Interpretations of the Bible are open to error

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some of what I read just seems fabricated to me. Which is to say, it's hard for me to believe some quotes have been attributed accurately. Maybe it is that I can't accept that people will say certain things.

Case in point: USA Today, in its Feb. 28 edition, quotes a moderately well-known radio evangelist -- for whom one of my uncles used to work -- as saying environmentalists are mistaken in their efforts to save planet Earth. The venerable newspaper quotes John MacArthur as saying, "The Lord is going to destroy it." The "it" being Earth.

The inference is that there is no point improving what God is going to pulverize someday. I read such language and my first inclination is to believe MacArthur has been taken out of context. Upon further review, as pro football referees are apt to say, the quote appears to reflect truthfully the California-based minister's views.

Aside from this eschewing of a "go-green" philosophy is the troubling notion that people interpret the Bible, as MacArthur apparently has, in amazing ways.

Genesis 1:28 is the famous prooftext to note here. Human beings are told to populate the earth, to reproduce -- or, as the King James Version puts it, "replenish" the earth. So far, so good. The verse goes on to give humanity "dominion" over fish, birds and every other living creature. Dominion. An interesting word. Possible synonyms: dominate, control, use. A more precise etymology reveals that dominion is less a sense of laissez-faire ownership and more a call to responsibility. Humanity is given dominion in order to be careful and accountable stewards of God's wholly-owned Earth.

Biblical interpretation, the taking of old words and attempting to apply them to current circumstances, is an awesome task to be handled with care. Always, the interpreter should say to himself/herself: "In all of my conviction about this text, there is the possibility that I could be wrong."

In one month, America will mark the 150th anniversary of the April 1861 firing on Fort Sumter, which started the U.S. Civil War. States' rights, principally the ownership of slaves, were at issue. The Bible was used as a wedge to justify both the eradication of the so-called "peculiar institution" and also its preservation. The same Bible that proclaims that there is "no longer slave nor free ... for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), also calls on slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Titus 2:9). There is also the tiny letter of Philemon to consider, which seems not to condemn slavery in the case of the runaway man named Onesimus.

As a person of northern conviction, a born and bred Yankee from Pennsylvania, I am persuaded -- mightily -- that the King James has it right, that all such renderings refer to "servants" rather than "slaves." My interpretation of the Greek word "doulos" is "servant," which has an entirely different connotation for me than one person owning another.

Just like MacArthur, I interpret the Bible. Perhaps unlike him, however, I am willing to accept the possibility that I might be in error. Now, I don't think so -- but it's possible. That's all you can ask from an interpreter -- to say error is possible.

A destructive war was fought on U.S. soil, thousands upon thousands of Americans killed and maimed one another and many Christian denominations (including my own) split -- in no small measure because the people of our country interpreted the Bible in amazing ways.

We need to give one another a little grace here. In all of our convictions about what the Bible says to us in the here and now, may we be wise enough to realize that everything we know is incomplete knowledge.

Only God knows perfectly. And if we are willing to accept that, then perhaps we can interpret Scripture in such a way that offers an important caveat. We could be wrong.

That admission, just that alone, can keep Christians from doing verbal violence to one another (or worse) and might do much to attract others to the one we claim to follow, the one who said, "Come, I will make you fishers of people."

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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