[Editor’s Note: today’s article, by Mike Cope, speaks some practical wisdom to all of us who love Scripture and wrestle with how best to live by God’s Word.]
Here is one of the most shocking discoveries of my early life: the Bible has to be interpreted.
I know that’s a no-brainer. But I grew up thinking that what set us apart from all other religious groups is that we just believed the Bible. God said it. We believed it. That settled it.
Other people had creeds. Others twisted it because they liked musical instruments or didn’t like baptism. They put their trust in commentaries–the words of mere humans. But we just read the Bible.
It helps to live an insular life if you want to hold onto that belief. Because when you begin engaging Christ-followers from other groups, you quickly realize that many of them think about the same thing.
But the Bible has to be interpreted. In a sense, that happens even in the earliest stages of translation. Those translating the Bible from Hebrew (and a bit of Aramaic) in the OT and Greek in the NT have to make choices. How do they translate a passage when it’s ambiguous? How do they express in English a word that seems to have a wide range of meanings?
Several times I’ve heard people say they’re jealous because I can read the Greek New Testament. (Hey, seven years of Greek and you’d be there, too!) They wish they could just read what the text says.
Guess what? It’s a blessing to be able to do that and it’s helpful to know what the original text said, BUT . . . you still have to interpret. Reading Greek rarely makes things more obvious. Otherwise, all the Greek-readers would be unified.
We are not unique because we follow the Bible. Or because we’re nervous of creeds. Or because we like the “plain meaning of the text.”
As I’ve led discussions about the ministry of women, I’ve often heard people say, “We shouldn’t make the Bible say what we want it to say.” I agree. Absolutely. But let’s also be honest about this: none of us comes to scripture completely objective and unbiased. All of us are having to use tools of interpretation.
I don’t want to twist scripture. I want to live under its authority. But I also have to humbly admit that this is harder than I might have imagined.
This recognition demands two things from us: First, it demands community. We need to read scripture together–with other Christians we know and with believers from other times, places, and denominations. As people seeking to follow Jesus, we need to rely on the insights of the larger community of faith.
Second, it demands humility. Before I write off other people who disagree with me, I’d better realize how very challenging this whole task of biblical interpretation has been. And it wouldn’t hurt me to remember that so many wars in the world have come because everyone has their own holy book that they believe they have the inside track on how to interpret.