Why are there so many Different Interpretations of the Bible? The Problem of “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism”3
Back in April of this year, at the national conference of the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung addressed the question of why there appear to be so many different interpretations of the Bible? If the Bible is inspired and sufficient, why do so many Christians disagree with one another on particular texts and topics? The language of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” was first used by author Christian Smith, who recently converted to Roman Catholicism. Kevin’s message was excellent, but I thought I would add to what he said with a few observations of my own. Continue reading...
Back in April of this year, at the national conference of the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung addressed the question of why there appear to be so many different interpretations of the Bible? If the Bible is inspired and sufficient, why do so many Christians disagree with one another on particular texts and topics? The language of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” was first used by author Christian Smith, who recently converted to Roman Catholicism. Kevin’s message was excellent, but I thought I would add to what he said with a few observations of my own.
Let’s begin with the important concession that this is a problem that all people face, regardless of their religious affiliation. It is not solely a Protestant problem. Anyone who thinks there is monolithic and always unified interpretation in the Roman Catholic Church is simply uninformed. Not only is this a problem in all families of the Christian faith, it is a problem in all spheres of earthly existence. In other words, this isn’t simply a religious problem, it is a human problem that infects every discipline of study and every work of literature that we read. Nevertheless, it is especially present in Christianity because we affirm that our “work of literature”, the Bible, is inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient.
We are now prepared to examine some of the reasons for interpretive pluralism. These are by no means the only reasons, but they provide a good place to begin our discussion.
First, there is far more on which we agree than what may divide us. Virtually all Protestants (yes, there are always a few exceptions) agree that (1) the Bible is God’s revealed Word, (2) God is Triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), (3) God is the Creator and Providential Lord over history, (4) mankind fell into sin and is incapable of extracting himself from it or its eternal consequences, (5) God chose Israel out from among the nations of the world to be a beacon of light and truth and to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, (6) Jesus is the virgin born, incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, (7) Jesus lived a sinless life of perfect obedience to the will of the Father, (8) Jesus died on a cross as the substitutionary sacrifice for sinners in order to make atonement for our transgressions, (9) Jesus rose bodily from the dead, (10) Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, (11) Jesus rules supremely over all of history, (12) salvation is based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, (13) salvation is by grace and through faith in what Christ has accomplished for us, (14) Jesus Christ will return personally and physically to consummate his kingdom, and (15) all humanity will stand before God to be judged, the ultimate outcome of which is either heaven or hell.
On these matters virtually all professing Christians agree. We could add to this numerous other beliefs and practices on which they all agree: the Church of Jesus Christ, the role of prayer, the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, and the list could go on endlessly. The minor differences that most Protestants might have on a few of these matters are largely insignificant when compared to the extent to which they agree.
Second, a principal reason for much of the disagreement that exists is simply that some biblical texts are extremely difficult to interpret. Peter said as much about some of what Paul wrote (2 Peter 3:16). And I would argue that God intended it to be this way! He inspired hard texts, among other reasons, lest we become presumptuous, arrogant, and self-sufficient in our approach to and understanding of the Bible. He inspired hard texts to compel us to pray for enlightenment, to dig deeply into the text and other resources that might aid in our understanding, and to drive us to complete dependence upon him and his wisdom rather than our own.
Third, what appear at first to be different or conflicting interpretations of biblical texts are, on closer examination, different applications or different ways of understanding the practical significance of certain texts. For example, Christians differ widely on whether they should attend movies and if they do, which ones. They differ on their political choices for state and national office. They differ on whether a Christian should drink alcohol, and if one does, how much. But these are not necessarily differences in how they interpret the meaning of biblical texts but rather differences on how we go about making application of those texts to contemporary ethical choices. So, for example, a person whose father was an alcoholic and beat his family may well conclude that although the Bible doesn’t demand total abstinence, any thinking Christian will embrace it. Others, who were not raised in such circumstances may well draw a different conclusion about the exercise of Christian freedom in this regard.
Fourth, all Christians are influenced far more by their personal traditions than they are willing to acknowledge. The church background from which one comes, whether or not one’s parents were Christians, the place and time of one’s birth and the broader culture in which one is raised, all serve to shape our beliefs and desires and how we approach the Bible far more than we imagine. And the resulting differences in certain interpretations are thus not the problem of the Bible per se but rather of those who approach and read it through differing colored lens.
Fifth, often differences in interpretation are due to the fact that people know or suspect their personal view is incorrect but they simply don’t like the alternative. In other words, I’ve known people who embrace universalism because they don’t like the idea of people suffering in an eternal hell. Or perhaps they disagree with the traditional view of homosexuality not because the biblical text is ambiguous but because they don’t see any other way of loving and supporting a family member or friend who has declared they are same-sex attracted.
