Diversity of Opinion and Biblical Authority
by Nathan Pickup
How do we account for the multiplicity of views regarding biblical doctrines among those who claim the Bible is the inspired Word of God? If those who believe in the Bible as God’s infallible Word cannot agree on the interpretation of a biblical text, how can they still speak of biblical authority as a tenet of their faith? How does wrestling with these questions influence our Bible study? These are questions that inevitably arise when we observe the diversity of opinions among believers regarding what the Bible teaches. It would be arrogant of me to claim that these questions have only one answer, that I could answer such questions adequately on my own, or that I could exhaust the issues within the confines of a single article. My humble aim here is merely to offer some thoughts to contribute to a discussion, and hopefully prompt thoughts of your own towards a dialogue.
When we observe the state of Christianity today, it’s hard not to be struck by the multiplicity of views on doctrinal issues. But if many of these believers hold to a “high view” of Scripture and view the Bible as God’s authoritative Word, how do we account for such diversity of opinion? Some sidestep this issue with the mentality that “we’ve got it right and everyone else got it wrong.” But surely this is an inadequate response. It fails to account for the education, time, honesty, and humility other believers have poured into their study of God’s Word. Are we so arrogant as to think they are merely blind while we have been allowed to see? Rather, here are some of the reasons why so many opinions on Scriptural teachings exist:
- All of us interpret Scripture through the lens of our life circumstances. Where we live, how we’ve been raised, the time in which we live—all of these color our understanding of the Bible, which was itself written in very different cultural circumstances. Thus, differing life circumstances have led to different interpretations of Scripture. To act like everyone else is confined by these factors but that we are somehow immune to them is too simplistic. All believers must constantly examine how their own life circumstances are affecting their interpretation of the Bible. Doing so will help us understand the biblical text as free as possible from any erroneous conceptual baggage we bring to our interpretive efforts.
- All of us interpret Scripture in light of our “pre-understandings.” None of us approaches new information with our minds as a blank slate. We all have prior knowledge that we seek to integrate with new data. Differing interpretations are therefore a natural result of differing pre-understandings. The problem this poses for biblical interpretation is that our pre-understanding may itself be in error, so that we reject new information not because it is wrong but because it doesn’t square with our faulty pre-understanding. When we hear a “new” or different interpretation of Scripture that doesn’t fit with our prior framework of knowledge, we must be willing to check whether our pre-understanding is itself correct. This is not to say we must always start from scratch when approaching a new idea or interpretation. But we cannot act as if our pre-understanding of Scripture is always flawless, so that our prior understanding becomes the measure by which we judge the accuracy of a biblical interpretation. This is something each believer must wrestle with, and it is a lifelong struggle.
- All of us interpret Scripture in light of our religious tradition. All denominations are the result of a movement and have established traditions that define themselves. Churches of Christ, while non-denominational, are a result of a movement that started with Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone who sought to get local churches to adhere to New Testament patterns. Those of us who worship at a local church of Christ are a result of that movement, and we are still being carried along by the current of its continuous stream. The “five steps of salvation” and the hermeneutic of “command, example, and necessary inference” are two ripples from the movement that are still felt in local churches. Much good has come from this movement and we benefit from the insights this tradition has passed down to us. However, as with believers in other traditions, we can sometimes fall into the trap of interpreting Scripture in light of the movement of which we’re a part. Being unaware of this can cause us to reject or accept an interpretation of Scripture based on how it adheres to our religious movement rather than its own Scriptural merit. All believers must investigate how their religious traditions affect their interpretation of the Bible.
If believers cannot agree on the interpretation of a biblical text, how can they still speak of biblical authority as a tenet of their faith? Churches of Christ are not the only ones to champion biblical authority. One cannot look at the evangelical world and come away with the all-inclusive view that everyone who differs from “us” does so because they have a lower view of Scripture. So how can we, Methodists, Baptists, etc., all claim to live under the Bible’s authority but interpret that same Bible so differently? While different answers could be given, I’d like to answer this question by differentiating between Scripture’s authority and our interpretations of Scripture.
The Bible stands as the authority separate and apart from each individual’s interpretation of what the text is saying. Someone can proclaim unequivocally what they think is an accurate biblical teaching and actually be wrong in what they’re saying. Using “biblical authority” to support our interpretation of what the Bible teaches is to mistakenly equate true biblical authority as the independent word of God with our understanding of that word—and our understanding will always be hindered by human limitations. This doesn’t preclude each individual (or congregation) independently drawing interpretive conclusions about Scripture and seeking to apply those conclusions firmly and consistently. But while being firm and consistent, we must also be cautious to make room for other data or interpretations that might challenge the view we currently hold. Since our interpretations of the Bible may at times be influenced by our life circumstances, pre-understandings, and religious traditions, we must be humble enough to admit that our interpretations are not the same as God’s revelation itself. Rather, living under the Bible’s authority sometimes means doing our best to come to a conclusion, while also being ready to change our view should new information about the Bible or further study of its content demand we do so.
Once we are cognizant of what causes differing views among believers and how that relates to true biblical authority, how should that influence our Bible study? In my opinion, it should push us to engage other believers in dialogues about how and why they have interpreted Scripture as they have. While some claim the guidance of the Holy Spirit supersedes the written text, many others share our own conviction that the written text is the sole authority. If denominational believers share our conviction in the authority of the written Word but interpret it differently, we ought to listen and consider why they’ve come to different conclusions. Doing so will help us get out of our box to consider a given passage from a different angle. We may end up coming down more firmly in our original conclusion, or we may change our mind on what we originally thought. Either way, we benefit from the discussion! Some reject this approach and only read and study writings firmly grounded in the Campbell-Stone religious tradition, but this only exacerbates the problems discussed above about having our interpretations of God’s Word filtered through the limited perspectives of each individual’s circumstances. If we care about being true to Scripture, and not to the church of Christ Campbell-Stone movement, then we should not be afraid to consider what other believers have to offer with their interpretations and applications of Scripture, which are often motivated by the same love of God’s Word that we espouse.
A multiplicity of views about biblical teachings exists today among believers because of how our life circumstances, pre-understandings, and religious traditions affect our way of thinking. Despite this fact, the Bible’s authority is unscathed since its authority lies in the God who made it rather than the humans who appeal to it. Wrestling with these issues should include reaching out to other believers to compare their interpretations with our own, not out of an “us vs. them” mentality, but a desire to utilize other perspectives in our efforts to better understand God’s perfect word. One of the benefits of living in this religiously free country is that this type of dialogue and sharing of ideas about Scripture is so readily accessible to all who would seek it. Do we dare bypass this blessing because we think the interpretations within our box of thinking are a perfect grasp of the full Truth of God’s Word?