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The Limits of Interpretation
Admitting that our interpretation is not the same thing as Scripture
Recently, I’ve been reading/ listening to Dale Allison’s book on the resurrection called The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. It is not for the faint of heart, and it produces more questions than answers, as the author warns in the Overture. Allison wrote, “Many, wanting more from a book on the resurrection than this, and craving some grand, integrating explanation of everything rather than a dispatch from a halfway house on an unfinished journey, will be disappointed” (p. 4).
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Allison’s hesitancy to make grand claims for his own interpretation of history is similar to my own feelings concerning my interpretation of scripture. Allison continues in his first chapter by describing the conflict between different parts of himself including the pious Christian, the critical historian, and the part of him that belongs to the I Don’t Know Club. Concerning this last version of his self, he wrote,
He is relentlessly skeptical about almost everything, including know-it-all skepticism. Solum certum nihili esse certi: The only thing certain is that nothing is certain. Insisting on epistemic humility, he loathes all species of dogmatism. He refuses to cash anyone’s ideological check. He scoffs at the notion that all problems are conveniently mind-sized. He knows that people are always more often in error than they are in doubt, and that he cannot be the exception. (p.4-5)
This healthy understanding of his own limitations frame the 360 pages that follow. I wanted to introduce this quote to you in hopes that it resonates with you and your own feelings of fallibility. As we continue in the article (which will be publicly available on Thursday, September 14), let’s keep Allison’s humility in mind.
What the Bible Says About Our Limitations
For those who demand absolute certainty, as I once did, they may be surprised to discover that the Bible itself argues that we can’t be absolutely certain about our knowledge. In this section, we’ll briefly look at a few passages. If you want more thoughts, consider listening to the podcast version of this article, which is located at the top of the page or at https://efpg.podbean.com.
Paul is Hard to Understand - 2 Peter 3
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14–16)
Typically, we use this passage to show that Peter considered Paul’s writings to be scripture, which, to be honest, is impressive when one considers the disagreements between Peter and Paul. Perhaps we should learn from their example!
Or we might go to this passage to condemn others by using Peter’s statement “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” to mark those who interpret the Bible differently than we do.
However, I want to focus on what Peter says in verse 16: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand.”
I know he doesn’t say that all of Paul’s letters are hard to understand, and it is likely that the parts we most need to confirm the beliefs and opinions that have been handed down to us are probably conveniently fit into the “super easy and essential to understand” category while thing that might threaten our position are the difficult things Peter was writing about, but I think the very fact that Peter admits that there some difficult ideas in Paul’s letters should cause us to pause when we feel the urge to condemn someone else over an interpretation.
I have often argued, following some of my teachers and mentors before me, that if we can just put on our first century glasses, then we can better understand the scripture, and I stand by this idea. It turns out, however, that according to Peter, even with first century glasses, we still might not see with 20/20 vision or in technicolor in every situation because even back then, with the gifts of knowledge from the Holy Spirit, the ability to talk to Paul or one of his companions, and being witnesses to things of which Paul spoke, there were still things in his letters that were difficult.
But how do we know what passages are difficult and which are easy? I don’t know if there is a system that can adequately answer this question, but I think one helpful clue would be to see how different people interpret these passages. Do you remember all of those commentaries I told you about in last week’s article? Get those out and look at the range of interpretations they offer. It might be that the larger the range is, the more difficult the text could be. This may not always be the case, but it would be a good starting point. I’ll offer another method in a later section of this article.
This Gift We Have is Beyond What We Know - Ephesians, Romans, and Philippians
Besides having passages that are difficult to comprehend, Paul and his fellow scribes also wrote of things that are impossible to fully comprehend. As some have said in the past, Richard Rohr comes to mind, mystery is not something that is impossible to understand; mystery is something that can be endlessly understood.
But the magnitude of what we can know about God, which apparently converges to infinity, should cause us to pause when we are tempted to be dogmatic about something related to the endlessly deep promises and mercy of the Divine.
Here’s three passages that stand out to me:
I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:18–21)
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7)
Be Careful About Claiming to Have Special Knowledge - 1 Corinthians
One of my friends tells a story where he referenced 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 without drawing attention to the fact that it was a quotation of Paul’s letter. The person with whom he was talking argued against him. When my friend insisted it was actually a quote from the Bible, his buddy didn’t believe it. Paul remarkably wrote,
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by him. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3)
This passage brings our fallibility into full focus. Yes, we may all possess knowledge, but what is far more important than information is a different kind of knowledge, a knowing that comes from a relationship founded on love. Being known by God is far better than knowing information about God.
In another letter, Paul seems to correct himself mid-sentence: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” (Galatians 4:9).
Understanding that Paul’s letters could be hard to understand, even for a first century reader, remembering the infinite depth of the knowledge of God, and keeping in mind our own fallibility, we can base our relationship with God and each other upon something much more simple and ground far more stable than our own cognitive abilities and interpretive skills. As Paul said in both 1 Corinthians 8 and in Galatians 5, the only thing that matters is a faith which expresses itself in love.
