How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
By pretty much any standard, the Christian Bible is an imposing book. Measuring in at (cue boxing announcer voice) over thirty-one thousand verses, composed by the hands of several dozen authors, and standing strong as the most-read book in human history, it is a vast and formidable text.
The Bible is also a challenging book because of the many interpretive questions that come with reading it. There is mystery in the Bible. There are different genres to sort through. There are puzzles and paradoxes to engage.
This means that sometimes the real meaning of the text – and the implications of the passage’s meaning for how Christians ought to live – is difficult to determine. On some occasions, it seems like there’s nothing there of relevance whatsoever; at other times, passages appear to permit multiple interpretations. In any event, believers and believing communities can find scriptural study frustrating.
I love this old clip from Seinfeld because as a Bible reader, I feel like I’ve lived it out over and over again. In this scene, Elaine puts the screws to an editor of the New Yorker after the magazine published a cartoon with no discernible meaning:
Have you ever come away from reading the Bible thinking – that’s great and all, but what does it mean?
Bible interpretation isn’t easy. The practice of hermeneutics (there’s your fifty-cent seminary word for the week) requires a range of skills and sensitivities. Accurate translation, careful cross-referencing, and cultural awareness are all needed in order to draw out the meaning from Biblical texts. But even with the right tools and the appropriate frame of mind, Christians can arrive at vastly different conclusions about what the Bible means.
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t always like this. In fact, for many years interpretation wasn’t an activity most Christians worried themselves with at all.
Remember that for most of Christian history, copies of the Bible were rare. What physical manuscripts that existed were owned by churches and priests. Because so few people could read the Bible on their own, the church hierarchy was also able to tightly control interpretation. That meant that the way that the clergy in the Vatican or in Constantinople understood the Bible was the way everyone had to understand the Bible.
Things changed dramatically in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, and Bibles became increasingly common in Europe. Less than a century later, Martin Luther touched off the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church’s monopoly on Biblical interpretation eroded. Suddenly, more people than ever – with more freedom than ever – were weighing in on what the Bible meant.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: This was a good development. The Word of God has always been for the People of God. But in the decades following the Reformation, Christian leaders realized that this thing had the potential to get messy. Without the Pope there as the final hermeneutical referee, conflict over the meaning of the text began to rise.
In a sense, what Christian leaders discovered was what Jewish rabbis and thinkers had known for a thousand years – that two people reading the same scriptural passage can come to very different conclusions about what it means. They also learned that subtle disagreements over textual interpretation can lead to major pain and division among believers.
As most of us know, divisiveness around Biblical hermeneutics continues today. Many of these debates are trivial; whether or not Cain married his sister doesn’t really impact Christian witness or mission today. Others – such as whether Jesus was a bringer of peace or of conflict, and which Old Testament regulations should be obeyed in the present times, and whether or not Jesus knows what the Heavenly Father knows – represent matters far more consequential.
As a Christian, I feel the anxiety around interpretation almost every day. I’ve been involved in church leadership now for a decade and a half; you’d think by this time I’d be feeling my oats a little bit. But it’s funny…the more that I learn about the Bible, the more humbled I am to interpret it. Let me share for a couple of minutes what I mean.
I’d like to hold out three personal guidelines for interpreting the Bible. These are at work in my heart; perhaps they’ll make sense to you, too.
Guideline #1: Biblical Interpretation isn’t Easy
In these challenging questions of interpretation, I’m heartened to remember what 2 Peter 2:15-16 says: [O]ur dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand.
This is just wild. Those words are attributed to the Apostle Peter. That’s the Peter, the same guy who was the leader of the twelve disciples. The Peter who was the bold and brilliant preacher at Pentecost, the one upon whom Jesus said he would build his church. And here, even he admits struggling to understand some of the New Testament!
In the midst of a church conflicted over Biblical hermeneutics, I’m willing to stand there with Peter. There are many things in the Bible that I can’t understand or resolve either. There are pieces that I’d love to ignore, skip over, or revise. But they’re in there. And I’ve got to grapple with what they say and with what they mean.
I hear many people talk about the “plain sense of Scripture.” And yes, there are lots of very clear texts in the Bible. But there are plenty more that require a humble heart for learning. If it’s true for Peter, it’s true for me. And it might be for you, too.
Guideline #2: Biblical Interpretation is Dynamic
For a long time, theologians have recognized that our hermeneutical methods are like lenses. They are prisms that arise from – and help to shape – our reading of the Bible.
