Can’t you make the Bible say whatever you like? Yes. You can. Just as you can make anything you read say anything you want. But it’s not really a question of ‘can’ but ‘ought’. Ought we to so mishandle literature? Is it right to do that?
We’d be pretty hacked off if someone did that with our words. If I said, ‘please leave my wife alone’ and someone decided that what I was saying was instead ‘please hassle my wife’ I’d be angry. So you can imagine how God must feel when we butcher his words.
1. What do people mean when they say this?
I think what they mean is ‘that’s just your opinion’. It’s an interpretation. But it’s not the objective non-negotiable truth. They think that the Bible has no definitive concrete statements of abiding permanent fact.
And so the situation goes something like this; we carefully and passionately explain a Bible text, we offer good reasons to believe it, and we illustrate it to make its meaning clear. Only to be told, ‘that’s just your interpretation’. It’s just so frustrating. It looks like a conversational dead end. But not necessarily.
It’s worth pausing at this point to be absolutely clear what they might mean when they say that
- They could mean that there’s only interpretation and there’s no such thing as fact
- They could mean that their interpretation should be preferred to yours
- They could mean that your interpretation is a wrong one
- They could mean that your interpretation isn’t one that’s wrong it’s just not one they like
How we advance things will depend on what they mean!
2. Why do people say this?
Through the influence of a philosophy known as postmodernism there’s been a move away from authorial intent to reader response. In other words, the reader becomes the author so that we determine what the meaning is. And so everyone’s interpretation becomes equally valid because we’re all authors now. And the poor old author who clearly meant something by his or her words has effectively been gagged. Suddenly what they meant by what they said doesn’t matter any longer. You can see how sin likes this approach when we confront the Bible. Postmodernism gives us permission to change what God says. Sinners like us will be drawn to that!
But even amongst non-postmodern people there’s a plurality of interpretations. The Christian church differs in its interpretation of some secondary doctrines; like the days of creation, the millennial rule of Christ and baptism. And so the non-Christian can be left thinking that we can’t know what the Bible says if even the church can’t agree. To which I want to say that the Bible is clear and we’re sometimes unclear. But at least in our un-clearness we can look at the Bible and try and work out what it says.
3. What’s wrong with saying this?
Let’s take each of the objections in turn.
i. Do they mean that there’s only interpretation and there’s no such thing as fact?
The Nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzche said, ‘there are no facts – only interpretations’. Except that this isn’t true. He expected his statement to be understood as a fact not just his opinion. If what he’s said is a fact to be believed by everyone, it’s a self refuting statement. ‘It’s a fact that there are no facts except the fact that there are only interpretations’. And people who say that there are no such things as facts expect us to interpret their statements seriously. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds.
ii. Do they mean that their interpretation should be preferred to yours?
Sometimes people just say this because they don’t want to accept what we have to say. They don’t have their own position; it’s just that they won’t accept ours! In which case we need to ask them what their interpretation is and what good reasons they have for believing that. If they’ve not thought through their position then they’ll be an embarrassing silence. And if they have then there’ll be a productive discussion.
iii. Do they mean that your interpretation is wrong?
They could be right. We need to accept the possibility that our interpretation of what the Bible says could be wrong. We don’t have a monopoly on the truth. The Bible is a book that can be read by everyone. And so we need to look at what the Bible teaches and work out what it is saying. But which interpretation we prefer will rest on the strength of a position. And the strength of a position rests on good reasons. And so if we have good reasons for our interpretation and they have no good reasons for theirs then it is plain that our interpretation should be preferred. After all who wants to believe anything for which there are no good reasons?
This does at least open up the possibility of further dialogue. You can examine the reasons for the differing interpretations and weigh them up.
iv. Do they mean that your interpretation isn’t one that’s wrong it’s just not one they like?
Sometimes people will say that they don’t accept our interpretation but what they really mean is that they don’t like our interpretation. For example, if a Bible passage talks plainly about God’s judgement on our sin, people may dismiss it as just our interpretation. But just because we don’t like something doesn’t stop it being true. There are abiding non-negotiable truths like gravity. I may not like the fact of gravity but that doesn’t stop it being true. Just as we need to accept this in the gravitational world so we need to accept in the spiritual world!
4. How can we make some progress in the conversation?
The obvious first thing to do is ask the why question;
- What makes you say that you can make the Bible say whatever you like?
- Do you think everything’s a matter of opinion or do you think some things are facts?
- Would you like me to explain my interpretation of the Bible so at least we both know what I think? It’ll only take two minutes and I can illustrate it with a few drawings.
- Would you like to look at the Bible to work out what it says? We could meet up and read through it together.