I don’t have a set of rules to give you for the science of interpreting Scripture. As every writer knows, language is not a science; it’s an artform. Well, lawyers may try to disambiguate every loophole and kill every misinterpretation, but Scripture is more like poetry communicating life. God’s life is the source and sustenance of our life together.
When we communicate, we’re not just sharing information. We’re sharing ourselves. That’s why speaking to a large group is so scary: we feel vulnerable sharing ourselves with so many.
That’s the promise and power of Scripture: God communicates himself with us. The words of life are not in the text; the text leads us to the one who speaks (John 5:39-40).
That’s how Jesus used words: The words I have spoken to you are [my] spirit, [my] life (John 6:63). And, oh my, how vulnerable Jesus felt giving us his life in this chapter!
So, two questions. How did we end up with so many interpretations? How can we do better?
How did we end up with so many interpretations?
Did God say? the serpent questioned (Genesis 3:1). Its goal was to poison God’s character in Eve’s eyes: God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God … 3:4). Being a god in my own right — it’s the number one reason we make our own interpretations and misinterpret what God said.
God gave Scripture to community. Sure, there was someone hearing what God was saying (a prophet), but you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things (2 Peter 1:20). I’m an idiot if I think I’m the only one who’s got it right.
At this point, I can hear all the Catholics cheering (Catechism of the Catholic Church §85). Although we are safer together, Catholics are not immune to interpreting Scripture so that it gives power to the church hierarchy instead of God.
That’s what the Reformers said (Institutes I, vii). They decried the abuses of power within the church, insisting it is God (and not the church) who justifies, by faith (and not by works of penance set by the church). Can I hear all the Protestants cheering?
The trouble is that questioning the accepted interpretations can promote my own power rather than God’s. In the last 600 years, Christianity has shattered into shards. State churches formed around human authorities. Denominations formed around leaders. The heart of bad interpretation is seeking our own power. That approach cannot hold us together in Christ.
In the shadow of Enlightenment worship of individualism and scientific precision, individuals wrote imaginative treatises on Scripture from a purely rational perspective. Some developed rules to give scientific precision to interpretation. Others analysed its origins, seeing it as a mosaic of ancient sources redacted together.
Others decried these liberal scholars as motivated by their own power, failing to submit to God. Questioning “Did God say?” would only lead us to disaster. The whole Bible was the infallible word of God. Evangelicalism was born as a reaction to Enlightenment liberalism, while still seeking scientific precision of interpretation.
Have we convinced you that the heart of bad interpretation is the heart that seeks power for ourselves? The only thing that can unite us is coming together around Christ, listening to the leader God has appointed for us, doing this together as the community of Christ, the kingdom of God.
Being God’s is more important than being right. Being gods divides us; being God’s unites us.
How can we do better?
Let’s listen to God together. When God raised up his Christ (anointed ruler) as Lord of all, God brought us all together under his leadership. The voice from heaven speaks: This is my Son (Matthew 3:17). The response he expects: Listen to him (Matthew 17:5).
Listening together is the best way to avoid seeking my own power. Discussing it together with friends or in small groups helps me see what I’ve overlooked. Listening to those who see things differently helps me see why some of my ideas are unsustainable.
Commentaries continue that conversation. Read commentaries that help you understand what God was saying to the people long ago, so you can understand what he’s saying to us today. Go beyond your own tribe, commentors from other traditions and other times. How did the Greek-speaking church fathers understand this letter? How do Jewish commentators understand this Psalm? How was this passage retold in Second Temple literature such as Jubilees or understood in the Dead Sea Scrolls?
Expect difference between commentators. There’s no way to be certain whether the love of Christ means his love for us or our love for him. Pistis Christou could mean our faith in Christ or Christ’s faithfulness. All languages have ambiguities, even if we’re not aware of them: if a concrete mixer mixes concrete, what does a hand mixer mix?
That’s part of the fun of language. It isn’t precise. Words aren’t static. They change through time, and across geopolitical boundaries. The meaning of a word is not found in a dictionary but in relation to the words around it. A flat battery is not like a flat tyre, the flat you live in, or a flat you farm by the creek. Paying a flat rate isn’t like playing a flat note, racing flat out, being turned down flat, or falling flat on your face.
When the Van Gogh exhibition came to Perth, my family took me so I could see “what makes a van go.” Puns may be the lowest form of wit, but Amos loved them as a means to make his message memorable. Many Scriptures have multiple levels of meaning.
So, let’s lose our pretensions of certainty that make us feel superior. Let’s enjoy the ambiguities and embrace the family that honours God as Father and takes its direction from his Son. It’s our best chance of hearing and being what he said.
We can’t automate interpretation into a set of steps to feed into an AI algorithm. Artificial Intelligence deals only with information; it can never know the one who speaks.
The heart of good interpretation is listening together in humility to the God who speaks. He shapes us. That’s what Jesus prayed for: This is eternal life: that they know you (John 17:3).
The greatest interpretation you’ll ever see looks like this:
Revelation 7:9–10 (NIV)
9 There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”