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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Sacred Task of Interpretation

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14-15, ESV)

Right now on facebook there is a game going around in which you are given a riddle and challenged to answer it via private message to the person giving it. If you answer correctly, nothing happens. If you answer incorrectly you are asked to place a giraffe in your profile picture. (Spoiler Warning: the answer is below). The riddle is:

3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It's your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?
Now, assuming you understand that the jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese are elements meant to misdirect you, you realize that there are two possible answers, and which one you arrive at is determined on how you interpret the sentence, “What is the first thing you open?”

If you read the paragraph in a linear fashion assuming that the question finds you at the moment of decision upon discovering unexpected visitors (where the question actually falls in the paragraph - The doorbell rings and you wake up…It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “the door.” If, on the other hand, you read the sentence as a summary observation of the whole and the “first” refers to what you open first at 3:00 am when the process begins (“The doorbell rings and you wake up, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “your eyes.” Both are a correct interpretation of the sentence, though they are very different conclusions.

And herein resides the problem of interpretation. Words mean something, but when put in relationship to other words, those possible meanings expand. In our example above, the issue is an innocuous bit of fun mind-gamesmanship. But when we are dealing the Bible; something that is at the heart of what we as believers base our whole life on, the decisions we make can have a big impact.

In writing to Timothy in 2nd Timothy, Paul challenges him to confront his people about the message they are proclaiming in their words and actions. He instructs them to be careful not to “quarrel about words;” a problem that had a long history in the church in Ephesus apparently (1 Tim 6:4). The people were committed to getting it right, but had trouble maintaining perspective in what they were debating because they forgot the centrality of love for God and love for each other that should guide all of our discussions (this would apparently continue for several decades in Ephesus…Revelation 2:1-7, esp 2:4). Paul says in order for Timothy to combat this he needs to model three things: (1) A desire to please God above all others. (2) A work ethic that was so expressive of integrity on every level that Timothy didn’t have to worry about it being a distraction. (3) An ability to interpret the Word of God without distorting or abusing it. Paul’s words, however, are not just for the pastor, they express wisdom for all believers.

We need to avoid quarreling over words – fighting over things that really don’t advance the aims of Christianity. We need to be driven more by a desire to honor and please God than by man’s approval, or by winning an argument – this manifests itself in humility, not one-upmanship. We need to be living our lives in such a way that when we draw conclusions from Scripture, our own lives don’t become an avenue of undercutting the point we are making. And we need to be interpreting the Word of God without distorting or abusing it.

I won’t go into the steps of interpretation here; they are appropriately outlined in a number of places – Holy Spirit, usage, context (both literary and historical), genre identification, and logical consistency. But I do want to emphasize the importance of the work behind it and the need for compassion in disagreement.

Not all interpretations are equal. Just because a person, even a believer, interprets a text that does not mean their interpretation is valid. There are boundaries to proper interpretation found in the steps listed above and the person who refuses to follow those steps, should not be granted the same hearing as someone who does. In 2 Peter, Peter warns, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20, ESV)” Now, there is a lot in this passage, but first and foremost is the idea that we cannot simply do with a text whatever we want or feel led to – we are constrained by other Scripture and by the authoritative interpretation of the Apostles (which is expressed in Scripture). I don’t believe this text means that we have to wait for the Church to interpret a passage for us, but I do believe that Peter is outlining the high standard by which we must interpret Scripture. Spirituality is NEVER expressed through laziness!

No one has the sole corner on interpretation. The Bible is an ancient book; and although it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), that antiquity creates gaps that must be overcome in order to interpret a passage correctly. The open riddle example I started with illustrated how sentences might be properly put together to come to two very different conclusions. When you add in centuries old idioms, written in a different language, to a very different culture, the barriers to proper interpretation grow exponentially. It is on our shoulders therefore to work through those barriers, but also to be understanding if that journey takes us to a different location than someone else. This is not to say there are no correct or authoritative interpretations – consistency and a preponderance of biblical revelation on any subject builds (or takes away from) any conclusion one draws from the text.  But it is a call to humility in our conclusions and compassion in our differences.

In the end, as Paul tells Timothy, it is about diligence in what we are responsible for and wisdom in what we do or do not argue about…because ultimately it is truth of the Word that we want front and center, not ourselves.

1 comment:

James G said...

Yes, I read the whole thing.