We’ve all been in those Bible studies where a Scripture is read, then everyone takes their turn giving it’s interpretation in their own opinion. The only interpretation outlawed in these settings is one that says someone else’s interpretation is wrong and theirs is right. The idea is that the Bible comes to each of us differently, therefore there is any myriad of possibilities for each text (within reason). The only problem is that Scripture presents itself to us as a meta-narrative (one big story), not as a series of small stories or good little promises. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation, and the central figure of it all is Christ. As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Every story whispers His name.”
Textual criticism and interpretation sounds like an art form reserved for ivory tower theologians, but it has shown up in recent news in a most unlikely place: the supreme court nomination hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch. The question has been posed whether or not this supreme court justice will interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document”, and it has caught the attention of millions of Americans. News flash for you pastors and teachers out there: even people in the 21st Century are still concerned with the manner in which ancient texts are interpreted. Why the sudden interest from the public in something as seemingly dull as this? Because people want to be in authority.
To interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” is to place oneself in judgment over the text. It is to embrace the freedom to interpret words and phrases in light of one’s own personal opinion. Textual interpretation like this has a total disregard for the original intent of its authors. No attempt is made to discern what the words or phrases could have possibly meant to the founding fathers, those who crafted the very sentences themselves. In those who hold to such an interpretive theory of the text, there seems to be a fear of authorial intent which does not appease everyone’s wishes. So why worry with the original intentions of the authors when you can twist the text to say whatever the current cultural trends are saying?
As frightening as it sounds to stand in judgment over a text one didn’t write because one doesn’t like the obvious intention of its author, this is precisely what people do with the Bible. People say that there are various interpretations that people take on Scripture, but I think this is an over-generalization. As Mark Twain once put it: “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand”. The task of every Christian is to discern the author’s intent in the writing of any biblical text and to then apply that to their lives. The task of every pastor and teacher is to communicate the author’s original intent to the original recipients in such a way that the 21st Century hearers are comforted, corrected, and edified.
While the Bible does refer to itself as “living”, we ought not to consider it to be a living document in the sense that we can interpret it how we wish. It is only living in the sense that its words are the very words of God Himself, which have the power to bring life to the spiritually dead.
The first Bible twister was Satan in the Garden of Eden, who sat in judgment on God’s Word when he asked, “Did God really say?” and then, “You will not surely die!”. We must always strive to let God’s Word be our judge and never attempt to be its judge. I heard the story once of a preacher who was asked if he stands on the Word of God and his response was basically, “No. I let the Word of God stand in authority over me.” May we all do the same.