Open to Interpretation?

Listening to a programme on the BBC World Service this morning I was again informed by a liberal unbeliever that the Bible was never intended to be understood as a literal text and has always been, like the Koran, reinterpreted to reflect society at the time. The speaker took no position as either a Christian or as a Muslim yet felt free to pass his advice on to those who revere these texts.

It is undoubtedly the case that the Bible has been used to support all sorts of positions down through history – including some appalling acts of torture and violence. One need only consider the crusades of the middle ages; or more recently, the activities of the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army”, to recognise that people can and do interpret the Bible in some pretty strange ways. Would my expert from this morning, I wonder, consider such interpretations valid?

What most liberal interpreters of the Bible seem to want to use it for is to support the idea that we ought to be kind to one another. They are happy to retain the teachings of the Lord Jesus such as “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7 vs1) and the charge is regularly brought against those who take a literal interpretation of Scripture that they are being ‘judgemental’. They also like the so-called ‘golden rule’ from the same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7 vs12). And that is about it. I rarely hear them putting forward any other message from the Bible.

This is of course intellectual and theological nonsense dressed up to suit the current mores of the time! Are they seriously expecting us to swallow the idea that the sum and substance of the teachings of Christ was that we should be nice to each other? In the very section that they carefully prune these verses from, they conveniently ignore the fact that the Lord spoke about things that are ‘holy’, vs6; that He said to those who were listening to him, “you then, who are evil”, vs11; that not everyone – even those who claimed allegiance to Him – would enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, vs21. Holiness, evil and the idea of a Heavenly Kingdom where divine rule applies have never really sat comfortably with society at large. The group that the Lord Jesus referred to as ‘evil’ was not some group of murderers, rapists or child-abusers (the only contexts in which this word appears to be acceptable today) but an ordinary group of Galilean peasants. All sounds pretty judgemental to me!

No, the reality is that if we take an entirely relativist position to what it is to be moral or good or holy, or whatever word you care to use, then everything is up for grabs and your holiness is just as good as mine. In order to make the teachings of Christ support such a position you can’t just prune a few verses out – you have to abandon Him altogether. The Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14 vs15). He clearly understood there to be a defined basis for their obedience. His statement is meaningless if He just meant that in a vague sort of a way they should be nice to one another.

The reason why so much of society wants to reinterpret the Bible is that its teaching simply doesn’t fit with how many of us wish to live our lives. The verses quoted earlier from Matthew chapter 7 are from the sermon on the mount. Earlier in that discourse, speaking on sexual morality, the Lord said “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5 vs28). Much of the current debate around interpretation of Scripture is focussed on sexuality. The Lord Jesus did show compassion to those who failed in this way – read John 8 vs1-11, but the teaching of the Bible on this could not be clearer. It cannot be ‘interpreted’ away. We either accept that what Jesus taught represents an absolute divine standard, the laws of the Kingdom of Heaven if you like, or we think that He was simply a fallible man whose teachings only reflected the moral environment of His times. If He was the latter – then His teachings are irrelevant and not even worthy of debate. If He is, as I believe, the Son of God, then we must bow to His teaching regardless of how different society may be.

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