by Steve Kindle
The Christian church has never had a uniform understanding of how to interpret the Bible, nor has it had uniformity of belief over its now nearly 2000 years of attempts to do so. The historic creeds were an effort in this direction, but failed to unite all parties. Even among the proponents of the creeds, not all agreed on how to understand each proposition. There is no reason to expect that universal agreement will ever happen; in fact, there is every reason to believe it will never happen. Why? Because truth is ultimate and human beings are finite, incapable of accessing ultimate truth, though we likely touch the “hem of the garment” on occasion. I have no problem with that. My problem is with those who claim to have accessed the ultimate and want to make me (and you) conform to their notions of what the Bible means.
The title of this post is also the title of a book written by a former editor of Christianity Today, the late Harold Lindsell, back in 1976. He argued that if an interpreter or institution began from the position that the Bible is not inerrant, it could only end in error. The battle that surfaced from this firestorm wasn’t among those Evangelicals who fought for inerrancy against the liberals, but over just what inerrancy meant among Evangelicals! Even here, agreement is hard to come by.
My book, I’m Right and You’re Wrong! is an effort to understand why committed Christians, including even the loftiest of intellectuals and holiest of saints, read the Bible differently, and come to varying, even contradictory conclusions. This is no mere intellectual enterprise, for it involves the very nature of being human, our relationships with others, and our attitude toward those with whom we disagree. How we comport ourselves in relation to others who are involved in interpreting the Bible may well be the best evidence of our Christ-like spirit.
The focus on inerrancy seemed like a good way to approach biblical interpretation until we dive even a little below the surface. Even if we acknowledge that the “autographs” (original canonical writings) were divinely inspired and free from error, we don’t have them. This makes that point moot. Add to this that the writings must, by necessity, be interpreted, and for inerrancy to have any immediate meaning, they must be inerrantly interpreted. And there are no inerrant interpreters (that I know of).
Add to this that translations of the Bible are, themselves, interpretations. Any number of articles have been written to demonstrate that theologies often control how certain verses are translated. No matter how good a translation might be, it is always two to three thousand years removed from its origin, and replicating the mindset of the original writer is fraught with difficulty. Even knowing the biblical languages is no panacea as the linguists argue over interpretation as much as everyone else.
Everything we read is filtered through our worldview, personality, and even our moods. Once, in an adult Bible study, I averred that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted verse in the Bible. One member said, “I can think of a Bible verse that needs no interpretation.” Tell us, what is it?” He quoted, “God is love.” My response? “What do you mean by God, and what do you mean by love?” My challenge is still on the table.
I think the title of Lindsell’s book is a misnomer. It’s not a battle for the Bible as much as it’s a battle for my interpretation of the Bible to prevail.
So, what’s a diligent reader of the Bible to do? That will be the subject of my next two posts. So, please stay tuned!