- Four people will use one map and find four different routes to the same destination.
- Four army officers will use the same binoculars and suggest four different battle strategies.
- Each member of a family will have different opinions on the proper use of a camera.
- Cooks will follow the same recipe and each will produce a dish that is distinct.
Each of these scenarios is indicative of the issues one faces in reading and interpreting the bible in spiritual community. In his important book, The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith attempts to answer the question, “Why are there so many alternative interpretations of the bible?” The truth is that discerning the truth is not always that simple. Each reader comes to the text with their own wealth of experience and ecclesiastical perspective and, despite a sincere desire to find “oneness” and agreement in discovering biblical truth, any honest disciple of Jesus has to acknowledge that finding commonality among Christ followers in biblical interpretation is often as likely as discovering a pink elephant. That does not necessarily spell doom for unity within the Body of Christ because unity is not spelled, “agreement” but “Jesus.” In fact, let me spell that out for you again – unity in the body of Christ has never meant agreement unless that agreement is on the significance and life transforming presence of Jesus. Jesus is the glue in our relationships one with another. With our eyes on Jesus, even when opinions divide, hearts and spirits are united.
Friends, our plethora of interpretations should lead us not to pride or divisiveness but to humility and loving conversation. Unfortunately, for many of us, that is often not the case. There have always been and there most likely will always be those who claim that they have the corner on interpretation. Often demonstrated most by divisiveness, attack and condemnation, many Christian voices will see a diversity of interpretation as mere indication of someone else being at fault. Trust me, it is very easy and very tempting to be able to sit in one’s ivory tower of perceived textual blamelessness and purity and take shots at those with whom you don’t agree. That reality, not the reality of the plethora of biblical interpretation, is that which brings sadness to the heart of Jesus who prayed (and prays) for his community to be one.
Here are some of Smith’s own words:
“The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest. Knowledge of “biblical” teachings, in short, is characterized by pervasive interpretive pluralism.” – Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Brazos Press
“What that means in consequence is this: in a crucial sense it simply does not matter whether the Bible is everything that biblicists claim theoretically concerning its authority, infallibility, inner consistency, perspicuity, and so on, since in actual functioning the Bible produces a pluralism of interpretations.” – Christian Smith
Intelligent, sincere, committed readers of the bible have divergent understandings of what the bible says. That statement is not doubted. And I believe that most of us need a good dose of understanding that there are many others who approach the biblical text with just as much love, honor and reverence for the text as we do. If our pressing desire is to be one through Jesus than even our textual differences pale in comparison to faithfulness to Jesus’ call for brotherhood, sisterhood and love.
By the way, in light of the comments above, I read another insightful and challenging article about the bible and how it needs to be studied within spiritual community. I must add, for many of you, this will cause you to stop and ponder. Truthfully, there may be some real insight in this article but first; it will most likely take you aback with ideas and insights that you haven’t processed in this manner before! So, read at your own risk!