You may have heard the “rule” in Bible Study that a text always means the author intended it to mean. But how do you evaluate whether a particular interpretation hits the mark of authorial intent? You can test any interpretation with the five C’s.
An interpretation of a passage is valid if it is:
The interpretation understands the words, syntax & grammar according to their normal usage at the time the author wrote.
Words change meaning over time and culture. Suppose I’m watching a Doris Day movie and she says “He’s gay!” Then I watch a Sandra Bullock movie, and she says the same phrase. I would understand them differently because the word changed meaning. Doris means the other character is happy-go-lucky. Sandra means he’s not interested in her and we would not expect him to be her love interest in the movie.
We see this as Bible translations are updated. In the 1970s, translators changed a passage in Acts from “Paul was stoned” to “Paul received a stoning” to avoid confusion.
The interpretation explains every detail, even if the contribution is insignificant or stylistic.
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge in Luke 18 begins: “He told them a parable so that they would pray and not lose heart.” However, we understand that parable, we must consider the author’s comment that the purpose has something to do with not losing heart. An interpretation that does not account for that statement is not as good as one that does.
The interpretation fits the flow of thought in the passage and in the larger context of the chapter and book.
Suppose you are standing on a bridge over a river. You look on the left side of the bridge and the water is flowing downhill. Then you walk to the right side of the bridge and the water is flowing downhill. You expect the water under the bridge—which you can’t see—to flow the same way. Similarly, when we reach difficult verses which are like water under the bridge, we expect them to fit the flow of the verses before and after them.
The interpretation is consistent with information which is not in this book (the author’s other letters and the rest of Scripture).
We expect Scripture not to contradict itself. If we come across two passages that seem to contradict each other, we assume that our understanding of one of them is wrong. When we study James & Paul, we start from the premise that James & Paul agree. We assume the same God inspired both their understandings, and they were teaching the same gospel. Any interpretation that says James was wrong and Paul was right or vice versa is suspect.
The interpretation conforms to the author’s purpose and the author’s plan.
Finally, a passage means what the author intended it to mean to his original audience. If you and I are having a conversation, I say A and you say B. When I respond “that’s not want I meant,” that should settle the dispute. I may have failed to communicate well, but what I intended to say is the only correct interpretation of my words.
If the passage says Jesus fed 5000 and historical evidence proves 5010 people were present that day, the text is not wrong. The author never intended to give a precise count. He was making a point that lots of people were fed.