A few words caught my attention in Scot Mcknight’s recent blog: “My preferred reading.” I have read that phrase a thousand times over in another phrase: “That’s your interpretation.”
McKnight responds to an article by Paul Penley, “Bible Reading Destroys the Church.” Hmm. McKnight poses the question: “Does Personal Bible Reading Destroy the Church?” Penley points to the real root of the problem of interpretation – authority. He gave the example of Martin Luther before the examining council as Johann Eck interrogated him over his published writings. He noted that Luther highlights conscience as an almost equal authority to Scripture and thereby created a shift in authority. He quotes Luther as declaring before the council and Eck,
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”1
Accordingly, conscience and opinion became almost one in authority. Penley points out the repercussions of Luther’s declaration: a million different opinions and thousands of denominations. To this day, that shift remains in place among Christians, “I think it means…” The problem with such a statement, as Penley notes, is the “I” rising high in any response as an authority. Anyone can say, “I am bound by the Scriptures,” but are they? He said Luther became the authority himself as to which books belonged in the Bible: James? NO. Revelation? NO. His ‘conscience’ disallowed them as having divine authority.
If then Bible reading results in a thousand opinions and numerous denominations, how are we to come to grips with the Bible? As I shared from a biblical passage in a Bible study group, a participant quickly exclaimed, “That’s your interpretation!” She did not agree. Therefore, to voice a disagreement without a corresponding reply from the text, the next best answer amounted to “That’s your interpretation.” My reply was that if each of us approached the Bible from individual interpretation without first attempting to understand the author’s message, then we would be in effect dancing around author intent and substituting our authority for theirs and the Holy Spirit’s as He spoke through the authors. It is easy to read our opinion into the Scriptures rather than do the hard work of discovering the author’s message.
One problem we all face is that we are so eager to “spiritualize” and personalize the Bible’s content that we ignore the author in favor of a mystical approach. That is, the Scriptures speak directly to me. Bible reading and study becomes all about me and what God wants of me or me to do. It is personal revelation to me or God speaking directly to me. “Me” is the center of Bible reading to the extent that the original audience, contexts of almost two thousand years ago, and the author’s intent take a back seat to me. The author’s message get lost in the mystical aura of ‘God and me.” When someone challenges the ‘God and me’ scenario, we decry, “That’s your opinion!” In other words, you have your opinion and I have mine. Accordingly, the Bible is not God’s holy word of truth concerning Him. It is a book for me to pick and choose what I think God is saying personally to me. Again, ‘me’ gets in the way of discovery and understanding God through the means He chose. Personal application arises from opinion rather than discovery and meaning in the text. Division quickly shows its face. When ‘me’ stands front and center, the authors of the biblical text fade in the shadow of ‘me.”
Some questions arise, “Well then, is the Bible not for me to live by? Does it not apply to my life? Does it not show me God’s will for my life?” A qualified yes, yes, and yes. Paul informs Timothy that it is for instruction, reproof, and instruction. However, that is not everything. It is a book revealing God and His ways. It reveals God’s redemption. God speaks through it to a lost world that rebelled from Him which needs reconciliation. Therefore, we are to read it with care, seeking the messages of the various author’s.
God spoke through those whom He chose to communicate His redeeming message to people groups in time and history. Ours is to discover those messages within those contexts. The word of God came to those of God’s choosing in specific contexts: culture, language, and geographical. God had a purpose for delivering His word within those time frames. Recognizing this helps us to gain a greater perspective so that we do not narrow God’s revealed truth to a “God and me” scenario. Reading for discovery and meaning first and second and application third allows us to gather the facts from the Bible as well as the message arising from those facts. God desires for us to know Him, and we do so through Jesus Christ. God also gave us His Spirit through whom He promised would guide us into all truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). He brings to remembrance what Jesus taught and testifies of Jesus.
Seeking a mystical experience of ‘God and me’ can overshadow the Spirit’s guidance. Rather, reading the Bible through the eyes of the original readers in seeking the intent of the authors enables us to understand God’s eternal truths from their eyes. The application of faith arises as we grasp the messages of individual biblical authors as they reveal God, expose our shortcomings (sin), shows us God’s faithfulness, and explain to us what it means to walk by faith.
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