When our interpretations differ…

'Bible' photo (c) 2010, Savio Sebastian - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

[Note: We will return to our series on the book of Esther next week, with a discussion on the complex character of Mordecai, after I’ve returned from my travels.]

As we discussed last week, the Bible is an eclectic collection of letters and laws, stories and songs, prophecies and proverbs, philosophy and poems, spanning thousands of years and multiple cultures. And as such, it lends itself to multiple, competing interpretations. It always has. 

I believe that all Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, challenging, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God are equipped for good works. I acknowledge and submit to the authority of Scripture, even though I often wrestle with it, even though it frustrates and confuses me at times.  And I try to read Scripture with ultimate deference to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who said that all of its laws and stories and prophecies could be boiled down into two principles: 1) love God, 2) love people. 

The fact that the Bible lends itself to competing interpretations should be cause for celebration rather than dismay, for these competing interpretations among people of faith who love and value Scripture help bring us into relationship with one another and with God. They bring us into conversation.  They remind us that faith isn't simply about believing something in isolation, but about being part of a community. 

What is perhaps most frustrating about engaging in such conversations within the evangelical community in particular, however, is that differences regarding things like Calvinism and Arminianism, baptism, heaven and hell, gender roles, homosexuality, and atonement theories often disintegrate into harsh accusations in which we question one another’s commitment to Scripture.  In some cases, folks are so committed to their particular views on these issues they seem incapable of making a distinction between the Bible itself and their interpretation of it, and so any critique of that interpretation is seen as a critique of Scripture itself!  And so we miss one another entirely. Instead of a lively, impassioned debate about the text, we engage in lively, impassioned debates about one another’s commitment to the faith. 

Now, just because I have observed this phenomenon does not mean I am immune to perpetuating it. Often I find myself questioning others people’s motives; often I find myself assuming the worst; often I am too lazy (or threatened or fearful or angry) to hear my fellow Christians out. But the fact that someone interprets the Bible differently than I do does not automatically mean that the person does not love or value the Bible as much as I. It doesn't mean they are trying to hurt me, or hurt women, or hurt Christianity. 

For constructive dialog to happen, Christians must stop conflating differences in interpretation of Scripture with differences in commitment to Scripture.  We must respond to one another’s questions, arguments, and ideas in kind, with more questions, arguments, and ideas, rather than avoiding the conversation altogether by dismissing one another as unfaithful.  

I’ve seen this work in beautiful, constructive, and God-honoring ways…and I’ve seen it fail miserably. Interestingly, it seems to work best in communities that also value gathering around The Table for communion—perhaps because The Table reminds us that it is our shared brokenness and our shared healing through Jesus that ultimately unites us as brothers and sisters in the faith. 

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So how can we do a better job of fostering better conversations about the Bible? And is there room here to also debate the nature of Scripture – like what we mean by “authority” or “inerrancy” or "inspiration”? Where do we draw the line?  

(Please keep your comments positive!) 

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