Monday, June 2, 2014

DIFFERENCES IN SCRIPTURAL INTERPRETATION

Over the past year I have had a number of “dialogues” with my Christian friends about religious faith.  One thing that has surprised me about these conversations have been the wide differences of opinion among Christians in what they believe.  To illustrate this point, I thought I would summarize some of those differences with respect to a few fundamental Christian beliefs.  And, yes, each of these is a firm and sincere belief espoused by one or more of the Christians with whom I have discussed these matters.


Who will God save?

  1. All and only those who believe in God and in Christ’s resurrection and who have asked for forgiveness for all of their sins.
  2. All and only those who believe, whether or not they happen to have unforgiven sins at their death.
  3. All those who live good lives, whether or not they believe in God or Christ.
  4. Everyone, regardless of their behavior or beliefs.

Is Christ coming to earth a second time?

  1. Yes, there are signs that his second coming is immanent, and we need to be ready.
  2. Yes, but the focus should be on how we conduct our lives so that we can be saved at death.
  3. Not something that we talk about.

When would I go to heaven?

  1. Immediately after death.
  2. Only after Christ’s return.  Before that all who die will be in “soul sleep.”
  3. In my case, never.

Is there an evil force in the world?

  1. Yes, Satan (aka Lucifer, etc.) and his minions challenged God’s leadership and plan and is the source of evil and suffering on earth.
  2. No, Satan is simply a metaphor for sin and suffering that are the natural result of humans’ disobedience of and separation from God.

Is there an actual hell?

  1. No, it is just separation from God.
  2. Yes, but those going to hell will eventually just cease to exist.
  3. Yes, and those going to hell will suffer for all eternity.

How and when did God create the world?

  1. God created everything in six literal days less than ten thousand years ago, as Genesis 1 describes.
  2. God created the heavens and earth billions of years ago, as stated in Genesis 1:1, but created life, including humans, several thousand years ago, as described in the remainder of Genesis 1.
  3. The Genesis creation story is metaphorical.  God set up the physical laws, including evolutionary forces, and once humans evolved infused them with souls.

What should be the primary focus of our lives?

  1. To follow Christ’s example of love and sacrifice and to live a life of love and service to others.
  2. To accept Christ as our savior so that we can spend eternity in heaven (and avoid “the other place”).

We each find our own way to a personal view of the world.  So why should I be surprised at these differences?  The answer is that all of the individuals expressing these diverse views are using the same source—the Bible—to support their point of view.  If they are all relying on the same source for their beliefs, why shouldn’t their beliefs be the same?  The response, of course, is that different passages of the Bible are subject to different interpretations.  But if the Bible is in fact the word of God and a seamless whole, why shouldn’t everyone interpret it the same way?  Perhaps more importantly, how does one know which interpretation to believe?

There is also the faithfuls’ riposte that this is not a problem unique to Christianity; those relying on science have the same problem.  Are there not several diverse competing theories in the various scientific disciplines from nuclear physics to evolution to cosmology?  Yes, but here is the difference.  In science competing theories are weighed on the scale of objective investigation.  The point of science is to design valid tests of theories, to conduct those tests, and to evaluate and modify the theories in light of the results of those tests.  But in religion the validity of a particular scriptural interpretation is judged by reference to other scripture rather than by reference to extrinsic evidence.  One quotes scripture to support an interpretation of other scripture.  In essence, the process is circular.  That does not mean that a particular interpretation is wrong.  But, in light of the fact that there are numerous conflicting interpretations, anyone relying on scripture should ask why his interpretation is correct and someone else’s is wrong?


© 2014 John M. Phillips

5 comments:

  1. If a person would simply read the Scriptures and listen to the Holy Spirit. There would be only one belief and that is faith in God. Thanks John. I agree entirely on different inturpations on the same passage of Scripture.

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    1. I'm afraid what you said simply isn't true. That was the point of my essay. Different people do read the scriptures and believe, at least, that they are listening to the Holy Spirit. And yet they come up with very different versions of what the scriptures mean.

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  2. Well written, John...as usual!
    The difference in interpretation of scripture presents a bit of a dilemma not only for non-Christians, but for believers as well. Of course, it is out of these differences that we have so many different Christian denominations. However, it must be even more confusing to those who are scientifically minded with your propensities bent strongly toward that which is constant. I have a couple ideas as to why we might interpret scriptures differently.

    I know you will think this is foolishness, but here I go…responding to your question in the only way I know how.

    First, I believe that unless the person reading the scripture really wants to understand them, then these words will seem like…well…like only words…black & white words on any old piece of paper. The Holy Spirit “has to” come into play if it is to be understood, cherished or interpreted according to how God wants it understood.

    Anyone can, of course read the Bible, but it’s mysteries can only be understood by illumination of God’s Holy Spirit. While God’s word does not change, it is illuminated in steps according to where the individual reading the scriptures is at. I have no idea all the things God considers, but would imagine the individual’s capability to understand and where they are on the path of their own spiritual growth would be in the mix. I believe the Holy Spirit stands ready to shine a light of understanding into the true searcher’s heart, be it an already Christian believer or sceptic, at any given time. I also believe that only God knows the heart of each of us…but then that’s another topic.

