"How should we interpret the Bible?" is an enormously important question. Your answer to this question will both cause and settle many controversies around you, and the history of entire people groups have been shaped by their answer. Fortunately, the critical, basic elements of Christianity do not depend on any specific interpretative paradigm. They're based on simple, straightforward Bible verses whose meaning is clear - you don't need to be a biblical scholar to start understanding "Believe in the Lord Jesus" or "Love one another". However, if you wish to move beyond the basics, you'll need an answer to the opening question. You'll need an interpretive framework for the Bible.
The Bible falls under one of the two ways that God reveals himself to us. The first of these is general revelation, where God shows us what he's like through his works. These include the universe he's created, and our own consciousness. The second way is special revelation, where God tells us about himself directly. The Bible belongs to this "special revelation" category. Then, in trying to understand the Bible, it behooves us to look to the other half of God's revelation, to see if there is a good way to understand God's general revelation to us. It turns out that there is: there exists an interpretive framework for the physical universe that's been so wildly successful for the last several centuries that it's completely transformed our understanding of God's creation, and revealed God's character and glory to an awesome new degree. Of course, this interpretive framework is none other than science. Encouraged by this positive parallel, let's try to understand the Bible in a way that's analogous to science. In this analogy, the Bible is like scientific observations, or data.
In science, data is sacred. Have you ever taken a laboratory science class where you kept your data in a lab notebook? If you did, you know that a lab notebook is often messy. It's got wet pages and burnt pages and torn pages and things scribbled out and illegible handwriting and loose scraps of paper and that one page with that nasty stain from the sample you spilled on it. And yet, this lab notebook is the most important document you produce in your class, because it, and it alone, contains the raw initial data, which is infallible. What do I mean by "infallible"? I mean that it is a real record of what nature really did in your experiments - uncertainties and all. Now, the data still needs to be processed and interpreted so we can understand it, but it is folly to try to gain any understanding without relying on the data.
None of this changes when you move up from a classroom setting to "real research". Often, data is ambiguous and frustrating and messy. It sometimes seems confusing or downright contradictory at times. And yet, it remains the most important part of your paper, because it is the real record of how nature itself actually worked in your experiments. If we are to understand nature, then we have to take this ambiguous, frustrating mess and make sense of it.
All the rest of science exists to explain data. In this way, scientists are an undignified lot. For instance, physicists sometimes pretend to say to themselves, "oh, look at me, I do hard math, I'm so smart, I'm so educated". But if they discovered a new theory which generates a better account of the data by dancing around dressed like a chicken with a banana in their mouths, they would be doing precisely that. That's what makes them scientists - their commitment to the data. Data is sacred.
The Bible is like scientific data. It's sometimes messy and it's got things that you can't make sense of right now. There are even things that you don't like, things you think can't possibly be right. That's okay. It's no less than what we expect from the Creator of the universe, who also makes us wrestle with messy data in the sciences. But a good theory in science makes sense of the data , just as a good interpretation of the Bible will make sense of the text. Your job when you do science is to develop such a theory, just as your job when reading the Bible is to find such an interpretation. You must be ready to accept a theory that better explains the data, even if goes against your initial hypothesis. Likewise, you must be ready to accept an interpretation that makes better sense of the Bible, even if it goes against your previous notions.
We do all this, because the Bible is sacred, like data. The same faith in a perfect God who wants to reveal himself to us underlies our faith in them both. Like data, the Bible is sacred and infallible, because it is the true record of how God actually interacted with humanity at critical moments throughout history.
For both the Bible and scientific data, this means that we do not ever give up on trying to better understand them. This incidentally takes care of the irksome practice of finding contradictions in the Bible. A contradiction simply means that your interpretation is wrong, and that you should look for an alternative that's free of contradictions - which is trivially easy to find. After all, in studying the universe or the Bible, data cannot contradict data. Theories can be contradicted by the data or other theories, and this is in fact how we judge whether a theory is right or wrong. But data cannot be wrong; it can only be misinterpreted. For the same reason that we don't give up on understanding the universe when we can't make sense of data, we also don't give up on understanding the Bible when we can't make sense of the text.
Also, for both the Bible and scientific data, we are to never outright ignore any part it as a "mistake", or "just because". It may be that there are good reasons to ignore a particular biblical passage, in certain contexts, for a specific application or situation. But all such reasons need to be justified within a comprehensive interpretation, which must prove itself by explaining the rest of the text. The same is true for science - simply replace "interpretation" with "theory", and "biblical passage" and "text" with "data". So, for example, we can look at the Old Testament commands about animal sacrifices, and ignore it in our own Christian ceremonies, because these commands were given specifically to the nation of Israel as a symbol of the coming Messiah. Likewise we may ignore a particular data set for the purpose of making a specific linear regression line, because it was a calibration run or because there was a power outage during the run. But in all these cases, the exceptions make sense in the context of a comprehensive understanding, which is supported by the rest of the whole.
This also means that we are to acknowledge that the act of interpreting the Bible is both necessary and good. Some people speak as if the Bible would require no interpretation if it were taken absolutely "literally", then say that this is the way that Christians would interpret the Bible if they were really serious about it. This is nonsense and no body of Christians actually hold to it. Even a "literal interpretation" is still an interpretation, and nobody believes that any particular passage could be taken "literally" to the point of excluding the proper context of the passage. In fact, even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy - which is a solid document that affirms the inspiration and infallibility of the scriptures, and takes the Bible as seriously as possible, states very clearly that "the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices". Interpretation is necessary and good.
We do not expect this process as a whole to be easy. There is much to understand about God, and therefore much to understand about the Bible. Complete, total truth about the Bible, or the universe for that matter, is probably beyond our reach within the circles of this world. But this doesn't bother me - it excites me. There's plenty of things for us to work on from just what we already know, and plenty more for us to learn. Meanwhile our increasing understanding as we study more of the Bible assures us that we're on the right track, as we dig deeper into God's infinite mysteries. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever".
The next post of this series will go into more specific details about the principles of Bible interpretation, which makes sense in the context of approaching the Bible like science approaches data.
You may next want to read:
How to interpret the Bible: key principles (Next post of this series)
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents