“That’s Just Your Interpretation” On Trial

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard it. You assert that you believe that the Bible teaches a certain doctrine, typically while taking a stance for the historically orthodox position, and the person you are speaking with gives you a scornful look and says, “Well, that’s just your interpretation.” The statement is said as a defense of the person’s own views and simply assumes that their statement has settled the argument. There are multiple interpretations, you hold one, they hold another, can’t we all just love each other and get along?

Although a statement like that typically, I hopefully assume, has some genuine desire for peace and unity within its heart, I believe it to be deeply flawed for a myriad of reasons. I will discuss just seven.

1. It is Subtly Coercive

For starters, if we work out the argumentation a bit, we find that it is far from genuine, despite any actual intent, and is in fact manipulative in its nature. Consider this line of debate, let’s assume these are two Christian leaders in a church discussing if the church will subject an unrepentant member to discipline: Christian A states that church discipline is clearly archaic and harmful to the emotional psyche of the person who says that they love Jesus. Christian B sympathies with abuses of discipline, but states that the clear teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18 and Paul in I Corinthians 5 surely lays out the expectation that a church is to remove unrepentant sinners from their midst, anything less is arrogance on the church’s part in thinking that they themselves will not be corrupted. Christian A retorts, “That’s just your interpretation!” Christian B can certainly then likewise retort with the same accusation, yet choses not to join an endless self-defeating marry-go-round. At this stalemate Christian A and Christian B functionally need to determine what needs to be done in regards to church discipline, Christina A does not strengthen their own argument, but simply holds fast to the premise that the mere possibility of different interpretations should lead Christian B to set aside their more throughly defended interpretation. That is a power move, not overt, but it covertly puts pressure on Christian B while deflecting the sound arguments laid against Christian A’s views, after-all if the debate ends with that line of thinking, whose opposing stance will have to be observed? Christian A’s. In all reality such a flippant response works far more off of coercive manipulation instead of Christian love and reason.

2. It is Anti-Intellectual

Christianity has a long tradition of using reason, argumentation and logic to govern beliefs. This goes all the way back to the earliest periods of the church when the Apostle Paul made it his custom to argue from Scripture to influence belief. Consider Acts 17:2-3, were he “reasoned, with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence…” Reason. Explanation. Evidence. All of these mark the Christian movement and it is not those who ignore such arguments who are praised but it is the noble Bereans who are commended when they, with great eagerness, examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11) Jesus, likewise, did not rebuke the Jews for searching Scripture, but for failing to see that they testify about Him. (John 5:39) Thus, they were guilty of misinterpreting Scripture at a fundamental level. When ethical debates were brought up, such as divorce, Jesus did not support a multitude of views, which even at that time were certainly prevalent, but He rebuked the Pharisees for not understanding what the Scriptures taught from the beginning as they showed that a man and woman should not be separated except for sexual immorality. (Matthew 19) When Christians believe, argue, and reason from Scripture we are glorifying God. We are celebrating the fact that we are made in His image and we are simply following the Biblical pattern. After all, we are told to “stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” (I Corinthians 14:20)

3. It is Morally Culpable

Often flippant phrases about interpretation reveal a rather low view of sin, which is again contrary to the Biblical emphasis on the deceitfulness of sin. Vern Poythress hits on the concept when he writes, “Much depends on how we interpret any biblical passage. To some extent, the questions become more difficult because sin creeps into the process of interpretation. Not all interpretations of the Bible… are morally innocent.”1 Christians, and all humans for that matter, are held accountable to God (Romans 14:12) and that includes how we interpret the Bible. Approaching the Word of God without a heart ready to submit to whatever it teaches is a moral sin against the God who breathed the words. (II Timothy 3:16) Haphazardly asserting that someone’s interpretation is just theirs without rigorously engaging with the text and the arguments presented is reckless. Furthermore, it is unfaithful to God as it assumes that there is not much out there to deceive us despite God’s many warnings given to us that say otherwise. (Ephesians 4:14, II Cor. 11:13, Hebrews 13:9, Acts 20:30-31, I Tim. 4:1-3, II Tim. 4:3-5, Matt. 7:15-19, to name just a few) Such actions are morally accountable before the living God. 