    Secondly, following the work of the Holy Spirit, it is study that is of the utmost importance in understanding what God is saying in scripture. (While anyone can study and research scriptures, unless the Holy Spirit is involved in that person’s life, the most detailed of study will be wasted when it comes to understanding God’s written word.)

    Unfortunately, many of us Christians are lazy. We often depend on others to have done the research and give proper interpretation. Sadly, too often those to whom the Christian is listening and believing as “the truth” have not delved into any real kind of scriptural study either. Or, even if they have researched well, there are those who simply have not opened their hearts to allowing the Holy Spirit to come into their life and be their guide…their teacher. So…the knowledge is cold and dead and causes more confusion than the help that the true seeker is looking for.

    While the faith of a simple child is all that we need, as a Christian grows, so does the desire to find out as much as possible about the God being worshiped. Study is a natural result for those who are able. As I said though, not all Christians really delve into the scriptures as something to be researched and studied. Though they might at least skim the surface of God’s “living word,” where there has been no research or accepted exegesis of the scriptures, it is easy to read out of context and base one’s beliefs on scripture according to one’s experience, feelings, upbringing, personality likes or dislikes, etc. Given this possibility, it does make sense to me that there are so many differences in interpretation of scripture.

    You know me well enough to know that I could go on and on, (as I often do) but will leave my comments at this.

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    1. First of all, thanks for reading and commenting on the blog. It's not one of my best efforts, as I think my message got lost when you and others got caught up in confirming that there were differences in interpretation and then stating that there is a true understanding. My point, which I could have explained better, was that there is surely an issue when after 2000 years all kinds of brilliant people (Christian scholars) still haven't figured out THE correct interpretation of some very fundamental Christian doctrinal issues. And maybe the answer is that scripture is not "the Word of God."

      Of course, there is disagreement of interpretation in all sorts of other fields, including science, as you had pointed out. But the difference is that science has developed a system for resolving such conflicts, and that system has proved to work amazingly well. A primary difference, I believe, is that science has no sacred cows. There is no position that is inviolable, held to be true regardless. Christianity, at least conservative Christianity, does have sacred cows, including the belief that scripture is the Word of God.

      The implications of this are that, when thinking Christians cannot agree on what the Bible is saying on very fundamental issues, those of faith should question their dogged acceptance of the inerrant truth of scripture. Certainly, if we were discussing a different matter, an historical account of the factors causing World War II, for example, and there were differences of interpretation, we would not claim that the truth has to be contained in the account we are reading.

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    2. Continuation:

      I'm going to try to respond to your comments from my perspective as a rationalist/secularist. I think it may be helpful to you, not to change your beliefs--I really don't think that that is going to happen--but so that you may have some insight into how I, and others of like mind, think about such things.

      Interpreting your first several paragraphs, you seem to be saying that you can obtain a correct interpretation of scripture if you are guided by the Holy Spirit and if you are willing to put in the study to understand it. But many devout students of scripture have come up with very different interpretations. Does that mean that only one was receptive to or being guided by the HS and that the others just thought that they were? This seems like circular reasoning to me. To a secularist the HS is a construct without objective evidence of existence. You may say that the HS speaks to you and to others every day, but the only real evidence is internal--you "feel" the HS working in you or in others. And there are other explanations that don't require positing a supernatural power. I know you are going to say that you feel strongly that the HS is working in you. I never do. Instead, I feel other influences on my state of mind and behavior that don't require a supernatural agency. Who's right? Well, the history of progress has been in discarding supernatural agencies in favor of natural causes. As I pointed out in another essay, 2000 years of Christian prayer did nothing to reduce the death rate from childhood cancers, but 50 years of science have succeeded in increasing the cure rate for certain childhood cancers from 5% to 95%. Now that is success.

      Later in your comment you indicate that a lot of differences in scriptural interpretation come from not allowing the HS to work or in laziness or perhaps in preconceptions. But again my point is that we have had 2000 years of sincere scholarship into these matters and there is still no consensus for a lot of fundamental issues. Where there has been a sea change, such as in discussions about the age of the earth, change has come about reluctantly and, importantly, because the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence has compelled a reinterpretation by Christians (except those who simply are unable to accommodate their faith to the plain scientific facts). So to the extent there has been a consensus of sorts, it has been, not because Christian scholars have finally gotten a proper understanding of scripture, but because science--again--has driven the change.

      In reading over your comment, my overall sense is that you believe that there is a correct understanding of scripture (a truth) and that you can attain it if you let the HS work on you and if you are willing to put in the work. That would mean that you are right and that those who come to different interpretations must be wrong, either because they are not letting the HS work on them or because they are lazy. If they were to let the HS work and were willing to put in the work, then they would all believe the same as you. I don't think you really believe that.

      Of course, there is another explanation: the Bible is simply a collection of writings of men and that there was no divine inspiration. Then the fact that there are multiple interpretations would make sense. But that would require sacrificing the sacred cow.

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