T. Pierce Brown

When I was young I frequently heard persons say that most of the divisions in the religious world were caused by difference in interpretations of the Bible. I challenged the statement and denied it then and now, but I have heard others preach in such a fashion that it appeared that they did not think there could be different interpretations of anything, for the Bible clearly meant what it said and needed no interpretation.

In my personal Bible studies, when a person would say, “It is just a matter of interpretation” I would usually take the statement of Ananias to Saul, “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sins” and say, “Let us interpret that. I see the word, `arise.’ I interpret it to mean, `Arise.’ How do you interpret it? It says, `Be baptized.’ Some may think it means, `Drink buttermilk.’ I think it means, `Be baptized.’ What do you think it means? It says, `Wash away your sins.’ Some seem to think it means, `You do not have any sins to wash away.’ I think it means, `Wash away your sins.’ What do you think it means?” I still think that approach may be worth a great deal.

However, the English language is so strange that we need to realize that context, spelling, punctuation, inflection, pronunciation, and even your facial expression can make a difference in what things mean when you say them. Even if you wrote down the exact words a person said, you may leave out many factors that are vital to a correct understanding of his meaning. Let us illustrate some of those principles. Suppose I write the word “fast” on the board and ask you what I mean by it. You cannot possibly tell me. If I have a context of horse racing, it may mean the horse will run well. If I have a context of the color of a dress, it may mean it will not run at all. If I am talking about a certain kind of woman, I may mean she has loose morals. If I am talking about eating, I may mean not doing it at all, or I may mean doing it rapidly.

There are words that are spelled the same way, but are pronounced differently. If I am reading the word “job” I may “fix my mouth” in one way and pronounce an “oh” in the middle of the word. If I were writing it and had pronounced it that way, I would capitalize it, and you might assume I was speaking of a patient person named in the Bible as Job.  If I am speaking of “job” my mouth might be relaxed in such a way that the “o” in the middle is pronounced “ah.” In that case I might mean the kind of work a person did or the quality of his work, in which case the word would be a noun. If it were a verb, spelled and pronounced the same way, it might mean “to stab with a pointed instrument.”

Even inflection can make a difference, and there is no way to be certain in every case of a written word what inflection the person put on the word when it was spoken. For example, the word “Oh” can be uttered with a different inflection if a person wants to register surprise, wonder, consternation, dismay, disbelief, doubt, ecstasy, sorrow, compassion, or hurt. The sound would even be different if he meant to convey the idea that he was physically hurt rather than simply emotionally hurt. We can probably think of other ways we have heard someone say, “Oh” but these will suffice to illustrate that a person cannot always be sure at first examination exactly what another person means if you merely read his words and assume that you have “THE MEANING” of the term.

The word “yes” often means, “I agree,” but with a rising inflection it may mean, “I doubt it.” With a different inflection, it can even mean, “Tell me more!” Most of those who are trained public speakers and writers recognize these and many other problems connected with communication. Sadly enough, some compound the problems by using what I call “weasel words” which can be interpreted in two or three different ways, so that if their doctrine is challenged, they may say, “You took it out of context or misrepresented me.” The problem may then be compounded again by the fact that there are those who are looking for the worst possible meanings, do take things out of context, pervert them by putting a meaning on them which the original writer or speaker did not intend.

As bad as that problem is, it is made worse by writers or speakers who change meanings, apparently sometimes inadvertently, in the middle of a paragraph or sentence. For example, a person may be talking about the church. He may say, “The church is not a building–a place in which we meet. It is people. It is a called out group.” Then he may say, “We are going to church today” and refer to the place. Or he may say the same words and not actually refer to the specific place, but to the specific assembly–the people. Then he may continue by saying, “The church is the place where we find salvation, fellowship, edification or peace.” When he thus uses the term “place” he does not refer to the geographic physical locality to which he referred when he said, “The church is not a place.”  He now refers to a spiritual position or relationship. If you do not realize he has changed meanings when he said, “The church is not a place” and “The church is a place where–” something happened, you may assume he has contradicted himself. If someone says, “It is not your place to tell him he has contradicted himself,” he means something different by “place” than he did in the other statements.

Often the general tenor of a man’s life and teaching will help to determine his meaning when he uses a particular phrase or an expression he. I may say that I believe in bishops ruling over churches. I believe in total commitment and house churches. I believe in unity in diversity. Those who know me and what I stand for and against would not assume from any of those statements that I believed in the Roman Catholic dogma or their concept of bishops, that I uphold the Boston or Crossroads philosophy that all the little churches which may meet in houses throughout the city or state are all under the oversight of one eldership. Nor does the fact that I believe that the body is diverse in its functions, and still unified under one head mean that I subscribe to the false denominational concept of “unity in diversity” which means various groups or persons may believe, teach and practice contradictory and unscriptural doctrines and still have the unity for which Christ prayed. When there is a possibility of doubt, a person whose life and teaching has been scriptural should be given the benefit of the doubt. When some critical analysis is made, there should be an effort to determine the exact meaning he attached to his words. If a man cannot explain what he means after two or three efforts, he probably should stop speaking or writing on that subject.

My primary hope in this article is to make you more keenly aware that although the big reason for different denominations is not differences in interpreting scriptures, but different attitude toward the authority of Christ, it is still true that there may be different interpretations of many statements in and out of the Bible. It is possible for one to say, “God hears a sinner’s prayer” and “God does not hear a sinner’s prayer” and be correct in both statements, for we may mean several different things by “hear” and “sinner.” Luke does not contradict himself or Paul when he says in Acts 9:7 that those with Paul heard the voice and in Acts 22:9, we find that they heard not the voice.

Let no one assume that I am teaching that two contradictory statements can be correct if the words in them refer to the same thing. But if such a question is raised as, “Does baptism save a person?” it is not enough to say, “1 Peter3:21says it does and that is all we need to know.” The mere act of baptism does NOT always save a person. The same principle is true with regard to grace, faith, or any other subject. Let us give the same courtesy to each other as we strive to interpret other statements, both those of Divine and those of human origin.

In past years I have probably made such statements as, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” needs to be believed and obeyed, not interpreted. Though I meant well, there are two problems with my statement. First, the statement cannot be obeyed, for it is not a command. The command is found elsewhere. Second, although it certainly needs to be believed, it also needs to be interpreted (which means, “understood”). Does it mean, “He that believeth ANYTHING and is baptized with ANY motive or purpose shall be saved in eternity?” Or does it mean, “He that believeth the gospel as authorized by Christ, and is baptized in the way and for the purpose authorized by Christ shall be saved from his past sins?” Of course it means the latter, but one has to interpret it in terms of the total teaching of the New Testament. The problem is not just that other persons interpret and we do not. The problem is when a person claims to “interpret” “arise” as meaning, “stay down and pray.” Then “be baptized” is “interpreted” as “you do not need to be baptized.” Then “to wash away your sins” is “interpreted” as “your sins were already washed away.” Those are not interpretations, but perversions or denials. That is true because they know that “arise” does not mean “kneel and pray” even if they practice that. They know that “wash away sins” does not mean, “you do not have any sins.” But one still has to interpret in the sense that he needs to know if “wash away sins” means that it is a sacramental act by which the sins are automatically forgiven, no matter what the mental or physical condition of the person. Or does it mean that the sins are forgiven as one in obedient faith accepts God’s grace on His terms? Of course it means the latter, but we must differentiate between interpretation, which may be right or wrong, and denial of what the scripture teaches, which is always wrong.

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