Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Matter of Interpretation

Here's my latest article for reIGNITED:

One of the principles that our Restoration Movement forefathers like Alexander Campbell put forth was the concept of “individual private interpretation.” This is the idea that the Bible can be understood by the average person. The concept did not originate with Campbell. Reformers like Martin Luther and Bible translators like John Wycliffe, John Hus, and William Tyndale believed that people should be permitted to read the Bible in their own language. This ran counter to the belief that the Bible should only be read and taught by learned scholars and/or members of the clergy.

Campbell believed that it is the duty of each Christian to honestly and diligently study the word of God with the best helps available, and to walk in the light of divine truth as God gives him the ability to see that light. He insisted on the individual’s right to interpret Scripture. In his debate with John Walker, he complained about clergy who did not trust the laity to do this correctly. He said, “Go home and read your Bibles; examine the testimony of those holy oracles, and judge for yourselves, and be not implicit followers of the clergy.” Campbell (and Barton W. Stone) had a strong faith in the ability of lay people to read, interpret, and understand the Bible properly. The New Testament gives an example of people who verified the words of the preacher by checking the Word of God. “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11 NIV).

There are some inherent dangers with the idea that each person can interpret the Bible for himself or herself. On several occasions, as I have been talking to people about the Bible, they have dismissed differences with the statement, “Well, it’s all a matter of interpretation.” Their basis for this assertion is that all interpretations of Scripture are equally valid. Common sense tells us that this cannot possibly be true. Another example is the Small Group Bible Study or Sunday School class that reads a passage of Scripture followed by the leader asking, “What does this passage mean to you?” This generally results in numerous and widely diverse responses that often have little relevance to the text. A more pertinent and appropriate question is, “What did this mean to God?” or “What does the Lord want me to do?”

The privilege of reading the Scripture cannot be separated from the responsibility of using sound principles of hermeneutics (i.e. the science of interpreting the Bible correctly). Members of Restoration Movement churches were once known as “the people of the Book.” Wouldn’t it be great to see that reputation restored? The admonition that the apostle Paul gave to young Timothy seems just as fitting now as it was in the first century: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV).

7 comments:

David H. Willis said...

Good stuff bro!

John said...

Soren,
A few years ago the Gideon's invited me to a dinner. At the dinner they had many of the Testaments displayed. I had always the thought that they were just the Scriptures. I found in some of them a little page put into the Bibles that shared a nice presentation of how one could be saved with some Scriptures listed to prove their point, until the point of asking Jesus into their hearts. No Scriptures listed for that of course. Since then I have learned they do have some Bibles that do not have those "helps" in them. We asked that our gifts be given to the purchase of only that Bible. I am glad we do not have to put into the Scriptures an explanation of the plan of salvation. We can instruct people to go to the Bible and follow what it says.
Keep up the great writing and preaching brother.

wjcsydney said...

Mike, you said "There are some inherent dangers with the idea that each person can interpret the Bible for himself or herself." So how does one get around those dangers? What suggestions do you have?

Soren said...

Sydney,

I think we need to do a better job teaching/equipping our people HOW to read/study/interpret the Scriptures. I think the average person has little or no concept of the difference between the testaments/covenants, or the fact that the Bible uses different genres of literature (law, history, biography, etc.).

We have to teach them to ask the right questions about the text and to make sure they are drawing biblical conclusions rather than simply whatever sounds good.

mike waugh said...

Mike, you wrote: "One of the principles that our Restoration Movement forefathers like Alexander Campbell put forth was the concept of “individual private interpretation.” This is the idea that the Bible can be understood by the average person. . . . This ran counter to the belief that the Bible should only be read and taught by learned scholars and/or members of the clergy."

It seems like your response to Sydney's question still has an element of the "learned scholars and/or members of the clergy" teaching the "average person."

What if we studied/interpreted God's Word in community rather than in private? Does the Acts 17:11 passage (the Bereans) paint a picture of a group of individuals privately examining the Scriptures every day, or of a group of individuals corporately examining the Scriptures every day?

Just thinking out loud here. Good article.

Soren said...

Good points Mike. The community concept IS important. And there is also a need for teachers/preachers (there is a bit of irony in the fact that Campbell spent most of his life explaining the Scriptures to people). I was attempting to celebrate the fact that Bibles are no longer chained to pulpits, rather, we all can read it for ourselves.

I posted this on my Facebook page and received several responses. One was from Dr. Jack Cottrell. He wrote:

"God-given intelligence and free will mean that each person is EQUIPPED to come to the right interpretation of the Bible, but not everyone will use these gifts appropriately, or have the same opportunity to use them. In this connection it is important to remember that one of the gifts of the Spirit is teaching/teachers. We should remember the eunuch's response to Philip's question, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The answer: "How can I, unless some man guide me?" But: some guides are trustworthy, and some are "the blind leading the blind." The trick is to use your intelligence and free will to find the right guide: one that will show you not only right interpretations, but will show you how to reach those conclusions."

wjcsydney said...

Mike, I am attempting to get one of the small groups I am in to study how to interpret the Bible. (I am not the leader). I am hopeful we can read a basic book like Stuart and Fee together.
Wendy