Thursday, October 13, 2005

more bible interpretation

A couple of days ago I posted (hmmmm), for readers’ comment, one of the Bible study principles on the e-lecture of a Bible Study writing course I’ve enrolled in. Here is the exact wording of the principle from the lecture:

There is only one interpretation yet many applications. Each part has one meaning. (See Hebrews 13:5. I may apply it to one situation and you might apply it in a different situation, but it says what it says.) Some reasons for differing interpretations: person has not done their homework; all people have bias and blind spots (it is good to study with others); some are strong observers, other are discerning interpreters, some need help with application. Also, unconfessed sin will cloud the person’s judgment.
Thanks to all who responded - your comments are much appreciated and helped me think this through.

One of the parts of the first assignment is an invitation to respond to these principles ("Do you disagree with any of these principles? If so, explain your thoughts."):

Here is what I handed in yesterday:

I struggle with this concept as it’s laid out here. On one hand, I agree with the explanatory statement: "It (the Bible) says what it says." I understand this to mean we take the words at face value and don’t attempt to twist them to say what we would like them to say.

And I also believe that in each bit of Scripture is contained something God is attempting to communicate to us. In that sense, then, when we study and interpret the Bible we come with the assumption that in any particular passage, the words are an expression of a particular truth in God’s heart – i.e. the passage has been given to say something to us from God and we are on a quest to find what that something is, that "one interpretation" — the right interpretation.

However, we are all finite and see things colored through a variety of lenses including different experience, training and level of obedience. This leads to a variety of interpretations for many reasons – including the negative things listed in the explanation ("person has not done their homework; all people have bias and blind spots," sin in the life, as well as people’s varying study strengths and ways of looking at things). However, to imply that a variant interpretation comes about simply because of some lack in the person who interprets differently is, I feel, dismissive of honest efforts to understand and interpret accurately.

One doesn’t have to look far to find varying interpretations among people who are known for their piety, scholarship and integrity. The meaning of the word "perfection"in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is a good example. The NIV Study Bible lists four possible interpretations – each with wide-ranging doctrinal ramifications. The writer of that commentary does, at the end of the list, tell us which interpretation he/she favors, but doesn’t criticize the other interpretations or imply the people who came up with them were biased, lazy or sinful.

I think as interpreters of the Bible, we need to do the very best we can to come up with the right interpretation. We do this by considering the context, searching out the meaning of the words used in the original languages, and then applying the other principles of Bible study mentioned (God talks about Himself in terms we can understand; Scripture interprets Scripture, interpretation must be consistent with the rest of the Bible etc.). But still we may come up short, not understanding perfectly what God is saying. He has summarized our condition pretty accurately:

Isaiah 55:8,9: "‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.’ says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts then your thoughts"

I Corinthians 13:12 "For now we see in a mirror dimly but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known."

Thus I think we also need to be teachable and, fully aware of our own inadequacies, to listen to others’ interpretations – not to accept them blindly, but to ‘ the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so" (Acts 17:10-12), and also to see if they bear witness with the Holy Spirit who is our teacher and counselor, and is in us.

So, while the ideal is one interpretation, the reality is often different. I personally feel it’s important to cultivate humility and to be open to learn from the insights of others.

(Again, comments warmly welcomed.)


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