Interpreting the Bible

Tony Jones is one of the headliners in the emergent movement and this book is his take on why we need to rethink traditional Christianity. This is not a critique of the book but just some thoughts about one section.

Over the last two years I have become increasingly interested in how we interpret the Bible and why we do it that way. The difference between all the different churches is the philosophy or method of interpreting the Bible. Two people can read the same scriptures and come up with completely different views because they interpret the Bible differently.

Jones says three things impact our theology: it is local, conversational, and temporary. It is local in that we have a limited world view and where we live, where we went to school, and our life will bleed over into our view of scripture. If you are raised to see things as black and white then this will impact how you see scripture. If you were raised to be conscious of the social injustice in the world then this too will bleed over into your view of scripture. We know people who changed their theology on divorce when a family member or close friend got divorced.

Second, it is conversational. The books I read, the people I discuss scripture with, the relationships I have all impact my theology. Every one of us has a friend who makes us think about things differently or read a book that shaped your belief or understanding of something.

Third, it is temporary. When we look at the last 2,000 years we see a number of methods and philosophies of interpreting the Bible and we find some to laugh at, cry at, and celebrate. Jones’ encourages and humble hermeneutic or a “don’t think that you have the absolute right answer” hermeneutic. You may be right but history may prove you a fool.

One of the things that I appreciate about with the emergent movement is that they profess a humble hermeneutic and believe that we should be well read and talk to people of all backgrounds to help us understand the Bible better. I have been with many people where Bible discussions centered on proving why their interpretation of scripture was right and others were wrong. They refused to listen to others or to consider that they could be wrong. Some worry that this is a slippery slope that leads into relativism, and if taken to the extreme it could. But I believe we need to listen and be willing to learn from people who have opposite view points and try to discover how they came to that conclusion and to think could they be right and I’m the one who is wrong. This isn’t relativism but being humble in thinking that I don’t have all the answers or the market on truth.

I can’t help but to think about Origen and Augustine who believed that parables should be interpreted allegorically. This view dominated the Biblical world for 1800 years. Today we laugh at Augustine’s interpretations of parables. His most famous interpretation is that of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). The man represented Adam; Jerusalem, the heavenly city from which he fell; Jericho, the moon as a symbol for our mortality; the thieves were the devil and his angels who stole his immortality; the priest and the Levite were the Old Testament Law that could save no one; the animal represented the incarnation of Christ; the Samaritan was Jesus himself who bound up his wounds by dying on Calvary; the inn was the church; the inn keeper was the apostle Paul; two denarii, the two commandments of love or the promise of this life and the one to come.

History shows us that over the centuries our philosophy of interpreting scriptures changes and who knows that in the year 2250 people may be laughing, crying, or celebrating us. I am a strong believer that we need to look at scripture from all angles, discuss it with as many people as we can, and pray that God will lead us to truth. I also must be humble in knowing I could be wrong no matter how strongly I believe that I am right.


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3 responses to “Interpreting the Bible”

  1. Anonymous says :

    Relativism is when someone holds that you can not know truth and so you must be willing to accept everything as having the possibility of truth.

    A humble hermeneutic is when we constantly seek to learn. Sometimes this reaffirms our beliefs and other times it causes us to change. It keeps us from developing a god complex in thinking we have attained the knowledge that no one else had for 2000 years.

    Great thoughts!
    John D

  2. Kieth says :

    I love Tony Jones because he always makes me think. I found his chapter on legalistic liberals to be great. It shows that people on all sides of scripture can become unwilling to learn or admit they could be wrong.

    It is also interesting that mainline and evangelicals are all going through a turbulent time and there is a growing movement to rethink where we stand on issues. As this happens many resist this instead of embracing the fact that people do not want to rely on the faith of their parents but to develop their own faith. We encourage this but often discourage the process and condemn them when they don’t agree with us at the end of their study.

  3. Robbie Mackenzie says :

    Good comments. Rusty it is apprent that we bring so much to the text when we come and read it. I hear people say, “Let’s just read the Bible and not interpret!” That seems impossible to me. We bring our emotions, wealth, Western culture, America, white, southern, rural interpretations. Being wholistic only would strengthen the truth instead of hurting it. Good thoughts.

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