How Do We Read?

One of the commentors from last week posed this thought,

…but I have to say I don’t believe “original sin” can possibly mean different things to a theologian and other Christians who study God’s Word. If so, and if only theologians are capable of thinking rightly on this key doctrine, God’s Word is not fully effective for the laity. This is contrary to everything Luther taught–and I can’t believe Calvin thought otherwise, either. Perhaps you’re saying the theologian has more terms available.

We have an interesting situation don’t we? Our tendency as people (myself very much included) is to look for the one correct interpretation. We Christians certainly do this with the Bible. It appears to me that Muslims and Jews have similar debates over interpretation. Scientists debate the correctness of various hypothesis. We want to know. We want to make sense of the world and our experiences in it. We want to understand.

And of course, we each want to be right.

So how can serious and sincere students of Scripture come to different conclusions? We know it happens. You don’t have to spend much time in Bible study before you will hear someone say, “Well I always thought Paul meant …. when he said …”. Almost without fail someone else will say, ” Really? I was taught that when Paul wrote ….. he meant ……”

What do we do with this? How do we know what the correct interpretation is? How can we be sure that we are “thinking rightly”? Which interpretation does God prefer?

For some of us, the idea that there might be more than one plausible interpretation to a particular portion of scripture is troubling. We can become anxious about the correctness of our beliefs. Most sadly, we can divide ourselves into groups based on our differences. I would like to suggest that we don’t need to be overly troubled by this.

Just to clarify: I am not saying that every possible interpretation of a particular Biblical passage is correct.  I am suggesting that more than one interpretation may be valid and faithful. I also am not saying that appropriate Biblical interpretation rests solely on our personal preferences and beliefs. However our particular life situations shape the ways we respond to the Biblical text. I am also not saying that we can never know what God intended a particular passage to communicate to us.  I want to be clear, I am not saying that we can know nothing concretely about God and that religious faith is nothing more than personal opinion. On the other hand, we cannot know and understand everything, there are limits to what God reveals and to what we are capable of understanding.

So with those caveats out-of-the-way, some thoughts about why we don’t need to be overly upset about differing Biblical interpretations.

It seems to me that we should acknowledge and appreciate the richness and complexity of the Bible. The interactions between the individuals in any particular part of scripture, the human author(s), the Holy Spirit, and later readers are complex. There are also social and cultural differences that must be recognized.  This can account for a variety of readings but that doesn’t necessarily support the idea that there may be more than one plausible and faithful interpretation.

We also know, if we have lived long enough, that our interpretation of what we thought a particular story or parable was about when we were 20 might be different by the time we are 50.  Does that mean that what we understood at 20 was wrong? Or is what we think at 50 wrong?  Can they both be right?  How do we know?

I want to suggest four things today- and this certainly won’t exhaust the topic.

First, God is complex, more complex than we can imagine. As finite human beings our ability to understand God is limited. As we change and grow, our ability to understand God changes and grows.  To paraphrase Saint Paul, we only see in part.  You and I each bring different experiences, different personalities, different abilities to understand to the same complex God. Perhaps rather than obsess on our differences, we should be more amazed and grateful that there are areas where we agree!

Which brings me to a recurring theme on this blog, humility. While it is good and important to search for truth, humility about our conclusions is also good and important. It’s tough to balance proper humility with proper certainty.

The third piece to the puzzle of interpretation is community. We don’t have to figure everything out by ourselves. There is certainly reading and thinking that needs to be done by each of us, individually. But the community of faith can and should help us. The community of faith includes people we know, the authors and commentators we read and listen to, and the historic teaching of the Church.  We are shaped by this community and we each help shape the community. It’s a huge web of ideas and conversations extending all around us. It can be difficult to make sense of things when we are in the midst of multiple conversations. Like sausage making, the process isn’t pretty. But slowly and gradually we gain understanding as individuals and as the Church.

In the end, it comes down to our trusting relationship with God. God is present in all these conversations. God is present in the middle of the variety of voices.  It seems to me that it’s not so much about being correct as it is about being faithful.  Faithfulness in Biblical interpretation is the process of continuing to study, continuing to learn, continuing to listen. We won’t always be right. Sometimes, we won’t even be close. But we can know that God is always with us. Anselm gave us a phrase that’s helpful, faith seeking understanding. He got the order right, I think. First faith, second seeking, and lastly understanding. 

I’d like to know, what do you think?

One thought on “How Do We Read?

  1. I so appreciate this–and your points are so well stated. Your clarifications provide a background making it possible to make your points. We–I, especially–need the perspective and correction it provides.

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