Interpreting the Bible Is a Knotty Business

by Steve Kindle

What’s the biggest misconception about biblical interpretation? Not knowing that our worldview predetermines the interpretive outcome, or at least limits the possibilities. Even the biblical writers operated from a specific understanding of their world. Trouble begins when we confuse their world with ours, and there is no end to the confusion that entails.

Everyone sees their world through a metaphorical lens. If, say, you put on a pair of sunglasses with yellow lenses, the world will appear tinged in yellow. The world we see is always filtered through whatever interpretive lens we have. These lenses are often inherited or accumulated over time. Once a lens is in place, knowingly or unknowingly, everything flows from this.  They are simply the “givens” we inherit from the world we are born into. This is why if you are born in the Middle East you are likely a Muslim, or in Punjab, a Sikh.

Many are unaware they even employ a lens. For those who are unaware, they believe their conclusions are uninfluenced by anything other than pure logic.  For those of us who are aware, we are constantly judging our results with this in mind.

[Self-serving plug: I delve into this in my little book, “I’m Right and You’re Wrong!” Just click here for more information.]

Even biblical writers wore worldview lenses when they took quill in hand. And I would put most of them in the Unaware category. Like most modern concepts, “worldview” would escape them. An easy example is why Paul saw same-sex activity as “unnatural.” In his purity world, fish had scales, therefore unscaled catfish are an abomination. So say goodbye to lobster and catfish! Pure animals have both cloven hooves and chew the cud (why, who knows?). Therefore, pigs are unclean because they don’t have cloven hooves. Humans are meant for procreation, therefore any act that is not for that purpose (same-sex sex) is an abomination. We who don’t live in a proscribed world of pure and impure find this logic wanting.

Here’s an example of a statement of Paul’s that makes sense only in his worldview. Ephesians 1:3-10 Here is what one interpreter made of this:

Note Paul’s understanding of the mind of God (if we can talk in such terms) before the creation of the world: “Before the foundation of the world,” he says, God’s first and primary purpose was to create a people for himself, who would live with him “holy and blameless in love.” Before and above anything else, he thought about a people he would adopt as family, who would be brothers and sisters of Jesus his Son.

Without commenting on the interpreter’s understanding of Paul (or whomever the author was), I can’t agree with how he thought Paul reached his conclusion. Paul’s thinking could only have come from one who believed that the world was recently created (that 4.5 billion years had not elapsed), that the world was created as it is now, and God moved immediately to establish the human race.

One of the gifts that progressive, postmodern Christianity gives is how to see the biblical world on its own terms and not confuse it with our world. Conflating the two is the chief reason the Bible is misused and so many people dismiss it. Our task should be to make the Bible clear on its own terms and then see if it can be found useful today. Quite often it is. But it will remain either obscure or irrelevant if we don’t do this.