People Disagreed With Jesus About the Bible Too

Jesus talking“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

9 thoughts on “People Disagreed With Jesus About the Bible Too

  1. Hi Derek,

    I agree that the whole ‘everyone’s entitled to their own interpretation’ line can be massively overdone, and I think that there is a lack of in depth theological education and breadth in online dialogues, in songwriting (@AJWtheology) and even from too many untrained teachers in pulpits.

    However, I think it’s also true that as someone recently said “Let’s be honest, “simply being biblical” can be a rather complicated matter.” (https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10103734026662491&id=6019919)

    Citing an extreme example, it’s obvious from the repeating cycle of failed apocalyptic predictions and date settings that being overconfident in your own interpretation as the only correct one can lead to problems, in that case risking credibility and cruelly and unnecessarily damaging the viability of the faith of their followers.

    In your piece, I agree with your sentiment, but I’d take issue with your final paragraph as being uncharacteristically careless in not looking at what the text actually says, instead taking it a step further to make it say what you want it to.

    You state:
    “None of this, of course, removes the difficulties involved with the reality of plurality in interpretation. It does, I submit, put the breaks on us simply tossing our hands up in the air every time we come up on a disputed verse or issue.
    (Agree. Then your conclusion … )
    There is truth in the text and we can know it.
    Why?
    Because Jesus said so.”

    But if you look carefully at the texts you’ve quoted:
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+22%3A29-33%3B+Mark+7%3A12-13%3B+Luke+24%3A25%E2%80%9326%3B+John+5%3A39-40&version=NASB
    Summary: You are mistaken, your tradition is mistaken, you don’t believe the prophets, you don’t come to me.

    … nowhere does Jesus say that we can definitely know the truth in all texts, He just says that the audience in question definitely didn’t know it in those specifics.

    In fact in that last one He says you don’t necessarily find truth in scriptures, ultimately you find it in Him – mainly but not exclusively via the scriptures of course, which I’d argue still leaves appropriate humility and openness to a range of valid traditions and perspectives as the best attitude to the interpretation of scripture, rather than presuming that we definitely understand everything with certainty, or that we happen to be in a tradition which coincidentally is the one that finally has all interpretation correct. Hallelujah!

    Simply being biblical can indeed be a rather complicated matter.

    • Jez,

      I think you took the long way round to saying we mostly agree, but would emphasize a different point.

      But really, I agree with most of that and have said as much elsewhere on Christ as the center of Scripture (please lets fall in the Christ v. Scriptures split), the complexity of interpretation. My point was simply to puncture an aggressive skepticism with Jesus’ own usage of Scripture. Not to suggest we all become arrogant, closeminded, or simplistic in our interpretations. You can’t say everything in every post all the time.

      As for what Jesus didn’t say specifically, permit me to suggest you’re taking me a bit literalistically as suggesting that Jesus out and out said it here in this text. His use “says” it, as does that of his apostles, and so forth.

  2. There does seem to be one possible help and it is not really one that has a THEOLOGICAL name nor have I been successful in finding a Theological development (I actually will be willing to accept any if any out there is aware of one) of a schema of interpretation that is found in the Bible and as a doctrine, it is as established by the same means as it talks of how doctrine can be established.

    Without ANY theological name to my repertoire I call it the TORAH LAW OF TWO OR THEE WITNESSES THAT ESTABLISHES A MATTER IN TWO COROLLARIES.

    Because of several rephrasing of this law I will give the generic.

    While Joseph to Pharaoh introduces the basis of the law in Genesis 41:25,32, Moses gives practical applications concerning judgment in three places though it is found in formula throughout the Bible and even on the lips of Jesus.

    Corollary One – in the mouth of ONE WITNESS shall no man be put to death. Jesus puts it this way, “if I bear WITNESS of myself my witness is NOT true.” Peter in this corrected to the Greek of his commentary on Paul’s letters in 2 Peter 1:20 says, “this first knowing that EVERY PROPHECY of scripture is NOT OF ITS OWN INTERPRETATION.” Verse 21 follows with a concise restatement of both corollaries.

    Corollary Two – in the mouth of WITNESSES, TWO or THREE, shall a matter be established. We see it in Matthew 18 concerning church discipline and we find it in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 14 establishing church doctrine though he said the precise living version of this practice will be done away with in 1 Corinthians 13:10 in context of verses 8-13.

    Just using this one schema of interpretation one can find out that there are indeed TWO “this generation” that Jesus speaks of. One of his peerage which he calls “evil” that will NOT SEE A SIGN FROM HEAVEN, and one, where again he participates in because He IS one of the signs from heaven that sees a plethora of signs from heaven. This defeats the show case understanding of the Preterist, with the caveat that the irony would be that the mentioning of “this generation” of Jesus’ peerage COULD VERY WELL HAVE BEEN the “this generation” spoken of in Matthew 24 but for the lack or recognition of the nation that Jesus was their Messiah and the kingdom postponed.

    Thanks and I hope this helps those who might even want to develop this better.

  3. It gives me great hope to know that if I earnestly search the scriptures and have a willing heart to learn that I will be “taught by God.” He will lead me to the truths he wants me to learn. (John 6:45, 1 John 2:27)

  4. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    I tend to lean towards interpretive skepticism myself. At first sight, Jesus looks rather arrogant, like the fundamentalists who harp that “the Bible clearly says” such-and-such. At the same time, it is interesting to see the context and presuppositions behind Jesus’ interpretive method. In any case, interesting post!

  5. Pingback: Jesus and the Coherence of Scripture | Reformedish
  6. Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    I am in the middle of posting a five-part blog series on the interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27, the famous “Seventy Weeks” prophecy, one of the most controversial Old Testament prophecies predicting the coming of the Messiah. Some scholars call it the “Dismal Swamp” of Biblical interpretation. After digging into this for about two years, I can believe it really is a swamp. The passage is really fascinating and amazing, but the pervasive interpretive pluralism among Christians, as to what the prophecy means, can be overwhelming. There have been times where I have been tempted to throw my hands up in the air and give up. Thankfully, I ran into the following re-post from Derek Rishmawy’s blog that serves as a healthy antidote to following such a temptation. Derek Rishmawy is also a co-host of the MereFidelity podcast, that I sometimes listen to, that combines thoughtful theological reflection and conversation, with engagement in contemporary cultural issues impacting the English speaking world. These guys are smart, and just listening to the British accents of some of the other co-hosts makes you feel a little bit smarter yourself, too. If you need some intellectual stimulus that you are not getting elsewhere, you should check out the podcast sometime at the MereOrthodoxy website.

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