The Bible and Authority WhyProphets.com
Very simple Why Mormonism Why the Bible? What is authority
Who has authority ONLY the Bible? The Word of God Which Bible?

How do we interpret the Bible?

Is the Bible is all we need?
Can you prove anything from the Bible?

Summary

The Bible interpretations in this web site are based on the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are also internally consistent (please tell me if they are not!)

Do you test every new revelation by comparing it to the Bible?

This only works if you already know a lot about the new revelation, and are sympathetic to it. In Jesus day, the majority of Jews who knew their scriptures decided (wrongly) that Jesus copntradicted them:

John 7:40-43
"Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?"

For more examples of how they thought Jesus contradicted the law of Moses and scriptural prophecies, see Matt 23:29-32; John 9:28-29, Matt 12:24, Luke22:70-71, John7:40-43, Acts18:13 ("unlawful" in this context means "unscriptural"). The Church was just an unpopular sect (Acts 28:22)

Introduction

The Bible is the word of God. I use the Bible tests to illustrate and defend much of this web site. But others interpret these passages in different ways.

I occasionally get emails from people who quote Bible scriptures that they believe "prove" the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is false. I usually point out that this is their interpetation, and there are equally valid counter-interpretations of the passages they quote. They usually ignore this, and go on to quote still more scriptures. They appear convinced that:

In doing so, they show very little knowledge of the Bible, or ability to think clearly. This is why:

The truth is that the Bible has to be interpreted. So the great question is, why is one interpretation any better than another?


Using the Bible to test the Bible

Circular arguments:

A critic rote, "If I am shown interpretations other than those I already hold to, which make more sense than mine do in light of the whole of Scripture, I will listen."

This belief is comforting but false. What "makes sense" when interpreting scripture will depend on our existing methods and assumptions. What if our view of "the whole of scripture" is faulty (for example, if we think that the Bible is all there is)? Then every other scripture will be judged according to this false standard.

The usual Protestant rule of biblical interpretation

"If we are to believe that God gave us the Bible for a purpose, then it follows that... His purpose is for us to understand it, with His help."

Exactly. "With his help." Since internal help would be circular, he must provide external help (the Holy Spirit, prophets, etc.)

"Take the Bible literally where it is at all possible."

I agree this is a good general rule, but it must not be relied on completely, because:

  1. This was the rule the ancient Pharisees used - e.g they expected a Messiah who would literally be a "king." Consequently they missed Jesus when he came.
  2. It is just not practical. It is possible to take almost everything literally, an still be internally consistent. But who does? How many Christians only have one coat? How many give to everyone who asks?
  3. It goes against the examples in the New Testament. Right from Matthew chapters 1 and 2, we see prophecies that are not interpreted according to any literal rule, or by looking at the original context. For example, "out of Egypt I have called my son," by this method, must refer to the nation of Israel being led by Moses. "A virgin shall conceive" must have referred to an ordinary young woman in Isaiah's day.

I am highly doubtful that most evangelical Protestants do follow this rule anyway. The last time I discussed this matter in any depth with a "Born Again Christian," he sent me a number of audiotapes from his church. One of them was about the Book of Revelation. His minister started by stating that it was practically all symbolic. If this is a common view among evangelicals or fundamentalists, it suggests that the Mormon view is more literal.

"If God cannot author confusion, then any interpretive problems invariably arise from the human end (1 Cor 2:14; 2 Pet 3:16), not from the Scriptures themselves."

I agree. But humans are sinful. We invariably get it wrong without divine help. This method of interpretation just about guarantees a false understanding of scripture.

The verses quoted make clear that the final test of scripture is NOT more scripture. 1 Cor 2:14 suggests the final test is th Holy Spirit. The context of 2 Peter 3:16 (e.g. see verse 2) suggests the final test is the living apostles. (At the time, there was no canonized New Testament.)

The myth of context

If you ask someone why a passage means one thing and not another, the usual answer is "context." In other words, they look at the surounding verses and chapters. But this does not help - it is another circular argument. If the verse in question is open to different interpretations, so are the surrounding verses. Context IS important, but it does not give certainty.

Which context do we look at? The previous verse? All the surounding verses? The whole chapter? The message of the whole book? The speaker? The audience? Other similar scriptures? The historical context? The political context? The expected level of understanding? All of these things can potentially lead to different interpretations. Combining them in different ways just multiplies the potential confusion.

Who is most Bible-based - the fundamentalists or the liberals?

