by Steve Kindle
In my two previous posts, I attempted to make the case that finding a way for everyone to agree on how to understand the Bible is an impossibility. For various reasons, such as language nuances, psychological makeup, differing worldviews, hidden agendas and the like, we are presently, and probably always will be, unable to see eye to eye. This is true not only of the mundane (What swallowed Jonah?) and certainly the “essentials of the faith”.
I don’t see this inability to understand alike as a problem, per se. In the first place, it is a gross misunderstanding of human nature. We are all very different and come to scripture with all those differences intact. To expect conformity is to downgrade humans to the status of androids. Part of being created in the image of God is the ability to think for ourselves, unlike other animals.
Secondly, the idea that a text can yield only one true interpretation is to misunderstand even how the Bible works. Only one example is necessary, that of how Matthew plucked meaning from Old Testament passages that could never have been conceived of by their original authors or hearers. (You may want to fall back on Matthew “being guided by the Holy Spirit,” yet more meaning was in those texts than one.) Some of us may legitimately see things that others miss.
Thirdly, as long as the hermeneutic circle exists (in order to understand the Bible, one must understand every verse in the Bible. In order to understand every verse in the Bible, one must understand the whole Bible), there will never be a comprehensive or complete interpretation. In the meantime, we struggle.
So, in a world where ultimate assurance of a given interpretation is wanting, what are we to do? We need to acknowledge the value of disagreement. Disagreement is inevitable and therefore necessary. Necessary? Yes, as it points to the limitations of the human capacity to discern ultimate truth. It’s another way of acknowledging that we need each other. Your strengths may shore up my weaknesses and vice versa. But this can only happen if we allow it to.
The problem is not disagreement. Disagreements often arise because some interpreters fail to recognize their own baggage that they bring to the task, and believe they are operating in a “baggage free zone,” where one’s assumptions, if they are thought of at all, are assumed to be true, untainted by human error. The real problem is when those with a point of view insist all others must conform to it. This is the original sin of Fundamentalism. “I derived my interpretation from the Bible, therefore it is equal to the Bible itself.” R. W. Dale noted way back in 1889 “that to put a meaning of [one’s] own into a Bible sentence and to claim Divine authority for it, was just as bad as to put a sentence of [one’s] own into the Bible and to claim Divine authority for it.” We need to be constantly reminded that in Protestantism there are no popes.
Where we go wrong, it seems to me, is not respecting human finitude. We must begin with the proposition that regardless of the beauty and sublimity of a particular interpretation, there is no perfect, absolute, final understanding. Even though we may reach profound heights, we still see in a mirror, dimly. The threat to the church is not different outcomes, but those who would insist on their particular understanding at the expense of all others. The “one who knows” is like the person holding one piece of the jigsaw puzzle believing it’s the whole picture. Paul warned us about those who think of themselves more highly than they ought. Humility before the Bible is a prime requisite of meaningful interpretation. Diversity (spice) is inevitable, and to try to force everyone into the same mold is not only futile, it goes against what it means to be human. And, I believe, Christian.