To Err or not to Err, That is the Question!: Reflection on Biblical Interpretation

To read more fully and extensively on my own personal view of the Bible, its authority and how I interpret it, please see my previous article entitled,What is “God-breathed” all about? In this piece, however, I would like to focus on why precisely, how exactly and in what limited and precise set of circumstances, I may finally and reluctantly deem a particular text to not be completely perfect in every way, meaning or sense. This only applies to a very small percentage Biblical verses and is often due to the original human author not always being clear enough or specific enough and thus wrongly allowing for honest, well-meaning believers later on and even at the time perhaps to legitimately reach an incorrect conclusion regarding the true and originally-intended meanings of the text itself. I always use James 2:14-26 to illustrate this point,

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” – and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead

(James 2:14-26)

Now many of the conservative evangelicals I personally know will argue that what James really meant here was, “We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from and separate from works”. However, to me anyway, it is very noticeable that he clearly did not say that and in fact went out of his way to say something other than that. Now I personally believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone, but just think that James could have and should have been significantly clearer here if that was indeed what he really originally meant. Another thing people say is well, what he meant was, “We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone, but our subsequent good works after we’re saved flow solely from the sanctifying, transforming works of the Holy Spirit which now resides within us believers internally” but again why didn’t he say that then?! Why does he specifically and freely choose to instead say, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works […] You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”. Even the Reformer Martin Luther recognised this problem, causing him to completely reject the Book of James outright in a sudden, abrupt, over-the-top, knee-jerk reaction, rather than saying there is much to be learnt from this divinely-inspired book, but these particular verses weren’t as clear as they really ought to have been and that is due to human error, as it can’t obviously be due to divine error as God is perfect.

In my own personal experience, many who themselves choose to label themselves as “liberal Christians” often tend to take a large logical leap from not originally, at first glance, understanding a Biblical passage immediately and straight away to therefore it must be a human error, and we can thus just disregard and walk past this verse when reading the Bible. I completely reject this dangerous and damaging view which I believe to be lazy, passive, inactive and half-hearted. You cannot have much respect for the Bible if you just lop of verses left, right and centre. You then end up with a Bible looking similar to the “Jefferson Bible”, or as Jefferson himself entitled it, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.

This is to arbitrarily, randomly and humanly pick and choose and cherry-pick the easy, simple parts of the Bible which we humans just happen to coincidentally think sound nice. Luther rejected number of books including letter by James. All books divinely-inspired but sometimes one or more of the many different levels and depths of the verse’s possible meanings is a result of human error. However, this does not nullify or disregard its many other true and deep levels, depths and layers of meaning. Take Romans 1:18-28 as an example:

‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done

(Romans 1:18-28)

Many liberals will reject what many of them often, rather arbitrarily, see as the the main, surface of this text. They say that it’s mainly about Paul’s condemnation of active homosexual relationships. However Paul is, in reality, making a much broader, larger and much more important point about the consequences of Gentile rejection of Christ and of the many different vices which they are then subsequently and resultantly handed over to by God because they have chosen them in the first place. Therefore, even if one rejects completely Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexual sex acts, one can still gain a great deal of fascinating and deep meaning, even from this particular passage.

The attribution of certain levels of meaning within a small, minority of Bible verses as being the product of human error should only be carried out as a final, reluctant, last resort, when all other exegetical and hermeeutical possibilities have been fairly and justly deemed implausible or where other suggestions for defence of the particular meaning of the specific text are lacking. It should function solely as a safety net or value, as if we have no safety valve, Christian students studying modern, scholarly, academic, critical Biblical Studies modules at University find themselves living in fear and walking along a metaphorical tightrope when they attend lectures and seminars or read a set commentary text. We should assign or attribute human error if and only if the passage/verse(s) in question are not at al related to God, His nature, attributes, actions or intervention in the world. In those situations and areas, it makes complete logical and rational sense that there will inevitably, necessarily and obviously be some apparent paradoxes, seeming contradictions and apparent antinomies. As it states in Romans 11:33-36,

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
    or who has been his counsellor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
    that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen

(Romans 11:33-36)

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts

(Psalm 55:8-9)

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

(Exodus 3:14)

And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord’. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy

(Exodus 33:19)

In short, when reading the Bible as Christian believers today in our modern context, we need to be faithful, honest and reasonable all at once, not compromising on any of the three qualities.

By Ben Somervell

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