No Wrong or Right Way?

October 11, 2011

Yesterday, newly ordained Scott Anderson was interviewed on CNN. He remarked that what allowed the ordination of an openly gay man “for the first time” in the PCUSA was a changing view of Scripture. He said, “There is no wrong way and no right way to interpret the Bible. . . The PCUSA is a big tent that makes room now for people like me.” While I agree that the church’s view and use of Scripture is precisely the point upon which the argument for ordination rests, I was very sad that Anderson said there is no wrong way to interpret the Bible.

The topic of biblical interpretation is hot right now, made more so by the recent publication of Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2011). I have just started reading it and therefore cannot yet comment on the book. However, my Spirit-led gut tells me that while there may be multiple right ways to interpret the Scriptures, there most certainly can be a wrong way. At the outset, my view aligns with Augustine, who was open to multiple meanings of the same scripture, so long as each could be shown to be consistent with the truth. This is an application of the Reformation-era hermeneutical principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

Regardless of where my readers fall along the conservative to liberal spectrum, surely there could be some agreement that there is a wrong way to interpret the Bible. Human nature what it is probably dictates the “wrong way” cannot possibly be “my way,” but if we push through to consider the possible reasons why or why not, we may gain some insight into the great divide within the Presbyterian Church.

The question is important because our rendering of Scripture produces a doctrine, and doctrine expresses itself in active faith.  It is also true that one lives the reality of what one believes, and what one believes reflects one’s interpretation of Scripture.  What is greatly concerning to a person dedicated to “bringing the Word to life” is the postulation that there is no word clear enough to instruct or lead one toward godliness. This conclusion would result in the unfortunate application Scott Anderson made on CNN: the Scripture can be interpreted in any way to suit a particular agenda, rendering it irrelevant in the day-to-day pursuit of God’s will, one’s repentance, and life transformation. If this is so, then we do not have the Gospel and our faith is in vain. But if we do have the Gospel, it is going to be important to know what it is and how we should live because of it.

More tomorrow . . .

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9 Responses to “No Wrong or Right Way?”


  1. Celebrating Scott’s ordination, but concurring with you that there sure are a number of wrong ways to interpret scripture. If not, lots of seminary students have wasted a lot of time in classes on the Bible!

  2. Ron Says:

    Kevin DeYoung had an August 2nd Review

    Christian Smith Makes the Bible Impossible – Kevin DeYoung
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/08/02/christian-smith-makes-the-bible-impossible/

    Will be interesting to see your thoughts.

    I wonder if after 2000 years we can finally throw the Bible out as our source of Truth and just look to Christ. If we can gather the whole church together around this idea perhaps maybe he will return. Then again perhaps some other will appear like the Christ once we are all ready to follow him….

    As for me I think I’ll still to the Bible.

    Perhaps we should never have forgotten the beginning of the WCF: Chapter 1 (It’s amazing that once upon a time the King actually allowed men to write something like this)

    4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

    5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

    6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

    7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

    8. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.

    9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

    10. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

  3. Whit Says:

    Mary, you have put the question exactly right – How do we interpret Scripture? I look forward to how you develop this in future posts.

    It seems to me, and you imply, that a Scripture that can be interpreted in no wrong way cannot be used to settle any theological dispute, or provide a guide to behavior. That is, it can never act as authority because Scott’s interpretation, no matter how far it strays from the text, is as good as any other. And each man will do, and believe, whatever seems good in his own eyes.

    If such an interpretative framework, that there is no wrong interpretation of Scripture, becomes the norm, and I think it is already the dominant one in the PCUSA, what hope is there within the denomination?

  4. Dennis Evans Says:

    When I was in high school (1960’s) my (Presbyterian) minister said to me, “The Bible is not about the things God actually said and did. It’s about the kind of God the people believed in. Or the assistant pastor at the (Presbyterian) church I attended in my college town said to me, “Jesus’ idea of God is a bit narrow for me.”

  5. Jake Horner Says:

    Mary,

    I’ll throw this out there as a working hypothesis and hope I don’t get flamed too badly. In my reflections on Scripture during my time at seminary I’ve had to confront the documentary hypothesis and the multiplicity of variants in the Greek manuscripts. I confess that I find the history of the text a fascinating and wonderful mystery — God has gotten bigger for me because He didn’t just drop the finished product into the world, but over a significant length of time, and through many broken people has written His revelation.

    This is not to deny inspiration or infallibility. But I have come to hypothesize that the locus of infallibility is not in the text for this reason: some people come to the text and believe, others come to the text and remain unchanged. What is the difference? Ron noted it in the key phrase above from WCF.I.5: “… our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” In other words, the one who comes to the text and is changed has been acted upon by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. So it is only in the activity of the Holy Spirit that the text becomes the Word. That fundamental activity could be described as interpretation.

    That brings up the important question you are asking: Does the One God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give many interpretations of the same text through the same Holy Spirit? Is He a God of certainty or uncertainty? Of confusion or clarity?

