Opinions, Interpretations, and the Word of God

I overheard someone in a conservative Baptist church say that people may have their theological and philosophical opinions but he has "the word of God." I hear and read naïve statements like this one constantly in conservative evangelical Christian circles. What the man really means is that his beliefs about "what the Bible says" on various topics are accurate and that all arguments contrary to his beliefs are inaccurate. While that conclusion is convenient for him, it is also deceptive, as well as blithely ignorant.

Granted, people in our culture tend to spout off ideas and convictions that derive from their own method of thinking, and without consulting Scripture. But there are hundreds, and probably thousands, of subjects that the Bible does not address. How is one supposed to garner a "biblical" perspective on the issue of oil drilling, or landscaping, or climate change, or gun control laws, or soda tax or seat belt regulations or child labor laws? Being "biblical" does not always mean that you can quote chapter and verse for your convictions.

But what the man in the first paragraph fails to understand about opinions vs. the word of God is that every single proposition, or statement of belief, is, in fact, an interpretation. If we are to form a "New Testament" mindset, meaning that we are to live "New Testament" lives as believers, then we are to do so within the parameters established by New Testament authors. But how so? The New Testament, according to the interpretation of many throughout history, advocates the practice of keeping slaves, house-slaves (someone who was born into slavery via the mother's master's house), and bond-slaves (i.e, someone who sold him- or herself into slavery). What of the modern opinion that slavery is dehumanizing? Does the "biblical" Christian retort: "Well, you have your opinion, but I have the word of God"? Every belief is but an interpretation: the opponent and the advocate of slavery hold interpretations.

The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary reminds us that "we never see Jesus or the apostles encourage slavery. Instead, both Paul and Peter encouraged godly character and obedience for slaves within this system (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; Philemon; 1 Pet. 2:18-21)."1 That is an interpretation. Early Christians in this country maintained a different "biblical" perspective -- that keeping slaves was "biblical," an appropriate "New Testament" manner in which to live their lives, and they had Scripture to support their beliefs. Those early Christians may have responded to us modernists who disdain slavery: "Well, you may have your opinions, but we have the word of God." Scripture is a dangerous tool in the hands of presuppositionalists.


If you happen to be one of those people who thinks that he or she "has the word of God," and bases all of your beliefs "on the word of God," understand that your beliefs about "what the word of God says" may merely be your opinions of "what the word of God says." You see, the Bible doesn't actually say anything,2 but is read and interpreted by your own particular life-setting. If you live in the United States, and you think like an American, then you will filter what you read in the Bible through that lens. If you live in Bhutan, and you think as an Easterner thinks, then you will filter what you read in the Bible through that lens.

Stated another way, just because you "have the word of God" does not mean that your beliefs are orthodox, or "biblical." I often fault conservative evangelicals for being guilty of forgetting that "Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience."3 We may all be guilty in some respect of presupposing the intended meaning of certain phrases or biblical passages because we read the Bible not only with Western eyes (for those of us who dwell in the global West) but also with twenty-first century eyes.4 Our conclusions and our beliefs, then, may to some degree be merely opinions from interpretations.

I want you to think properly. I want to help rid you of ignorant and naïve statements, such as, "Well, you may have your opinions, but I have the word of God." What you have is your interpretations of the word of God that may, in fact, be only your opinions. You would, then, look like a fool for criticizing your opponent with the same charge of which you also are guilty. Worse, though, is that you are equating your beliefs with "the word of God." That is, frankly, dangerous. You are not objective. You do not read the Bible objectively. I am not objective. I do not read the Bible objectively. Only God is purely objective. May we read Scripture humbly.

__________

1 The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 1552.

2 What is meant here is that the Bible is not to be read as an instruction manual; the Bible is not like a list of ingredients one puts together in a bowl in order to make a cake or a meal. The Bible is also not a systematic theological textbook. Theologians piece together doctrines from taking verses here and there, verses that appear to agree on a given topic, and form a systematic theology. The Bible is not a book of promises, not like a magic 8 ball, and not like a horoscope. All statements contained in the Bible "say," "speak," a message intended from its author and is interpreted by us. This is how ten different people can read the exact same passage and conclude with varying interpretations. If the Bible "spoke" like some imagine it does, then we would all agree on its content, as well as the intent of the particular author.

This does not mean that one is unable to read the Bible and be clear on its content. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) That seems a straightforward statement. But then believers argue over the meaning of the word "so," or that God does not actually love everyone in the world, or what "believe" and its consequence means, or what "perish" refers to, or the context of "everlasting life." So for one to say that "the Bible clearly says" this or that is quite a mistaken and naïve notion.

3 E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understanding the Bible (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 11.

4 "And because we believe that the Bible is God's Word to us, no matter where on the planet or when in history we read it, we tend to read Scripture in our own when and where, in a way that makes sense on our terms." (Ibid.)

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.