Over the last few articles, we have begun to unpack the question of whether we can trust the Bible. After all, it is argued, the Bible was written by people – and we all know the people get things wrong – albeit sometimes unintentionally. People are, it is argued, all constrained by their own cultural limitations, and intellectual restrictions. But the Bible isn’t merely a human book. And herein lies the crucial distinction. We’ve seen how we can – and must - think of the inspiration of the Bible in a way that gives us confidence that it is without error. It is ‘breathed out’ by God, its human authors carried along by the Holy Spirit.
But what about at the other end of the process? What about those of us who are reading it – by necessity at a distance of some 2,000 years since it was written? We are in a very different culture, and in some ways in a very different world. Language has changed in how it is used. We are reading a translation of the Bible, and even English translations differ from one another. And when it comes to interpretation – how can any of us have any confidence that we are understanding it properly when there are so many interpretations, and when the Bible has been used to say so many different things. What is the point of being able to say it is trustworthy in its being written, if we can’t say it is trustworthy in its being read?
It is going to take a couple of articles to engage with this question, but let’s make a start with an observation. Yes, you can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. My favourite example of this is to point out that you can quote the Bible as saying: ‘There is no God’ (Ps.14:1). It’s a crass example, but it gets the point across. People can use the Bible – and abuse the Bible – in order to make it say whatever they want it to say. We are only too aware that the Bible has been used to justify some of the most truly horrific episodes in human history. It has been used to support, and even to give credibility to slavery, apartheid, the Inquisition and the Crusades, to name but a few. For many the fact that the Bible can be used (or even misused) to validate or vindicate such behaviour is all the evidence we need that it cannot be the Word of God! In a way the Bible was much more prone to abuse when it was not readily available in the common language. Claims by the ecclesiastical hierarchy simply couldn’t be challenged. But is the situation any better now that we have so many translations, and such ready access? Since the Bible has become widely available, there has developed an equally wide spectrum of opinion on what it says, and a bewildering array of views (often contradictory) as to ‘what the Bible teaches…’. Even for some Christians it proves too much to bear, and we retreat: ‘There are so many interpretations, and translations’, we say to ourselves, ‘how can we ever hope to
know which is right?’ … and the temptation is to simply disengage, and pursue other paths to knowing God.
In this article, I’d just like to make the rather modest point that the simple fact of various interpretations doesn’t mean we should stop engaging with the Bible! I’ve heard so many times the argument that because there are so many possible interpretations, we can’t know what the Bible really does say. I have to say that in spite of its apparent humility and sophistication, I actually think it is one of the more inane arguments in the whole discussion. If I said that when you speak you were open to misinterpretation, and that because your words could conceivably be taken to mean a variety of things, it followed that I could never know what you meant, therefore I could simply ignore your words and try to find another way of understanding you, I suspect you’d be surprised, if not offended. We have (at least when we think of ourselves) an implicit functional trust in our act of communication. We speak because we believe we can be understood. And if for some reason someone misunderstands what we say we can clarify and expand on our meaning. We instinctively recognise the power and ability of words to accurately convey meaning. This is part of our being made in the image of a God who is designated the Word. And we know that reliable communication can be done even by those who are as clumsy and errant with words as we are. If there is a breakdown in communication, or understanding, we don’t retreat, rather we re-engage with a deeper commitment to make sense of what we are hearing.
It seems strange that we might think God is incapable of making himself clearly and reliably understood; that we are not prepared to extend to God the same basic abilities to communicate we assume for ourselves hundreds of times every day. Historically, the Church as held to the idea of the clarity of Scripture, and we’ll be turning to that over the next couple of articles! Not only has the Holy Spirit done a good job of writing the Bible, but He can do a good job of making sure we understand it. Even in the days of Jesus there were those who mis-understood the Scriptures, and indeed who misunderstood Jesus Himself. Truly, ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. We shouldn’t be intimidated by the long history of misinterpretation, neither by the plethora of interpretations on the market today, nor in our own struggles at times to interpret the Bible. We approach our task with confidence, for as in its composition, itselucidation is under the inspiration and ministry of the Holy Spirit. We are not dealing primarily with an intellectual issue (though aspects of our intellectual life are clearly involved), but with a Spiritual one.