    Jesus said that the way to eternal life is narrow, but the way to destruction wide. “Human” history is really the history of God’s activity moving from creation to eschaton. Scripture bears witness to God’s eternal purpose and His activity in accomplishing it. But it is only apprehended through the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the lifeless text, and by acting in and through it gives it life and places a person on the narrow way.

    God is doing what He is doing for His good pleasure, and irrespective of any number of human interpretations. My conclusion is that there is only one interpretation that comprehends the entire purpose of the Triune God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether or not we can grasp it is another question.

    my 0.02,

    Jake Horner

    ps. thanks for writing your post and getting me thinking.

    • revmary Says:

      This is great “thinking,” Jake! I resonate with what you’re saying. The only places where I paused a bit were: 1) does the Triune God give many interpretations of the same text through the same Holy Spirit? I think yes, as long as they are not contradictory (different is not necessarily contradictory). That was my reference to Augustine. But one interpretation that negates another means that they can’t both be true (and they may both be false). And 2) “it is only in the activity of the HS that the text becomes the Word. Mmmm, I’m going to have to think about that for awhile, because I do believe in God’s authorship somehow, some way (but not “verbal dictation”) at the time those human writers put “God’s word” on paper. The HS was working then, too. Is the letter just DEAD until somebody Spirit-filled reads it? That’s where I have the problem. Now you got *me* thinking!

      • Jake Horner Says:

        Mary,

        Sorry it has taken me a few days to get back to this … (midterms).

        1) (thinking out loud) The text is multivalent (I like that term better than plurivalent) as you observed. I have certainly had the experience of the Spirit opening up the same text at different levels at different points of my life. I’m not sure I would call that multivalence “differing interpretations” though. It seems to me that they are all part of the same tapestry, and I am either looking at different parts, or that I have stepped back and can see more of the whole than I did before (so to speak). So, it’s not the case that God puts different tapestries before different people, but that under the guidance of the Spirit I see different or bigger or smaller parts of the one tapestry that God puts before all people. If we extend the metaphor a bit, the tapestry that God sets before us is His eternal purpose in Jesus Christ leading from creation to eschaton. It’s a big tapestry, and we can ‘see’ it only under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit.

        In a sense false prophets are holding up a different tapestry and claiming that it is God’s tapestry. It’s not merely that they are seeing a different part, or view of God’s tapestry, but something else entirely.

        It is in this sense that I understand interpretation — that the One God the Father Son and Holy Spirit is executing one purpose in the One Messiah Jesus Christ, and that is the tapestry that is set before the Church through the Holy Spirit acting in, with, and by the text.

        2) I began with the question: Why do some come to the text and believe, and others come to the text and not believe? If the power to regenerate or transform resides in the text then it would seem that any who come to it should see the truth contained therein. So why don’t all who come to it convert? The conclusion I reached is that power doesn’t reside in the text — it is essentially the same argument Paul makes in Romans regarding the ineffectiveness of the Law; the problem with the law is that it shows what God requires, but has no power to effect obedience. It is only the Holy Spirit who is able to empower for sanctifying obedience (regarding justification, it is only in our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit that His righteousness and satisfaction become ours (T. F. Torrance)). The text is a symbol (if you will) that in the ‘hands’ of the Spirit becomes a set of ideas (tapestry) that points to Jesus Christ at the center of God’s eternal purpose, it is the Spirit working in, with, and by the text who regenerates human hearts and brings about saving faith.

        So then, the text is not the tapestry, it is the God-authored pointer to the tapestry which is brought into view through the HS working in with and by the text. God authored it (the text) in time and space through many individuals working over 1500(?) years. Though the text itself may not be inerrant (all the variants in the GR. manuscripts can’t all be correct) and the text itself may not be infallible (some who come to it fail to believe and so are outside God’s will of desire), yet the ‘tapestry’ that the HS creates in with and by the text is inerrant and infallible, inevitably leading to saving faith in those whom God the Father Son and Holy Spirit has elected to the covenant community in Christ. It is the tapestry that is the Word, and has Jesus Christ (the Word) at its center.

        I hope that clarifies where I’m coming from (again, this is a working hypothesis).

        JH

  6. Dave Moody Says:

    Jake,
    Great reflections… thanks. My reactions are the same as Mary’s though.. I suspect scripture has more to tell us, but it doesn’t have anything different to tell us- if that makes sense. Hence more light, but not different light. As to the presenting issue, and the sinfulness (or not) of same sex activity in the classical and NT world… I don’t think we need to wrap ourselves around a hermeneutical or epistemological axle. The text is clear, and ignoring or dismissing it, is not an alternative hermeneutic, its rhetorical posturing of the most dishonest sort.

    mine is only worth .01…

  7. Ron Says:

    Since I was referenced by Jack as pointing out the WCF statement, let me clarify what I see as the context.

    The passage about the Holy Spirit comes just after:

    4. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

    5. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture…………..

    I see this as the authority is in the Bible and entirely dependent on God’s revelation not on man’s or the church’s aka RCC.

    But it makes an even deeper point that man in his own wisdom is not going to get it unless God in the third person the Holy Spirit opens one’s heart, mind, and soul to the word.

    Even Jesus noted that: “And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.””

    This probabally explains why so many can’t hear the Word.

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