1. “This verse doesn’t mean…”
Imagine with me that the Bible is a fictional book. Nothing it says is understood by anyone to be absolutely true. There are some good principles there, but you should take everything written therein with a grain of salt. If that were the case, would the Bible become any easier to understand? When it speaks on particularly difficult, or ‘confusing’ topics such as the Trinity, Hell, speaking in tongues, good works, sin, sexual immorality, God’s wrath, eternal security (or the lack thereof), or the Virgin birth, would you find it just as difficult to understand, or would it simply be difficult to agree with? It seems more common now than ever to consider Scripture as “open to interpretation,” or “difficult to understand.” But could it be that in the Bible there are a great many things hard to believe or agree with, and quite a bit fewer than we’d like to admit which are actually hard to understand?
The point made above assumes at least two things. First, it assumes that when we read a particular Scripture and immediately respond with, “That doesn’t mean…” we are usually lying to ourselves and often can see what that Scripture actually means, but dislike it. Second, it assumes that the person making such a statement believes the Bible is the absolute truth. If they didn’t believe it to be true, they wouldn’t feel the need to explain it away, they could just respectfully disagree with what it says. When faced with a challenging Scripture that we do not understand, or that does not fit into our compartmentalized, systematic doctrine of who God is, if our immediate response is, “That doesn’t mean…” we are hindering ourselves from knowing God in a deeper way. If the Bible is in fact the very Word of God, and if God is perfect, then it must, by definition, be infallible. If it is infallible, then it is not just true in what it says, but also right in how it says what it says. When we approach any scripture with the thought, “This doesn’t mean…” we are really saying that we are smarter than God and could have communicated what it says more clearly than He did. God is not only sovereign over the meaning of Scripture, but also over the way it was worded and composed.
2. “What this verse means to me.”
I do not understand abstract art at all. For an artist to create something without explicit meaning is one thing, but creating something and intending it to have meaning, but leaving that meaning up to the interpretation of the viewer, rather than the artist, is bewildering to me. Worse yet, that each viewer may find a different meaning in the piece that may be opposed to one another, yet both are legitimate interpretations. #mindblown.
Many people approach the Bible this way. I have been in countless Bible studies where a verse will be discussed and someone will say, “What this verse means to me is…” This is said with a genuine heart, but it carries with it an underlying message that the meaning of God’s Word is subjective. By definition, Christianity is incompatible with subjectivism. When you read the ancient creeds, the church fathers, or better yet, the Bible, it is clear that Christianity leaves no room for, “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” The fact is, truth stands alone and needs no one to affirm it in order for it to be true. While a Christian’s worldview reflects this, a more subtle form of subjectivism often creeps into the Church in a form which I call Christian Subjectivism. Truly some passages of Scriptures are difficult to understand. The meaning of some Scriptures have been debated almost since they were written, but all Scripture has an intended meaning. While my interpretation may be different than yours and we can both discuss it and still be friends, we are not both correct. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The God who created science, and logic, and mathematics, is “A God of order” (1 Cor. 14:33). He has given us a primary source of truth by which we get to know him and by which to test all secondary potential sources of truth—namely, the Bible. And what he has communicated in his Word he has communicated with a particular meaning in mind. The Bible is not a piece of abstract art left to the reader to interpret.
3. “This doesn’t apply to us.”
One of the most phenomenal statements I hear about the Bible is, “That doesn’t apply to us anymore…” This is almost always followed by either, “…because that’s the Old Testament,” or “…that was only for their culture.” What bothers me about these statements is that they imply there are certain parts of the Bible we never need to read again. We might as well erase them from our Bibles because they are of zero benefit to us now. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.” Jesus said, “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my Word will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Now, there is a difference between the words, “profitable” and “applicable.” All Scripture is truly “profitable” for us, however that doesn’t necessarily mean it is all applicable. So the question we need to approach every scripture with is, “In what way is this profitable for us?” An example is clean and unclean foods. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus we are given a list of foods that cannot be eaten. They are unclean. Then in the New Testament, Mark 3:15 says, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him,” and then Mark gives us a short commentary on Jesus’ statement: “In saying this, he declared all foods clean.” So do we now ignore Leviticus 11? It may not be applicable, but it is profitable. Our job is to figure out how. There are several answers to this question. I will share one. At the end of Leviticus 11 God gives his reason for such laws: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” The word holy means separated or consecrated. God gave Israel a large list of laws in the Old Testament to make a clear distinction between them and the rest of the world. We still need to strive for this distinction. As Christians there should be some sort of difference in how we do business, how we interact with strangers, enemies, or the homeless man on the side of the road, etc. Is there some sort of marked difference in your life because you are a Christian?
4. Reading all of Scripture the same way.
Another way we get in trouble is when we take the idea that the Bible is “theologically consistent,” (meaning, despite some apparent surface contradictions, there are ultimately no contradictions in the Bible), and we make that concept also indicate “communicative” or “contextual consistency,” (meaning that the same words or phrases in the Bible are always used in the say way, and communicate the same truth). Let’s take the phrase, “sons of God,” as an example. If you ascribe the same meaning to the words “sons of God” in every reference throughout Scripture in order to create some sort of unnecessary consistency, you will create a mess. In Job the sons of God were angels who approached the throne of God. But in Matthew 5, “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called sons of God.” Still talking about angels? Then in Genesis 6, the sons of God had sex with the “daughters of men, and had children with them.” If this is referring to angels, something is very wrong. In context, Genesis 6 is referring to “sons of God” as godly men who married wicked women, and therefore turned their hearts away from following God. While the theological truth of the Bible is entirely consistent, different books of the Bible were written in different historical and cultural contexts, from different authors, with different personalities, and different ways of communicating. We need not ascribe the same interpretation universally to the words, “sons of God.” If we read the Bible with such narrow lenses, we will keep ourselves from gaining proper knowledge about God and his Word.