Here’s an interesting Biblical interpretation “fun fact”.
The greatest majority of Protestants in the 16th century thought that the command of Jesus to go and make disciples (Matt 28: 17-20) didn’t apply to them. Jesus was speaking to the apostles and most people thought Jesus’ statement applied only to the apostles. They also believed that since the apostles had done just that, taken the gospel to the all the known world at that time, the commission had been fulfilled.
Additionally evangelism was not believed to be the task of the church or the individual but of the state. Remember in those days in Europe, the religion of the prince was the religion of the people.
By the 1800s Protestants had completely reinterpreted the Great Commission and had developed what Protestants today still, for the most part, believe. We all, individually and corporately, are to spread the gospel. And of course, these days you would be hard pressed to find someone (although I suppose there is someone, somewhere) who believes the religion of the prince should be the religion of the region.
Interesting, isn’t it? What a dramatic re interpretation of a Biblical text. There are historical, cultural and theological reasons for this change in interpretation. It’s a fascinating topic, but too complex for a blog post.
Here’s what I want to consider today.
Are we ever “finished” with the task of Biblical interpretation? Are there parts of the Bible where we can say that we understand exactly and completely what God intends for us to understand?
How do we know when we are finished or not finished with interpretation?
Can our interpretation of Biblical texts change over time? And if interpretation changes over time does that mean the previous interpretation was wrong? Or can different interpretations be valid at different times and in different cultures?
And of course, the perennial protestant problem, who decides what are the correct answers to my questions?
I can hear some of you now, “Why does this have to be so difficult?” “Why wasn’t God more clear about all this?”
Well, I certainly don’t know. But I do have a hunch. It’s not supposed to be easy. We live in a complex world and God is a complex God. Easy answers are insufficient. But beyond that, it seems to me, the task of Biblical interpretation – like all of Christian life -is by necessity collaborative. We must work together. We must ask God for help. We must be humble. We have to risk being wrong. We have to risk admitting we don’t understand. For Christians how we do the things we do matters.
And our bonus question for today: Are there interpretations of Biblical texts that in our time we ought to rethink?
I’d like to know, what do you think?
The information on early Protestant belief about the Great Commission comes from Alister McGrath’s book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution-A History From the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First.