“How can you say one interpretation is right, and another is wrong? Aren’t they all just interpretations?”
I hear this question in the New Testament classes I teach every year. Usually, when my students express this, they are sincerely wrestling with an important question.
Many thoughtful people have recognized that it is hard to interpret without too much bias. The way we think influences what we see and what we talk about; and—to make matters harder—we tend to interpret everything in a way that agrees with how we already think! Recognizing this is important, especially if the goal of interpreting the Bible is to hear what Scripture really says.
However, many people today are using this question with a different goal in mind; they want you to doubt that unbiased interpretation is even possible. Therefore, when they ask questions like, “How can you say one interpretation is right, and another is wrong?” they aren’t looking for an answer to that question. Instead, they are using such questions to challenge and change the way things are.
While the goal of interpretation used to be hearing what Scripture really says, many people today want you to believe that is impossible. Instead of pursuing “truth” in interpretation, they want you to focus instead on how interpretation can be used to change the social and political world right now. They assume that everything everybody does and says needs to be seen as political activism, therefore, interpretation is a political act that needs to be done with political goals in mind.
Questioning interpretation, then, becomes a powerful piece of persuasion to move people toward change. After questioning the possibility of unbiased interpretation, the main argument typically boils down to something like this: since all interpretation is uncertain, we can’t try to figure out what’s “true.” Instead, we need to use interpretation to advocate for special interests, specifically standing up for the rights of “marginalized” people. They say that instead of pursuing “truth,” we should fight for people’s rights.
Now don’t get this wrong. The Bible does encourage us to care for those in various needs. Solomon tells us to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8-9), James tells us to care for the orphan and widow (James 1:27), and Jesus urges us to be generous to the poor (Luke 11:41). Such passages are clear, and reading them in their contexts brings further specificity and clarity.
But it may be surprising to note that the Bible never refers to any of these groups with the abstract category “marginalized” (in fact, the word “marginalized” never occurs in the Bible). Passages like these are now being used to go beyond their clear specific meanings by interpretations that generalize them as referring to the “marginalized.” What I am writing about is the way a focus on gaining power and influence for groups now identified as “marginalized” is dominating biblical interpretation.
While fighting for people’s rights has nice-sounding intentions, we need to recognize some fundamental problems with approaching Scripture in this way and how we might respond.
First—and most importantly—overstating the problems in interpretation robs people of the Word of God. While there have always been difficult passages in Scripture to interpret, for the most part Scripture is clear. Don’t exaggerate the difficulty of interpretation. While many people would like us to doubt that we can actually interpret God’s Word, we need to affirm, “Yes, we can.”
However, along with that confident affirmation, we need to remain humble in the face of truly difficult Scripture passages. Be humble and be honest when you don’t know how to interpret a difficult passage. (Augustine and Luther actually did this.) It’s ok to not know everything, and that fact doesn’t mean you don’t know anything.
Second, the definitions and goals for “marginalized” groups often become dangerously unbiblical. This happens a few different ways. With LGBTQ+ groups, they typically want to challenge the clarity of Scripture’s words on sin, sex, and marriage. Feminist groups often want to challenge the words of Scripture on roles of men and women. Whatever the “marginalized” group claims to be, the contemporary goal is not grounded in God’s Word, but on other special advocacy concerns—usually focused on seeking more power and influence for certain groups.
This is problematic not just when advocating for something that is directly against God’s Word, but the power-struggle mindset behind it goes against God’s Word as well. Jesus repeatedly said, “The first will be last and the last will be first.” He repeatedly called us to deny ourselves. Yet these advocacy approaches assert that biblical interpretation should be done with the goal of claiming more power and influence.
In response, let’s not battle according to the political standards of this world. Instead, we should trust in the true King, and follow God’s Word in our lives and churches. Interpreting Scripture should not focus on fighting for political power, whether you already have it, or whether you don’t. Let’s care for people without setting up false idols. Let’s deny ourselves without denying God’s Word.
Third, behind all of this is a question of commitment. Which are you more committed to? Submitting to God’s Word or fighting for an ideology? Popular contemporary trends want us to commit to social and political change, and to use the Bible to advocate for “marginalized” groups. When Scripture disagrees with their conclusions, they ignore it, challenge it, or “interpret” Scripture to agree with their previous commitments. Sometimes they blatantly go against Scripture, other times they twist the words to say what they want. Biblical interpretation should be shaped by Scripture, but instead, this form of interpretation intentionally reshapes Scripture.
However, Scripture as God’s Word needs to be our highest commitment. We need to submit to God’s Word—especially when it disagrees with what we already think! We should expect to come to Scripture to hear God speak. He speaks in ways that challenge us, whoever we may be.
In today’s world, politics have become pervasive. We need to be aware of how this affects biblical interpretation. But this doesn’t mean that we need to force interpretation into a political ideology. Instead, let’s learn to humbly come under God’s Word and remember the words of our Lord, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Dr. Daniel Berge, Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as professor of New Testament at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.