If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we have all suffered at one time or another from a disease I like to call, “obsessive-dogmatic-syndrome”. It’s where we clinch passionately with tight fists to certain interpretations and do not allow any outside objections to approach without some sort of hostility.
Interpreting the Bible is like that for many of us. Being a believer is like that for many of us. Many dogmas and doctrines become so much a part of our identity that it becomes unthinkable to us to see them changed or even challenged. I believe the primary reason this sort of phenomenon–if I may call it a phenomenon–happens, is due to a fear that we might not really know ourselves like we thought. I believe that when doctrines and dogmas are interpreted into our personal sense of identity that we are setting ourselves up to be offended. The more a person places their personal identity in doctrines and dogma, the more easily offended that person is going to be when those doctrines are brought into question.
Here’s a dogma of my own I’d like to share at this point: God-given identity does not consist in having the right doctrines. It is given.
We, by nature, need dogma. Dogma is an absolute thing–hard as a rock. Christ’s promise to the world was that he would be an immovable rock for us. With nothing absolute to stand on in life you’re more than likely to feel lost, afraid, and wandering. But we should not fear having our dogma challenged. It needs to be! And the more the better! Why? Because if it is a truth then it will only become more sure to us. If it is not truth, it will not hold up and we will see it for what it is. I’m sure it must have been said somewhere before, but fear is precisely the thing that will keep us from ever moving forward in the path laid out for us by God.
…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… (Heb 12:1)
If we know who we are, we will not be afraid of the challenges or changes to our dogma. We will welcome them.
That said, we come to the question of how to best interpret the Bible. Is there a simple rule, or a single standard, or a universal lens by which we might grasp the true meaning of ALL of scripture?
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt.22:37-40)
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-15)
In these two verses mentioned above the entire scripture is summed up into a singular concept. That concept is helping others, not harming them. The simplicity of these statements is striking. Jesus makes use of a pretty strong word here: depends, or as another translation puts it, hangs. The entire scriptures hang on this one thing. I love that because that makes it so much easier to arrive at a correct interpretation!
A cursory read-through of the entire Bible often leads many of us to feel a whole array of emotions about God. Some passages in themselves will make it seem as though God is some kind of harsh and strict character to be afraid of. People have struggled with this throughout the history of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was not ignorant of this problem of interpretation. So he made it a point to teach people how to interpret everything in a very simple manner. The entire law and prophets depended on one concept. When Paul reiterates this universal lens for interpreting scripture he does not mention loving God. But I think it goes without saying that God is also our neighbor–and more so than anyone else, yes? So the Golden Rule is not just a rule but a universal interpretive lens: help others, do not harm them.
Now, if you really want to understand something in the Bible–anything at all–you have the most powerful interpretive tool available, supplied by Jesus himself. For example, why does the Bible and God accuse us as sinners? The apostle John tells us that sin is lawlessness or transgression of the law. Why then did God make so many laws and appear so strict about what we can and cannot do–especially if he is a loving God? To answer that question, let’s employ the universal lens discussed above.
By understanding that God’s entire prerogative was to keep us from harming others then we are able to see that the entire law was put in place precisely to show us how much God loved people (and himself) and not at all because he has a strict or harsh character. Some of the obvious sins such as stealing, adultery, lying, and murder are easily understood as good rules given for our protection. Interpreting the Bible through this lens will prove to yield some pretty drastic results in our understanding of scripture. God’s punishments, judgments, wrathful acts, condemnation, acts of destruction, the Great White Throne, and everything in between would all be seen in an entirely different light, would it not? I believe without using this interpretive lens, our interpretations are left open to some very inaccurate ideas and consequently we will be prone to bad doctrine.