As Bill started to quote a Bible verse to make his point, Betty cut him short. “Everyone interprets the Bible differently,” she said. Her implication? Since we all come to the Bible from different perspectives, there can be no absolute certainty about biblical teaching.
There’s at least a kernel of truth in Betty’s observation. Last week we discussed the impact of post-modern thinking, which emphasizes that none of us sees the truth in a completely objective way. We all view the Bible, and our world, through our unique subjective filters -- the filters of our upbringing, culture, genetics, religious background, and so on. These have an impact on our focus and on how we interpret it. And often, these filters are invisible to us; we’re not even aware of how they slant our view of reality. It’s a real advantage, as we evaluate our beliefs, to be more aware of our filters and not to accept them uncritically, since they do bias us to some extent.
On the other hand, does this leave us mired in subjectivity, turning the Bible into whatever we think it is or want it to be? Is everyone’s interpretation equally true? Is there no way to share in common at least a substantial part of God’s intended message in Scripture? This is where I think the post-modern pendulum sometimes swings too far. The Bible itself teaches that there is clear truth to be guarded and shared. Jesus spoke of “false prophets” (Matt. 24:24), as did Peter, who also includes “false teachers” and “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). Paul tells Timothy, to pass on “the pattern of sound teaching” and “guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you” (2 Tim. 1:13,14). What these teachings presuppose is that we’re capable of teaching and understanding common biblical truths accurately. We won’t see these truths through exactly the same lens, but we’ll still be able to share a reasonably common understanding. Furthermore, it matters that we do, since there’s such a thing as objective truth and falsehood which exists independently of our perception. Some teachings are crucial for our salvation. If I seek to be saved by my good works, for example, I will not end up in Heaven. Other teachings are critical for living a holy life. Understanding and obeying them allows us to please the Lord. This leads to our main question:
Given my subjective limitations how can I more accurately perceive what the Bible teaches?
I more accurately perceive the Bible by reading it
Forgive me this obvious suggestion, but there’s data that shows that a lot of believers either seldom read the Bible or that when they do, don’t put much time and effort into it. They depend on their preacher, or popular teachers, or friends or upbringing for their understanding. This approach, however, limits your ability to weigh and evaluate biblical ideas for yourself.
I more accurately perceive the Bible by learning how to interpret it carefully
Although there are still debates on how to interpret particular Bible passages, the range of these possibilities should be guided and limited by following certain common-sense rules of Bible interpretation. I say, common-sense, because a lot of them are rules we use in everyday communication. These include rules like interpreting a text in its context, discovering the author’s original intent, understanding the culture it addressed, and taking into account the genre it represents.
I more accurately perceive the Bible by having a teachable spirit
While we can, and should interpret the Bible for ourselves, there’s a lot to be learned from others – both scholars and friends, our denomination and those of other denominations and traditions. I’m not talking about simply taking opinion polls, but about reading and listening to other thoughtful students of Scripture. This helps us become more aware of our own limited knowledge as well as our built-in filters and biases. Some of them will change as we openly view the bigger picture. Reading church history is helpful in widening our scope.
I more accurately perceive the Bible by understanding and being honest about its varying degrees of clarity
In 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul says: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead. . . ?” This is the single passage on baptism for the dead. Paul’s readers presumably had more background detail than we on the subject, but for the modern reader the meaning is, at best, obscure. Some Bible references are like that. Many teachings, on the other hand, quite clear. We know, for instance, that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. This is stated clearly and repeatedly. There are other teachings which are moderately, but not totally clear, such as the timing of the rapture. And some issues are not addressed at all – like will my dog “Fido” be in Heaven? Many of our denominational traditions, by the way, like our style of worship, fall into this last category.
I believe that this is no accident; that God, in His wisdom, has revealed the truth we need to know with the clarity which is necessary for us to live a life pleasing to Him. He, of course, has complete clarity about all truth, but He hasn’t chosen to give this to us. It’s crucial that we be as honest as we can about the relative level of clarity. If it’s obvious, we can say, “The Bible says. . .” If it’s somewhat clear, we can note: “I believe that what Paul is teaching here is this.” If it’s unclear, honesty requires us to say, “I’m not sure what’s meant here. All I can give you are some possibilities.” There will be, of course, some debate on the level of clarity regarding certain doctrines, but we need to do our best to be as impartial and honest as we can be and not just follow the party line uncritically. Reading more widely and exposing ourselves to other Christian traditions is helpful in increasing our objectivity in the area of clarity.
I more accurately perceive the Bible by keeping in mind which are the more crucial doctrines
It’s easy, as we struggle for clarity in interpreting the Bible, to lose sight of
the big picture. Is it more important that we worship on the sabbath or that Jesus died for our sins? Is it more crucial that we figure out the proper mode of baptism or that we live holy lives? Jesus said of the teachers of the Law and Pharisees, “You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) They’d gotten caught up in emphasizing lesser biblical doctrines while losing sight of the weightier matters of the law. I’d like to figure out all of Scripture as well as possible, of course, but some teachings are more important to properly understand and obediently follow.
So what’s the upshot of this short article? While we Christians, especially Protestants, are notoriously independent in our theology, I believe that we can still agree enough on key teachings to share a meaningful fellowship and cooperation in the Lord. We can live holy lives with reasonable confidence and unity. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit’s help in doing just that.