Open to Interpretation

MACPC_FINALI have been engaged this week in a lively, fascinating email exchange with a young male pastor out west over the interpretation of scripture.  Think of the “hi, I’m a Mac/hi, I’m a PC” ads.  For the sake of the illustration, I obviously am the PC…  Anyway, my friend and I have been volleying some ideas about the Bible back and forth for the past few days, and I think the discussion is worth sharing.  First, there are a few basic beliefs we agree upon:

  1. The Bible matters
  2. People should be reading and seeking to understand the Bible
  3. Our preaching and teaching should be grounded in the Bible
  4. The Bible shapes and defines our identity as God’s people
  5. The Bible is not a factual book of history, but a book of faith

You would think, with these things in common, we’re pretty much on the same page.  Nope.  Our conversation hinges on a modern/post-modern tension — one that is so delicate that it is easy to slip from dialogue to diatribe.  I’m going to share my side, and hope that if I misrepresent his side he will weigh in and correct me.  I list my opinions first, his second in italics.

  1. It is very important to understand the context and cultures of the authors of the various pieces of scripture.  Knowing what was intended helps us know whether the teachings from thousands of years ago still hold up today or need interpretation and a new application.  What the original authors meant and intended is an essential element of good biblical studies.  What the Bible meant is not important, but what the Bible means is everything.  Times and cultures are so different that it is ridiculous to try to compare modern day America to ancient Israel or first century Palestine.  Most of what we think we know about those times is fiction anyway, so don’t waste time trying to figure out something that is meaningless anyway.  Read scripture for what it says today.
  2. Translation matters.  It is worth going back to the original Hebrew and Greek from time to time to understand word meanings, nuance, flavor, etc.  Good scholarship requires some rigorous engagement with a variety of texts and translations.  The Bible isn’t a collection of documents, but a source of revelation.  The version you read isn’t that important.  How the Bible speaks to you and guides your thinking is what is most important.  What the Bible means is a worthless question; the real question is what does the Bible mean to me?
  3. The Bible was written in a very different cultural context, to a premodern and in many ways primitive audience.  Much of what we know and are learning today has no precedent in the Bible.  The Bible, as it exists, wasn’t written for us, and so it requires some serious study and interpretation to speak to us in our day.  The Bible, as it exists, is exactly as it exists.  It is  not an artifact from time, but revelation and wisdom that transcends time.  Every person who picks the Bible up is reading the Bible as it is meant to be.  The reader defines the meaning of scripture for her or himself.
  4. Biblical illiteracy is a big problem in our church and throughout our culture.  We operate as much by myth, opinion, and misunderstanding as we do good, solid knowledge of what the Bible says and means.  We misuse scripture to prove points, oppress whole peoples, make political statements, and justify a host of questionable acts.  All faith is based on myth, opinion, and misunderstanding.  Faith is never objective, but purely subjective.  Each individual person is an individual faith unto her or himself.  Our religion is a reflection of our values, not vice versa.  What we say and do is always justified by what we believe — both individually and collectively.  Not reading or understanding the Bible will not keep people from believing in God or calling themselves Christian.  In fact, it is only within the past few generations that people have been educated enough to read the Bible anyway.  Our history has been one of Biblical illiteracy by the masses.
  5. There are very exacting intentions and meanings in the Bible.  Concepts of grace, justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, etc., are not optional for people calling themselves Christian.  There are some specific delineations and definitions that provide clear expectations for Christian believers.  We may choose not to accept them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  The Bible contains multiple pictures of what it might mean to be Christian.  Ultimately, we are humans, created by God in God’s likeness, and we are called to follow Jesus Christ.  Each person and each church has to work out for themselves what this means and what it looks like.  There is no set of standards by which we can say, “this is Christian,” and “this is not.”
  6. Bible study is an important characteristic and practice for spiritual formation and growth.  It provides a guide for discipleship and stewardship, ways to live together as the body of Christ in service to all the world.  People will hold a defective and incomplete understanding of the Christian faith should they choose not to read, study, and reflect on scripture.  Many roads lead to God, and the intellectual is just one path — and maybe not even a really important path.  Most people know enough Bible to get by.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” should be all the Bible anyone would ever need.  In fact, if we just mastered these two things and burned the rest, would probably live in a much better world.

This conversation isn’t over yet, and I respect a well-articulated position so foreign to my own.  It is always valuable for me to engage in dialogue with someone who comes at the world in a different way.  We disagree, but we don’t fight.  We challenge, but we don’t attack.  We prod, but we don’t bludgeon.  It has been fun (and frustrating, but mostly fun…).  I wonder how many younger pastors and seminarians share my friends views?  I wonder how many share mine?  I wonder if there is any way to judge which perspective offers the most promise, and which the greatest peril?  Obviously, we would disagree on this as well!

22 replies

  1. Is the Bible just a big set of rules some of which are antiquated for today’s modern society?

    Or is the Bible a set of stories of God’s creation of the universe and the constant tension between hope and disappointment in His greatest creation as well as the story of His Son, the salvation that His sacrifice gives and the hope provided by His resurrection.

    If you believe that the rules are just suggestions and you just do the “best” you can without accepting that Jesus’ teachings are divinely inspired, then I am not sure whether you are in the “Christian” group. That is not to say that all Christians always model Christ-like behavior because that is always a struggle.

    Have you asked your friend what he believes happens after he dies?

