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The B-I-B-L-E

2010 January 27
by Mike

Here’s a re-post from four years ago. The following posts in the series can be found here:
The B-I-B-L-E #2
The B-I-B-L-E #3
The B-I-B-L-E #4
The B-I-B-L-E #5
The B-I-B-L-E #6
The B-I-B-L-E #7
The B-I-B-L-E #8
And I’d now add this as The B-I-B-L-E #9

– – – –

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 (as best we could piece it together from manuscripts–since we don’t have any original copies of the NT books), 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 be 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.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. January 27, 2010

    Third, it demands integrity. Without integrity, we can read all we want, with as many people as we want and never hear. Without integrity, humility devolves into ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ when nobody’s really okay, y’know?

    I’ve been thinking about how essential humility, integrity, and community are to interpretation for a while. I’ve proposed them twice as a replacement for CENI, but I haven’t gotten any takers yet.

  2. January 27, 2010

    I wrote this back in ’08 on Bobby Valentine’s blog, in conversation with another commenter (who said basically that CENI was the only way to keep from the “presumptuous sins” of Psalm 19):

    The writer of Hebrews tells me that since I have a better high priest than the writer of the Psalms, I may enter boldly into God’s presence. Because I have a better sacrifice, I need not fear drawing near to him. Because I trust in his righteousness, I can trust him to present me blameless before his glory (Jude 24).

    You say, “I can’t presume that God will accept something just because it seems reasonable to me.” That is EXACTLY what you do with every single “necessary inference” and/or “authorization by implication” in your Christian life.

    My way of discerning the pattern is through humility, integrity, and community.

    I come to the text striving to recognize my preconceptions, and praying that my Father will soften my heart and bless me like Paul prayed for the Ephesians to be blessed. I know that without Him, I have no hope of wisdom (James 1).

    I come to the text striving to understand how each part fits into the story God is telling from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. God has invited us all into the story of New Creation; we each have a part to discern and play. Fitting my little story into the big story as seamlessly as possible – integrity.

    Community means that I do not interpret alone. I trust that God’s Spirit dwells among us who believe, and so I must share my ideas with the larger community, and consider the beliefs and ideas of other believers.

    You’re right, my method is subjective. I cannot approach the Scriptures in any other way. I am not and cannot be objective. I was not designed to be objective. I was designed to live in humility, integrity, and community with the One True Creator God.

  3. kathy s permalink
    January 27, 2010

    Believe it or not, I had just pulled up your old B-I-B-L-E posts this morning as I was contemplating some ideas. Then I saw this post, your newest addition. The longer I live and the broader my experience the more I realize that what you have said about community and humility is true. So, thank you for those words, Mike, and thank you too for being part of my community.

  4. January 27, 2010

    Willard adds “openness” to the mix, although I guess one could argue that’s just a subset of humility. But no matter. Either way, I can only learn if I first adopt a posture of openness toward possibilities outside my own experience.

    Some of this is bound to arise from what we believe the scriptures to be in the first place…which we inherit, as you say, from the religious tradition in which we were raised. Odd, isn’t it, how we spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn the things that were instilled in us from the beginning by people we love and trust?

    Just finished _Surprised by Hope_, which I have been reading in parallel with _RSG_. A total dismantling, a total deconstruction of the whole escapist/rapture thing. Thrilling. I started offering some of Wright’s ideas in our Bible study group a week ago Tuesday – in the form of questions about what we take for granted about salvation and heaven and life after death and that whole bit – and found the discussion very tough sledding precisely because of the openness factor, or I should say, the lack thereof. Remarkably, this last Tuesday witnessed an incredible advance in openness among the very same men; not in that they agreed with ME, but rather in that THEY brought some delicious insights about how our conception of our destiny ought to shape the way we live in the present (justice, beauty, etc., with a strong emphasis on beauty).

    I guess it just seems to me that the Holy Spirit sort of lurks around us in our communities, waiting for the seed of openness to fall into the soil…and then he takes over and moves us as communities into some really creative, wonderful places with the Holy Writ. Where unquestioned dogma reigns, he seems to sit over to the side and smoke a cigarette, with one eyebrow raised and one ear cocked, waiting for any sign that the walls of certitude are beginning to crumble around us.


  5. Richard permalink
    January 27, 2010

    Regarding your soap tweet…

    I know why you are inflexible, you have mental health problems. And that’s a professional opinion. 🙂

    Actually, I have my own soap obsession (much to Jana’s chagrin). Only Ivory soap for me. Why? It is the only soap that floats. And when you are taking a bath and are looking for the soap that is one nice feature to have. Plus, as a kid, I used it as a boat in my baths.

    It’s the little things in life that bring me joy. Like floating soap.

  6. January 27, 2010

    Richard – I shower, so my soap doesn’t have to float. But other than that, my close friendship with an experimental psychologist has its downside: you’ve outed my mental health problems (as if they weren’t known to people who’ve been with this blog since 2003).

    Thanks so much, Kathy — so glad to be part of your (and Steve’s) community, too.

    QB – Love it! That is an amazing book. I’ll be looping back to Wright, Hays, and the dismantling of “justification theory” soon. But specifically about “Surprised by Hope,” it makes all the difference whether you really believe in resurrection/new creation . . . or not. Thanks.

  7. January 27, 2010

    I find it disheartening that we want to rely on “community” yet we completely dismiss anything that the community of believers has believed and repeated pre-1850; i.e. creeds. I find this sad that what 10s of millions of Christians have and continue to echo together every day around the world we look at and say, “no thanks”. Our idolatry of autonomy does not help us in this regard.

    And Wright’s dismantling of “justification theory”? You mean his acceptance of the Roman Catholic position. Nothing different than the arguments out of late-19th century Germany. But today, everything is so revolutionary!

