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The Battle for the Bible

by Steve Kindle

I'm Right coverThe Christian church has never had a uniform understanding of how to interpret the Bible, nor has it had uniformity of belief over its now nearly 2000 years of attempts to do so. The historic creeds were an effort in this direction, but failed to unite all parties. Even among the proponents of the creeds, not all agreed on how to understand each proposition. There is no reason to expect that universal agreement will ever happen; in fact, there is every reason to believe it will never happen. Why? Because truth is ultimate and human beings are finite, incapable of accessing ultimate truth, though we likely touch the “hem of the garment” on occasion. I have no problem with that. My problem is with those who claim to have accessed the ultimate and want to make me (and you) conform to their notions of what the Bible means.
The title of this post is also the title of a book written by a former editor of Christianity Today, the late Harold Lindsell, back in 1976. He argued that if an interpreter or institution began from the position that the Bible is not inerrant, it could only end in error. The battle that surfaced from this firestorm wasn’t among those Evangelicals who fought for inerrancy against the liberals, but over just what inerrancy meant among Evangelicals! Even here, agreement is hard to come by.
My book, I’m Right and You’re Wrong! is an effort to understand why committed Christians, including even the loftiest of intellectuals and holiest of saints, read the Bible differently, and come to varying, even contradictory conclusions. This is no mere intellectual enterprise, for it involves the very nature of being human, our relationships with others, and our attitude toward those with whom we disagree. How we comport ourselves in relation to others who are involved in interpreting the Bible may well be the best evidence of our Christ-like spirit.
The focus on inerrancy seemed like a good way to approach biblical interpretation until we dive even a little below the surface. Even if we acknowledge that the “autographs” (original canonical writings) were divinely inspired and free from error, we don’t have them. This makes that point moot. Add to this that the writings must, by necessity, be interpreted, and for inerrancy to have any immediate meaning, they must be inerrantly interpreted. And there are no inerrant interpreters (that I know of).
Add to this that translations of the Bible are, themselves, interpretations. Any number of articles have been written to demonstrate that theologies often control how certain verses are translated. No matter how good a translation might be, it is always two to three thousand years removed from its origin, and replicating the mindset of the original writer is fraught with difficulty. Even knowing the biblical languages is no panacea as the linguists argue over interpretation as much as everyone else.
Everything we read is filtered through our worldview, personality, and even our moods. Once, in an adult Bible study, I averred that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted verse in the Bible. One member said, “I can think of a Bible verse that needs no interpretation.” Tell us, what is it?” He quoted, “God is love.” My response? “What do you mean by God, and what do you mean by love?” My challenge is still on the table.
I think the title of Lindsell’s book is a misnomer. It’s not a battle for the Bible as much as it’s a battle for my interpretation of the Bible to prevail.
So, what’s a diligent reader of the Bible to do? That will be the subject of my next two posts. So, please stay tuned!

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  1. Steve:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. I find there is a great unwillingness among many of us believers to recognize that what we read IS filtered as you describe. As a result, it becomes too easy to assume that we know EXACTLY what God thinks about a wide varirty of issues…In the process, we lose sight of the fundamental mystery that is God…
    Even as I read many these posts on this Discussion network, I wonder: How do we get past this impasse in which some contend that the answers are simple. Is it necessary to just be honest and admit that dialogue is NOT going to happen with those who have no intention to really be dialogical?
    Despite possessing a certain cynicism born of my experiences with the Religious Right, for want of a better description, I DO remain optimistic that there DOES EXIST an ECUMENICAL CENTER, i.e. there is a series of faith assertions that we as Christians can make in common. As you know, I have laid these out in some of my works published by Energion…
    I wonder what readers think about this….

  2. Keep it up Steve. I look forward to your next article. The Bible is vital for correction of our narrow points of view, but perhaps it is not ‘the Biblical text’ which we think we know without reading it, but that we might be better to intuit the correction that we need in our tribal attitudes even without justifying our biases by misreading the text of the Bible. (Better not to have read it.) When I see the violent fear that people even admit to without repentance (like the woman after the recent Oregon shooting who said she simply must have as much ammo as possible for her own protection), I wonder if the impasse can be broken.
    I love the title of your book. I once came to the conclusion that the desire to be right is the chief sin of the flesh.

  3. I just read this comment by Doug Chaplin – apt I think: Bible – the collection of books and how they are read, interpreted and valued – is not a foundation, but a skill set and a knowledge base, a narrative world and language acquired in company with other readers.

  4. Thank you, Steve, for your good post. Yes, as human beings, we will have varieties of opinions on how to interpret the Bible. As you say we don’t have the original autographs which were inerrant and inspired by God, but we can be thankful to the Jewish scribes who carefully copied by hand what we do have in the original Hebrew of the Torah (first five books of Moses). If one mistake was made in a section of a scroll, the entire section of the parchment was destroyed! If all the Torah has been copied and it is discovered that the scribe himself did not believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired, the parchments were taken out and buried! The religious Jews have such a reverence for the holy Scripture that is sadly lacking sometimes in our churches. They don’t throw a worn-out Bible or prayer book in the trash or burn them, but they give them a sacred burial! These are the people that God chose to record His very words in Hebrew. The New Testament, though written in Greek, has a Hebraic context, and all were Jewish authors, except Luke. It is a fact that Matthew was first written in Hebrew.
    I agree with you that the theological bias of the translators does come through in their translations of the Bible. I myself prefer the NKJV and have benefited greatly from the “Spirit-Filled Life Bible,” 1991, Gen. Ed. Jack W. Hayford. Hayford is highly respected by most Christians, and the footnotes and other helps sections are excellent. Of course, that is my opinion, and I am open to use other translations and don’t want to criticize any Bible except the one published by Zondervan to make it “gender-friendly” to feminists.
    I said all that to say that we can get closer to the original intent (interpretation) of the Scripture if we take into account it’s original context with the Hebrew/Jewish people.

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