Sixth, I’m grieved to say this, but I fear some people hold to differing interpretations of biblical texts because if they were to embrace what they sincerely believe the Bible to be saying they stand in jeopardy of losing their jobs or having their ordination rescinded, or some such outcome. Personal vested interests and self-preservation have a strange way of influencing, often unconsciously, how we read and interpret the Bible. And not only do people embrace a particular interpretation in order to retain their job but also to get one!
Seventh, it is with even greater sadness that I concede that some choose a particular interpretation over against the consensus of Christian tradition because they want to justify their own sin. Yielding to the standard (and most likely obvious) interpretation would require that they acknowledge their behavior is sinful and calls for repentance. But their love for their sin is greater than their desire to submit to the truth of God’s Word.
Eighth, often there is simply personal prejudice at work. Prejudice can take any number of forms but in virtually every case it will lead to distorted interpretations of texts that serve to reinforce the particular form of prejudice in view.
Ninth, many times differences in interpretation are due to the fact that some people are simply less educated than others. Some know Greek and Hebrew quite well while others only read the Bible in English. Some are highly educated in the cultural background of biblical texts while others know little in this regard. I’m not suggesting that only highly educated people with Ph.D’s can properly interpret Scripture. In fact, on occasion it is the average lay person who understands more correctly and with greater insight than others. My point is simply that differing educational levels can easily contribute to differences in interpreting the biblical text.
Tenth, some people don’t believe that the Bible is inspired and inerrant and always internally consistent and thus feel no hesitation in concluding that the Bible is plainly wrong on some things it asserts. Differing interpretations of the slaughter of the Canaanites in the period of the OT is a good example of this. One man told me in private conversation that he disagreed with my stance on whether or not a woman should be ordained to the position of Elder or Senior Pastor because he was convinced that the Apostle Paul was wrong. It didn’t matter what the text said on the subject. There is no good reason in his thinking why women shouldn’t serve in positions of senior authority in the local church and so he refuses to admit the possibility that Paul is teaching otherwise.
Eleventh, the influence of parents, siblings, and teachers on how we think, what we prefer, and why we read certain texts the way we do is tremendous and often, again, unconscious. Sometimes people hold certain views on theological issues because that’s what mom and dad believed or because it would feel like betrayal if we turned our back on a beloved and respected Bible teacher. No one likes to admit that the people they love most were wrong.
Twelfth, a simple but not infrequent reason behind interpretive differences is that some Christians don’t dig deeply into Scripture. They settle for what seems to them evident on the surface. Sometimes they draw interpretive conclusions because they are reading a paraphrase of the Bible rather than a more literal translation. Time and dedication and extensive research can go a long way to resolve interpretive differences.
Thirteenth, there is always the possibility of culture exerting a powerful influence on how we read the Bible. People living in the Middle East do not always see things the way people do who are living in the Sudan. Or Christians raised in Eastern Asia will interpret the Bible in a manner different from those raised and educated in southern California.
Of course, we must never forget that the cultural context of the Bible itself is noticeably different from our own. In other words, it isn’t simply that we bring a unique cultural conditioning to the way we read Scripture. It is also the case that the words of Scripture reflect the cultural conditioning of its many authors, and this can make for an increased difficulty in properly interpreting authorial intent.
Fourteenth, there are always differences in personality that can affect how we read the Bible. To take but one example, consider the way a person with a robust confidence in God and the truth of forgiveness will read certain texts over against the way a person with an extremely sensitive and tender conscience might read them. The humble may well read and apply texts in a slightly different way from those who are arrogant and self-assertive. Countless other differences in personality can often exert powerful influence on what we allow ourselves to see in the Bible. A person bent toward legalism will read texts differently than will a free-spirited antinomian. A person given toward isolation and separatism will read and apply texts in a way that differs from a person who is more inclusive and welcoming of others.
At the same time as we exercise our God-given responsibility to interpret the Scriptures, we must be aware of the element of subjectivity that influences all interpretation. Interpreting the Bible is not to be compared to a man looking into a fishbowl, but to a fish in his own fishbowl looking at another fish in his!
Fifteenth, and finally, one’s personal past experience has a great influence on how we read the Bible. A person raised in a church where discipline for scandalous sin never occurred may have an alternative way of interpreting certain texts as over against the person who was wounded by the excessive and heavy-handed discipline that was imposed on a loved one or family friend. There are probably countless other ways in which personal experience both in and outside the church have affected our ability and willingness to read the biblical text objectively and fairly.
I should also mention in closing that it is often the case that apparent differences are precisely that, only apparent. When closer study is undertaken one often discovers that what at first seemed to be a contradiction or a difference is actually nothing of the sort, but is entirely complimentary and harmonious.
I’m not claiming that these points eliminate the problem of “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” but I hope that I’ve brought a measure of perspective to the issue. In any case, I happily embrace the challenge that our differences bring to the body of Christ. Let’s respond to this inescapable reality by listening more closely both to each other and to what the Bible is actually saying.