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Friday, August 21, 2015

How Do You Interpret It?

In a recent online discussion concerning the proper way to understand the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, an acquaintance of mine wrote, “The scriptures are not as ambiguous as some might like to suggest … in my experience, the people who see another interpretation are simply those who do not want to believe in the plain truth of what is there. It is the Devil’s old trick, ‘did God really say…’”

But people who make statements like this are either deluded by their own naïveté and lack of imagination, willfully ignorant of the history of religious tradition, or just mean-spirited and graceless.

A brief examination of Christian history should provide ample evidence to show that there have been competing interpretations of those allegedly unambiguous scriptures since the foundation of the church. And we could extend that history back further with the many and varied Hebrew schools of interpretation; we could mention the disputes between the followers of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, we could point to the various factions within Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, etc…

And we could even look to the words of Jesus himself. 

When a lawyer stood up to test Jesus with the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with a question of his own, “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?” (Luke 10: 25 – 26) I suppose that because this lawyer was trying to “test” Jesus and then attempted “justify himself” those who claim that the scriptures are simple and clear could argue that this man did not really believe the plain truth of scripture. But I don’t think that’s a necessary assumption; Jesus didn’t seem to make that assumption. Jesus treated the lawyer’s response as a sincere attempt to follow his interpretation of the law.

The scriptures are complex, multivalenced, and (despite the protests) often ambiguous and less than clear. It is upon us to carefully work through the scriptures to reach a conclusion about their meaning and their appropriate application to our life but it should not surprise us that there are competing interpretations. This is not to say that all interpretations are equally valid and that anything goes. Some interpretations are better than others, but assuming that those who have reached a different understanding of those difficult scriptures have done so because they’re trying to subvert those scriptures is evidence of a lack of imagination, an unfamiliarity with the breadth and depth of religious tradition, or (more likely) an unwillingness to extend the grace of God toward a fellow believer.

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