Why is it that two Holy-Spirit filled, Christ-loving, Bible-believing Christians can come to very different conclusions on the very same passage of Scripture? The same question applies to Christian denominations (and non-denominational churches) divided by differing teaching. Different doctrine results from differing interpretations of God’s Word. Such fractures among the faithful are frustrating; they run like ruptured veins through the body of church history and they continue to pain the church today. How can we come to collective clarity in our view of God’s Word?
Let’s consider an often overlooked culprit which contributes significantly to our inability to see straight together: Our exegesis as biblical interpreters suffers from our failure to exegete ourselves as interpreters.
Biblical exegesis is the process of getting “out of” (from the Greek preposition ek) Scripture the meaning which God has put there. As we approach the biblical text, we must seek to understand how and why we are approaching the text in the way we do. We must understand ourselves as interpreters. Thus, studying history and philosophy is arguably as important to the work of hermeneutics as studying grammar and ancient languages, especially for pastors and teachers.
Our interpretations of God’s Word are inevitably colored by the composite complexity of who we are as individuals, as members of communities. I will, until the Lord takes me home, interpret the Bible as a short, middle class white guy. The middle-class component may change, but my height and ethnicity are there to stay. For better or worse, I view everything from this vantage point, which means that in order to see most of life, I have to look up! Past and present associations and experiences, difficult circumstances and delightful ones, good choices and bad ones, being once single and now married and a father - each of these aspects of my life and all of them influence the way I see life – literally and metaphorically. Tired eyes may not be able to focus well on the objects before them; tinted glasses color our perception of external reality in various shades of the glasses’ dominant color. The philosophical / historical / cultural lenses through which I view Scripture require continual correction so that I can see the text’s meaning more clearly. In the act of interpretation, it is the interpreter, not the biblical text, which is subject to change. The meaning of the text is constant, as placed there by its unchanging Author.
The Holy Spirit is Scripture’s true and ultimate Author (2 Peter 1:19-21). In composing God’s written word, He did not, in the words of one commentator, “trample the personalities” of the human authors through whom He wrote. Though the Spirit led Scripture’s authors to write infallible words, praised as being breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16), He did not make the authors themselves infallible people (Acts 17:10-11). So, too, while the Spirit leads us in understanding those infallible words (1 Corinthians 2:14), and while we can know biblical truth with certainty (John 19:35) we are not infallible in our interpretations of infallible words. (2 Timothy 2:15, Acts 18:26). The Spirit does not trample our personalities, He does not bypass our proclivities, as we interpret His Word. Learning the Word and learning to better learn the Word are key parts of our ongoing sanctification, and that process involves our discovering the reasons for and correcting our interpretations’ imperfections.
We must try to avoid the process of eisogesis (from the Greek eis meaning “into”), that is, reading unintended meaning into a text. Exegeting ourselves is an important part of preventing the eisogeting of Scripture. For instance, lack of self-awareness may keep many Americans from feeling the full impact of Scripture’s continual condemnation of materialism. When James tells those who are rich to consider their lowly estate (1:11), we may immediately think derisively – and enviously - of millionaires and billionaires, forgetting the fact that even low-income Americans are vastly wealthier than the majority of people in the world. When the Bible warns the rich about the spiritually precarious situation into which wealth places us, we must remember that we who casually enjoy historically unprecedented material wealth are directly in the crosshairs of those often terrifying warnings (Proverbs 30:8-9; 1 Timothy 6:10, James 5:1-4).
Cultural differences can result in varying perceptions of the inherent power of these passages and therefore in varying opinions formed and actions accomplished as a result of reading and hearing them. The example above focuses on issues of ethics, but Scripture teaches the unbreakable bond between our belief and our behavior. Thus, our diagnosis of even what appear to be strictly doctrinal divides among us is greatly helped by a thorough investigation of the ethical ethos of our respective life situations. What principles do we prize? What do we assume to be true? How do these convictions coincide with Scripture’s teaching on these matters? Are we willing to be changed?
Theologian G.K. Beale writes: “The presuppositions of the biblical writers themselves as expressed in the Scripture have the power through the Spirit to regrind the presuppositional lenses of its readers.” Praise God that Scripture’s Author indwells Christian interpreters. In our effort to truly know the Word of God, we have the ultimate “inside source”! Praise God that the risen Christ provides preachers and teachers throughout history to help us understand better both the Bible and ourselves (Ephesians 4:11-16). As we continually, humbly and prayerfully hear, study and submit to Scripture (James 1:22), the Holy Spirit changes us – from our affections to our cognitive capabilities - conforming us in every aspect of our being to Christ.
We may find additional encouragement in the fact that texts which tap most directly into the gospel are more easily accessible and commonly agreed upon. In many cases, differences among believers regarding the gospel amount to blurs in our interpretive lenses rather than breaks. We may rejoice that Scripture’s truth blazes brightly beyond the colors of cultural conditioning surrounding its authorship and its interpretation. And even with regard to the more complex passages, though the fruit of understanding may be farther from our initial grab for it, these elusive texts are extensions of the gospel in which all true Christians are grounded. The more rooted we are in the basics, the more able we are to branch out in our understanding of perplexing passages – (If you understand well the book of Genesis, you are well equipped to understand the book of Revelation.)
May the Lord enable and employ our diligent attention to this dual dynamic of knowing His Word such that divided brethren may come together and see His glory all the more clearly.