Fundamentalist Protestants claim that only theyu eally understand the scriptures, because everyone else adds extra traditions or intellectual fashions. For example, I was told by one fundamentalist that nothing the "Theology Today" website said could be trusted because they are all a bunch of apostate liberals. (See http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/search/index-themes.htm for examples of their work.) However, when I looked at their work, I noted that many of them (perhaps most) could trace all of their ideas to the scriptures. In contrast, fundamentalists seem unwilling to re-interpret scriptures, becasue that would go against what "true" Christianity has always taught. So which group is really Bible based, and which relies on tradition?

Conclusion: can or should scripture be interpreted by scripture?

Scripture should be interpreted in the light of scripture, but this should not be the "first and foremost" way:


The myth of "sola scriptura"

What is "sola scriptura?"

The Protestants have an interesting notion, that the Bible ON ITS OWN contains the fulness of the gospel. The belief is that the Bible contains enough to get you to heaven, without the need for anything else. This view is summed up in th words "scriptures alone!" or "sola scriptura." This doctrine was a sixteenth century reaction to the excesses of the traditional Medieval church. The church authorities appeared to be corrupt, so people tried to say "we do not need any authority to define good doctrine!" Is that true? Is it really possible, desirable, or Biblical, to live that way?

Ten reasons why "sola scriptura" is impossible, illogical and foolish

1. If the Bible is complete, why does it not say so?
Sometimes people point to verses that say "all scripture is given" - a very forced and unnatural interpretation. The frst such passage is in Deuteronomy 4:3, which says (in effect) "do not add to this." So why don't believers in "sola scriptura" throw out the whole New Testament and all the Old Testament that was written after Deuteronomy?

2. Bible interpretation depends on the words of prophets. The Mormon church has LIVING prophets. Ask them!

3. Bible interpretation depends on having an accurate copy of the original texts. No such copy exists.
All we have are copies of copies. The earliest copies show that whole passages - e.g. the last 12 verses of Mark - could be in doubt..

4. The current Bible canon was decided by Catholic theologians.
So Protestants base their faith on uninspired men from a church they reject as apostate!.

5. Scripture has to be interpreted (see below).
In practice, "sola scriptura" means that everyone interprets the scriptures for himself. So we have scriptural chaos. At the very least, the individual becomes the final judge of exactly what the scripture means, which places man above God.

6. Even the greatest thinkers will disagree over how to be saved.
For example, "Luther thought Zwingli was "damned" because he denied the Real Presence in the Eucharist. If Luther didn't even regard him as a brother in Christ due to doctrinal disputes, then obviously they didn't agree on how one is saved! Clearly, Luther thought that the Eucharist was crucial to salvation. In this he would differ from Calvin as well, and the same thing applies to baptism, because Luther believed in baptismal regeneration, whereas Calvin (and, I believe, Zwingli) denied it."

7. There are many different ways of harmonizing the Scripture. ALL can be defended indefinitely.
So it is not enough to use one scripture to explain another. Calvinists have one way of doing this. Arminians have another way. Baptists have another way. They all come to different conclusions on significant questions. So do Lutherans, Anglicans, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, 7th-Day Adventists, Mennonites, etc., etc.

8. Believers in "sola scriptura" rely on outside evidences
The idea is that the believer listens to churches, pastors, books, professors, commentaries spiritual experiences, traditions, creeds, hymns, etc., and then makes up their own mind. But this implies that these outside influences suggest possibilities that the believer would not have come up with on their own. In other words, he relies on them.

9. Believers in "sola scriptura" place their own subjective beliefs above the authority of the Bible.
Luther recognized that some key teachings could not be reconciled from the Bible alone. For example, Paul seems to teach salvation by grace, and James appears to teach salvation by works. So Luther developed a concept known as the "analogy of faith." In other words, if Paul seemed to contradict James, Luther loked at his overall beliefs regarding Christ. But where do these overall beliefs come from, except from these same texts? Luther liked Paul better than James, so he (Luther) decided that Paul was more important. He wrote:

"To sum it all up . . . St. John's Gospel [not the synoptics], and his first epistle, St. Paul's epistles, especially those to the Romans, to the Galatians, and to the Ephesians, and St. Peter's first epistle -- these are the books which show you Christ and teach everything which is needful and blessed for you to know even if you don't see or even hear any other book. . . . Wherefore St. James epistle is a true epistle of straw compared with them, for it contains nothing of an evangelical nature." See "Biblical Theology and the Analogy of Faith" for references and further discussion.

10. "Sola scriptura" was the attitude of the scribes and pharisees.
Jesus and his apostles were different. They spoke with authority. They could back up their words for scripture, but the churches of the day did not accept their interpretations. Modern prophets and apostles are the same. Nothing has changed!

