Think you know what “God says” about any given topic? It has been my experience that when I am most sure of myself, I am the least sure of God. God created the community we call the church for a reason. One of those reasons is so that my opinion about any given topic should not go unchallenged by the rest of my brothers and sisters who are also being led by the Spirit to rightly interpret Scripture.
It has also been my experience that the Bible is often not as easy to understand as some may claim it to be. Humility is the order of the day.
The following is a great article by Preston Sprinkle on the topic of biblical interpretation.
My grandma used to say: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And most evangelical Christians agree. The Bible is their authority. It’s the rule for life that forms their beliefs. In debates, the Bible is the referee.
The Bible permeates the homes of Christians. Pieces of it get plastered on magnets that hang on refrigerators. It gets stuffed into plastic bread loaves to be devoured one verse at a time. Enter the house of a Christian and you’re bound to see the Good Book lurking behind every corner. Christianity is a Bible-centered religion.
Or so they say.
My grandma was right—but only partially. She was right in what she affirmed, but wrong (unconsciously so) in what she left out: that sticky, debated, often unnoticed problem of interpretation.
Every Bible-believing Christian by definition says they believe the Bible. But no one reads the Bible without bias.
As philosopher Thomas Nagel used to say, there is no “view from nowhere.” In other words, there is no such thing as an unbiased interpretation, an approach to the Bible (or any text) that has no presuppositions, no precommitments, no cultural, familial and personal assumptions that steer the reader’s eyes to see certain things and avoid others.
Yes, God said it. And certainly, Christians can believe it. But before its truths can be accessed and applied, they must be interpreted.
And everyone brings something to the Bible when they seek to interpret it. Family upbringing, church background, social status, ethnicity, gender, age, nationality and many other personal and cultural narratives have been trafficked into every person’s mind and heart (often unknowingly) and form interpretive lenses as thick as coke-bottle glasses. One simply can’t read the Bible as a neutral observer.
Touched by an Angel
Take angels, for instance. When you read about angels, what do you envision? Large, white, glowing figures with magnificent wings hovering over their heads?
In reality, angels are never described in the Bible as having wings. Cherubim have wings (Ezekiel 10:3-22). Seraphim have wings (Isaiah 6:2). But Cherubim, Seraphim and angels are different types of spiritual beings. The Bible never equates angels with Seraphim or Cherubim. And whenever angels do appear in the Bible, they are never depicted as having wings.
Usually, when angels are described, they simply look like men. Probably Middle-Eastern, dark-skinned men. If they had fluttering wings, they probably would not have been mistaken for men (e.g., Genesis 18:1-21). Still, when most people in the Western world read about angels, our interpretive lenses are colored by other pictures and paintings from our culture.
There is no such thing as an unbiased interpretation, an approach to the Bible that has no presuppositions that steer the reader’s eyes to see certain things and avoid others.
Or what comes to mind when you think of Jesus? According to Google, most Americans think of a white, physically fit, long-haired man with a thin beard. But this picture comes from modern culture and not the Bible. The Bible gives scant physical description of Jesus. The clearest depiction comes from Isaiah, who says He was not very attractive (Isaiah 53:2).
Jesus may have had the toned abs of Hollywood’s depiction, but perhaps He was pudgy or, more likely, knee-knocking thin. In any case, the Bible does not say. Modern presuppositions don’t allow for a pudgy, non-attractive (by Western standards) Jesus, even if the Bible does.
And, in all likelihood, Jesus did not have his trademark Jared Leto hair. Jewish men didn’t have long hair in the first century, so Jesus almost certainly had short hair. And being Middle-Eastern, His skin was probably darker than the pasty representations of Jesus in Western art and on the Internet.
These are just a few examples of how culture can shape perception and imagination, but gender also steers our reading of Scripture. I’d read through the book of Exodus dozens of times before I noticed all the heroes in the beginning of the book are women—the Hebrew midwives, Moses’ sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses’ wife Zipporah (who circumcised Gershom with a flint rock and saved her husband from instant death).
The only ounce of testosterone in the early chapters of Exodus is bound up in a tongue-tied murderer who forgot to carry out the most basic Hebrew command of circumcision on his son. Still, as a man, I thought Moses was the hero of the book.
And yes, it was a woman who pointed out to me what was broadcast by God across the first four chapters: God used women to pave the way for His people’s redemption from slavery.
A View From Somewhere
One way to expose the political and cultural biases that fog various interpretations of Scripture is to raise a hot-button ethical question and see how “Bible-believing” Christians respond.
