Sometimes I’ve wondered if you couldn’t put five seminary trained professing Christians into the same room, give them the same few verses of Scripture, and get five completely different interpretations from them. Have you ever wondered about that? Thankfully there is a lot more that unites us as Christians than that which divides us, and yet I have often mused over questions like that.
I confess that historically I have tended to be a bit of a literalist. Granted, there are several sections in both Old and New Testaments that are obviously not to be taken literally, but for the most part I have tended to believe that the Bible – and by extension, God – means exactly what it says. By way of example, when the Bible says, “Do not sin,” I interpret that to mean that God does not want us to sin. Pretty straight forward, wouldn’t you say? I do not think that there are some other subliminal messages attached to the verse. Likewise, when the Bible says, “Jesus is the way,” and “no one comes to the Father but through Him,” I interpret that to mean pretty much what it says, that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and not simply one of many different options available to us. Again, when the Bible says that “Not all professing believers are known by Jesus” (Matthew 7:23), while I don’t pretend to necessarily understand, I do take it at face value and believe that some confessing Christians may not really be Christians at all. Now, I didn’t say that; Jesus did. Thankfully God alone will judge that, and we don’t have to. For the most part, I believe that the Bible means what it says, and it says what it means … or does it?
Now here’s the dilemma
Only God can give revelation, and He does so through the Holy Spirit. In retrospect, I sometimes still scratch my head in bewilderment as I think of how many people I’ve known who have tried to teach on the revelation of God, as if they somehow knew His mind. But I’ve digressed. His anointing teaches us all things, even to the point that we do not need teachers (1 John 2: 26-27), though He certainly also gifted some to be teachers. Where I struggle is thinking back in our scenario to those five professing Christians, each claiming to be Spirit-filled and born-again, coming up with five different interpretations of the same Scripture. If those five individuals were really anointed by the Holy Spirit as they claimed, would it not be logical to assume that they would come up with identical interpretations of those same few verses of Scriptures? Not to do so would seem to suggest that, either some of them had not really heard from God as they claimed, or that God changed His mind. What do we do with that? Does God change His mind? A quick trip through any good concordance will show us that He does not.
I have a little book in my library called, “Has the Church Misread the Bible?” In it author Moises Silva says that preunderstanding plays a role in biblical interpretation, and he suggests that we need to take that seriously. He writes,
None of us is able to approach new data with a blank mind, and so our attempts to understand new information consist largely of adjusting our prior “framework of understanding” – integrating the new into the old. … Could it be that it is impossible to shed our presuppositions precisely because it is they that mediate understanding? If so, do we drown in our subjectivity and abandon the goal of objective exegesis? Is every interpretive effort destined to be relativized by the reality of our situation?
Now, I am not even going to try and unpack all that in this little post, for one would be far better off going to Silva’s book for the unpacking of it if you were so inclined. However, I do like the idea of preunderstanding; I think it has some merit.
Perhaps the reason our five friends sometimes come up with five different interpretations is because of some measure of preunderstanding brought about by such things as culture, language, pre-conversion religiosity or even denominational indoctrination. Maybe somewhere along the line they were even exposed to a devil in a pulpit, for the Bible also says that Satan often poses as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), but we’ll leave that topic alone for another post.
Someone has said, “Truth is what you grew up with.” While that statement no doubt raises some red flags, the fact is that a person from another faith believes that theirs is the truth, whereas you and I are certain that we have a correct grasp on the truth. There is a certain preunderstanding that comes into play when people hear new or conflicting ideas. Even Pilate asked, “What is truth” (John 18:38)?
Let’s not go crazy over all this
Obviously there's a place for theological studies; I too hold a seminary theology degree. However, if a guy's not careful, he could go crazy trying to think through all these things. Just like when Festus accused Paul of going insane because of his “great learning” (Acts 26:24), maybe we too sometimes tend to overthink our theology to the point of bordering on insanity. Maybe the answer isn’t so complicated after all. Maybe it simply is a case of, as Paul said, “Now we see but a poor reflection” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Maybe, rather than stress over these things, we should celebrate our common understandings, knowing that none of us necessarily sees the whole picture anyway, and go on in love and relationship with one another.
Maybe that’s what true worship is all about. Maybe what really matters is the “whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40), as opposed to the “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these [because you had your head in a theology text?], you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Could it be that sometimes our theology and “great learning” actually keep us from being the kinds of Christians that God desires that we be today? I wonder.
Maybe the words of this grand old hymn still says it all,
My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;
I trust the ever-living One,
His wounds for me shall plead.
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea,
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.
Maybe that really is enough. Maybe if the church focused more on really learning to trust the “ever-living One,” and to love one another regardless of doctrines, the fathoming of all mysteries (1 Corinthians 13:2) would become less of an issue. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” we all sang as children. Maybe it’s time to lose some theology and come as little children (Matthew 18:3). Maybe that really is enough.
Something to think about. Peace.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Joe Thorn
Hymn Credit: “No Other Plea,” by Lidie H. Edmonds