“And why is it [the Bible] open to so many interpretations?”
Recently, the United States Supreme Court threw a lighted match on the woodpile of established legal precedent and kindled a wildfire of public outrage on one hand and public celebration on the other. For fifty years the Roe v Wade decision had guaranteed the constitutional right of women to have access to legal abortion. The current Court (2021-2022 term) determined that it predecessor had decided the matter wrongly, that previous Justices had misinterpreted the United States Constitution. In 1973, seven Justices struck down a Texas law banning abortion; two Justices dissented. In 2022, that original ruling was overturned by a 6-3 majority. Not to bore you with math, but that means, taking the two decisions together, eight Justices determined that the Constitution does not guarantee the right to abortion and ten determined that the Constitution does enshrine that right. The Justices are pretty even divided over contradictory interpretations of the Constitution.
My point here is not to debate abortion rights, but rather to raise this question: How can eighteen expert jurists, spread over fifty years, reach such contradictory interpretations of the same relatively brief and straightforward document? Does the explanation lie with the jurists, with the Constitution, or perhaps at the intersection of the two?
The meme to which this series of articles responds poses the question/challenge:
And why is it [the Bible] open to so many different interpretations?
Clearly, that question could be posed to the Constitution, to almost any set of statistical data, to modern song lyrics, to essentially any complex act of human communication. The Bible is far from unique in admitting of multiple and disparate interpretations. I suspect the real intent of the meme’s question is more along these lines: Why couldn’t God communicate more clearly? The simplest answer to that — and I don’t mean this flippantly — is that God is communicating with humans. And not just any humans, but fallen humans with diminished powers of perception, reason, and holiness. Shakespeare wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Something very like that obtains here.
The Supreme Court Justices do not come tabula rasa to their deliberations, but rather as full human beings formed uniquely by life experiences, by education, by philosophical leanings, by faith convictions, and by a host of other known and hidden factors. Try as they might to lay these aside to make objective deliberations, it simply is not possible. They are subjects and not objects; hence their every decision is inherently subjective. That is not wrong; it is simply the reality we must face.
The same is true when we approach Scripture. We have been formed, and that formation becomes the lens through which we read the text. We are no more objective than are the Supreme Court Justices; we, too, interpret the text subjectively in multiple ways and reach split decisions.
So, the real question is not why the Bible is open to so many different interpretations. The more important issue is how better to read the Bible so that our interpretations converge toward a consensus of the faithful. Perhaps I can offer a few suggestions.
If you were to go to a university book store and peruse a graduate text on quantum mechanics, you likely wound not expect to understand it immediately and fully. The author is expert enough to have had a text published, and the author, editor, and reviewers certainly endeavored to make the text as clear as possible, and yet you still likely will not understand it. The problem lies not with the text but with the reader. You simply do not have the prerequisite knowledge to understand this complex topic. To those who do, I apologize; but surely you can image a topic in which this same analogy obtains. If you want to understand quantum mechanics generally and this text specifically, you must devote yourself to study, preferably with mentors, for years. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
And yet, with no prerequisite study, with no training, people pick up a Bible and expect/demand everything to be clear. Let’s get this straight: Scripture is not a simple text; to attempt to understand God and his ways is certainly as challenging as attempting to master quantum mechanics! It requires work and study. That should not come as a surprise, though it seems to scandalize many. The real surprise, the real “scandal” is the extent to which God has condescended to make himself and his word transparent to the simple, which is to say all of us. It actually is possible for the untrained, for unlearned, for the casual reader to garner much truth from the pages of Scripture. The Bible, at least much of it, presents as a story, and we are inherently story-making beings. In the story we see people as we are, people with the same hopes and fears and dreams and desires that we have, engaging with the divine. And we understand much of that deep in our bones. We hear Jesus’ parables and, even if we don’t perceive all the nuance there, we are amazed at the depth of love and forgiveness the father shows the prodigal son and we rightly intuit something of God’s love for us. We hear Jesus, unjustly crucified, say, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” and our amazement is a form of understanding. So, as Augustine heard the child singing, I too say, “Take and read.” Much will be clear.
