It’s Sunday morning and you’ve just told your congregation, “The Bible says _______.” You pick the topic. It could be about the role of women in the church, how your church is organized, the gift of tongues, baptism, or whether or not we have a free will or predestination.
Similarly, it could be about a particular passage of Scripture where there are competing views about what the author of that passage meant. (For example, what did Paul mean when he talked about women and head coverings in 1 Cor. 11:2–16?)
My question to you, regardless of what the topic or passage might be, is, “Are you absolutely sure that’s what the Bible says?”
Now, before you answer too quickly, let me ask you another question. Do you currently believe everything today that you believed five or ten or twenty years ago? Of course not. Why? Because you’ve grown. You’ve learned. And you now know things you didn’t know five or ten or twenty years ago.
However, if we went back five or ten or twenty years and I asked you, “Are you absolutely sure that this is what [Paul] meant in this passage?” you probably would have answered, “Of course! That is what Bible says!” But you now believe differently.
So if you’ve changed your position on different passages and topics over the past five, ten or twenty years, what makes you so sure that what you currently believe to be true is, in fact, what the Bible says? Your own track record suggests that might not always be true.
Now before you begin to label me a liberal or heretic, let me just remind you of something usually covered in Hermeneutics 101: the hermeneutical spiral. If you’ve never gone to seminary or haven’t heard of the hermeneutical spiral, the easiest way to conceive of it is to imagine a spiral on a page. In the center of the spiral, there is a dot. And from that dot, you have a series of rings that emanate out from that dot — farther and farther from it.
The dot is what the writer of a passage meant to say. Unfortunately, you and I aren’t that writer, so we can’t fully know what the author meant. What makes this worse is that none of us can arrive at any text without our own preconceived notions. We bring our past, our personalities, our learnings, the lessons of our past teachers, our denominations, the podcasts and messages we’ve listened to, the books we’ve read, the conversations we’ve had and our culture to the text.
What that means is that the first time we read a passage or study a Biblical text, we bring all of that with us — which is why we usually start out far on the spiral. We may think that this is what Paul meant, but we may be way out of line.
Then as we read more of Paul, as we study more Scripture, as we learn from others, as we study the culture Paul was writing in, or as we read commentaries, we begin to get a better picture of what Paul meant, and we get closer to the dot. A few years later, we go back and study the same passage and all of a sudden we see it in a new light and, hopefully, move even closer to the dot.
The great lesson of the hermeneutical spiral is that we can never be sure that we’re actually on the dot. Realizing that fact ought to foster some level of humility on your part and mine about what “the Bible says.” Why? Because only God and the author of the text know for sure exactly what they meant. Which means that while we may think we know the dot … we may not.
One of my family’s friends is a famous poet (the kind where they hold symposiums to talk about and discuss his poetry). I remember having a conversation with him years ago and asking him about that experience of being in a room and having other people talk about what they thought he meant and him just listening to their ideas while sitting in the back of the room. He told me it was rather humorous and that “nobody ever got it right.”
Think about that. Here is someone who wrote a text of poetry in the same century and in the same country as those who were interpreting it — and they couldn’t get it right. And these were scholars — people familiar with poetry and its “rules and conventions” — not just lay people. What does that say to you and me who are living millennia away in different cultures and social-economic circles? Well, I think one of my former seminary professors put it best years ago when he said, “Bruce, God did not call us to be certain knowers. Rather, he called us to be responsible interpreters.”
In other words, you and I have to be careful when we say, “This is what the Bible says!” Why? Because we may be wrong. This side of heaven, we can never say with absolute certainty, “This is exactly what Paul meant when he wrote __________.” We can only say, “To the best of my knowledge, I believe this to be true.”
When it’s all said and done, humility is a good thing in biblical interpretation (let alone Christ-followership). Plus, it’s a great thing to model for your congregation. Instead of them thinking that they can just come up with any old interpretation of a passage and because they came up with it, believe it to be what the Bible actually says, they’ll realize that they have to learn both humility and hermeneutics.
By modeling to your congregation that God calls us not to be certain-knowers but to be responsible interpreters (and to humbly hold our positions), you’ll be training your congregation to be better Christ-followers.
Furthermore, you’ll be giving yourself an out when you realize that something you’ve taught for years to be true isn’t what you believe any longer. It’s not that the Bible changed, just you and your understanding of it — which will be a good moment for you, your congregation and the church at large. As the saying goes, “A little bit of humility does a body good.”