Over the last few months’ articles, I have been working hard to kindle a sense of deep confidence in our reading of the Bible. Like everything in our faith, that confidence is built on the grace of God who works harder than we do to make sure that we can understand His Word. It was His idea to give His people the Scriptures. He has inspired it by His Holy Spirit; He has watched over it across the generations by that same Spirit; and He pours that same Spirit out generously on His people as they engage with His Word. All this sounds very good in theory, but doesn’t it only exacerbate our struggle to make sense of the Bible when we read it – to say nothing of the sometimes overwhelming variety of interpretations there seems to be.
Actually, there have always been a variety of interpretations on offer - although there are not as many as you might think. What tends to happen is that the same interpretations are re-invented and re-packaged from generation to generation. There are a few variations on a theme, but substantively the pattern is one of recycling! The old Teacher knew what he was talking about when he said: there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl.1:9). Even within the time of Jesus (see Matt.22:23; Jn.5:39-40) and the Apostles there were varying and variant ‘interpretations’. We’ve just worked our way through II Corinthians in the evening services. That whole letter is dealing with a variant interpretation of Christianity that the Corinthian Church has bought into. In fact, most of the letters in the New Testament are written to Churches who are flirting with different interpretations of Jesus and the Scriptures. And stretching back into the OT, we find the Prophets dealing repeatedly with the fact of different interpretations.
Interestingly though, their approach to this phenomenon was very different. They would never have countenanced a deafeatism (‘There are so many interpretations how can I ever know which is right?), still less an ever-broadening spectrum of validity (‘So many well-meaning Christians think this is right, so we have to accept it is a legitimate way of thinking about what it means to be a Christian). Their assumption remains that we can in fact know God’s Word in the midst so many conflicting interpretations, and their counsel is to have as little to do with those conflicting interpretations as possible (e.g. II Jn.7 & 10). In the Bible, those who teach contrary to what the Spirit means to say are called false prophets and godless men, rather than different, equally valid interpretations (Matt.7:15; Acts 20:30; Jude 4). Again and again, the reality of false interpretations, and the motivations that drive them, are exposed and argued against – sometimes with a ferocity that we find disturbing (e.g. II Peter 2:10-22). The dangers of following such teaching is spelled out in no uncertain terms (Col.2:23; II Peter 3:15-16). The seriousness with which wrong interpretations of the Scriptures are taken can be seen in Paul’s pronouncing eternal condemnation on those who are throwing the Galatian Churches into confusion (see Gal.1:6-10). The Apostles ‘never stopped warning [their Churches] night and day with tears’ (Acts 20:31). Jesus has one word for those who have allowed themselves to be side-tracked by following a version of Christianity that is at variance from his own teaching and that of His apostles: Repent (e.g Rev.2:15-16). All this of course implies that it is possible, indeed imperative, to understand clearly what the true prophets and Apostles teach. We have a responsibility before God to know the content of our faith.
Throughout the generations of the Church, we have continued to recognise and wrestle with, differing ‘interpretations’. For centuries they were called heresies, although our tolerant age has long since given credibility to theological views that in times past the faithful went to the stake rather than legitimise. With tiring repetition there have arisen those from among our ranks (Acts 20:28-31) who have argued with more or less sophistication that God is not Trinity; or Jesus was not Deity; or that He didn’t bear our sin on the cross as our substitute and sacrifice; or that He didn’t rise from the dead; or that humanity is not sinful, or at least not as sinful as previous generations might have thought; or that hell is not real, or if it is Jesus wouldn’t ever send anyone there; or a host of other examples I could cite… each proponent claims radical originality, but it is the same tedious regurgitation of the earliest ‘heresies’. When someone ‘interprets’ the Bible to show that the God of the Old Testament is different to the God of the New, they are merely parroting the teaching of a second century preacher called Marcion. When someone ‘interprets’ the Bible to say that Jesus was merely a great teacher or prophet, they are simply giving new life to the centuries old teaching of Arius. When they try to show from the Bible that sin isn’t as bad as it is, we discern the long shadow of Pelagius cast through the ages.
And of course the Church has explored and considered each of these ‘interpretations’, along with countless others, with staggering graciousness. Long debates, often stretching over several decades have tested their claims to be authentic Biblical teaching to the limits … and found them wanting. These ‘interpretations’ have been rejected by the Church with devastating finality. Often it is because we do not listen to our spiritual forbears, that we find ourselves listening instead to the heresies that whisper down the long corridors of time.