I can remember several quasi-theological conversations from my youth, when I was a new Christian. When I first came to faith, I was filled with wonder about God, so I read the Bible as much as time would allow (which probably wasn’t all that much, I should admit). But my enthusiasm allowed me to ingest a whole lot of information in a fairly brief time. And as one who always had a willingness to share whatever information I had acquired, doing so led regularly to conversations about the Bible that, with some folks, would invariably end with, “Well, that’s your interpretation.”
Chances are, you and I have either been on the giving or receiving end of a phrase like that at some point in our Christian walk – assuming we dare to discuss our faith with others! How do we deal with it?
In an age of moral relativism, where the society’s ethos expects that we will not believe in, let alone apply, moral absolutes, it can be quite challenging to attempt to set down moral absolutes, even in casual conversation. Yet, if we dig down deep, any sane human being will admit that there have to be some absolutes in this life, or we would live in chaos.
It has been famously noted that saying that there are no such things as absolutes is a statement of absolute, and therefore there must be such things as absolutes. (It’s true: read it again, slowly.) Think for a moment what would happen if a red light at an intersection didn’t always mean “STOP!” If I were to say that, “Red lights don’t always mean I must stop to let opposing traffic proceed,” I would very quickly sustain, and probably inflict, significant injury.
Some people will respond by saying, “That’s different.”
Oh? How is that different? Is it different because it doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable, or challenged? That’s often where comments like “That’s your interpretation” come from – a sense of discomfort.
How do we deal with comments like that? Since the conversation is about the Bible, one could ask (with a winsome smile, please), “What’s your interpretation, then?” If the person has spent time in the Scriptures, he or she may actually have a way of looking at the text that can illumine your understanding of the Bible, and that’s all to the good. If the person doesn’t have an interpretation of the text, that will either end the conversation or offer you an open door for true dialogue – and we always hope for the latter.
It’s also helpful for us to know how to read the Bible. Many people are afraid of the concept of reading the Bible literally, because they fear that passages can be taken out of context and used to literally abuse people. But that’s not what reading the Bible literally means. To read the Bible literally means to read it within its original literary context. For example, if Jesus begins a sentence with the word “Suppose”, it’s probably safe to say that what he’s about to describe probably never actually happened. That doesn’t mean that the principle he’s teaching isn’t true, it just means that the illustration he’s using is merely that – an illustration – and not an historical fact. It’s something that points us to a greater truth.
We often find trouble when interpreting passages from the Old Testament. If we think about the Old Testament ‘living codes’, they fell into three categories: ethical, ceremonial, and social. The ethical codes still apply, because they transcend culture. The ceremonial codes were rendered unnecessary by the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. And the social codes applied only to the culture of the time. There can be some disagreement on what matters fall under which codes, but in general, they will be pretty obvious.
This just touches the surface of what it means to interpret the Bible, as well as to dialogue with others about the interpretation of the Bible, but I hope that, no matter how you choose to help others understand Scripture, you will do so in a loving manner. Our desire is not always to have someone else read the Bible exactly like we do, but to have them follow Jesus with a full heart.
Jesus said, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved” (Matthew 5.17-18, NLT). Let us all, as we interpret Scripture, help its purpose to be achieved.