Now, if you’re paying attention, you’re probably picking up on a Catch-22 thing going on there. How do we interpret the Bible? We interpret it based on what we believe. What do we believe? For Christians, we believe what the Bible teaches.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, a German Christian philosopher of language, saw this circularity clearly. Gadamer notes that readers are always wheeling back-and-forth between the parts of the text and the whole of the text. At the moment one starts reading, the reader begins making assumptions about the scope of the work. This conception about the whole story allows the reader to frame and appreciate the individual lines and sentences that she’s reading. At the same time, as the reader takes in more of the paragraphs, her assumptions about the work as a whole evolve.
I’m willing to admit that it’s the same thing when I read the Bible. I approach the Bible – now, as I did thirty years ago – assuming that it’s about something. And because I believe that it’s about something, I will involuntarily and invariably understand individual passages as pointing to that thing. Discreet texts are pixels in the Biblical mosaic that I presume to be there.
Now, if Gadamer is on to something – and I think he is – then each chapter and verse that I read are at the same time working to help me better appreciate the whole story. What I read in James modifies (hopefully, for the good) my understanding of the Bible in its entirety. Little by little, what I discover in Numbers and in Zephaniah and in Galatians help me to see the whole of Scripture in sharper relief.
It’s my task as a reader to be obedient to this process, trusting that God is in it. Scripture isn’t just about something. It’s also doing something. I love what God says through Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)
The Word of God needs to melt me and smash me. That means that I am not the same, and my interpretations cannot be the same, after experiencing it.
Ready to touch a couple of nerves? It means that if I’m reading with integrity, I cannot make Leviticus 18, which says that a man shall not lie with another man as he would with a woman, rule and authority in my life, while at the same time discarding Leviticus 19, which says that I must love a foreigner as I love myself. In reading both passages, something has to happen to me. These texts – and the other 1200 in the Bible – are processing me even as I work to understand them.
Guideline #3 – Biblical Interpretation Requires Bridges
There’s one more really important factor in interpreting the Bible, especially in light of complex passages and conflicted relationships. And that’s my acknowledgement that I begin interpreting from a specific place.
Come back to the metaphor of the lens for a minute. I’ve been wearing glasses for about twenty years. That means – depending on what provisions my insurance provider makes – that I head down to the optometrist to pick out a new pair of glasses every couple of years.
I’m never good in that moment. The number of frame options makes me lock up! I pace back and forth in front of that big wall of frames like a guy wondering if he should propose to his girlfriend. I spin the carousel of potential spectacles around again and again.
And then finally, my wife just tells me which ones to get.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. But it’s partly true. I choose my frames based on who’s with me. I choose based on the ones I had before. I choose based on wanting (or not wanting) to look like people with similar glasses.
I think you’re getting my point. Before I look through my lenses, I look at them. I make influenced choices about the pair through which I will see everything else.
When it comes to interpreting the Bible, I read in ways that are also shaped by my environment and my past. I privilege interpretations of difficult texts based on who I hang out with at the coffee shop, on how I think my Sunday School class will react, on who my parents and schoolteachers were, and on my personal history of rejection and affirmation.
All of that stuff is at work when I come to the Bible. I wish I could get it out, but I can’t. It’s the plank in my eye. It causes me to uniquely appreciate some things and to completely miss others. Because I’ll always have an obstructed view of certain parts of the Bible, I’ll never fully appreciate what a black man or a poor Korean grandparent or a Palestinian Christian or a divorced woman is able to see.
Gadamer calls my viewpoint, these collected biases, my horizon. I have a horizon that is different from someone who stands 5 miles from me and much different from someone who stands 5000 miles from me. We stand on the same planet, but we see things differently.
Gadamer calls for a bridging, or a fusion, of these horizons as best as we can. He calls it Horizontverschmelzung. (You won’t need to know how to pronounce it for the test). It means that when we have different – even divergent – understandings of the same text, the least we can do is admit together that we read from certain perspectives. This is not the same thing as saying that all readings are equally valid – that’s a discussion for another day – it means that we will simply struggle to reconcile our different readings unless we humbly own up to our preconceptions. We have to build bridges from our places of diversity toward a center of unity. And make no mistake about it, there’s a lot of spiritual stuff that happens in that moment (again, fodder for another piece).
These guidelines – acknowledging the overall difficulty of hermeneutics, recognizing the dynamism of my relationship to the Word, and owning my local and personal prejudices – point to the complexity of interpreting the Bible. But hopefully keeping them in front of me as I read makes me a more careful interpreter and a better conversation partner in an age of growing division.