What Training Do We Need to Interpret the Bible?

By Bill Pratt

Let’s get some facts out on the table about the Bible. The Bible is composed of some 66 separate documents that were written approximately between the years of 1500 BC to AD 100 in two primary languages (Hebrew and Greek), and produced in cultures and historical contexts that are radically different from ours.

All of these elements make it difficult to interpret the biblical texts correctly: 1) the fact that we are dealing with many documents written by many different authors, 2) the fact that these documents were written in foreign and ancient languages, 3) the fact that the cultures that produced these documents are very different from ours, and 4) the fact that we are far removed from the historical contexts of these documents.

If a Christian wanted to overcome all of these obstacles to understand the Bible, what disciplines must she master? Christian philosopher Tom Howe puts the question this way:

Does this imply that in order to understand God’s Word one must be competent in the biblical languages, in Hebrew and Greek culture and customs, in the history of nations and people who have interacted with Israel and the church; that the interpreter must be a competent philosopher of history, philosopher of language, philosopher of science, metaphysician as well as an accomplished theologian?

Howe’s answer to the question is both “yes” and “no.” First, let’s look at the sense in which the answer is “no.” Howe answers:

If by “to understand the Bible” one means the capacity to grasp and receive the message of salvation through Christ which is the aim of the Word of God, then the answer is emphatically, No! The nature of man, having been created in the image of God as a rational creature, seems to be a sufficient prerequisite to hear, understand, and receive the message of salvation through Christ.

This is an incredibly important point. Howe is saying that the message of salvation through Christ is understandable to any human being because we are made in the image of God as rational creatures. Thus no training is necessary to understand the central thrust of the Bible. The Bible is perspicuous, or clear, according to Francis Turretin, “in things necessary to salvation [so] that they can be understood by believers without the external help of oral tradition or ecclesiastical authority.”

What about the rest of the Bible that is not so clear? Howe mentions that even the Apostle Peter claims that some things that the Apostle Paul wrote were hard to understand (2 Pet 3:15-16). If a person wants to immerse themselves in all of Scripture, not just the clear parts, they are going to need to be equipped. Howe argues that

the interpreter needs to apply all the skill and training that he or she can bring to the task. We not only strive correctly to interpret God’s Word, but to endeavor accurately to proclaim it to those desiring to hear and to defend it against those who would, in our view, corrupt it. To this end, the interpreter must endeavor to become equipped in many different areas of knowledge all of which relate to the task of interpretation.

This, my friends, is why we rely so heavily on the scholars who immerse themselves in Hebrew and Greek, who become experts on ancient history, who soak up all of the cultural information they can relevant to the biblical texts, who become adept philosophers. These scholars provide us with English translations of the Bible, with commentaries chock full of historical context and language notes, with dictionaries that illuminate ancient culture.

If you want to correctly interpret all of Scripture, you need training. For those of you who have neither the ability nor the desire for that training, God has made clear those parts necessary for salvation, and for that we are eternally thankful!


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