There's More Than One Way to Interpret the Bible

8:02 AM


The Bible is not easy to interpret.

The Reformation put the Bible into the common Christian's hands and into the Spirit's guidance. Then hundreds of denominations and splinter groups and heresies sprouted up, all claiming biblical backing. The same Spirit who lives within my charismatic friend lives within the cessationist Baptist pastor who told me speaking in tongues was of the devil. To arbitrate this spiritual conundrum, both turn to the Bible. Both argue from the Bible. Both refuse to budge on their position because of the Bible.

The Bible is not easy to interpret.

I thought it was, even though I knew it wasn't, because of the alleged perspicuity of Scripture -- a Reformed teaching about how clearly the Bible expresses the things necessary for salvation. I thought it was, because I believed in the "plain meaning of Scripture."

The Bible is not plain, clear, or easy to interpret. It is beautiful, complicated, inerrant truth relayed through written language during a culture foreign to our modern world. 

Why is this important? Whether you believe the Bible is clear or complicated changes how you dialog with Christians of differing views.

If you believe the Bible is clear, plain, and easy to interpret, you often end up arguing that a particular interpretation of Scripture is the truth. Anything that differs with that interpretation is wrong or unorthodox. You feel little motivation to doublecheck your interpretation, because you're not searching for the clearest truths that transcend Bible verse ping pong. You think you've got the whole truth on an issue packaged in that one interpretation.

Take creationism, for instance. Young earth six day creationists insist that their interpretation of Genesis alone gets at the larger truths of Scripture: God as creator and the infallibility of Scripture. When other Christians come along with different interpretations of Genesis that still affirm God as creator and the infallibility of Scripture, a young earth six day creationist would question that person's faith in Christ and Scriptural inerrancy. Why? Because it's not enough for a person to affirm God as creator and the infallibility of Scripture. A person must believe in a particular interpretation of Scripture that upholds those truths in the same way the young earth six day creationist does. 

I have encountered this close-mindedness myself as my beliefs evolved. No matter how hard I assured people that I wasn't in favor of dressing like a slut, people still got antsy over me wearing tank tops and skinny jeans. No matter how many times I said, "I still believe in the core of orthodox faith as encapsulated in the Nicene Creed," people still feared for my salvation. No matter how long I argue that my views on egalitarianism come from the gospel itself, people will still think I'm more like a bra-burning feminist in favor of androgynous personhood than a woman who cherishes her female differences. What can you do?

I'm passionate about absolute truth, and I believe Scripture, as God's revelation to man, is the closest thing we'll get to Captain Obvious moments on big life questions. But I'm also quite certain that truth is hard to wrap our human minds around. We need to respect truth's hardship. 

My roommate describes the quest for truth as a vast galaxy of people staring at a sun-huge star. We are too small to see all the away around that star personally and individually. So we're shouting out to each other the details we see. As we're exploring truth, we piece together all the information we hear shouted out.

Latching onto a particular interpretation espoused by a particular group of people shuts you off from the rest of the galaxy shouting out the bits of truth they see.

As I study theology and philosophy, I find myself relying on my roommate's illustration. I've drawn fewer lines. I've learned to follow an opposing argument, to see its logical consistency and/or its emotional appeal. And ironically, I've been able to say more comfortably, "I don't think that's quite right." When it comes to most Christian theology, I end up categorizing it as "good, better, and best" instead of black-and-white right or wrong. It's a beautiful thing to discover that my Catholic friends and I or my Baptist friends and I agree on the same Lord and the same gospel -- we just interpret the Scriptural details differently.

You know, the Apostle John had a ridiculously simple test for truth: "By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (1 John 4:2). That simplicity bothered me. Hello, John -- what about the false teachers leading people away from truth in the name of Jesus? But I think this test affirms the real goal of our truth-seeking: Jesus. The Bible is complicated. Our interpretations are fallible. But the incarnate Jesus transcends both our interpretations and the Bible itself as the living Word. He will make Himself known to those who seek.

And that's what we can ask someone who disagrees with us: "Sister, does your new belief on creation, modesty, gender roles, or whatever lead you to know, understand, and love Jesus more?" If the answer is no, what's the point of being right, anyway? If the answer is yes, we may listen to the truth they know, share the truth we see, and respect the independent conclusions we come to as two Christians seeking our Savior.

Photo Credz: Thought Catalog

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10 impressions

  1. I love your growing sense of temperance and gentleness in regards to opposing opinions. Your conclusion is a really good reminder for me to focus on our end goals and not the minor issues we differ on. That being said, I'm sure there are days when we all would love to burn our bras.🔥🔥

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    1. Thank you, Mia! And your last statement -- TRUTH. :D

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  2. Shouldn't the question be: Does your new belief lend itself to you believing Jesus Christ came in the flesh?

    Which with the literal creation week is what people are asking you. If you reject a literal understanding of the biblical account of creation, does this belief lend credence to your literal interpretation of the incarnation of Christ?

    For which is easier to ask, Does this undermine your salvation? or, Does this lend credibility to the literal incarnation of Christ?

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    1. Yes, that is a variation on the primary question.

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  3. On a different topic, I wonder if you are aware that there are people who believe in the literal six "evenings and mornings" creation and also a five billion year old earth?

    The two beliefs are not mutually exclusive.

    There are actually atheists who believe in a young earth; admittedly, they are a minority.

    The young earth six day creation is an amalgamation of two distinct beliefs that can and should be considered separately.

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    1. I am vaguely familiar with the former and didn't know about the second. Interesting stuff!!

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  4. I really like that illustration of truth-a great big sun that we can't see the whole of. (Is that grammatically correct? ::shrug:: it's late)

    But above all, Jesus is Truth. So if we're seeking Him, we will find what we're looking for. Others won't understand, and that's okay.

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  5. I knew I should've emailed you! Ever since the last post you made, I was anticipating that perspicuity of Scripture would be the next subject to tackle. I've moved to such a different understanding of Scripture, which also evolved by examining the issues of creation and woman's role in the world and church, so I was wondering if you'd do the same. :)

    It was the one of the first doctrinal issues that I truly changed my mind on. It had led me to a lot of self-blame and depression. If I found the Bible confusing or unclear, then it was MY fault -- I had an un-confessed sin or was living in disobedience or maybe I was just....spiritually stupid? Either that, or God was withholding something from me, clouding my spirit or hardening my heart.

    However, as my understanding of what Scripture is grew and shifted so that the emphasis was more on Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit and less on an interaction between myself and the text, I felt I was able to love the Bible again. Of course, as you mentioned, I haven't totally abandoned the idea that Scripture can be pretty clear on some things -- maybe even all things necessary for salvation -- but the difficulty for me was that what is "necessary for salvation" varies so widely in Christendom.

    Anyways, I'm definitely excited to see where the journey takes you!

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    1. That's crazy! Can you predict what I'll change my mind on next? ;)

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