The first post in the series, What is the Bible? is available here.
When I was looking into graduate schools, I went to a preview weekend at pretty well-known Evangelical seminary. They had one of their better known professors teach a class for the prospective students, to give us an idea of what we could expect if we attended school there. He concluded the class by asking if we had any questions. So I asked about his interpretation of one of the verses he was teaching on. I don’t remember exactly what I asked about, but I remember his response. “The Bible has me against a wall here. There’s not really room for discussion about it.”
I didn’t wind up going to that particular seminary. Because there’s always room for discussion about it.
Maybe you’ve had similar experiences. I know that in some Christian circles, there’s a popular saying when it comes to biblical interpretation – “God Said it. I Believe it. That Settles it.”
The idea is that the Bible is the immutable Word of God, and there’s really only one way to apply it. The Bible is considered to be a sequence of divine edicts, as applicable to Christians in the 21st-Century as it was to the Hebrews coming out of Egypt. Many who claim to interpret the Bible this way do so without regard for context or genre. The claim is that the Word of God is not limited by culture, time, or genre.
The problem is that when you cast out the context and genre of the biblical texts, you also cast out the meaning of the text. Words only have meaning in a context, and the Bible isn’t exempt from that.
The books of the Bible were written by a series of writers over a period of a thousand years, each of them with their own theological agenda and purpose. The words may have been inspired by God, but that were written by humans, and they were written with specific cultures, circumstances, and people in mind. When we read the Bible without keeping those cultures, circumstances, and people in mind, we’re setting ourselves up to misunderstand the text.
That’s not to say that a naive reading of the text can’t give good spiritual insight. Many people have read the Sermon on the Mount and learned and grown in their relationships with God, without being familiar with Jewish culture under Roman rule in the early first century. But just because some good can be gleaned from a naive reading of the text, that doesn’t mean that the naive reading is the best or most accurate one.
What it means is that we have to be careful making definitive statements about God based on what we read in the Bible, particularly if those definitive statements do not consider the context of the passage in question.
What it means is that the bridge between the culture of the original audience of the text and the modern-day audience isn’t as straightforward as we might like. Distinguishing the difference between cultural truth and absolute truth isn’t as simple as we like to make it seem.
And that’s where it gets messy. Because two people can both be sincere seekers of God, both have the same level of contextual understanding of the text of the Bible, both read the same passage, and both come away with completely different ideas about what the text actually means for them and about God.
So when we say “God Said it. I Believe It. That Settles It.” in reference to the Bible, what we’re saying is that there is only one way to interpret a biblical passage, we have it right, and there’s no point having any further conversation on the issue.
But that stance is a dangerous one to take, because it closes us off to the revelation of God. If we approach the Bible with the understanding that there’s only one correct way to read it, and that’s our way, we close ourselves off to new things that God can reveal to us. Such an approach to God requires arrogance, and Christians are called to lives of humility.
Now, this doesn’t mean that every interpretation of the text is a valid one. It’s very possible to misuse the text of the Bible to represent God to be completely different from who God actually is. This is one of the reasons that I think Christians ought to dedicate themselves to the study of Scripture, so they won’t be swayed by obvious misreadings of the text. Christians ought to be willing to defend their reading of the text, particularly if the other viewpoint is a harmful one. But that ought to always come from a place of humility. It is important that we maintain the possibility that we are wrong in our interpretation of the text, or that there are multiple ways to interpret a text and still draw closer to God.
So then I think Christians have a responsibility:
A responsibility to study the text in a way that respects the original author’s intent and the culture in which it was written and which it was received.
A responsibility to be gracious and humble in the face of opposing interpretations, and willing to accept new information.
A responsibility to love and be accepting of Christians who sincerely seek after God, even if they ultimately disagree on important issues.
Because really, proper biblical interpretation isn’t what brings you into close relationship with God. Christ is. At the end of the day, the words of the Bible are just tools to point us to Christ. And Christ may be the only way to God, but my interpretation of scripture isn’t the only way to Christ.
We can disagree, even passionately, about the best way to interpret the words of the Bible, but at the end of the day, we all have to throw ourselves on the faithfulness of Christ to restore us and make us new.
And that’s the power of the text. We may take different routes to get there, but if we’re seeking Christ, eventually we’ll find him. And when we find him, it won’t be because we’ve accepted a particular understanding of scripture. It will be because God has drawn us into relationship with himself. And that’s what makes the text valuable – not that it’s the immutable word of God, but that it points to the true Word. Not that it has us against the wall, but that we’re free to seek after Christ in its pages.
So may we be a Church that seeks to understand the words of scripture. May we always be open to the discussion. And most importantly, may we seek after Christ as hard as we possibly can, confident that he is drawing us into relationship with himself.