Take immigration, for instance. Most Christians, especially those in the border states, have strong opinions about immigrants coming to America, especially if such immigrants lack the proper documentation. Most Christians (statistically) vote for higher walls and stricter laws.
But the Bible is actually saturated with radical, counterintuitive and economically demanding commands about caring for foreigners living among believers (Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Jeremiah 22:3; Ezekiel 22:29; Malachi 3:5, to list only a few).
Throughout the Bible, God aggressively encourages Israelites to be a foreigner-loving, immigrant-welcoming, others-embracing people.
The prophets considered caring for foreigners to be evidence of true faith (Jeremiah 7:4-8; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:8-10). Jesus Himself proclaimed that caring for immigrants is so fundamental to the Christian faith, those who say they believe in Him but don’t care for immigrants are not genuine Christians (Matthew 25:35, 38, 43; Luke 10:25-37).
There are other biblical questions to consider, of course. Paul says Christians are to submit to the state (Romans 13:1-4), although Peter believed obedience to God trumped allegiance to Rome (Acts 5:29). Clearly, there is a discussion to be had, but that’s the point: There should be a discussion, preferably a biblical one. Quick and aggressive answers driven by economic and political concerns—salted with a pinch of biased news reports—are in and of themselves not biblical. Still, this is frequently the knee-jerk response of “Bible-believing” Christians.
It would behoove those who believe the Bible clearly weighs in on complex, modern day issues to ask themselves why, exactly, they believe this. Where did this interpretation come from? Was it from a long, neutral, unbiased study of the Bible? Or from somewhere else: family, theological tradition, political affiliation or personal aversion? The possibilities are numerous, and often, the answer may be something as simple as “I’ve always believed this.”
That, of course, is not submitting to the Bible as the ultimate authority, but submitting to “what you’ve always believed” as the authority.
Knee-jerk responses to hot-button issues are often produced by influences other than the Bible. All controversial questions require much study and resist simple answers. But if Bible-believing Christians don’t know what the Bible says about a certain issue, they ought to, by definition, pause and say, “I’m not sure how I should respond. Let me study the Bible and think about it.”
Claiming to be biblical, going to a biblical church and listening to preachers who saturate their sermons with Bible references does not ensure that one is actually biblical. Even within “Bible only” Protestant churches, doctrinal statements often carry more authority than the Bible.
And sometimes, one’s preconceived opinions on certain topics remain fixed in stone regardless of whether there is a biblical reason for their view. Pitch a hot-button issue at a Christian and watch him swing for the fences. Follow it up with a curveball, “Where does the Bible teach that?” and he’ll often be caught looking.
Everyone brings baggage to every text, biblical and otherwise. But that doesn’t mean all is lost. There’s hope for “being biblical.” While there’s no way to approach the text neutrally, it can be approached fairly.
In order to prize and prioritize Scripture, certain beliefs need to be regularly brought before the Bible for a sort of theological tuneup.
The famed Protestant theologian Karl Barth used to say ecclesia semper reformanda, or “The Church is always to be reformed.” That is, Christians must always re-examine their doctrine and beliefs in light of Scripture.
The assumption, of course, is that over time, certain cherished doctrines will become crusted over with repetition and could become cut off from their Scriptural roots. In order to prize and prioritize Scripture, certain beliefs need to be regularly brought before the Bible for a sort of theological tuneup.
Theologian Alister McGrath said it well in an essay: “Reformation, rightly understood, is not a once-for-all event whose ideas are to be set in stone, but an ongoing process of re-examination and reconsideration, forced upon us by the priority of the biblical text over our provisional interpretations of that text.”
Re-examining doctrinal statements, for instance, is “forced upon us by the priority of the biblical text.” McGrath goes on to say, “The price of being biblical is to constantly return to the Bible, sometimes with anticipation and at other times with trepidation, in that our present ideas may find themselves rendered questionable.”
A truly biblical Christian is one who recognizes their presuppositions as a woman, or a man, or American, or black, or white, or politically conservative or liberal, or as someone who had a terrible father and therefore shudders at the thought of God being our heavenly Father. A biblical Christian doesn’t deny these biases, but admits and embraces them, then holds out the assumptions with an open hand and invites the Bible to critique such presuppositions.
A biblical Christian ought not to approach the Bible from a posture of control—collecting verses that seem to support certain beliefs. But rather, they should approach Scripture from a posture of excitement, mystery and humility.
Perhaps the saying, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” could be adjusted to “God said it. I believe it. Let’s talk about it.”
Instead of falsely believing a particular interpretation has settled the truth, perhaps Christians can seek it out together—as iron sharpens iron—and wrestle with the beauty of God’s unchained word.