“Yeah, but there are so many interpretations of that text, so many denominations claiming that Scripture for their own, you can’t really say there’s a wrong way of reading it.”
If you’ve been in a Bible study or spent more than about 10 minutes surfing pop theology writings, you have probably run across a claim of this sort. The idea is that with so many different readings of Scripture, it’s either arrogant or hopeless to think we can come to a determinate, or correct understanding of it. In other words, the mere fact of interpretive disagreement ought to put us off from claiming very much for our interpretations of Scripture.
This sort of charge can take a couple of different forms.
First, someone can go full-blown, radical skeptic and just say that the text has no inherent, determinate meanings, only uses. Or maybe that it’s a springboard for our own thoughts about God and Jesus and so forth, but no more. In this view, the plasticity, the squishiness, if you will, of interpretation lies within the text.
Second, someone can say that the text means something(s), but the problem lies with us as readers. Given the variety of interpretations, it’s arrogant to claim that we know what it says. We’re fallen, finite, and therefore dubious readers. We ought not claim too much for ourselves. Now, I’ll come back to this, because it’s important to note there’s something to this point. We are sinners and that does affect things.
Here’s the main problem with these views when taken too far, though: Jesus’ own use of Scripture.
Over and over again in his disputes with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus appealed to the Scriptures in order to refute his opponents. One classic text is his debate with the Sadducees over whether there is marriage at the time of the Resurrection or not. They posed a “gotcha” question in order to trap him–which is always silly when you’re dealing with Jesus–and here’s his reply:
But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. (Matthew 22:29-33)
The money quote is that line: “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus accuses them of being wrong precisely because they’re misreading the text that they apparently should have understood. And this isn’t the only time he says this sort of thing. Jesus constantly accuses his opponents as well as his disciples with missing what they should have seen in the text (Mark 7:13; Luke 24:25–26; John 5:39-40).
Jesus’ use of Scripture, then, presumes that the words of the Bible have a determinate meaning (which can be complex!) that can be read and discerned. Jesus isn’t flustered, or worried, nor does begin to expound a radical interpretive skepticism, simply because his opponents disagree with him. He just says they’re wrong because they got the text wrong. They didn’t know how to read it. He did.
That, at least, is rules out the first form of the objection.
You may still try to appeal to the second form, though. And as I said, there’s something to that one. Jesus speaks very clearly about human sin, blindness, and hardness of heart as obstacles that hinder reception and proper interpretation of the Bible. But to stop there ignores a number of realities, a couple of which we can only gesture at.
First, again, Jesus himself does appeal to Scripture in his arguments in such a way that presumes that, then and there, some of his hearers should be able to follow his argument.
Second, pushing deeper, we have to place our thoughts on interpretation within the broader sweep of Jesus’ work of salvation. Jesus doesn’t simply redeem our inner, spiritual souls, nor only our physical bodies, but also our created intellects. We forget that Jesus came to be the light that gives sight to the blind–and not only to those physically, but spiritually blind (Isa. 29:18; John 9). He does so by shining out as the Incarnate, Crucified, and Resurrected one, whose whole purpose was to be the one who reconciles and shows us God’s truth, by being God’s Truth with us (Matthew 1:23), who overcomes the darkness that did not recognize it (John 1).
Third, connected to this, Jesus commissions his apostles to preach and teach the gospel, making disciples on his authority, in his personal presence through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:7-8). As Jesus said to his disciples, to some it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11) through the preaching of the Word. He empowered those apostles to preach a Word which, through the work of the Spirit, overcomes even sinful resistance, lightening even darkened minds and hearts (Eph. 1:17). That is the same apostolic Word which is inscripturated in the New Testament.
All of this is why we are commended to follow the example of the Jews in Berea, who we’re told were more noble than many other communities Paul encountered. Why? Because in their eagerness, they examined “the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans are not berated as arrogant, proud, or interpretively naive. They are faithful in their desire to do the hard work of trusting that in the Scriptures God has spoken in a way that he can be heard if we would but listen.
None of this, of course, removes the difficulties involved with the reality of plurality in interpretation. It does put the brakes on us simply tossing our hands up in the air every time we come upon a disputed verse or issue. There is truth in the text and we can know it. Why? Because Jesus said so.
Soli Deo Gloria