Musings on the Bible (2) Responding to interpretative diversity

(2) How should Christians respond to the brute fact of interpretative diversity?

If interpretative diversity (see the last post) is a fact of life within the Christian world, what challenges are posed by that fact to believers?

These are musings – thinking aloud, and not worked out careful theology. Feel welcome to join in.

In reading around this issue I came across this post on an excellent UK blog site in a post by Andrew Wilson written about a year ago. I think the material was also published in the UK magazine Christianity. Now he’s an excellent writer and theologian (he is complementarian but we’ll overlook that lapse of judgement) and I really like the content and tone of the site.

He has a really good short summary of Christian Smith’s argument. These are Smith’s own words:

So the question is this: if the Bible is given by a truthful and omnipotent God as an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the presumably sincere Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to common agreement about what it teaches?

And these are then Wilson’s words

Smith himself proposes that there are six possible answers to that question:

1.  The readers are at fault. Some people are just wrong.
2.  Confusion exists because we don’t have the original manuscripts.
3.  The fall has corrupted humanity so that our minds cannot understand the Bible properly.
4.  God, or Satan, or somebody, has deliberately blinded some Christians so they cannot understand.
5.  Plurality reflects truth: it is in the varied, even contradictory, interpretations that the truth really lies.
6.  Scripture is intended to be ambiguous on a bunch of issues.

The seventh option, of course, is that the premiss [sic] of the question is false: the Bible is not “an internally consistent and perspicuous text precisely for the purpose of revealing to humans correct beliefs, practices and morals.” Rather, in reality it expresses multivocality (speaking differently to different people) and polysemy (texts have underdetermined meaning). Our only hope – and here I oversimplify – is therefore to read it all as pointing to Christ, and to leave decisions on the multitude of issues on which it does not speak clearly to the church. This, it seems clear, is what Smith himself believes.

Wilson goes on to make what seems to me to be a logically confused argument. He persuasively points out that it is impossible to say there is ONE nice easy answer out of Smith’s options. He gives examples of all 6 of Smith’s possibilities existing within the Bible itself. Especially on point 1 about human error of interpretation he is winsomely honest in admitting that there are significant things that he taught that he now realizes are mistaken.

I would do too but I can’t think of any. 😉

But he then closes the argument basically trumping all the other options with number 1 – if there is any problem with interpretation it is US not Scripture which is the cause. His words again:

Most importantly, when you look at the way Jesus handled theological disagreements, he doesn’t seem to have identified the clarity of Scripture as the problem. He didn’t seem to think that ‘pervasive interpretive pluralism’ meant the scriptures were lacking in consistency, or clarity. Quite the opposite: he was comfortable simply saying ‘it is written in the Scriptures’, and he and the apostles would no doubt say that although the Scriptures were clear, yet misunderstandings, confusion and disagreement could result from human beings’ ignorance (Matt 22:29), foolishness and slowness of heart (Luke 24:25), established human tradition being put above God’s word (Matt 7:9-13), immaturity and lack of discernment (Heb 5:11-14), carnality (1 Cor 3:1-3), hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-14), legalism (1 Tim 1:3-11), false teaching (Gal 5:7-12), and so on.

Eschatologically, we await the day when the partial passes away and we know Jesus, and all ‘knowledge’, fully. In the meantime, we know in part – but that does not imply God’s word is inconsistent or insufficient. Rather, it implies that until the eschaton, we are.


If there wasn’t any ignorance, and if every Christian could be certain that what they thought the text meant was what it actually means – and here I agree with Christian Smith – then there wouldn’t have been any need for teachers (Eph 4:11), scholarly experts in the scriptures (Acts 18:24), or theological debates (Acts 15:5-21). Yet there was, and there still is.

But that’s because there’s a problem with us, not because there’s a problem with Scripture.

I’m not disagreeing with this, it is manifestly true – in as far as it goes. What I don’t get is how human limitation can be used as trump card in this way considering that Wilson has already pointed out all of Smith’s other possibilities are already present in Scripture itself.

Where am I going with this? It seems to me that Wilson is partly agreeing with Smith but then wants to avoid the idea that Smith’s other possibilities are ALSO factors in interpretative pluralism.

In other words, there are multiple reasons for interpretative pluralism. The last post already listed some contenders.

And (‘finally’ I hear you say if you are still reading) this all poses a challenge for how ‘Bible believing’ Christians are to deal with this ‘brute fact’.

Here are some starters for 10 – please feel welcome to add your own:

HUMILITY: I may not have it all right, I may even be quite wrong

LOVE: means listening carefully to other’s interpretations

LEARNING from others: humility and learning are inseparable

A COMMITMENT TO MINIMAL ORTHODOXY: perhaps there is a better phrase than this. Minimal sounds weak. What I mean is to focus on the gospel of Jesus the Christ, big story of Scripture and on historic creedal orthodoxy with plenty of generosity and grace around other ‘matters of indifference’.

TRUST: in God and in his Word. And that interpreting and understanding that Word is best, no is essentially, done within community. We need each other and the great tradition of Christians gone before us to understand, apply and obey the living Word.

PRAYER: again this goes hand in hand with humility. We need God’s Spirit to hear his Spirit-inspired word.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


2 thoughts on “Musings on the Bible (2) Responding to interpretative diversity

  1. I have a bit of a problem with #3. Wasn’t the Bible inspired by God with the express purpose of communicating with fallen man?

    I agree that it has to be human error—both incorrect interpretation and an insistence on nailing down things we’re just not told.

    I like your point about a commitment to minimal orthodoxy, but that’s so hard sometimes, isn’t it? Keeping the main thing the main thing is very important, but when you see some theological system or other that is (in your view) really hurting folks and giving them a distorted and damaging view of God, it’s pretty hard not to see it as the enemy rather than just some equally valid interpretation.

    I’m quite certain that, in my case, at least, the problem is the corrupt motives of my heart. I begin by wanting to know God, and somewhere along the way I find myself wanting to settle on a framework that allows me to rest comfortably in my knowledge and leave God out of the process entirely.

    That’s why I think there is an intentional level of ambiguity? vagueness? in the Scripture. Would I seek, wrestle, strive, or interact with God much if his self-revelation was completely plain and straightforward? I hate to admit that I doubt it.

    For many of our queries, the truth has been communicated and is there to be found, but we hold our safe, comfortable theological grids (and the quiet, but dictatorial metaphysic that undergirds them) so tightly that we bend and contort stubborn bits and pieces of Scripture until they fit—and then we lie to ourselves about it. If we find we can no longer be reconciled to our system, then we switch camps to a different one. Even a refusal to belong exclusively to one camp or another becomes its own hardened filter that refuses admittance to certain ideas. So, I don’t think it’s impossible for fallen man to understand the revelation that was given with him in mind, but I do think fallen man is the problem.

    It’s just a fight, and will always be a fight—letting scripture determine our metaphysic, letting scripture interpret scripture, and at the same time letting scripture say what it says.

  2. Crystal, if comments got stars, this would be a 5* 🙂

    I remember a teacher of mine saying that theology was like trying to eat a spagetti sandwich (he never said if this was from actual experience or a theoretical example!) Every time you try to take a bite, some bits fall out the other side. I think he meant that every time we try to get our theological system all nice and neat and tidy (and we are in control), the Bible won’t co-operate because it’s bigger and deeper and richer than we can ever grasp.

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