Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Bible, authority, and interpretation part 2

Following up on my previous post, I’ll continue my reflections from the fascinating conversation I got to be a part of earlier in the week.

At another point in the conversation, one of these formerly legalistic teenagers commented on the damage that was done through this oppressive environment. Specifically, she said that she felt like no one was given any sense of their right to read the Bible for themselves. Instead, they were told what the Bible taught and what it meant for them.

This is oppressive-- and brings to mind a significant part of the Protestant reformation, which was to translate the Bible into the language of the people (instead of only into Latin), so that people of than the priests and bishops could read it. There is an essential aspect of the faith that comes from reading Scripture; it is the Word of God for the people of God. And it is important that people know their Bibles so that they can test the teachings of others against the Word of God (remember the Bereans, who were praised for this in Acts 17:11).

At the same time, the approach of the leaders in the legalistic community are a good example of how we tend to take sound principles too far, when there is actually a “middle ground” balance needed.

Christians today too often take the “democratization of the Bible” too far; because the Reformers saw that it was important that people other than only the authorities of the church be able to read Scripture, today we have many who have decided that their interpretation of the Bible is as good as anyone’s-- and maybe better.

In fact, not everyone can interpret the Bible equally. Some have been trained extensively for interpreting the Bible-- learning the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, studying the history, archeaology, and peoples of biblical times, training in methods and approaches of how to study and interpret Scripture, and other ways of being trained. Others have read and studied their Bibles many times over, and they simply know the Scriptures well. Still others are, frankly, not familiar enough with the Bible to make the confident assertions of interpretation that they do.

This isn’t to say that not
everyone ought to read their Bibles and, yes, make efforts at interpretation. But it is to say that all of us ought to remain teachable about even those biblical texts that we feel the most familiar with. And when we recognize that an interpretation we have made is at odds with an interpretation that others have made, we ought to be willing to hear the reasoning behind their interpretation with an open mind.

Imagine, if you will, the person who dogmatically insists that his translation of a text, though totally at odds with everyone else, is the accurate one:

Dogmatist: This is what I believe the text is saying...
Elder: I don’t see how you got that from Scripture; instead, I think the text says this...
Dogmatist: You’re wrong. It says what I said.
Elder: Well, let’s consult these commentaries, written by contemporary scholars... and, yes, they disagree with your interpretation, also.
Dogmatist: It doesn’t matter. I’m sticking with what I said.
Elder: Okay, but now I’ve consulted with the historical confessions, and they all assert that your interpretation is incorrect.
Dogmatist: That’s what they think. I know what my Bible says.
Elder: But look here, where the early church fathers wrote about exactly that... and they all say the text means something different.
Dogmatist: They can say what they want, but I still say it means what I said.

This sounds a little far-fetched-- but I’ve actually met people who were so convinced that their interpretation (and it always seems to be a “new” take on something) is right that they are willing to disagree with pastors, scholars, and others over 2000+ years of church history and interpretation of the Scripture. A wise pastor once said to me, “if your interpretation is in complete disagreement with 2000 years of church history, you’re very likely wrong.”

This is one of the reasons why I find the presbyterian approach to “doing church” so helpful. As presbyterians, the default position is that my voice alone is not the final word, nor is anyone else’s. Instead, we constantly defer to one another with humility. As presbyterians, we trust that God is at work in the others in our congregation, our presbytery, our synod, or our assembly, at least as much as He has been at work in us to reveal the truth. There will always be times when it is possible that the larger bodies are wrong-- but then we turn to the greater history of the church and test our perspectives against that. The deference to the higher bodies is always present, and always keeping us accountable for our interpretation.

We must read our Bibles, and we must work at interpretation. But we must also be ready to be shown that we are wrong. If we aren’t, then we have made ourselves the author of Scripture-- for only the author can be utterly certain of the meaning of a text.

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