in the authors words. For example, Genesis 1 seems to indicate that God created earth with a solid ‘firmament’ or ‘dome’ above it, but that is culturally “incidental” to the message and we don’t have to accept that for today.10 These scholars may have differing interpretations of Genesis, based on their understanding of hermeneutics and/or the understanding of those what the ancient hearers would hear. Based on their definition of ‘inerrancy,’ they may still claim their belief that scriptures are still inerrant. Others deemphasize or drop the word “inerrant.”

Biblical interpretation in a nutshell -

Biblical interpretation in a nutshell

 -Some Bible scholars believe in the inspiration of scripture and the key messages of the Bible, such as the virgin birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, but that many of the most ancient stories were likely figurative.  
They may tend to believe that the authors were subject to cultural and other errors and that there is a great deal of ‘cultural accommodation’ in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, especially in Genesis 1-11, and/or that the authors were subject to cultural and other errors. This may mean heavy use of figurative or allegorical in stories of origins as well as the flood and some other early stories.

 -Liberal or secular scholars look at the Bible without the need to see the scripture as especially “inspired.”
Some may emphasize trying to square up the Bible with historical/archaeological evidence. They have a scholarly approach which may embrace “biblical criticism” or “higher criticism.” (Criticism means the scholarly approach of studying, evaluating and critically assessing the Bible as literature in order to understand it better). They may not believe in the virgin birth and maybe not even the resurrection and other ‘miracles.’

Culture, Theology and Church Tradition

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Biblical Interpretation

There are many influences on biblical interpretation, including culture, theology, church tradition, and family and personal tradition:

Our reading of scripture is colored by our particular culture.
Many of us tend to read scripture at 'face value' without realizing that what is our 'face value' could be something quite different from the audience to which it was originally written or spoken. This is especially true for the oldest scriptures. We tend to have an unconscious bias of our modern culture, such as western knowledge and values, including societal values, political ideas, and many other factors. Our personal culture also includes, in most cases, the way that we learned about God, faith, scripture, etc.  If we grew up Catholic, we learned one tradition, if we grew up mainstream Christian it was another, if we grew up Evangelical or Fundamental Christian it was another. Also, the times we live in have an impact on what we believe about scripture. For example, if you lived in the Christian world before Copernicus and Galileo, based on the understanding of certain scriptures at that time, you likely believed that the sun and the universe revolved around the earth. The Catholic Church believed that certain scriptures indicated that the earth was “fixed in place” and the sun and Universe rotated around it.

Early languages were extremely limited, especially in the oldest scriptures. This, along with different cultures, resulted in difficulty in translation to modern languages. It also means that people would have had different ways of thinking.
Part of our culture, for those of us who speak English, is a language of a million words. Language is more than just using words to convey the same exact thoughts. Language influences the way you think. Missionaries/linguists Richards and O’Brien have noted that even in our modern world, people tend to think in different ways based on their language and their culture.11 People in the days of early Hebrew language had far less than 3500 words (compared to 1 million words in English). Because of that, they thought differently than we think, especially when it comes to natural (i.e. not spiritual or figurative) world stories with which they had no exposure.

A chart on three different axes on which to organize Christian traditions. Only major branches are shown. There are actually about 6000 denominations in the US alone.

Theology, Church Tradition
As indicated above, there are over 6,000 denominations in the US alone. This tree represents the main branches of the Christian family tree: 55% of the world religions have a common heritage in the Old Testament of the Bible, particularly surrounding Abraham who was considered a father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For the purposes of this website, we will consider only Christianity, which is the largest religion in the world (31%). There are major differences within Christianity between Protestantism and Catholic or Orthodox traditions. There are also differences between Charismatics and non-Charismatics and between Calvinists and Arminianists. And there are thousands of different denominations within Protestantism. Often those divisions which comprise the 'tree' of Christianity have differences in interpretation of scripture. Still, the vast majority would consider creeds like the Nicene Creed to contain the most vital points of a Christian belief system. Many of them (but not all) would consider other differences not to be vital to being considered Christian.

There is nothing in mainstream science and the basics of Christian faith, as shown in the Creeds, such as the Nicene Creed or Apostle’s Creed, that conflict with each other.

However, most of those denominations tend to feel that they got things more 'right' than other denominations. Obviously, the vast majority have to be wrong about that, because in almost every case, their belief conflicts with another denomination.

-Saji George @S_A_J_I     -  Click for larger version

Culture, times, and language problems play an important role in how we read scripture and understand it. We need to try to understand what the original hearers of the scripture culture would have heard as a message.


1. Wikipedia “King James Version” says “…the King gave the translators instructions designed to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England. Certain Greek and Hebrew words were to be translated in a manner that reflected the traditional usage of the church. For example, old ecclesiastical words such as the word "church" were to be retained and not to be translated as "congregation". The new translation would reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and traditional beliefs about ordained clergy.”

2. Wikipedia "List of Bible verses not included in modern translations" lists two dozen verses or sections of verses that were in the King James Version which are omitted, bracketed, or footnoted in more modern translations because the translators had researched and found that the oldest manuscripts did not contain those verses

3. Comprehensive "tracing back" of scripture would have required checking multiple early manuscripts (but not originals because they were long gone) because there were a number of them, and they can have significant differences between them. In such cases, the translators would have to make an educated guess on the best translation. By the way, the Dead Sea Scrolls may be the oldest available scriptures in many cases, but the release of the texts has only happened fairly recently, not enough time to have made much of an impact yet on current modern translations.

4. Solo scriptura also allows for some allowance for the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. This was one doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. A different doctrine from Wesley and adopted by the Anglican Communion and Methodist churches was “prima scriptura” which is “scripture first” but adds 1) reason, 2) tradition (including teaching and councils of the church), and for Methodists 3) experience.

5. Coleman, R. J. (1975). "Biblical Inerrancy: Are We Going Anywhere?". Theology Today 31 (4): 295. doi:10.1177/004057367503100404.

6. Robinson, B.A. "Inerrancy: Is the Bible free of error? All points of view". Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2008-SEP-01. Web: 25 January 2010. Inerrancy: Is the Bible free of error?

7. Brian Edwards, July 5, 2011 , "Why Should We Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture" says "Inerrancy doesn’t mean every extant copy is inerrant. It is important to understand that the doctrine of inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts."

8. Brian Edwards, July 5, 2011,, "Supposed Bible Contradictions: Scripture Index" lists 258 verses (43 of which are in Genesis 1-11) that seem to indicate a contradiction. AiG explains them the best that they can. Some are easily explainable, some are not, or require a change in interpretation. Other contradictions are not listed by AiG.

9. Tim Chaffey, September 3, 2010, "Do Genesis 1 and 2 Contradict Each Other" gives various optional explanations, including that there was a mistranslation of Genesis 2:19 in all but the NIV version.

10. In almost every modern translation of Genesis 1:7 says that God created a solid dome (aka "vault," "firmament," etc) over the earth which had the sun and stars underneath the dome and water above it. Vaterlaus, Gary, March 9, 2009,, "Underneath a Solid Sky" argues that those translations were incorrect and only NASB was correct.

11. E. Randolph Richards, and Brandon O'Brien, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible" Missionaries/linguists show serious differences in how Western culture to many other worlds cultures influences our reading of scripture.