Friday, December 30, 2011

Eight Reasons Why There Are So Many Interpretations of the Bible

They say there are as many theories of psychology as there are psychologists. I would say the same for biblical interpretation and theology. Yet, the Bible says that our unity is in the truth, and cannot be found through superficial means elsewhere. It is unfortunate, then, that rather than work toward unity in the truth, evangelicals/emergings have given up on the task to be one in mind and practice with God and each other simply because they observe that there are so many interpretations of the Bible and conclude that moving toward a complete unity in the truth must be a hopeless task. The forced conformity of fundamentalist cults, for lack of a better word, only convinces evangelicals/emergings that they don't want to seek unity in what they believe and practice, since they certainly don't want to be like those people.

But biblical unity isn't a forced unity of the truth. It is a patient growing of teachable individuals toward unity in the truth. And it is necessary for our maturity and spiritual well-being, without which we are left without an anchor to our relationship with God and one another. Unity, therefore, is commanded in Scripture. It is the last desire expressed by the Lord before He goes to the cross and leaves the world; but that unity must be of mind and practice, not in our similar cultural likes and dislikes, i.e., personal preferences. Unity in preference is the unity of the world, but our unity is not of this world.

So one of the main culprits of leaving us in disunity is our feeling that such is hopeless and that we ought to just move on to seek unity either in other things (like a generic mission statement--hence, we all just try to agree to be "missional") or in a mere kernel of the truth that God had set out for us within His whole counsel, since God's whole counsel leads to disunity when there are those who would be offended by it or simply reject it. But since it is God's will that we be of "one mind," having come to belong to "one faith" through "one Spirit" in "one baptism" under "one Lord" and "one God," we need to seek oneness in the way that He desired us to do so, and not cheat with some superficial shortcut so that we can feel like we have arrived at a destination that can only be reached by a long and difficult road.

In light of this, I thought I would lay out a few reasons why we all hold different interpretations of the Bible, as many have just assumed that everyone is equally looking at Scripture and coming away from it with fifty interpretations of it (FYI, most scriptural texts, in reality, are only interpreted two, or sometimes, three different ways, so there aren't really hundreds of possibilities and context limits them usually to a single one). Although many people blame disunity on the lack of perspicuity of the text, the reasons for our disunity usually lay with us (with an exception I will note below). So here is a list of some reasons why we are in disunity that don't really belong to the obscurity of the text.

1. The people interpreting it might not be saved. If the Spirit of God is the One leading us into all truth, then perhaps the issue is that these people just don't have the Spirit of God, and thus their minds are not in tune with the text. We are told in Scripture that God actually befuddles the minds of the unbelieving and confuses their interpretations of life and the text, so that they would "see but not see and hear but not hear." So they twist the Scripture to their own destruction.

2. They're biblically ignorant. Often people hold so many interpretations because they're not actually interpretations at all. They're opinions gained from culture and folk religion. These people have never sat down to actually read the text, so their theological ideas are only thought to be taught by Scripture, but really are not. Think of the factual errors that people make and think the Bible teaches them (e.g., that the angels announcing Christ's birth to the Shepherds sing, that the three wise men visit Christ at the manger, that Christ sweat drops of blood, etc.), and simply apply this to their theological and ethical opinions as well.

3. Although they may have read the Bible, they've never really sat down to rigorously study it. These people have read the Bible before, or maybe often, but they don't really do exegesis of the passages in question. They merely assume they already know what they mean or they just ignore them altogether, and yet, as we all tend to do, will still have an opinion of the matter.

4. They don't know how to study the Bible by taking things in biblical context. Context is important. The immediate context, the context of the entire book, and the context of the entire Bible. Since the entire Bible is God's Word, the entirety of what God has said in it must be considered and provide qualification to any interpretation. Most people are in disunity with the interpretations of others because they read and study the Bible in disunity rather than in continuity with itself. What this means is that one must not limit his or her study to a mere verse, but know the entire passage, book, and Bible so well as to take what is said in context. Hence, since this is a lot of work and takes time, our fast food generation wants the easy way out and doesn't bother with context. What results is each man believing and doing what is right in his own eyes.