But, if we want to follow the complex structure of say Romans — or most any of St. Paul’s epistles for that matter — we must study diligently both the Old and New Testaments, not just their content but their cultural contexts, as well. Some among us must study the original languages of the texts and bring that knowledge to bear on issues of translation. This does not mean that one must attend seminary to read the Bible. But it does mean that one must take the Bible seriously and devote time and attention to read it well. It means that one must utilize available resources, e.g., commentaries and educational programs at church. We are blessed to live in a period when so many of these resources are readily — and often freely — available.
Now, I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from simply picking up the Bible; God forbid. Nor do I wish to imply that mental acuity and specialized learning are the non-negotiables required for proper Biblical interpretation. I am simply saying that a dilettante is less likely to read the Bible well than is a dedicated life-long student of Scripture. Oftentimes, the problem with interpretation lies not on the pages of Scripture, but on the far side of them with the reader.
But, another contrasting point must be made, as well. The purpose of reading Scripture is not primarily to “know” the Bible, but rather to know the Lord of the Bible: not primarily to understand Scripture, but to stand under the authority of the Lord mediated through Scripture. The expertly trained Biblical scholar in the academy who is not also a faithful disciple, has less understanding of Scripture than the humble, semi-literate saint who devotes himself/herself to faithful obedience. Jesus said that the pure in heart — not the elevated in mind — will be blessed to see the Lord. It is good to be a scholar; it is essential to be a saint. It is said of St. Francis that he viewed the Bible not as a book to be read, but as a script to be acted. In looking for right interpretations of Scripture, look to the saints; better still, dedicate yourself to becoming one.
Now, for a few brief practical guidelines.
Read the Bible with the Church: with your local parish/congregation, certainly, but also with the catholic (universal) Church spread across the world and extending across time. No Scripture is subject to private interpretation, Peter tells us. We must read, study, pray, and worship with the Church. May I be blunt? If your parish/congregation is not devoted to the consistent public reading and teaching of the whole of Scripture in conversation with all the generations of the faithful gone before, you need to find another church. Don’t settle for warmed-over, pseudo-Christian, pop-psychology, self-help lectures, no matter how charismatic the minister. Demand Scripture or leave.
And note that I said the whole of Scripture. The Bible is in conversation with itself, one part expounding another, one part providing essential background for another. Read the whole of Scripture in a regular, disciplined way. There are several lectionaries that make this possible. There are one-year and two year Bibles and chronological Bibles. A friend once told me that it is the verses that you haven’t underlined in your Bible that may be the most important. It may be the books you haven’t read that make all the difference.
Read Scripture through the lens of the Church’s rule of faith, the Nicene Creed. For some seventeen hundred years, this creed has been the non-negotiable summary of the essentials of the Christian faith used by the Church universal. If your private interpretation of Scripture contradicts this rule of faith, then your private interpretation of Scripture in in error, by which I mean it is heterodox and outside the boundaries of the consensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful. Let the Creed guide your interpretation.
Along this same line, let the Vincentian Canon be a filter for your interpretations. St. Vincent of Lérin, a fifth century monk, was concerned about distinguishing between true and false teaching. He developed a threefold test; the truth is likeliest to be found in that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all: ubiquity, universality, and unanimity. If an interpretation is isolated to a particular geographical or cultural region, if it is novel, if it is greatly disputed, it is not likely to be correct. This is not a perfect tool, but it is a very good one.
There is so much more to be said, but I must stop somewhere. Still, I would be remiss if I failed to mention this: read Scripture on your knees. By that I mean “soak” your reading in prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit — the true Author and Interpreter of Scripture — to purify your heart, enlighten your mind, strengthen your resolve, and glory Christ in you. Also, read the Bible in conjunction with the Sacraments. From its earliest days, the worship of the Church included the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture and the celebration of Holy Eucharist (Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass). These two necessarily belong together.
Why is the Bible open to so many different interpretations? Because it is a complex word delivered into the hands of fallen human beings. And yet, Scripture always has and always will transcend all our limitations to draw people beyond the written word to Jesus the living Word who is the source of life.