As a new Christian, my Uncle Bart was my nemesis. While other members of my family received the news that I was now a Christian with varying levels of bemusement or offense (my mother: “You were born in America; of course you’re a Christian!!”), my uncle delighted in skewering me whenever he could. His favorite riposte, saved for when I had referred to something in the Bible was “That’s just YOUR interpretation!”
At the age of something-teen, one lacks the self-assurance to say "Well, duh—it just came out of my mouth, so of course its my interpretation,” especially to an adult in whose pool one swam every summer. Plus, he had me, hermeneutically. It is true that no individual has the right to declare that he or she has found the true interpretation of a Biblical text, and that all the church has said about it over the centuries is wrong. It is also true that no individual should think that we can interpret the Bible anyway we like. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church says we may not “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” I didn’t have enough information to counter his accusation that I might be interpreting the Bible idiosyncratically, and not in line with the historic teaching of the church.
However, my uncle’s real point was that there was no “right” interpretation of any part of the Bible. We are awash in a sea of subjectivism. No one has any more right to say this understanding of the Bible is more proper than that. Basically, you could get out of the Bible whatever you wanted. Little did I know that my working-class uncle in the 1960s was anticipating the rise of post-structuralism in universities, and the deep mistrust of all language and texts. No one can be sure, they said, of what anything means. We just have to live with infinite interpretations, none of which can claim to be the true one.
As Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. All the major heresies (currently being referred to as “alternate streams of early Christian doctrine”) were debated by the entire early church at the major ecumenical councils, and refuted.
That’s where the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed and the others come from: the wisdom of the early church, confirmed over and over in subsequent centuries. Today, however, many are resuscitating those old heresies and pretending that they have just as much a legitimate a claim to “orthodox Christian belief.” This is not only to overturn the wisdom of generations of Christians, but the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well. Didn’t Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit would guide his disciples into all truth? When the church created the canon of documents that we now know as the New Testament, that was nothing less than the Holy Spirit at work in the decisions made by prayerful believers.
It’s only been as the years and decades have rolled by that I have discovered how weak my uncle’s assertion actually was. First, there is the common sense level. When he said, “that’s your interpretation” he expected that I could understand him, that he wasn’t telling me to go and kick my father in the shins. When it comes down to it, we do believe that it is possible to convey meaning through language. To treat the Bible as a mysterious, cloudy document that says heaven-knows-what is to treat it unlike any other communication that we receive.
Simple, clear language may not be artificially made cloudy and complicated because the clear teaching of scripture collides with our culture’s values or my feelings or your aspirations. A dear friend of mine, a brilliant woman, nevertheless feels free to say: “Yes, it’s quite clear that the Bible forbids homosexual practice. But God made me with an attraction for other women, and I’m gay, so He’s just going to have to figure it out.” No, not really. If God has forbidden something in his Word, then we’re the ones who have to figure out a way to bring our lives in line with his commands, rather than looking for a way to wriggle out of the command.
Yet today I meet what seem to be ever-increasing numbers of people who are apparently content to assert that there’s no telling, really, what the Bible has to say about this or that doctrine or practice. This allows them to come to the convenient conclusion that anyone who has a strong feeling one way or another ought to be able to follow that feeling into practice without being made to give up the claim to orthodox belief. The biblical talk of Hell makes you uncomfortable?—then don’t believe in it. Jesus as the only way to be saved sound exclusive? Rather than work out that if Jesus’s death wasn’t necessary for salvation, then the incarnation, humiliation, agony, death and resurrection were a nonsensical waste of God’s time, instead of an expression of his cosmic love, simply assert that it isn’t so.
After all, that’s just YOUR interpretation, right? No, unfortunately, it’s not just my interpretation, or that of a few backward souls; we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses that we had best consider how to use our red editorial pens on our lives, rather than on God’s Word.
PS – In the “God always has the last word” department: years later my Uncle Bart became a Christian, the only one of my parents’ generation that I am aware of having done so.
This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report. Used with permission.
I want to offer ten basic biblical truths that guide Christian responses on this question .