4. It is Arrogantly Individualistic

Let me again say that I am not trying to discern the heart of every person who utters the statement on trial, but I am trying to bring to light what the phrase implies, even if unintended. The very words themselves imply a highly Western concept of autonomous individualism, a concept which is blatantly contrary to the corporate emphasis of the body of Christ. Is this just my interpretation? Or is it perhaps the historic confession of two millennia’s worth of interpreters from various times and cultures? Maybe you have your own specific, novel interpretations of the Bible, but I confess, by God’s grace, I have few if any. I do not believe I’m the smartest Christian to ever live. I do not believe I am the only Christian whom the Holy Spirit works through or reveals truth to. All believers need the voices of other cultures to interpret the Bible rightly. Modern American believers especially are in need of outside voices when traditional beliefs are under attack. Is it narrow-minded traditionalism that blinds those who hold to the historic views of Christian marriage? Or is it perhaps surrounding secular pressures that are deceiving those who claim such beliefs are blind and bigoted? Let’s get help. Let’s listen to the global church more than our favorite TV shows. Let’s engage with the rich theological reflections of some of the most brilliant minds to ever grace the church through its entire history, in all its orthodox diversity. Let’s not have any interpretation be just our interpretation. Let’s interpret corporately with a wholistic appreciation for the entire kingdom of the saints past and present. If an interpretation is just yours, there is a ridiculously high probability that it is wrong.2

5. It is Against the Truth

In John 14, Thomas asks Jesus a question which I believe we should all consider heavily in this ever shifting culture, he says to Jesus, “How will we know the way?” (14:5) Jesus wonderfully declares that, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (14:6) In this verse the singular Greek definite article, ἡ, is used repetitively for the way, the truth, and the life. Note that Jesus refers to himself as the singular and definite truth. Truth is not some abstract concept of philosophical speculation but is found in the very person of Jesus Christ, the eternally begotten Son of God. Pilate famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) when he was interrogating the truth incarnate right before him. Jesus, the truth, came “to testify to the truth” and “everyone who is of the truth” hears His voice. (John 18:37) How does all this talk of the truth relate to the discussion at hand? Nearly without fail, the propagator of the “just your interpretation” accusation will eventually wind up following a post-modern conceptualization of truth. (that truth is held within each individual person; ie, I have my truth and you have your truth, therefore you have your interpretation and I have mine) This concept of truth is a direct assault on the person of Jesus Christ. A direct assault against the Son of God. Is that too hard a statement? If Jesus claims to be the singular and definite truth which exists outside of the subjectivity of any individual human mind or heart, then to embrace a concept of truth which distorts the singular and definite nature of truth is to distort the true revelation of the person of Jesus Christ. There is no other Jesus. (II Cor. 11:4) There is no other truth. Let’s watch our interpretative steps, because if we end up here we are in highly dangerous territory.

6. It is a Failure to Love God and Neighbor

Often those who do not accept another’s interpretation are accused of being unloving. I beg to differ. Part of the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37) is to love God with all of our minds. God is our first love. (Revelation 2:4) For the reasons stated above, the “just your interpretation” method fails to put one’s mind in service of and submission to the living God. Its simplistic defense does not take into account the numerous calls to increase in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10) and it fails to learn from Jesus’s commendation of the Ephesus church where He states, “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.” (Revelation 2:2, emphasis mine) Clearly, Jesus expects the church to test different teachers, which can only also imply that different interpretations must be tested. Not convinced? Jesus rebukes the church of Thyatira when He says, “I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:20, emphasis mine) Could there be a more relevant verse for the church to consider when we reflect on certain interpretations that are being taught and are leading people into historically condemned expressions of sexuality? (To be clear I not just referring to homosexuality) To love God is to put those who profess to teach His Word to the test by His Word. We must weigh other’s interpretations for the love of God. (I use that phrase reverently)

In a similar fashion, allowing interpretations that lead people away from faithfulness and away from Jesus is grossly unloving towards those people. “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.” (I Cor. 13:6) We must be patient, kind and gentle when we engage with another’s interpretation, but to fail to challenge them as they embrace interpretations which lead them into sin is nothing short of a failure to love one’s neighbor as ourselves.

