[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by Steve Kindle
For those of us in the West, once the Roman Catholic Church lost its hegemonic hold on the content of the faith, it’s become “every man for himself.” Or in the words of pope of the Reformation period, “With every man his Bible, soon every man his own church.” Quite prophetic, wouldn’t you say?
The Reformation’s emphasis on the right of every believer to interpret the Bible soon became warrant for any old interpretation that suits the interpreter. Who is there to suggest otherwise?
Add to this that the scholarly biblical academy can’t seem to come to a consensus on, well, you name it. We’ve arrived at a point where biblical inquirers are presented with a smorgasbord of options, and we pick and choose as it suits us, with no better reason than choosing a Ford over a Chevy, merely personal preference.
This all begins with the complicated nature of the Bible itself. In order to make sense out of the 31,102 verses, 1,190 chapters and 66 assorted books, it is necessary to employ a schema, or template, to organize its contents into a manageable whole. This is truly a “can of worms,” as the options for this are mind boggling. Additionally, the Bible is a product of people with a worldview quite different from ours. It’s a very difficult task to enter into that ancient world and think as they did. It requires immersing ourselves in cultures two to three thousand years in the past. Many bypass this step and just read it like the daily newspaper. This “what it means today must be what it meant then” approach is sure to yield disappointing results.
What this has done to the church is create oases of partisanship based not on what is found to be the highest truth, but on, as we know from H. Richard Niebuhr on down, economic and political confederacies. It means, “I belong to my denomination because I was raised in it,” or “The people were good to me and so nice.” No matter that you are led by a Jim Jones (Peoples Temple), or a Martin Luther King, Jr. People who, indeed, attempt to find the church closest to the Bible soon learn that it is a fool’s errand. Even the New Testament churches present a wide range of doctrines and differ in many ways. What would the doctrinally perfect church look like? The fact that there are hundreds of options (if not thousands) reflects the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making sense of the biblical data to anyone but the interpreters.
The classic creeds from the Nicaean forward were attempts to cull the basics from Apostolic Christianity to bring order and clarity to the church. All they did was divide the church then, and today make understanding them as difficult as understanding the Bible. Homoousios anyone?
A literal understanding of the words in the Bible is no help either. Whether the literalist understands it or not, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted text. Whatever lens we view the Bible through will control the outcome. And we all wear lenses.
Now, as to the meaning of incomprehensible. The dictionaries basically define it as “unable to make sense.” My overall point is this: Because the Bible does not speak with one voice, but covers a variety of points of view, and even contradicts itself from time to time, one can’t expect its interpreters to do any better. This cacophony of interpretations is bewildering and finally debilitating to the average Bible reader who ultimately surrenders to what seems best, unable confidently to sort out the best among its many contenders. “This makes sense to me,” serves as the final judgment, because we make it make sense.
Any “sense” made from the Bible, is a derivative sense, derived primarily from the approach taken in the reading. There is no obvious sense lying on the surface for any fool to see.
None of this is, of course, the Bible’s fault. It has the inconvenience of being made up of words. Words are, after all, symbols, and symbols are capable of wide meaning, especially when read by people with different backgrounds and experiences. The meaning taken from the Bible varies greatly among women, minorities, third world, poor, oppressed, and oppressor (to name only a few). The meanings are so dissimilar that one sometimes wonders if they are reading the same book.
The real question is, is this a problem? Not if you understand that diversity of interpretive outcomes is inevitable. In fact, diversity of interpretation, for those who remain tentative in their work, is welcome. Why? Because it acts as a corrective. If we remain humble before the text and are willing to listen to others, inch by inch, we may actually come to a more suitable outcome than simply camping on what seems good to us.
This diversity of interpretations is also good for us. Paul’s advice that we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” puts the burden on seeking and finding for ourselves, but not just by ourselves, but in community with other seekers. Only in community can we be exposed to correctives and also the motivation to live out our discovered truths. Even though we may never find the ultimate answer (we see in a mirror, darkly), journeying together has its own rewards. In a very substantial way, the enigma of the Bible is also its greatest good.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I may be right about some of the more difficult areas of biblical interpretation, but the Bible is very clear on what we need to know for our salvation. Oh, really? Is Paul the authority that we are saved by grace through faith–not of works? Or is it James who says that we are not saved by faith alone? Or are the Restoration churches correct in insisting that baptism for the remission of sins is necessary for salvation, or the Baptists who believe that baptism follows salvation? And all are against the Calvinists who insist that humans have nothing to do with the decision! (We could go on, couldn’t we.)
Therefore, in the words of Micah,
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Or, as Ecclesiastes would say, “This is the end of the matter.”