When someone says “That’s just your interpretation,” or when critics slander conservative Christians as believing not just in the infallibility of the Bible but in the infallibility of their interpretation of the Bible, the next step is almost never to strive for a supposedly better interpretation. The critics don’t mean to dive deeper into the text so as to determine what the Bible teaches. The charge of “just your interpretation” has the opposite effect; it short-circuits the interpretative process altogether.
One of the benefits of getting older is that you become even less impressed with recycled bad arguments.
Fifteen years ago when people were still talking about the Emergent Church, I participated in a panel discussion about the pros and cons of the movement. After a riveting panel in front of 50 people, in a cavernous hall that had room for more than 500, a visibly upset man accosted me, frustrated with how I used Scripture to critique the Emergent Church.
He didn’t try to argue with any particular comment I made, including my references to the Bible. Instead, he argued with me that everything I said was only my interpretation of the Bible. I tried to show him that Jesus taught as if there was a discernible meaning in Scripture that could be known, agreed upon, and meaningfully communicated. He replied that this was only my interpretation. I tried to belabor the point that the men in the Bible didn’t speak or write as if they only had an interpretation of the Bible. He said this line of reasoning was also just my interpretation.
Needless to say, we both walked away from our exchange more frustrated than enlightened.
The debate about interpretation is an old one. During the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics weren’t (then) divided over the total trustworthiness of Scripture. They were divided over the clarity and authority of Scripture. The doctrine of perspicuity—which, for a word meaning “clarity” isn’t all that clear—is sometimes maligned as a magical assertion that everything in the Bible is easy to understand. But the doctrine is more sophisticated than that.
The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a classic definition when it admits that “[a]ll things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all,” yet the things that are necessary for salvation “are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture” that even the unlearned—“in a due use of the ordinary means”—can gain a sufficient understanding of them (WCF 1.7).
In our day, that debate is not a technical theological controversy about popes, councils, and the magisterium. But the question is just as important because an implicit denial of the clarity of Scripture goes hand in hand with the diminishment of the study of Scripture.