Despite knowing more today than many Christians in the past, we still need to be careful and humble when interpreting and applying Scripture. If we do not respect historical and cultural differences, we can inadvertently misread Scripture through our own modern cultural lenses.
I vividly remember the time in my youth that I was in a Bible study with my pastor and we were looking at Luke 14:25-35. I got stuck on Jesus’ words in verse 26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” I was a new believer, and it was the first time I had read that passage. I was horrified by the verb “hate,” which today means to intensely dislike something or someone. As an Asian youth steeped in a culture that almost idolizes respect for one’s parents, how could I hate my parents or my siblings? I loved them!
At the time, the Bible passage seemed clear to me: If I don’t hate my parents, I can’t follow Jesus. But I could not choose between the seemingly irreconcilable options, and I began to weep. After realizing why I was crying, my pastor quickly reassured me that Jesus did not mean for us to literally hate our parents but simply that we must love Jesus more than anyone or anything else. It was hyperbole, he explained.
Of course, it was still a radical and, to some degree, offensive claim. But it became less harsh when understood not as disliking one’s parents, but as loving them less than one loves Jesus.
My youthful self read our modern understanding of “hate” back into Jesus’ use of the word, making his claim more offensive than it already was. I now know that people in Jesus’ ancient Middle Eastern culture often spoke with colorful hyperbole to make a point. This was their custom, and Jesus’ original audience would have understood his statement to be an exaggeration.
That incident was an early lesson for me in this truth about biblical interpretation: The Bible, even though it’s for us, was not written to us, but to audiences greatly removed from us in time, culture, and language. We can never read Scripture plainly, if by “plainly” we mean ignoring our own cultural biases and the cultural and historical gaps between us and the text. If we do not respect the historical, cultural, and linguistic differences between us and Scripture, we are in danger of reading modern cultural ideas back into the Bible and distorting whatever insights we might get out of it.
Clarity of Scripture
I am not saying that the Bible is so obscure that only Bible scholars can understand Scripture properly. Neither am I arguing against the Reformation’s doctrine of the clarity of Scripture, historically called the “perspicuity of Scripture.” That doctrine does not assert that everything in Scripture is clear and easy to understand. It only teaches that what is necessary for salvation is clear in Scripture. We see this in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646): “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them” (Ch. 1.VII).
Scripture itself shows that some parts of the Bible are not easy to understand: “(Paul’s) letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction,” the apostle Peter writes, (2 Pet. 3:16) and the Ethiopian eunuch needed Philip’s help to understand the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:26-40).
So even without biblical scholarship, anyone can still read the Bible and sufficiently discern its main message of salvation. But not everything in the Bible is easy to understand, not even for first-century readers like the ones Peter wrote to. How much more difficult must it be for those who are centuries removed from the Scripture’s cultures, customs, and contexts?
Lost in Translation
Modern translations of the Bible, though generally reliable, are not infallible. Despite the translators’ best efforts, there are many cultural and linguistic nuances that cannot always be adequately translated into English or some other language.
For example, most of us know that ancient Greeks had multiple words for “love.” Agape means sacrificial love, philos means brotherly love, and eros denotes erotic or romantic love, to name the most common ones. All of these words are usually rendered into English from the original Greek of the New Testament as simply “love.” Readers of English translations can thus miss out on some linguistic nuances.
In John 21:15-19, for instance, Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. This is, of course, reminiscent of Peter previously disavowing Jesus three times. We can understand this story as Jesus gently reconciling with Peter and restoring him to his apostleship. What might be lost on us without reading the original Greek, however, is that two different words for “love” were used in that conversation.