Essay / Theology

Interpreting Texts on Interpretation

Does God withhold truth from believers? Now, I am not talking about the areas of physics, science, medicine, etc. Rather, my question is spiritual in nature: are there things about God and his creation that I cannot know while living on earth? Well, many Christians have already formed a response and, I am guessing, many answers go something like this: “Of course, there are things about God that I do not know, like the Trinity or how Jesus Christ was both God and man.” I would agree. We cannot fully know about the nature and persons of God while earthbound. Now, let me ask another question: are there passages of Scripture that we are unable to understand because we are bound by these bodies of flesh? This is a different sort of question because we are not talking about the essence of God but rather the very word of God and the word of God, the Bible, is what God has provided for us to know Him and to make Him known. This question is really a question about the nature of God’s word and our own intellectual abilities: can we always understand the Bible?

In an answer to this question, we must mediate between two extremes. First, there are those preachers and teachers who say, “Without a doubt, this is what the scriptures say…” Or, more bluntly, “If you disagree with me, then you are disagreeing with God.” Second, there are those in the “church” today who say, “There is no such thing as truth, therefore every preacher’s interpretation is his own.” Or, “We can never know whose view is right.” In the first instance we are most likely dealing with someone’s inflated understanding of themselves and their role as a preacher or teacher. They may have an ego issue that often results in theological fundamentalism – and I mean that in the worst sense of the term. In the second instance, we are dealing with something akin to modern/post-modern subjectivity. That is, all truth (if there is truth at all) is what each person thinks is truth. In other words, each individual person must find meaning for themselves in each passage of the scriptures. Now, both of these positions are ultimately incorrect and harmful to the Church. The answer to the original question then, I believe, lies somewhere between these two extremes.

I believe that the answer lies partly, at least, in 2 Peter 1:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 13:9-12. In his second epistle Peter writes, “So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The primary thing to notice about these verses is that the prophetic scriptures did not come into being through the prophet’s “own interpretation.” But what exactly does Peter mean by this expression? He appears to be saying that no prophecy is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Therefore, by implication, the Church (i.e., the community of all the faithful) must interpret prophecy (“no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will”), the interpretation must be that intended by the Holy Spirit (“moved by the Holy Spirit”) and the individual’s interpretation is not to be done in “private” but according to the analogy of faith (“… from God”). The sense of the verse is that no prophecy of Scripture is to be interpreted by any individual in an arbitrary way. This fits the problem of the false teachers’ distorting Paul’s writings and the other scriptures mentioned at 3:16, and the next verse clarifies that the prophecy originated with the Holy Spirit.

Thus, according to 2 Peter 1:19-21, the steps to interpreting Scripture are:
1. Interpretation is done in the community of the church (v. 20). This does not mean that only a preacher or teacher can properly interpret the scriptures, but that someone who is outside of the church cannot and will not be able to discern God’s truth. It also means that everyone’s understanding of the scriptures must be scrutinized by the Church, the body of Christ, before it is determined to be a proper understanding.

2. The interpretation must be that intended by the Holy Spirit (v. 21b). This means that ultimately scriptural interpretation is under the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit. It is through him that one comes to a proper meaning of the scriptures. Now, the Holy Spirit works through other believers to help discern what is the correct understanding of a passage. So a preacher or a teacher who is unwilling to subject himself to the scrutiny of his fellow-believers regarding his interpretation has, in my opinion, an understanding of a text that is likely unique and, quite possibly, incorrect.

3. An individual’s interpretation is not to be done in “private” but according to the analogy of faith (v. 21a). The “analogy of faith” is a term that refers to the larger teaching of the scriptures. In other words, one’s interpretation of a text cannot contradict what is taught elsewhere in the scriptures. For example, it is clear that adultery is forbidden by the scriptures. So anyone who interprets the scriptures and says, “God says we are to love everyone, therefore I should love an adulterer and accept his behavior,” is going against the analogy of faith.

Thus, Peter teaches that there are three aspects to interpreting and understanding the Bible: Scriptural interpretation is done in the community of the church, the Holy Spirit superintends interpretation and scriptural interpretation is done according to the analogy of faith. Yet, do we come to the truth of a passage by merely following these guidelines? Can we still be mistaken regarding what we perceive to be God’s truth revealed in his Word? According to 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 – yes!

In 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 the apostle Paul writes, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The immediate context of these verses concerns the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. However, without getting bogged down in this debate I think that these verses are teaching us something very important about our ability to understand things, the scriptures included. When talking about tongues and prophecy, the apostle Paul is talking about knowledge. Thus, verses 9-12 are Paul’s summary statement regarding knowledge, particularly earthly knowledge. Biblical commentator Harold Mare summarizes the passage this way: “Paul’s illustration of a child’s thoughts and speech, real but inadequately conceived and expressed in comparison with those of a mature person (v. 11) aptly conveys the difference between the Christian’s present understanding and expression of spiritual things and the perfect understanding and expression he will have in heaven (v. 12). The metaphor is that of the imperfect reflection seen in one of the polished metal mirrors of the ancient world in contrast with seeing the Lord face to face. Paul’s thoughts in 12b may be expanded as follows: Now through the Word of God, I know in part; then, in the presence of the Lord I will know fully, to the full extent that a redeemed finite human being can know and in a way similar in kind to the way the Lord in his infinite wisdom fully and infinitely knows me.”

In short, though 1 Peter may lay down directions for a theoretically proper interpretation of Scripture, we must see 1 Corinthians 13:9-12 as a warning that we only “know in part,” therefore our understanding of the Bible may at times be incorrect. This understanding of these verses is as ancient as the church itself. For example, Basil of Caesarea writes, “Even though more knowledge is always being acquired by everyone, it will ever fall short in all things of its rightful completeness until the time when that which is perfect being comes, that which is in part will be done away.” And, as Didymus the Blind wrote, “This means that the things which we now hear on the authority of the scriptures we believe to be so. After the resurrection [of the saved] we shall see them with our eyes and know them in reality, when partial knowledge has ceased, for the knowledge which depends on hearing is part of the knowledge of an eyewitness and of experience.”

Further, we see from 1 Corinthians 14:30-31 that prophecy “involved a revelation, a special deep teaching, which, however, was distinct from the kind of revelation that Scripture is.” Thus, when Paul says, “we prophesy in part” he is saying that we have a limited understanding of the deep teachings of God’s Word. If we have a limited understanding of the scriptures, then we must concede that there are times when are wrong and do not understand the Bible.

Though Peter lays out for us how to interpret Scripture properly, he does not tell us how to always come to a correct understanding but rather how we should go about interpreting biblical texts. Paul reminds us that our knowledge here on earth is limited though this will change when we are in heaven. When we combine these two teachings, it leads us to conclude that though God himself may not withhold truth from us, we must be honest and recognize that there are times when we may not accurately understand the meaning of biblical passages. However, when the interpretive process is done according to 2 Peter 1:19-21 then we can have a measure of assurance that God is revealing the truth of his Word to us through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This truth gives us confidence in both our own understanding of the Bible and in the preaching and teaching of godly believers. Our prayer should echo Jesus words in John 16:13 – “Father, through your Holy Spirit, lead us into all truth.” Amen.

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