Finally, the Mormon church stands as a challenge: Here is an interpretation of scripture that is in closer agreeent with the Bible than anything in Protestantism - yet it is not Protestant.

All written texts (of any kind) are open to different interpretations.

If Bible teachings come from personal revelation, then all Christian should be Mormons. Mormons place personal revelation as central, and are often criticized for not letting the Bible "speak for itself" (as if that was possible).

But if Bible teachings come from examining the text, we can learn something from legal documents. These are texts that are especially written in order to be clear and unambiguous, yet even here there is always room for interpretation. That is why we need lawyers. We may criticize them, but every complex society has lawyers. They are unavoidable. Because every text is always open to interpretation.

The lawyers do not just find the one possible meaning in a text. They create new meanings. So, for example, the U.S. constitution is used every day to define and regulate activities which nobody dreamed of back when it was written. Thus its meaning is based not just on what its authors intended, but on how society chooses to see it.

For more about this line of thought, see "Legal Hermeneutics and the Interpretation of Scripture" in "Premise," October 1995.

An example of trying to interpret the Bible on its own

To illustrate the problems with basing a church on the Bible (instead of having living apostles and prophets), consider a typical Bible teaching. Let us start with one that has immediate relevance to many people. Let us look at God's word on - say - divorce. The Bible is the final word, right? It certainly devotes quite a few verses to the subject of divorce, so what does it say?

What did Jesus say about divorce? At first reading, the Bible seems quite clear - Jesus said no. But modern churches are confused. Listen to how the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary sums up the confusion:

"The question of remarriage is a difficult one, touching, as it does, upon matters of biblical exegesis, moral judgment, and pastoral psychology. Does Scripture allow remarriage? In any particular case would remarriage be morally right? In such a case would remarriage be pastorally wise?"

"In the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-4; Mark 10:2-3; Luke 16:18) is Jesus forbidding all remarriage because it is adultery? Does the "exceptive clause" ("except for the case of porneia") in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 mean that in this one case a husband is free to separate from his wife, but without right of remarriage? Or is Jesus in these passages both affirming God's ideal for marriage as a permanent covenant and also recognizing that sometimes divorce is a tragic reality because of sin?"

"The apostolic fathers seemingly appeared virtually unanimous in forbidding divorce with right of remarriage, although we need to ask whether that tells us more about their exegesis of Scripture or about the ascetic ideals which prevailed in the patristic age."

The message is clear. For the church to run as it did in New Testament times, we need the authoritative word of the living apostles. Nothing else will do. However, the traditional churches are not led by apostles, and are thus, by definition, in a state of apostasy.


How to find the best interpretation

How to avoid endless arguments

Any good interpretation needs to be consistent with the Bible. In other words, if your Bible-related belief system is any good, you should be able to answer any question by reference to the Bible. But any skilled reader can do this! Well-trained evangelical Protestants can do this. So can Mormons. So can Catholics. So can liberal Protestants. So can Jehovah's Witnesses. So can New Age mystics. So can Atheists.

Anyone who has engaged in such debates will soon learn that this process can go on for ever. It goes like this:

Stage 1. Person "A" quotes a scripture.

Stage 2. Person "B" says person "A" has completely misunderstood that scripture, and to prove it quotes another scripture.

Stage 3. Person "A" says person "B" has completely misunderstood that scripture, and to prove it quotes another scripture.

Stage 4. Go back to stage 2.

Stage 5. The process finally ends when either:

  1. The argument becomes a war of insults and each decides to stop wasting his time with the other.
  2. One or both parties decides to take the "moral high ground." They conclude that the other person is a child of Satan who will not listen to reason. They express sincere sorrow for the other's soul, and leave. They add this experience to a mental list of their victories.

But what good does any of this do?

The beter solution is to point out that you respect the person's skill at arguing, and express confidence in their ability to argue until doomsday. But ask how you can know that his interpretation will be an better than someone else's. It is all a question of authority.

Seeing beyond just "Bible Bashing"

As you can see, this whole process is pointless, except as an exercise in getting to know how the other side uses the Bible. But if we want to save time and maybe get to understand things a little better, we need to know "where they are coming from." Not "how do they interpret" this or that scripture, but "Why?"

There are several possible reasons for holding to a particular line of interpretation. Beginning at the most common:

  1. The person has honestly never though of any alternative view.
  2. They have committed themselves to a system / philosophy / church that believes a certain way.
  3. They are convinced that anyone else who thinks differently is stupid.
  4. They enjoy the fun of the battle (you will notice that Bible Bashing is almost exclusively a male pursuit).
  5. Their present approach makes them feel important and secure. Why question it?
  6. They have additional, superior evidence for believing certain doctrines.

