“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.” – John 5:39-42
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:12-18
When believing in “the authority of scripture” means respecting the Bible enough to use all the tools available:
Sunday morning I enjoyed an illuminating conversation with the folk attending my class at WFPC. The subject was “interpretation” and why it’s not optional when reading scripture.
Of course, interpretation happens in response to any form of communication. Books, letters, emails, posts, tweets, texts, signage, photographs, phone-calls, speeches.
When we interpret something, we explain, reframe, paraphrase, or in some way demonstrate our own understanding of whatever it is. And the reason I say “interpretation is not optional” is that communication is – by definition – a two-way experience. It’s a tree falling in the forest thing – a message is not actually communicated until someone has received it.
Culture and history and idiom and more:
Show me an essay from 14th Century Germany, for example, and the document will have to be translated into 21st Century English for me to read. If it’s a literal translation it won’t do me much good unless I understand the historical, cultural, and geographical setting where it was written, and then only if I have a fluent grasp of idiom. It would also help me to understand the writer’s education, the audience, and why the essay was written in the first place. Was it in response to an event? If so, it would help to know that too.
Because I grew up in the U.K. a failure in American idiom landed me in hot water my very first week of college. I asked a fellow student for a common editing tool while taking notes with a pencil (see footnote for translation). Absent a comprehensive understanding of cultural background, not only was her interpretation all wrong but I was clueless as to why she was upset!
There is so much to learn if we want to read effectively:
When Jesus uttered a phrase or offered a teaching, how long did he pause between certain words, did he raise an eyebrow here, or there? Did he chuckle? Did he elbow Peter in the side and do a nod-nod, wink-wink before delivering the punch line? Was he looking up, away, or into the crowd? Did he wipe tears from his eyes or set them steely firm? Did his expression suggest anger, mirth, or nothing at all?
One of my favorite illustrations for the scope of interpretation is my reading of Matthew 16:13-18. It’s the story where Jesus says, “I’m going to build my church on a solid rock and the gates of hell (or hades, or the powers of the underworld) will never prevail…” Strong language by Jesus, right? But I never knew how strong or understood the power of the imagery was until a few years ago when Rebekah and I visited Caesarea Philippi.
The community is located to the north of Galilee, it’s an area far from Jerusalem where pagan practices often held sway over the Jewish population. One such ritual involved throwing babies from a cliff onto rocks in front of a gaping cave, then repeating the practice until enough blood was spilled to satisfy “the gods.” This place was known – at the time and because of its horrors – as The Gates of Hell.
Jesus, then, stood in that place and defied the evil, promising to raise a church that would never be influenced by such barbarity. You want to know what interpretation means? Stand in front of that hellish gate and listen again to the words of Jesus.
For pictures, check out this post from our visit – The Ripple Effect of Jesus.
Do we respect scripture enough to learn and re-learn?
Here’s the thing. I hear people push back against a scholarly examination of the scriptures, even sometimes suggesting that “interpretation” is a dirty word because the Bible should be read and understood literally. However, as we have already discussed, interpretation begins the moment a word is dictated, written, translated, heard, read, seen, reproduced, passed on, talked about – and that is just the beginning.
People who study to that extent, and learn all the history and the culture and the idiom and the context and so much more, are actually showing more respect for the authority of the Bible than those who insist their narrow interpretation is the only one God sanctions or approves.
Tomorrow (or soon) I will share some standard guidelines for the process of interpretation. I believe you will find them helpful. I know I have.
Peace – and more – DEREK
(in English English, a pencil eraser is known as a “rubber”)