7. It is an Old Danger in Disguise

Far too many people think that our current cultural struggles and challenges are something new, particularly in relation to competing doctrines and interpretations. They are not. Timothy is instructed that, “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrines conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (I Timothy 6:3) and he is also warned of those who “will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn their ears from the truth.” (II Tim. 4:3-4) We must ask when it comes to Biblical interpretation, are our desires fixed for Scripture to say what we want it to say or do we truly want to know what God actually says within His Word? As Kristen Birkett prudently puts it, “It takes study, and effort, and community perseverance in prayerful humility to read it accurately… do not approach Scripture saying ‘but it can’t mean that’ — whatever ‘that’ might be. It can. It can mean whatever God has written it to mean.”3 Scripture must drive our interpretation of Scripture, not our experiences, not our emotions, not our desires, nor even any of our foreign philosophies. The heart, mind and soul must be set in full strength submission to God prior to interpretation.

With that said, we must consider the warnings that are in Scripture and what they say about the dangers of misinterpreting the text. For the sake of length I will focus on just one section. II Peter 2 is a chapter that is nothing short of terrifying with its hard words against false teachers and false prophets and, just a bit later, we can see that many of these teachers, or teachings, were arising from the manipulation of Scripture. Peter, in his God breathed text, writes, “just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do the rest of Scripture to their own destruction.” (II Peter 3:15-16, emphasis mine)  Besides affirming the status of Scripture on Paul’s letters, the Apostle Peter states that some interpretations of Scripture are in fact twisted and will lead to ultimate destruction. When we talk about different interpretations at some point we hit a place of eternal significance. This is no small mater. This is no mere debate topic. This affects the eternal life of God’s image bearers. Let’s walk faithfully for God, neighbor, and ourselves.

Conclusion:

This is but a sketch of the arguments against the simplistic statement of “that is just your interpretation.” I hope with even this limited defense we can all affirm that when it comes to God’s holy Word, there is no interpretation that is merely just an interpretation. It takes discernment, prayer, and critical thinking to know the varying significances of differing interpretations. It takes a spirit of humility to know that some interpretations are far better than others. It takes a heart of faith to follow the best and most dynamically faithful interpretations in spite of varying and less convincing heterodox interpretations that rest on a dainty thread of plausibility. We are dealing with the Word of God. We are dealing with people’s souls! We are disciples of Jesus Christ! May our view of Scripture reflect that of our Master. May our hearts be willing to follow His Word wherever it would have us go, whatever it would have us believe. May we faithfully argue the most rigorous interpretations which reflect those realties. And oh may we always remember, that apart from Him we can do nothing. (John 15:5) And that is my argument for interpreting, not just my interpretation.

Citations:

  1. Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3, (Crossway; Wheaton, IL, 2019), 20, emphasis original
  2. At this point some try to argue that in John 16:13 Jesus directly promises to lead individual believers into all truth. Unfortunately, that is a dangerous misreading of what is actually going on in that text. The statement Jesus makes is a part of a larger conversation with the Apostles commonly referred to as the Upper Room Discourse. Go back and read the surrounding chapters and see that this is not a universal promise to every church member, but a direct assurance that the Apostles will be led into all necessary truth for the full disclosure of the New Covenant, just as the Spirit will bring to their remembrance all that Jesus said to them. (John 14:26) This is why historic Christianity refers to itself as the Apostolic Faith, the faith handed down once for all to all the saints. (Jude 1:3) We trust that the full deposit of truth was given to the Apostles, which is why we go to the Scriptures through the Spirit.
  3. Kristen Brikett, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, Chapter 30: Science and Scripture, (Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016), 985; emphasis original

Law

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

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