So, what do we do with this?
Keeping Scripture and Interpretation Separated
I think our realization of our own limitations should encourage us to keep our interpretations separate from the scripture. What I mean is we shouldn’t pretend that our interpretations have just as much “authority” as the Bible, if that’s even a helpful word to use in some of our personal contexts and circlesdue to its history of abuse.
So when a preacher stands up, as I once did, and says, “Now we have the truth!” we should be very skeptical.
Or when a minister condemns others for having different opinions.
Or when a Christian on social media calls another believer a heretic because they only hold to four of the five points of whatever.
As Jesus once said, “For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:2).
In other words, when we expect doctrinal purity of others, we tend to live anxiety-filled lives, living in constant fear that we may have something wrong. The way we deal with this fear is projecting our own insecurity onto others by constantly condemning them for not believing like us… even if we doubt that all of members of our particular tribe are saved.
Keeping scripture and our interpretation separated also enables us to do something really fun: have healthy debates.
When people approach religious debates between two believers as a fight between good and evil, it is seldom that more good than bad comes out of such an event. But when two people come together who both regard each other as Christians, then that’s where the fun begins.
Holding ones interpretation boldly but loosely allows them to strongly articulate their view while being gracious towards their friend and willing to change their mind. They no longer feel defensive in religious discussions, and when the potential of conflict may arise, the typical anxious gut feeling can be replaced with a spirit of curiosity and joy when both parties love each other as God loves them.
What to Do When You Are Stuck - The Most Important Interpretive Question
When you come across a passage that you don’t understand or that seems to contradict the character of God as fully explained by Jesus (John 1:18; Hebrews 1:3), especially in the Old Testament, there is a question you can ask that will bring some peace to your troubles waters. The question is simply WWJD? What would Jesus do?
Not… how would Jesus interpret this passage? But what would Jesus do? If Jesus were in this story, if Jesus wrote this Psalm, if Jesus was standing around when that event happened, how would he react? What might he say? How would he protest? Would he help or disrupt the situation? Would he flip over tables or join in?
In John 5, Jesus told the religious leaders, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39). When we read the scriptures, we need to keep in mind that their function is to point us to Jesus, which means we can reverse engineer the text to see how it might relate to Jesus, either positively or as a foil.
Take the Canaanite genocide for instance.
When we read the story of Joshua’s conquest, our pro-life instincts might kick in. Bashing babies heads against the stones? Leave no women and children? Is this the same God who said to love one’s enemies? What is going on?
While I don’t have all the answers to these questions, I can ask a different question: what would Jesus do? Would Jesus have his followers slaughter children like Pharaoh or Herod? Would Jesus decimate cities like Babylon was condemned for? Would Jesus spread peace through violence?
When I ask these questions, I can’t help but think of texts like one found in Luke when Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village:
When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:54–56, NASB)
In other versions that use different manuscripts, Jesus simply rebukes his disciples. Here’s what’s interesting about this text.
Jesus and Joshua are the same name if you look at the original languages (see Hebrews 4:8 in the KJV). One is Hebrew and the other is Greek, but they share the same name like Juan and John.
Well, I can’t say for sure, but there are a lot of things the New Testament does to parallel the ministry of Jesus to different Old Testament figures. For example, Matthew 1-2 draws several comparisons between Jesus and Moses. So how might Joshua and Jesus might be connected?
Well, here’s a few thoughts:
Joshua started his conquest of Canaan at the Jordan river. He marched around Jericho and from there conquered the land. Jesus also started his ministry at the Jordan river, but when he came out of the waters, he went about healing and then preached a sermon in which he said to love enemies as well as friends.
He then proceeded to go through all of the towns in the promised land, including Samaria, and he preached salvation to all. When Jesus came to Jericho, he brought healing and salvation to a blind man as well as to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus also healed a Canaanite woman on one occasion after testing his disciples in a series of strange ways (strange to us, not to them: Matthew 15:1-28).
In Joshua 10, Joshua captures five kings, hangs them on trees, takes them down at sundown, and throws them into stone-hewn tombs to be left forever. Instead of conquering his enemies like Joshua, Jesus himself went to a tree, was left in a stone-hewn tomb, but he emerged three days later, offering salvation to the very ones who rejected and killed him.
I don’t know how far one can press these similarities, but I do know that while I believe all scripture is inspired, I believed it is inspired to point us to Jesus. Sometimes this is done in positive examples, like in the story of David. But sometimes this is done with negative examples to show the contrast between the kingdoms of violence and the kingdom of nonviolence. Joshua, unlike Jesus, was not able to give his people rest despite his many successful victories (Hebrews 4:8).
I know this doesn't solve all of our problems and answer all of our questions, but that’s kind of the point of this article. It is up to us to love God and love each other; we don’t have to be in a hurry to figure everything else out, and we can approach these subjects in a much lighter and relaxed way than we used to when we keep in mind the abundant, omnipotent grace that is readily available to each of us.
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