    • I think he would actually affirm your questions, but would explain that the Bible does not limit the answers to these questions, and in fact may limit our ability to receive God’s ongoing revelation. It is not that he thinks there is no room for rules, but that the appropriate rules for all people in all places at all times cannot be adequately contained in a book written 2,000-3,000 years ago. As to what happens after he dies, I can safely say he doesn’t believe he will end up roasting eternally in a lake of fire nor will be wander endlessly streets paved with gold.

  2. I can see a third path – or fourth, and maybe a fifth – that can be weaved through your divergent points of view. Admittedly, I side more with your points of view than your correspondent’s, and I should note that I personally carry a very high view of Scripture.

    A few things come to mind:

    1. We know quite a good deal about the ancient world. In fact, we know far more about the ancient world (by “ancient,” I am referring to 300 BC to about 150 AD in the West) than folks might imagine. As an historian, I frankly feel more certainty about that time period than I do epochs far closer to us – say, 700 to 950 AD. This goes double when the sweep of global history is considered. I find that most people who claim that “we” know little about “ancient” history are speaking from a Eurocentric mindset, and have little familiarity with the expanse of history in the East, the Pacific or the Americas.

    2. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Careful consideration of textual and cultural factors leads to the inescapable conclusion that “modern” man has little sense of perspective. What strikes me about “ancient” history is not its distance from us, or its alien nature, but rather how familiar and common it seems. I am a Southerner, and I have no problems whatever understanding an honor/shame paradigm for human relationships. I’m not sure a thoughtful person can read their newspaper or watch the evening news and not come away fully understanding the kind of political turmoil that existed around the ministry of Jesus. Fallen man is fallen man, and the basic motivations, weaknesses, desires, ambitions and hopes remain quite consistent over time.

    3. Lastly, we are not that far removed from the authors of the New Testament, nor from the generations that immediately followed them. Textually, we know less about some major historical figures (like Alexander the Great or Pompey Magnus) than about the Apostle Paul. Again, perspective is needed.

    Don’t get me started on the modern insistence that faith is a matter only for the individual. Don’t get me started on Biblical illiteracy.

  3. Very thought provoking.
    Cute picture too — do we have to guess who is who ? (Just Kidding)
    Perhaps you should ask your “sparring partner” if you can identify him, or, even better maybe have him respond to your blog and identify himself ?

    Todd Anderson
    Racine, Wisc.,

  4. As a young person in ministry (28 year-old Episcopal Priest) who is also a trained historian, I was going to say something but Joe beat me to it. I will say that the idea that “we don’t know X” about whatever time period, or the idea that those in the past are completely foreign to us is often a smoke screen for one of several different issues–especially when one considers that this individual is perfectly willing to throw out something historical when they agree with it, or it supports their worldview, such as with the comment about illiteracy (why, one might ask, is literacy the basis on which to judge someone’s knowledge of scripture? This in itself reveals modernist assumptions, since most ancient cultures depended much more on orality, memorization and performance).

  5. Here is an idea. How does God speak to you through his word? Do we try to understand (twist) HIS word to make our point?

    to the point

    only thru GOD can we have understanding, not humans wrestling with Interpretation and guesses. We have a Relationship with God thru his word – reading scripture and God speaking to us. Thru prayer – speaking with God.


    God’s word is not divisive among Christian brothers and sisters, WE have caused the division.

    I beleive “Josh” is giving ownership of God’s word to GOD. Not leaving room for us to miss use it (however well intended it may be) ie – why do you memorize scripture – to share or defend. you being a “light” and sharing God’s love will casue someone to reading God’s word and God will change them.

  6. This is a discussion that really resonates with me. Back in the days before I entered seminary, I was a graduate student in English. A major focus of study (and/ or bias) in our English department was the so-called “New Criticism.” An essential (or, at least, CORE) idea in new criticism is “the author is dead”–that the intention of the author ultimately has no bearing upon the meaning of what the author has written. As a writer I found this utterly anathema. I WANT my readers to try to discern what I mean. That’s WHY I write (and we can defer discussion of the egoism involved therein to some other time). But, honestly, why would I write something for “public consumption” if not to express some intended/ intentional meaning?

    On the other hand, I would also be very pleased if something that I wrote intending to evoke a desire for peace, instead stimulated in the reader a thirst for justice, but the AUTHORIAL intention must remain. If I as a writer write something intended to–for example–nurture people in orthodox Christianity, it’s all well and good if my work is also efficacious for nurturing Muslims or Buddhists, but to say that what I wrote IS Muslim or Buddhist is incorrect. In other words, though the author may be dead and thereby leave the reader open to possibilities the author never dreamed, that does not mean the intent of the author is void.

    The human writers of the Bible ARE dead. We cannot ask them what the intended by writing, but I believe we are obligated to make an effort to discern their intentions AND to challenge any interpretations which seem to fly in the face of those intentions. This task cannot, by its very nature, be “an exact science,” but it must be a serious undertaking.

    Note, for example, that Josh cites “…do unto others…” and “…love the Lord…” as fundamentals, yet there is no particular reason from a new-critical perspective to identify them as such. In order to make such claims for the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment there must be a “theory of intention,” a “faith-based hermeneutic.” Of course, this argument is based on Dan’s “paraphrase” of Josh, so it may not represent Josh’s intent with complete accuracy (but then again, “Josh is dead.” And so is Dan.)

    And now I am too.

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