5. They don't consider the context of orthodox theology as their guide. We do not approach the Bible as blank slates. We approach it with ideas and a rebellion that seeks to secure those ideas upon which we have stabilized our lives. When those ideas are shaken, our lives our shaken, and that is a scarey thing. Fear then drives us to not want the Bible to say what it says, but rather to support what we want it to say. This is the nature of bias. What the theological and ethical teachings of orthodoxy do is give us the correct bias with which we ought to approach the text, since the promise to lead the church into all truth was given to and through the apostles, who are the divinely appointed interpreters of Christ and the Bible. The church that continues on through their witness is guided by the Spirit of God through the elders/teachers that remained within that orthodoxy. As such, it provides the starting point for us when we approach Scripture. This is why it is so important for an orthodox church to preach the gospel to you, as the wrong gospel will lead one away from the scriptural approach of orthodoxy, and unless corrected, will inevitably lead to wrong biblical interpretation, since the context of the orthodox gospel has been distorted, distorting now the individual passages it interprets in light of it like a diverted rail to a train.

6. They might have the wrong presuppositions. Whereas we not only need the right bias, we also need the right presuppositions in our methodology of inquiry. If our exegesis is based upon, say, a philosophical naturalism that does not see the text as both divine and human, we will tend to interpret it sociologically rather than theologically, and hence, not see it as applicable to what we think and practice today. This will lead to all sorts of uses of the Bible that lead to all sorts of interpretations it was never meant to convey.

7. Their religious traditions may not allow them to actually see what is being said. This goes along with all that has been said above, but many approach the text with not only their secular, cultural ideas, but also their unorthodox religious ideas gained from the particular group they grew up in or first belonged when they believed. These unorthodox traditions put blinders on people so that they cannot follow the text through. If you're not sure if this has happened to you, you only need to look at whether your interpretations cannot explain other passages in Scripture. Like JW's who only want to stay on certain verses and cannot explain others that contradict their interpretations, others who are not in cults still practice the same with their wayward interpretations gained from their families, churches, retreats, books, sermons, etc. that do not allow them to honestly read and study the biblical text thoroughly.

8. Finally, and I want you to pay attention to this one, we are in disunity because WE ARE NOT PERFECT YET AS A PEOPLE. Unity is something we are growing toward. It is not something we have all reached. Some have reached a deeper unity with each other as they mature in the truth, but others are still growing there, and even those who have reached it are still growing together. What disrupts the growth process, however, is our rebellion/unteachable spirit and the things I've laid out above. Hence, it is not OK to merely set aside our pursuit of unity in the truth by setting aside our pursuit of truth together. It is clear that one who sets it aside is working against the Lord and His purposes, not with Him and for Him. Hence, no one should argue that because we have not reached the goal, we ought to become unconcerned about reaching it anymore than one should conclude that because we have not yet become holy, we ought to not be concerned about holiness and sanctification (which ironically are both achieved through unity with God and each other in the truth).

So I wanted to lay this out because many people have the false impression that disunity is due to the lack of clarity the Bible provides. That is simply not the case. The Bible isn't clear because God has set it up that way for those who are unbelieving, but also because our approach to the Bible is often incorrect, that is, if one attempts to correct his thinking by approaching it at all. So the problem is with us, but it is not a fatalistic problem that cannot be solved by the softening of hearts and the teachable spirit of those who seek to know God and the Lord Jesus Christ. One who wishes to be of one mind, heart, and spirit with God will humble himself, believe, and correct his approach to the text in order to do so. And it is in this humility that his eyes will be opened and he or she will be exalted to a place of unity with God and with other fellow believers.

Spare no effort to show yourself approved to God as a  workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15)

"They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.  "As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. "For their sakes I  sanctify  Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, [are] in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. (17:16-21)

And He gave some [as] apostles, and some [as] prophets, and some [as] evangelists, and some [as] pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;  until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all [aspects] into Him who is the head, [even] Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-15)

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