So Who Decides?
We began our pilgrimage with a question: “Who decides what the Bible means?” This question led us to ponder the flexibility of words and the “dictionaries” we bring to the interpretation of the Bible. We talked about our very individual ways of looking at the world and the glasses our church groups wear. We discussed culture and scholars. Lastly we discussed the church.
In the course of our journey we came across three basic reasons for the very diverse interpretations of the Bible we find among Christians today. All these reasons grow from the very nature of words themselves and the Bible’s words in particular. We define words not on the basis of some absolute meaning but by the way they are used, their context. This fact creates a situation in which the meaning of a word can change from one instance to the next. The “dictionary” I bring to a word determines the meaning I see in it.
Thus the first reason for the diversity of interpretations
comes from the fact that the original meaning of the Bible’s words was a
function of the dictionaries of its original audiences. In other words, the original meaning of
Romans was a function of how the ancient Christian Paul and this ancient audience
A second reason is the fact that there are so many different books in the Bible, all of whose individual meanings were a function of their original contexts. There are countless ways to connect the teaching of these individual books to one another. The process of integrating the meanings of these texts is one that takes place completely outside the text. It is something I do as an interpreter from the outside looking in. The Bible itself by and large does not tell me how to connect its teaching together.
Finally, it is not always clear how to connect these ancient meanings to today even if I know them. Again, the books of the Bible do not tell us how to reapply their teaching to today. These books were largely unaware that people like me would later read them in so different a world. They do not stop to tell me how their comments might play out in a different setting. All these factors come together to create the incredible diversity of Christian interpretations.
So what dictionary do I bring to the Bible’s words so that they will take on an authoritative meaning? The simple answer is the dictionary of the Holy Spirit—the definitions that God brings to my mind as I read the text. Such events of revelation can certainly take place for individuals. God can make the words of the Bible come alive to me, with the Bible as a kind of sacrament and means of his gracious revelation. But there are dangers here as well. What if I am wrongly convinced of what God is saying?
If each individual has the Spirit, then I am on safer ground when I try to hear God’s voice in communion with other Christians. Presumably the more Christians I am in fellowship with, the more Spirit we share between us. I can certainly hear God’s voice in a particular church group or denomination. God can bring particular groups to emphasize various dimensions of the overall truth, even truths that might “cancel each other out” if there were only one Christian group. But there are also the dangers of divisiveness, self-sufficiency, and error here as well. What if my group is on the wrong track?
If the Spirit of God inhabits the whole body of Christ, then I am on safest ground when I read the Bible with the saints of all the ages, past and present. This pushes me to read the Bible through the eyes of Christian consensus and tradition, more than with a view to the original meaning. The original meaning was a valid meaning, and it is important for Christians to have some understanding of the original meaning to give us depth.
But if the original meaning is the center of God’s voice, then most of the Christians throughout the ages, including most Christians today, are largely deaf to it. The modern tools of biblical studies are valid, and they can lead us to true understandings about the early church and the historical Jesus. But there are also great uncertainties about the original meaning. And even when we are certain, it is not always immediately obvious how those meanings translate to the church of today.
If we are honest with ourselves, we have read the Scripture this way all along. We did it before the modern era without realizing it. Fundamentalists insist they are reading the original meaning and not relying on the church, but they are sneaking in the traditions of orthodoxy in the way they define the words. Evangelicals painstakingly do their homework, try to determine the original meaning, and then subtly sneak in these canons of orthodoxy and faith when they make the leap from that time to our time.
In the end, the appropriation of the Bible in the church amounts to two things. The first is the constraints and boundaries that the consensus of the church has placed upon it as God has spoken and continues to speak through the ages. Regardless of the original meaning of the Bible, we are in trouble if we do not assent to these. The second is the ethic of love that formed the heart of Jesus’s ethic in the New Testament. Any interpretation of the Bible that justifies hatred is inappropriate. These are the boundaries that the “dictionary of the Spirit” has set for us. If we read the Bible with these glasses, we will not go wrong!