Stop me if you’ve heard this before: In the past, we Christians have incorrectly interpreted the Bible. I mean… like, a lot.
The most classic example is the response of the Church to Galileo Galilei. He famously supported a heliocentric model of the solar system (the earth and all the planets revolve around the sun, rather than the sun and other planets revolving around the earth). Galileo didn’t invent heliocentrism, there had been many people before him who proposed such an idea, but Galileo was one of the first to use modern technology to prove the sun was the centre of the universe.
This caused a stir in the Church since the Bible clearly teaches the earth is fixed and immovable. If the earth revolves around the sun, then what do we do with passages like Psalm 104:5, “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.”? Galileo was eventually tried and convicted of heresy by the Catholic church and kept under house arrest until his death.
Now we tend to recognize the Psalmist was writing with an ancient cosmological understanding. Essentially, he was praising God for how he created the world, even if his perception of the world was flawed.
In another example, during the 16th and 17th Centuries, Christians who believed in infant baptism committed acts of genocide against Christians who preferred believer (or adult) baptism. Obviously both groups can’t be right in their theology, but is the mode of baptism something we should kill each other over?
The Bible has been used to support segregation and slavery. We have used Scripture to support Papal Authority, Manifest Destiny, and the destruction of the environment. We have used the Bible as our basis to reject woman’s suffrage, evolution, and democracy.
As Christians we have a long, long history of declaring Scripture is very clear on an issue, only to reverse our position centuries, decades, or even a few years later.
One of the fallacies of the Enlightenment and modernism is the belief in objectivity. We believe we can be impartial and unbiased. We think we can stand outside something, in this case, the Bible, and view it without a lens. We don’t realize all of us read the Bible subjectively. All of us come to the text with preconceived notions of what it means and how it should be lived out.
Here’s an example. What do you think of where you hear the word “heaven”? Do you think of white clouds? Maybe angels playing harps? Maybe some golden gates which open to allow you in?
That particular description isn’t in the Bible anywhere. It comes from somewhere else (specifically it comes from pop culture like Loony Toons, which was in itself influenced by Dante’s Inferno, which took a lot of ideas from Greek Mythology). However, when you’re reading the Bible and you come across the term heaven, your brain says to you, “I know what that is, we’re talking about harps and clouds and angels and stuff”. And so your brain interprets whatever passage you’re reading through your working definition of heaven.
And we do this for all kinds of things. Every time you read certain words or phrases in the Bible, your brain is plugging in your current understanding of that thing. So you read about God, Jesus, heaven, hell, wrath, justice, creation, righteousness, or reconciliation, and your brain is going interpret that passage through your current understanding of that word or phrase even if that’s not what the author originally meant. This leads us, many times, to declare Scripture is very clear on a particular topic even while others disagree with us.
The reality is it’s not possible to read the Bible objectively. We all come with our own subjective lens. Where you were born and how you were raised influence your reading of Scripture. Your gender, your ethnicity, your socioeconomic status, and your generation all influence how you read the Bible.
Maybe this is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13,
9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
We are not objective in our reading of the Bible. We know in part and we see only a reflection as in a mirror. This is true both on an individual basis and collectively.
Each of us continues to grow in our understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to love and follow him. But at the same time, Jesus is also working to grow our collective understanding of him.
As I mentioned before, the Bible at one point was used to support slavery. And this wasn’t just by a handful of people. Segregation and slavery were, at one time, the predominant view of the Church. And yet you would be hard-pressed to find many Christians today who would support segregation, much less anyone who would use the Bible to support their belief.
So what happened? How did we go from the Church almost universally accepting slavery as God’s will for humanity to an almost universal rejection of the practice? The Holy Spirit continued to lead us and teach us what it means to love our neighbour. Which is exactly what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will do in John 16:13,
13But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
Jesus isn’t just speaking about the Holy Spirit teaching us as individuals, but also the Holy Spirit guiding us corporately into a better, deeper understanding of God. This means each generation should look back at some (but not all) of the beliefs of past generations and wonder, “How could we have ever believed that?”
The Holy Spirit is continuing to lead us, guide us and teach us. I really like what Ben Witherington III said,
God is not finished with our understanding or our belief system or our behaviour just yet. Recognizing this fact should produce a little more humility and a little less of that lethal combination of arrogance and ignorance.
We must be willing to hold our beliefs about God loosely and recognize our beliefs about God are not God himself. God is who he is regardless of how accurate or misguided our beliefs about him are. As Christians, we must have more humility than to declare unequivocally there is only one way to read all of Scripture.
Especially as Protestants, who thumbed our noses at 1,500 years of Church tradition when we started the Reformation, we should be willing to entertain the idea Jesus is still active and still moving us forward in new and unexpected ways.
I want to have enough humility to admit I’m wrong in those times when the Holy Spirit leads us into more truth. I want to be willing to recognize my old way of understanding Scripture or my old way of living out what it means to follow Jesus was inadequate.
In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans says, “It seems those most likely to miss God’s work in the world are those most convinced they know exactly what to look for, the ones who expect God to play by the rules.”
When we decide our interpretation or our understanding of Scripture is the only right one, when we decide Scripture is explicitly clear on an issue, we cut ourselves off from the possibility the Holy Spirit may choose to act in a radical and unexpected way.
Which, of course, is at the heart of the Christian tradition. We believe Jesus is the fulfilment of the story of Israel, but it was fulfilled in a way no one was expecting. Jesus didn’t come as a conquering warlord, as one who defeats his enemies through force and violence. Instead, he defeated his enemies (death and the grave) through self-sacrifice.
As Christians, we have misinterpreted Scripture a lot. We have assumed incorrectly we could approach Scripture objectively. We have believed the Bible’s meaning is always clear, evident, and obvious only to collectively admit we were wrong later.
We need to understand the Holy Spirit is continuing to guide us into all truth. This will mean allowing God to challenge our beliefs just as much as our behaviours.
However, if we’re willing to have humility, if we’re willing to hold our beliefs loosely we will discover how God is at work in the world around us. We will see the ways the Holy Spirit is still living and active. We will understand just what it means that Jesus is Lord.
At least in part.