Last month, an article popped up on my News Feed, “Does Personal Bible Reading Destroy the Church?” Naturally, a title like this is written to attract attention—and it certainly did mine. The author argues that the development of Protestantism fractured Christianity into 34,000 different sects. Consequently, both insiders and outsiders don’t know what to believe about scripture—and finding out the answers for themselves may be just as misleading and costly as seeking them out within the fenced-in doctrines of one of Christianity’s many sects.
Ironically, this fracturing of Christianity was one of the prophecies leveled against Martin Luther in his enforced break from Catholicism. The church, it was said, would shatter into a thousand pieces, which evidentially turned out to be true (give or take ten thousand or so). Catholicism splinters into Lutheranism, which breaks into Protestantism, out of which arises Methodism and the various Baptist fellowships, which eventually devolves into the Cult of Fullman. Without a central authority to interpret and enforce Holy Writ, each man becomes his own glossator of scripture. This is especially problematic for two reasons.
The first is our tenuous relationship to truth. Nietzsche argued, most convincingly, in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” that most people are not interested in truth, only in what makes them comfortable. We will believe, he claims, what we want to believe—not what is commensurate with reality. While this sounds terribly cynical, there is still more than a little substance to what he says. My subjective, individual will is a more immediately compelling force than an objective, external truth.
We can see this in the way people fashion for themselves narratives about the world. This begins with our parents, as we hear their political opinions, religious convictions, and social commentary. As we mature we adopt, reject, or modify our parents’ narratives. Perhaps we choose to spank our children because our parents did; perhaps we don’t. As we age and encounter new experiences, these narratives become more solidified in our minds, and it becomes difficult to change or alter them. When confronted with a new idea that challenges the narrative, people are naturally resistant. How we’ve always done things is sufficient, we tell ourselves. Sufficiency is later replaced with complacency, which resigns itself to the assumption that we have already discovered, understand, and communicate the truth. The first problem is that we may not see reality as it is—only as we wish it to be.
Stemming from this premise, the second problem is that, especially in matters of divinity, only some people may be trusted with the truth. In Guide to the Perplexed, the twelfth-century theorist Maimonides acknowledges the very real difficulty in interpreting scripture. Against our largely Western perspective that each person can fairly understand anything, his Jewish take is that the truth is too vast and mysterious a concept to be grasped. Even the learned are perplexed at the intricacies and various shades of meaning implicit in God’s word—how much more so the vulgar? The learned have a special advantage in that they have a greater understanding of the world, and divine science can be approached through natural science. This does not preclude teaching the vulgar, but you can only cast pearls before swine so often before they turn and tear you to pieces. This form of criticism asserts that there is indeed a palpable interaction between text and audience, but Maimonides insists that deeper understanding is only for the committed few. The question becomes not only how we should interpret, but who should interpret?
This is a quandary most 21st century Westerners would likely not even entertain. So entrenched is our post-literate thinking that we adopt a posture of arrogance with the assumption that we can understand the deep mysteries of God. But if God reserves special revelation for Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, surely there are things he does not tell the masses. If Christ reserves special explanation for his apostles (Mark 4:10-12), surely there are things the average disciple could not grasp. If the Word of scripture contains “things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16), surely not all can accurately interpret.
We democratize our virtues and special gifts of the Spirit to our peril. If not everyone is equipped to become pastors and teachers, should everyone be given the benefit of the doubt in their own personal analysis of a text? If we wouldn’t make each man an administrator, should we deem each man a qualified reader? Dare we go so far as to say that interpretation should be handled by professionals? But then again, what if the interpreters have been poorly trained? What if they are similarly ill-equipped to rightly handle the word of truth? If power over scripture resides in a select few, then to whom will we turn when the few intentionally—or unintentionally—misinterpret?
The dilemma does not solve itself were Christianity to suddenly reunify under one umbrella. Even the popular credo Sola Scriptura from my own and from other faith traditions is rife with problems—since people interpret scripture differently. An argument between an Independent Baptist and a Free-Will Baptist may be hostile and infused with urgency, though from an outsider’s perspective largely inconsequential. A premillennialist or postmillennialist view of eschatology should not disqualify one from salvation nor sanctification. Of course, from another perspective these conclusions reveal my own interpretive biases—and maybe my perspective on the Holy Spirit should be the very thing that disqualifies me. But if Paul’s instructions regarding the freedom of conviction are any indication (Rom. 14), then I may not be condemned after all. Blaming the divisions in Christianity on interpretation is only tenable from a position of hegemony. Once one sect becomes the dominant representation of the faith, then everyone else becomes a heretic. If, however, we focus on those articles that unite us—the supremacy of Christ, for instance—then we become less enamored of those articles that divide us.
Maimonides brings much to bear in this discussion but does not offer many solutions. And therein may be just the point. We presuppose for some reason that the “fracturing” of Christianity is a problem, confusing unity of spirit with unity of thought. But if God has given us the freedom to interpret, then does misinterpretation automatically indicate divine disapproval? And if we obey the Augustinian injunction that all interpretation should lead to the double love of God and one’s neighbor, then do we not choose what is best?
I believe this may be one of the most important questions I’ve ever considered in these pages. While it may appear that there is a bit of hyperbole in that statement, it is nevertheless true that what, how, and why we interpret are fundamental to a life lived in pursuit of truth.