Love believes and hopes all things. I sometimes think that the best tact to take is to present our case, not with caustic or strident tones of dogmatism, but a kind of, “what would you have me do with this evidence from the scripture?” “How would you better harmonize these texts?” In the end, there is only one finally decisive question; it is, “What saith the Scripture?” To quote a dear friend, “What does the text SAYYYY?!” By the way, that friend, whom you may know, Paul Volk, has very recently written the best little booklet on this subject that I have personally ever seen. It is titled, “What Do You Mean By That?: A Brief Guide to Interpreting Scripture.” I wish it had been the first book on that subject that I read after my salvation. It would have saved me a lot of grief.
In a five minute quiz I was given at my work place some years ago, I found myself writing something like this: There are only two great questions that rule the history of western civilization: 1) By what standard? (the question of authority) and 2) “Who decides?” (the question of interpretation). Both reduce to the question, “What is truth?” The first is occupied with the existence and source of truth, the second with how we can arrive at truth, and whether and how we can justify a truth claim. In other words, “how do you know? And how can I know what you claim to know?,” i.e., the basis of truth, the knowledge of truth, and the question of proof.
If God is the truth and the ultimate source of truth, then only He is reliably objective. That is why the questions of inspiration, canon, and contemporary claims to authority have been such sensitive issues. This in turn brings the question of the Spirit, which takes us beyond the mechanics of even the best tools. Since many claim to have the Spirit, the question of final objectivity remains with God alone, and our only safety is the demonstrably authoritative Scripture of Truth (demonstrable particularly through the miracle prophecy; Isa 41:21-22; 43:9; 44:7; 45:11, 21; 46:9-10; Acts 26:22; Ro 16:26; 2Pet 1:19; Rev 19:10 b).
No evangelical would ‘consciously’ neglect to depend on the Holy Spirit in his or her quest to get at the meaning and harmony of scripture. Certainly, so long as there is infirmity and weakness in even the best of God’s servants, there will be differences of interpretation of one degree or another. So how do we break the deadlock and escape our own subjectivity in our approach to interpreting the Bible? Although even this is by measure and degree, I would suggest that the only power greater than our subjectivity is the inward work of the cross.
Our only ultimate enemy is not the Devil; it is ‘confidence in the flesh,’ which is the hidden pride of our own innate and all-pervasive humanism. It is reliance or hope in man, even in his best and most pious state. Ironically, except saved by the work of grace, it is precisely those things about which we have the greatest assurance, particularly the presumption of righteousness, that can sell us into an unconscious opposition of God, as it did Saul of Tarsus. Only the cross is sufficient to conquer our subjective bias, even in how we approach and read scripture.
The degree of Paul’s use was the degree of his devastation. The revelation of Christ discovered to his astonishment that every pious confidence in which he took the greatest comfort was the very strength of his greater blindness and opposition of God. This is how Paul could so instantly detect what was hidden even from Peter. That ability to see enabled him to save Peter from a serious error, that taken to its logical conclusion, would have threatened to derail the fledgling church and set it on a disastrous course. It was the leaven that escaped (for a moment) even the trained eye of a Peter, who was also a devasted man.
That is why Paul’s constant cry was, “who is sufficient?” So while we wait on His deeper work in us, what can we do? The best we can do is to approach the text with trembling, since even with an absolute confidence in the authority of the canon, and with even the best tools of linguistics and well vindicated principles of interpretation, still, it is only by grace that we come to the truth. Having done all in our power, we are still hopelessly trapped in an invincible subjectivity, unless the Holy Spirit break through the veil, even as the Lord opened Lydia’s heart in order that she might heed the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
Paul is careful that we know that even if we have escaped error, it is only by grace alone, since it is God alone who makes any to differ (1Cor 4:7). Knowing this keeps us from the pride of impatience with others, since God is well able to open the eyes of the blind (Phil 3:15) and cause those who “erred in spirit to come to understanding and to learn doctrine” (Isa 29:24).
Certainly the Spirit of Truth is something more than a correct interpretation, but it is also not less. Not all error is fatal, but all error is to some degree costly, and a slack hand towards the importance of interpreting the text accurately cannot be without loss. We are stewards of His mysteries and He has been careful to make the fellowship of the mystery dependent on relationship. Therefore, even with the best use of the best tools, we are cast on His mercy, since He has ordained and constructed scripture in such a way that the pride of self dependency will sell us into error, and if not error, then the just as deadly pride of being correct.