That's Just Your Interpretation... And Other Such Nonsense
Author Lance Phelps - 8 Minute Read
You have heard it before while discussing theology: “Well that is just your interpretation.” Or, if you declare a passage to be clear on a subject, you might hear: “If this passage is so clear than why are there so many people who don’t believe that it says that?” But these statement, while they are appealing on the surface, harbor serious epistemological problems for the Christian.
R C Sproul in his great book Knowing Scripture asks the following questions about this statement:
… Many times after discussing the meaning of a passage, people rebut my statements by simply saying to me, “Well, that’s your opinion.” What could such a remark mean? [It] is perfectly obvious to all present that an interpretation that I have offered as my own is my opinion. I am the one who just gave the opinion. But I don’t think that is what people have in mind… I think [that this] is what most people mean: “That’s your interpretation, and that’s fine for you. I don’t agree with it, but my interpretation is equally valid. Though our interpretations are contrary and contradictory, they can both be true. Whatever you like is true for you, and whatever I like is true for me.” This is subjectivism.
A Rotten, and Strange, Foundation
The issue with the the above retort to a troublesome Biblical interpretation is that it must rest on a totally unbiblical foundation. The Bible rests on truth not being subjective. Relativism simply is not compatible with a Biblical epistemology (theory of how we know truth). Truth is based on the reality that God has created and it does not fluctuate based on who is trying to find it. Rather, truth, material or spiritual, is an objective reality that we must discover by exploring the world with our senses and rationality. God made the world and we must go out and discover what he made.
The Person Behind the Word
I think that few Christians would disagree with the above. But now we must add to this consideration the nature of the word. Through the process of inspiration God, three persons in one being, wrote a book. This is important to note: He wrote a book. When we write we have the intention of making ourselves known to others (thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc.). The Bible has been written for a purpose by a being. This means that it can and will be understood. Furthermore this means that the Bible has a logical flow of thoughts that comes from a rational being. Of course this rational being is far above us so that some things in the Bible are hard for us to understand. These things might be paradoxes to us (apparent contradictions that upon closer examination can be resolved). Nevertheless the Bible must be clear in what God intended to communicate or he has failed in his purpose for writing the word. But we read this: “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’” (Isaiah 46:10) God’s purpose for the scriptures are clear: to save and to sanctify his bride.
But if it’s Clear Why is it not Universally Accepted?
Before I close this post I would like to address this common question for those who challenge the clarity of the scriptures or just certain passages. The above question is a common retort but this question has some serious issues. First, if the interlocutor is not careful, they will be guilty of some form of the ad numeram fallacy. This fallacy makes the claim that if something it popular than it must be true. But, especially in the case of the scriptures, this is simply an invalid line of reasoning.
Yet there is a more pressing issue at hand. An appeal to popularity is problematic but worse yet is the assumption that the content that the Bible teaches is evaluated neutrally. For the above questions to make sense the doctrines that are being challenged by this question should be neutral ones that have no affect on ones religious assumptions. The issue is that by virtue of the Bibles authorship this is never the case. All that is written in the word impacts the beliefs that we hold as we approach the scriptures. No one is neutral. In fact some of the most hotly contested doctrines are the doctrines that make damning statements about the fundamental aspect of the nature of the human person. Thus it is no wonder that there would be many that would not be able to abandon their existing philosophical and theological assumptions to bring their worldview in line with the word of God. The issue is made worse if the doctrine of the inspiration of the word is believed. In that case our interlocutor cannot simply admit that it says what it seems or they would be forced to abandon their cherished doctrine, whatever that may be.
The Truth, Known
So we can know what the scriptures have to say because God, a being with a mind, has communicated it to us with a purpose. This means that if we offer an interpretation we are saying that our view is what God intended to communicate. The interpretation is then not just an opinion, it is supposed to align with the reality of God’s thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This should give us pause, for this means that we are declaring the very words of the Lord with our interpretations. Thus interpretations should be done carefully and humbly. We should take into account the full counsel of God’s word, carefully follow basic rules for handling the word correctly, and consider the council of God’s elect. I will close with this quote from Knowing Scripture:
This does not mean that we are constantly in doubt regarding our interpretation of Scripture, holding our views tentatively. On the contrary, if we have done our homework by carefully following the basic hermeneutical principles outlined in this book, we have every right to be fully confident in our views. However, if we encounter new information that possibly reframes our understanding of a passage of Scripture, we must not dismiss it without first carefully examining all of the pertinent facts. To repeat what I said earlier, if my views cannot stand the test of objective analysis and verification, humility demands that I abandon them.