Probably all of these apply to some extent in all cases. But the last one is the most important. None of the other reasons is enough to justify being so dogmatic. Additional, superior evidence is what matters.

Superior evidence - or, why follow the Mormon interpretation?

Direct personal experience:
The Bible is a book. That means it is a secondary source of evidence. Personal experience is primary evidence, and beats secondary evidence every time. For instance, in the New Testament, Saul could attack the Christians very easily, using the Old Testament. But when he had a vision on the road to Damascus, that changed everything. he began to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in a very different way. In the same way, people often join the "Mormon" Church because God has answered their prayers directly.

The weightier matters of the law:
Not all Bible teachings are equally important. And not all are equally open to re-interpretation. The most important teachings are to "love God" and "love your fellow man." Though we may disagree over the particular methods, the general meaning is clear. If two churches interpret the Bible differently, but one seems to love God and love their fellow man more than the other, that can be a deciding factor.

Logic
The beauty of logic is that it is a method that tries to be separate from any particular evidence. It is just a way to look at evidence. We can provisionally accept one person's interpretations and see if they are internally consistent. In this present case, I reject the idea that the Bible is simple and complete, because that position destroys the Bible itself!

Big issues
Some issues are so big that they deserve attention regardless of what any book of scripture says. For example, freedom is an absolute. For my own list of reasons to believe, none of which rely enirely on the Bible, click here. Even within a Bible context, some issues just seem obvious. For example, the true church creates new scripture. If I believe in the Bible, I had better find a church that creates scripture, and then follow its interpretations where they are available.

And that, gentle reader, is why I interpret the Bible in the way that I do.


Examples of why the Bible needs to be interpreted by a set of external rules

Many years ago I was reading the Bible and came across the following verse:

1 John 2:15: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him."

This struck me as odd, because I had been brought up with another well known verse by the same author (the apostle John):

John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Is it good to love the world? Yes? No?

At that point, I began to realize that the Bible has to be interpreted. There is no getting away from that fact.

Where the Bible needs to be interpreted

Symbolism
So much of the Bible is symbolic, or at least uses words that have many meanings - especialy the prophecies (beats, horns, destruction, moon to blood, etc.)

New questions
The most obvious way that the Bible needs interpretation is in applying ancient answers to modern questions. For example, what does the Bible say about nuclear weapons? A strong case can be made for several different points of view.

Priorities
We also need to decide which teachings are most important. There are thousands and thousands of verses in the Bible. Which one applies at any one time? It can be quite fun to think of the answer you want, then find a verse to support your view.

There are great problems with seeing the Bible as "the final word"
I just found the following (very funny) article by an ex-minister. He got so disillusioned with the "Bible is everything" approach that he became an atheist. There are other routes to take (you can think about the Bible without becoming an atheist) but it is a great collection of ideas to ponder: "How To Handle Bibliolaters"

Why quote from atheist web sites?

1: To show the "sola scriptura" idea is silly
On this site I use some materials gathered by atheists. This is not because their arguments are any good. It is simply to show that it is silly - illogical, pointless, misleading - to use the Bible on its own as a final proof.

2: To show there is only one sensible way to look at the Bible
I do not apologize for referring to atheists. The Bible is strong enough to stand up to any attack. But only if we understand it for what it really is. The Bible is essential because it provides illustrations of how living revelation works. But the Bible is not, and cannot be, a replacement for living revelation.

3: To show true believers have nothing to fear
Many of the atheists' arguments, just like other anti-Mormons' arguments, are silly. I find that it strengthens my faith wen I look at the best that critics can do, and see how easy they are to answer.

4. To show the prophets were right all along
T
he eighth article of faith states that "we believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is correctly translated." So when atheist sites point out Bible contradictions, I just say "exactly! That is what we have been saying all along! That is why we need a living prophet!"

"But the Bible can answer its own questions!"

Many people believe that if they only understand the Bible enough, all the answers can be found within it. Unfortunately, that is more true than we think. So many answers can be found, that the Bible can often answer the same question in different - and opposing - ways.

The simplest way to demonstrate that the Bible can have internal contradictions is to quote from lists of contradictions at atheist web sites.

Please understand: I know there are answers to all of these questions. But my question to those who consider the Bible to be complete and inerrant is this: who decides that one explanation is more better than another? To do so, we must appeal to evidence from outside of the Bible. Thus, the Bible has to be interpreted by an outside source!

It is possible to find Bible-based contradictions on just about any topic you care to mention. Here, I will focus on just a few very major issues.