  8. January 27, 2010

    Jr – Surely you jest? You seriously don’t know the difference between the positions of Richard Hays/N. T. Wright and Catholicism? And when you suggest it’s nothing different than late-19th century Germany, I wonder: (1) has he just not read Hays/Wright/etc.? (2) has he read them and just not understood them? or (3) is he so immersed in Piper/Driscoll that he can’t openly hear what they are saying? I can imagine reading them and disagreeing. I can’t imagine reading and coming to such erroneous comparisons. But as I said, much more to come on this topic. (By the way, Jr, I like searching minds like yours that push back! I just think this is a very unfair caricature of what’s been called “the New Perspective” [and what has moved beyond that].)

  9. Angela permalink
    January 27, 2010

    I know this seems so obvious to people and it should be. But honestly, I spend a lot of time in a setting where people act like they aren’t interpreting the Bible but just following what it says. That produces such a sense of being right! But it naively misses that others — equally committed to truth — are “just reading” the Bible and think they’re right, too.

    I agree that recognizing the delicate process of interpretation ought to lead to lots of humility.

  10. January 27, 2010


    1) I have read Wright; though not Hays.

    2) There is a chance I have misunderstood Wright, but I’m not really sure; not when my own reading in addition to review after review in opposition to his view on justification are so similar in why they disagree. I highly encourage those who are interested to see Michael Horton’s extensive review here: (PDF). There are a dozen more well though-out and comprehensive reviews that one can find.

    Arguments from others range from Wright’s rosy picture of Rabbinic Judaism, Sanders’s/other NPPers misunderstanding of what the reformers were battling against the Catholic Church (semi-Pelagianism vs. Pelagianism), the minimalistic tone of the doctrine of man and sin, and the really odd redefinition of terms Wright comes up with to make his point work.

    As for the original comment above, if I am allowed to continue “jesting”; correct, I’m not sure how saying we will be justified in the last day on the basis of the whole life lived is any different from the Roman Catholic position.

    3) I have read Piper on this issue; and he has been a huge influence on me in many ways. As for Driscoll, I’m not sure he’s weighed in on NT Wright; though if he has, I haven’t read it. And I’m not so sure he’d be one of my go-to sources anyway.

    But your question can and should be turned around. I have met so many people who just take Wright and believe him (thus falling prey to the fallacy of authority) without even reading Piper (or others who disagree). I think this is the MUCH more prominent case than the opposite (at least in our fellowship).

    Wright is a genius, for sure, and has done much good; specifically in his work on the resurrection and the historical Jesus (i.e. his opposition to the Jesus Seminar); I just disagree with him in regards to the topic of justification – which leads to unfortunately greater disagreements it blends into (sufficiency of Christ’s work, a redefinition of the Gospel, etc).

    One thing is for sure: I’m no scholar. I listen, I read, and I come up with my own determinations on things and I go with it. I really appreciate the dialogue on it from all angles; in the spirit of grace.

    I do want to say that I have read where you have talked about Piper’s “attacks” against Wright. I think that’s kind of lame, really. These are two grown men talking theology that they are both passionate about. The intellectual and at times comical barbs (Wright calling Piper man-centered is just classic – if not embarrassing to Wright ) are back and forth and they can both take it. We would all do well to read Kevin DeYoung’s brief post on “Why are we so offended all the time?” here:

    LASTLY, I believe what we’ve needed is for these two men (Piper/Wright) to be on the same stage at the same time; and this fall they are supposed to serve on a panel together (not sure if it’s at the Evangelical Theological Society’s November conference in Atlanta or not; but wherever it is it will be a must see!) I hope that will be as profitable for all of us as I think it can be.

    Grace to you

  11. Geezer permalink
    January 27, 2010

    I appreciated your comment and the link to Kevin DeYoung’s recent post. It was well worth the couple of minutes it took to read it.

  12. January 27, 2010

    Yes, JR, I’ve read Piper, listened to Driscoll, read Horton, listened to the White Horse Inn, etc. And the more I’ve read and listened, the more the teaching of Hays and Wright makes sense.

  13. January 27, 2010

    By the way, here’s the tweet that offended you, JR: “just finished N.T. Wright’s JUSTIFICATION. Great response to John Piper’s attacks; even better exploration of Paul’s theology.” No need to be squeamish about “John Piper’s attacks.” It’s not a moral judgment. The men are in a kind of debate. They are responding to one another’s arguments. They are attacking the opposite views. There is a spirit today that is afraid of spirited debate; that shouldn’t be the case. There is a spirited discussion. IMHO, Piper couldn’t be more wrong in this discussion. If they attack one another’s positions, they haven’t necessarily forfeited Christian character. Have they?

  14. January 28, 2010

    Heaven forfend! Spirited polemic need not be ugly. In fact, it can be beautiful in itself, like the poetic swordplay of Cyrano de Bergerac. Wright has a knack for charity in the midst of it all. qb

  15. January 28, 2010

    As I stated: “These are two grown men talking theology that they are both passionate about. The intellectual and at times comical barbs … are back and forth and they can both take it.” With this defense of spirited debate, I encourage more of it. However, I get your point. I misjudged your “attack” comment and you returned with rhetorical fire. Cheers.

    Certainly we all can (and should) engage one another without losing our Christian character.

    As for interpretation, I think the following goes well with the blog post’s point: D.A. Carson said it well recently that, “Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t. The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.”

  16. bpb permalink
    January 28, 2010

    do we agree that the King James Version is not “THE inspired word of God?” I hope so!

  17. January 29, 2010

    I agree, QB. One of the many things right with Wright is that he doesn’t resort to ugliness veiled as nothing more than conviction. His conviction is that he’s supposed to talk like a Christian even when (especially when) he disagrees with other people of goodwill.

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