June 19, 2014
“Do you believe the Bible?” A simple, seemingly innocuous question, right? Not so fast.
I was recently asked this question (out of the blue). When I inquired as to what had generated the question, the reply came that I was known to be friends with people whose views were not orthodox enough (not orthodox enough, that is, for the person who was asking). In other words, the real question was not: Do you believe the Bible? The real question was: Do you believe the Bible the way I do? Think about it. Many times, “Do you believe the Bible?” is not a faith question (do you have confidence that this is God’s Word?), but an interpretation question (do you arrive at the same conclusions as I do when you read Scripture?).
That is the problem with an overly simplistic question such as “Do you believe the Bible?” It solves nothing. In the years preceding the U.S. Civil War, both abolitionists and slaveholders believed the Bible. But they arrived at very different points because they interpreted God’s Word differently. Some Christian sisters and brothers believe that speaking in unknown tongues is a current spiritual gift, to be practiced in the church. Others believe such a practice is not for today. But both parties believe the Bible.
I am always amused when people say, “We are Bible-believing folk; when we come to a verse of Scripture, we obey it, period.”
Really? Deuteronomy 21:18-21 instructs us to stone to death a disobedient child. How did that work out for you? Based on this practice, we would soon run out of children! Someone who believes women should not have a leadership or teaching role in the church quotes 1 Corinthians 14:34 or 1 Timothy 2:12; someone who believes women are permitted to share in all ministries cites Acts 21:9, Romans 16:1 or 1 Corinthians 11:5. You see? Not belief, but interpretation.
A crucial guide in interpreting Scripture is the person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord (John 5:39-40; 14:6). In other words, Jesus is the lens through which all the Bible is read. Do we have interpretive questions regarding some of the wars and killings in the Old Testament? What did Jesus say about violence and retribution? Do we sense tension within the New Testament church when it comes to the role of females? How did Jesus treat women?
The church I currently serve subscribes to the 1963 edition of “Baptist Faith and Message” (not the 2000 version). I personally believe that among the many deficiencies of the 2000 edition is the omission of the phrase, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Without Jesus Christ as our key to understanding, we are left to the whims of the latest theological fad or ecclesial witch hunt.
In preparation to teach a seminary course on Bible interpretation to students in Ukraine this fall, I wrote down a few basic operating principles and assumptions. They are not perfect, nor are they everything that needs to be said. But they are a start.
1. The Bible is God’s inspired Word. Period. Let’s not quibble about words like inerrancy or infallibility, which take 13 paragraphs to explain what we don’t mean.
2. The same Holy Spirit which guided original authorship also guides interpretation (2 Peter 1:20-21). John Calvin wrote, “The Word of God happens when the same Spirit who was present to the one who wrote is present to the one who reads.”
3. We are to interpret Scripture in light of God’s character.
4. Jesus Christ is the criterion by which all Scripture is interpreted.
5. We must discover what Scripture meant before we can know what it means. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart wrote, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” Translation: The Book of Revelation cannot have some obscure meaning only for the 21st century; it had to have meant something to first-century believers who were being brutalized by Roman imperialism.
6. In our Bible interpretation, the great distance between then and now is removed by the Holy Spirit and by patient, skillful study.
7. As children of God in Christ, everyone has an equal right, privilege and responsibility to interpret Scripture.
8. The Bible is to be interpreted with humility. No single believer or group has all of God’s truth. We need the wisdom of the ages and of the larger body of Christ.
The old joke goes, “Baptists believe the Bible; they just don’t know what is says!” In my more mature years, I’ve stopped worrying whether or not people take the Bible literally and started asking if they take it seriously.
Doyle Sager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Mo.