Although we can all now read the Bible for ourselves and understand its overall message, many parts of it are capable of more than one interpretation. The Church has always been able to accommodate a certain amount of doctrinal diversity, but has had to define the limits to what can be called ‘Christian’. This was the purpose of the early creeds: to define Christianity by setting out the essential ‘core’ beliefs of the Church. And all the main divisions of the Church (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) still adhere to them. But from that point, the various strands of the Christian Church diverge. All Christians base their beliefs on the Bible, but we interpret the Bible with the help of three other ‘authorities’ – Tradition, Reason and Experience. Although we Protestants might want to insist on ‘sola scriptura’ (Scripture alone), in actual fact, we cannot altogether escape the influence of the other three, which interact with Scripture and with each other. None of us reads the Bible in a vacuum; we all apply our minds to what we read, and our ways of thinking are always strongly influenced by input from other people and by our own personal experiences.
In our modern, individualistic culture, some Christians feel that they have the ‘right’ to interpret Scripture however it suits them. Don’t all believers have the anointing of the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of the truth? (I John 2:20) Yet the Bible itself admits that some input from other believers may be required for full understanding (Acts 8:26-35; II Timothy 2:2). At the opposite extreme, some Catholic and Orthodox teaching has suggested that everyone should accept the interpretations of the church authorities (also acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit!) without question. These churches look down on the fragmentation of Protestantism (now into thousands of denominations and cults) with some justification. How can we strike a balance? Biblical interpretation must be open to debate, but it can’t be a free-for-all with no boundaries: there has to be a broad consensus on the basic doctrines of Christianity that can act as a touchstone for our personal opinions.
The importance of tradition
The Catholic and Orthodox churches lay great weight on Church tradition in their interpretation of the Bible. The Catholic Church, for example, regards Scripture and church tradition as equally authoritative. “Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1997) But Protestants do not accept this, because of the many traditions that have entered the Church over the centuries (and may continue to do so) despite being additional or even contrary to what is written in Scripture.
Actually, the Protestant principle of sola scriptura doesn’t mean exactly what it appears to say. Some people think that only those things that are in Scripture should be believed and followed, while everything else should be rejected. But in fact, there are many Christian customs and traditions that were not laid down by Christ or (so far as we know) by the apostles, but which quickly became established practice in the majority of churches and are still followed by many Protestants. The celebration of festivals (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), observance of Lent and saints’ days, infant baptism … none of these are mentioned clearly (if at all) in the New Testament, although they are known to date back at least as far as the second century.
Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.” (I Corinthians 11:2) Traditional interpretations of Scripture are an established consensus of opinion that it is unwise to ignore – especially when they go right back to the immediate post-apostolic era. They aren’t necessarily right; but they aren’t often wrong! They are a vital steadying influence on our modern fancies. However, tradition should not be followed blindly simply because it is well-established; traditions aren’t always good, either, and not even the most respected theologians of the past are infallible. Most of us are familiar with the incident in Matthew 15/Mark 7 where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (Mark 7:8) Over and above the Law of Moses, they had built up a suffocating burden of traditional rules which by Jesus’ time had come to assume a greater importance than the Law itself – if there was a clash between Scripture and the rules, the rules were usually given precedence! Jesus was not opposed to all traditions; He followed Jewish customs of attending synagogue on the Sabbath and saying a blessing before meals, neither of which are commanded or even mentioned in the Old Testament. But He did attack the attitude that allowed traditions to contradict and override God’s written Word.
Paul also warns us of the danger that false teaching can be introduced into the Church (Galatians 1:8,9; Acts 20:29-31). If not rejected immediately, it may take root and will eventually become “traditional” – from which point it becomes much harder to recognise and deal with. This is why Protestants believe that the Bible, not Church tradition, should be the supreme and final authority over Christian doctrine and practice. We are commanded to “test everything” (I Thessalonians 5:21) – and that must include the old and venerable as well as the new. Like the Jews in Berea, we should not accept anything we are told uncritically but check everything against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).
So, when considering Christian traditions, the Church needs to be like a gardener pruning a rosebush. A lot of what we have is sound, healthy growth: even if not explicitly found in Scripture, it is derived directly from it and is compatible with it. But we need to watch out for ‘suckers’ – false teachings – that come not from God’s Spirit but originally from Satan (Galatians 5:8). If these suckers are not recognised and cut out, their vigorous growth will eventually come to distort or even dominate the whole bush. The wise gardener will know which shoots to tend, and which to remove.
The application of reason
Anyone who reads the Bible with an open, honest mind will find some passages that are hard to understand, some that seem to contradict each other, and others that seem to conflict with modern scientific knowledge. It won’t do to just turn the page and pretend that there are no difficulties. This is where human reason has to be applied. Jesus reminds us that we are called to love God with all our mind (Mark 12:30), and He often appealed for reason and common sense to be applied to interpretation of Scripture (e.g. Mark 3:1-4; Luke 12:57).
And yet problems arise when human reason sets itself up in opposition to divine revelation, or in authority over it (I Corinthians 1:20,21). Because of mankind’s original rebellion, our reasoning is not totally reliable; it is tainted and biased by pride and selfishness. All too easily, we can make wrong assumptions, start from a position of prejudice against God’s Word, or use Bible texts to back up our own preconceived ideas. The liberal Bible scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries rejected anything in the Bible that was miraculous (on the spurious grounds that science had “proved” the impossibility of miracles) or that they happened to disagree with (on the arrogant grounds that the ancients were simple people who were naturally superstitious and incapable of real understanding). There is often an assumption that absolutely everything written in the Bible is intended to be taken literally (no matter how ridiculous that would be). And there are also some Christians who have a highly literalistic interpretation of Scripture – and therefore reject any scientific discovery that might cast doubt on it. This estrangement of reason and revelation is potentially dangerous. Why should we have to choose between them?
God has given us brains, so presumably He intends us to use them. There is a correct use of reason: to investigate the cultural background of the Bible, to make use of insights from science and archaeology, to judge between alternative interpretations, and to compare tricky passages with others that are more straightforward. “Let Scripture interpret Scripture” whenever possible. Most of the difficulties that we come across in our Bible reading can be resolved fairly easily. It may be that we are interpreting the passage too literally, or perhaps taking it out of context, or focusing on an irrelevant detail and missing the main point. In some places, ambiguity may be intentional (in order to make us think!)
The role of experience
Our post-modern culture regards all truth as relative: what is ‘true’ for me may be different from what is ‘true’ for you. There is an element of truth in this, because what we see depends very much on where we are standing – a position which is the product of our culture, education and lifetime experiences. For example, Africans and Europeans reading the same Scripture passage will get quite different messages from it. And so there are many different ways of understanding the Bible: ‘liberation’ theology, ‘feminist’ theology, ‘black’ theology, to name but a few. They can offer valuable insights, but none of them should be regarded as the only ‘true’ way of understanding Scripture. And white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male theologians don’t have a monopoly on truth either!
While it is inevitable that we read the Bible through the lens of personal experience, it is all too easy to assume that our own viewpoint ‘must’ be the right one! We all believe that we possess unclouded, unbiased judgement – and we are all wrong!. We can’t help carrying our own cultural, intellectual and personal ‘baggage’, but we can be aware of our own presuppositions and prejudices and of how they might affect our understanding. Rather than imposing them on Scripture, we should allow Scripture to challenge them. It is useful to listen to other people (especially those from other cultures, other church traditions, and other periods in history), in order to broaden our perspective. “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” (C S Lewis: On the Reading of Old Books) This is why it is best to study the Bible with other Christians, and not just on our own.