Bible contradictions: big doctrinal issues

Issue 1: all have sinned?

YES:
Rom.3:23 "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
1Kgs. 8:46 "...for there is no man that sinneth not,...." (2Chr. 6:36)
Prov.20:9 "Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?"
Eccl. 7:23 "For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not."
Mark 10:18 "And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God."
Rom. 3:10 "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one." (Also 1 John 1:8 & 10, Rom. 3:12, 5:12, Gal. 3:22)

NO:
Gen. 6:9 "Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God."
Job 1:1 There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
Job 1:8 "...my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?" (Job 2:3)
Gen. 7:1 "And the LORD said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation."
Luke 1:5-6 "In the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abia: and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.(RSV)

Issue 2: does God ever repent?

NO:
Num. 23:19 "God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent."
1Sam. 15:29 "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent."

YES:
Jonah 3:10 "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not."
1Sam.15:11 "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king...."
Exod. 32:14 And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Psalms.42:10 "... for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you."
Gen. 6:6 "And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart."
1Sam. 15:35 "...and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel."

Issue 3: has anyone ever seen God?

NO:
John 1:18 "No man hath seen God at any time;..."
John 6:46 "Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father."
1John 4:12 "No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us."

YES:
Gen. 32:30 "And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."
Exod. 33:11 "And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend."
Num. 14:14 "...that thou LORD art seen face to face,..."
Job 42:5 "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee."
Deut. 34:10 "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,..."
Deut. 5:4 "The LORD talked with you face to face...." (also Psalm 63:2 Isa.6:1 & 6:5, Amos 7:7-8, Ezek. 20:35, Ex. 24:9-10

There are many, many more where these came from.

Bible contradictions: simple facts and figures

All the previous cases can be reinterpreted. But how can you reinterpret a number? These seem to be very clear case of internal contradictions in the Bible - at least as plain as anything you have quoted from Mormon teachings. If you allow explanations for the Bible prophets, you must allow the same courtesy to modern prophets.

There are so many places to choose from, let us just look at the central event of the whole Bible: the resurrection of Christ:

  1. At what time in the morning did the women visit the tomb? At the rising of the sun (Mark 16:2) vs. when it was yet dark (John 20:1).
  2. Who came? Mary Magdalene alone (John 20:1) vs. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (Matt. 28:1) vs. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome (Mark 16:1) vs. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and other women (Luke 24:10)
  3. Was the tomb opened or closed when they arrived? Open (Luke 24:2) vs. closed (Matt 8:1-2)
  4. Whom did they see at the tomb? The angel (Matt. 28:2) vs. a young man (Mark 16:5) vs. two men (Luke 24:4) vs. two angels (John 20:11-12)
  5. Were these men or angels inside or outside the tomb? Outside (Matt. 28.2) vs. inside (Mark 16:5, Luke 24:3-4, John 20:11-12).
  6. Were they standing or sitting? Standing (Luke 24:4) vs. sitting (Matt. 28:2, Mark 16:5, John 20:12).
  7. Did Mary Magdalene know Jesus when he first appeared to her? Yes, she did (Matt. 28:9) vs. no she did not (John 20:14).

It is particularly amusing to see some "Born Again Christians" find simple explanations for all of these, yet then attack the different accounts of Joseph Smith's first vision on the same basis!

Bible contradictions: who is a true prophet?

A scripture that is often used against the church is Deuteronomy 18:22. It states that whatever a prophet says must come to pass. That is perfectly true. But the way that some "Christians" blindly use this verse, they would make almost every major Bible prophet - and even Jesus himself - a false prophet!

According to some critics of Christianity,

Please note that there are simple answers to all these points. But they rely on re-interpretation. And where is the authority to say that the Christian is right and the atheist is wrong? We need to look outside the Bible for that.

Note also that many "Christians" are happy to accept such answers when it comes to he Bible, but apply double standards when it comes to criticizing LDS history. For examples of prophecies made by Joseph Smith that allegedly did not come true, click here.

Conclusion: the Bible is evidence for the Mormon church

Does all this mean that the Bible is unreliable? No, it means that the Bible is just like any other document - open to interpretation. And sometimes the "obvious" interpretation is not the correct one. The same is true for modern scripture. All that Mormons ask of other Christians is that they are consistent. Apply the same rules to both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and you will see that they are both from God.

Some people prefer their imaginary Bible (complete, simple, unambiguous) to the real thing. If they are not willing to face up to these real issues, then they are not ready for the real church.

 

the bottom line

The church is run by the apostles. The apostles write scripture. That is what makes a living church.

 

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