Isn’t Everyone’s View of the Bible Just Their Own Opinion? Whose Interpretation Is Right?

iscribblesometimes asked a question:

The last post you made is really good, I think that sort of attitude is really important in Christianity. But how do I keep that attitude, and understand that the bible has been interpreted in many ways, while not becoming doubtful of the bible and it’s truth? How do I keep an open mind and still remember that God is unchanging? (I’m not sure if you take asks so don’t feel pressured to answer, just thought I would say what I’ve been thinking for a while that your post reminded me of.)

Hey dear friend, I believe you’re referring to this post.

For reference, I wrote this:

“Because the Bible says so.” Okay, but whose interpretation? Yours? Mine? From the era of the Crusades? When they were burning people at the stake? When it was used to support slavery? What if we have different conclusions? What if we’re both wrong? 

So first off: I got quite a lot of backlash on that post, and I had to take a break from my inbox and from looking at comments and reblogs. I don’t say that out of self-pity (there’s a lot more important stuff happening across the world), but rather to point out that I must’ve hit a nerve. Someone commented something like, “I thought you were one of the good guys.” I mean, I laughed, but I was also a little bummed out by all the judgmental assumptions. Like, can we not ask these questions at all?

I wrote the post originally because a few people confronted me saying things like, “I unfollowed you because I don’t agree with you theologically” (which is fine, everyone has a right to unfollow) or “Your interpretation is off” or “You’re becoming a liberal” (as if liberal is a bad word).

So I asked the questions out of sincere curiosity. How do we get out of this conundrum of your interpretation versus my interpretation? If you say my view is wrong, isn’t that just your opinion of my opinion? Aren’t we all sort of flying blind? And how exactly do we meet in a place where we can intellectually discuss our disagreements if one party already presumes the higher ground? Really, when someone says “I disagree with your theology,” what they’re saying is, I disagree with your interpretation of theology based on my interpretation of theology. So where did that interpretation come from? Trace it back and it’s always from someone else. A person. With a tiny brain like yours and mine. Augustine or Calvin or Nietzsche or Osteen. Some church leader a thousand years ago, or some book written last year, or some preacher guessing at the Bible the best he or she knows how.

Of course, I don’t mean to say the whole thing is unfathomable. Much of the Bible is very plainly spoken and can be taken prima facie, at face value. I also remember in seminary learning that the best way to interpret the Bible is by using the Bible. That sounds like self-defeating circular logic, but it does make sense: for any kind of text in history, whether a play or novel or comic book or mythology, it require an internal consistency with a baseline, on its own terms. The Bible does have these rules, called hermeneutics, and each book within it follows the rules of its own genre, whether poetry, eyewitness account, journal entry, or practical wisdom. So the Bible can be understood, as long as the authorial intent, the time period, and the genre are taken into context.

Yet—even on its own terms, even within context, even knowing all the rules, the content of the Bible can become difficult to comprehend. The Apostle Peter himself writes of Paul’s letters, [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). If Peter says this of Paul, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that Scripture can get murky and muddled.

And it’s that second thing that Peter writes, about people distorting the Bible, that always gets me. I’m not always sure how to discover which interpretation is the right one, and some of that is because of my bias that is staining the lens with which I read Scripture. Each of us have so much self-interest that we can use the Bible (and other stuff) to justify any position we want, even under the guise of “the common good” or “your benefit.”

On top of that, multiple competing viewpoints appear to have sound logic backing them. There are a ton of different ways to interpret the Bible, and each interpretation can look as good as the last one. Who’s to say who’s right? Is Moby Dick really about revenge? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald really mean all the symbolism? Is The Planet of the Apes about racism, class warfare, the folly of playing God, all of them, or none of them? How can I trust my senses? Or yours?

So I have two starting points that might help.

1) I assume that my precious beliefs are always open to challenge, and 2) I must live by the beliefs I hold true, as honestly and as passionately as I can, by the grace of God, and God will sort that out.

If my opinion and my interpretation of the Bible are always matching up, then it’s possible I’m just making God into my own image and forcing Him to conform to what I want (2 Timothy 4:3, 2 Peter 2:1-3). I’m basically just colluding with myself as my own accomplice into the crimes I want to commit. Then I wouldn’t be in dialogue with God, but rather manipulating a robot-idol that I designed to do my bidding and to turn off at my convenience. 

If the Bible is timeless truth, then I’d expect that such truth would press against what I hold to be personally and culturally true. And we are all chronologically landlocked by ideas that don’t make sense and must be challenged and changed. I believe the Bible, read correctly, will usurp what is destructive and affirm what is constructive. If I’m actually in dialogue with the God of the Bible, then I would expect He’ll say things that I dislike. I would expect to be transformed rather than brush off the Bible at my convenience. I would expect both tenderness and authority. And still, I assume that these ideas can be confronted and rebuked.

Once I land on a conviction, I assume God will sort out the outcome. History (at least hopefully and generally) will prove whether I was aligned with God’s purpose, or not. I know there are a ton of caveats and exceptions with this idea, but the natural world does usually unroll either benefits or consequences from our actions, or a mix of both, and in our limited three lb. brains, I think we can grasp an inkling of what God must want out of all we do. God makes it clear and we can test Him on that (Philippians 3:15-16, Romans 12:2).

In the end, figuring out what God wants is not some mysterious, complicated puzzle. The more I have to justify and rationalize something, the more I can be sure it’s not from God. The Bible has made a lot of things pretty clear. Jesus said plainly: I must love people. There’s no equivocation or wavering there. How it happens might differ, but that it happens at all must not.

— J.S.

Photo by Charlotte90T, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One thought on “Isn’t Everyone’s View of the Bible Just Their Own Opinion? Whose Interpretation Is Right?

  1. Well, as someone trained in scholarship and taught courses in seminaries, I have come to one conclusion that applies to your post: If what I learned leads me closer to Jesus, closer to others, and an unbridled obsession with God being in charge, my knowledge has value. If I use it to condemn, divide or bruise a believer, or alienate the seeker or distract attention from The Creator I am working for evil.
    Just for the record, even when I think you are off a little I have confidence you serve the God Who is the Way, Truth and Life. So I am in your corner, holding a towel, just in case!

    Liked by 1 person

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