It’s a good question.
After all, why (or even better, how) could people reading the same Bible and the same scriptural passage come to such diametrically opposed positions on different issues?
Some, for example, read Genesis 19 as God metes out punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah, and conclude that God punished those cities after multiple warnings and rebellion over unrepentant sin, particularly sexual/homosexual sin, while others (such as those sympathetic to homosexuality) will say that God punished the people of Sodom and Gomorrah for a lack of hospitality to its divine guests/angelic visitors.
Other examples abound. There are people who profess to be Christians who believe in “just war” and others who believe the Bible teaches pacifism. Some believe in capital punishment while others believe in rehabilitation of prisoners without thinking of incarceration as either a deterrent or extracting hard time to “pay back society” for evils done. Other self-described Christians believe in abortion, while others strongly oppose it.
People use scriptural passages to posit teachings and perspectives that are quite novel. For example, some read the Bible and come, somehow, to believe that Jesus was not a historical figure and the Bible is not an accurate record of his life. Others believe Jesus was a real man, but that he was a homosexual who enjoyed frequent orgies with his Twelve Disciples and women having troubled pasts, like Mary Magdalene– whom many believe was a former, reformed prostitute. These are only a handful of examples but, really, need I continue?
So, what about the two questions I have posed?
Why Do People Interpret the Bible Differently?
If you’ll stick with me, I’ll use a couple of technical words– but I believe it’ll make perfect sense. I think it’s important, however, to keep in mind that the problem I’ve described is usually due to all of the following issues I’ll describe, so it’s important to keep them all in front of you when you discuss matters like this with those whom you disagree.
People claiming to be Christians come to different opinions about ethical and other matters because of: differing views on biblical inspiration, different hermeneutics, different exegesis, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who helps illuminate one’s mind to ‘truth.’
1. Differing Views of Inspiration
How you “approach” the Bible makes all the difference in how you interpret it. There are numerous different approaches to or “views of” inspiration. These range from vague notions where the biblical writers felt ‘inspired to write’ just as Shakespeare was inspired… to views of inspiration that imply the human recorders of scripture fell into a trance where they were controlled by a divine force who wrote through them, without regard to their own experiences, emotions, or perspectives– they were merely “mediums” or something like that.
Those who take a “low” or loose view of scripture invariably come to looser and more liberal views of ethics, morality, and biblical teachings– while those who take a high view of scripture invariably come to a more solid view of Biblical teachings and, generally, come to hold views more consistent with a clear, straight-forward reading of the Bible– which is often considered more conservative or progressive, but not often liberal.
How does one decide which view to take? It’s simple… If one is a believer in Christ OR if one has come to believe that the Holy Bible is from God and that it articulates God’s perspective and, literally, “truth,” then that person would hold a high view of scripture. Such people naturally believe that God is our ultimate authority, so they want to know exactly what He says. In addition, those people believe that God knows everything– so learning from Him and seeking to live consistently with scriptural teachings– is a way to live a blessed life and one with great meaning, regardless of how much pain life may or may not deal out. In this view, pain doesn’t imply God’s disfavor– what matters is devotion to God, obedience to His Word, and seeking His perspective in order to gain meaning in life.
2. Different Hermeneutical Methods
Hermeneutics simply means “the art and science of interpretation.” More specifically, it is the discipline that investigates the principles and theories that govern how to properly interpret a text– especially the Bible, and its different parts.
As such, hermeneutics is also concerned with understanding how the human author of a particular Bible book should relate to the content being presented, and how that should relate to the original readers of the biblical passage and to those who read those same verses of scripture today. So that is the so-called “hermeneutical bridge”– namely, what did it mean in the mind of the writer as that person understood the mind of God, and what did that mean to the people to whom it was addressed… and what application does that timeless truth have for us today? That is the job of hermeneutics– and that is the job of every person who teaches the Bible or seeks to properly interpret the Bible.
3. Different Approaches to Exegesis
People also come to different beliefs on ethical/moral/biblical issues because of their “exegetical approach” which is closely related to their hermeneutic, mentioned above. Exegesis is related to the word “educate” but, in this sense, means “to draw meaning out of.” To educate means “to draw out” or “to lead.” Certainly, when one does proper exegesis, he or she is educating a person in the purest sense of the word.
At any rate, exegesis is the process of seeking to understand what a text means or communicates in its unretouched, unfiltered original meaning. In other words, good exegesis seeks to provide the plain sense of what a particular portion of scripture (verse/verses) means. Metaphorically, it implies looking closely at the scriptures with spiritual glasses that have exacting and accurate lens that are able to view the accurate meaning of the original author. Exegesis is concerned with telling us what the original author meant– as opposed to simply telling us “what it means TO US.” The point of exegesis is that it doesn’t matter what we think of it UNTIL WE FIRST find out what it meant originally. Only after we apprehend the original meaning can we properly and accurately apply it to us. So in this way, hermeneutics provide the means for us to exegete scripture. Proper hermeneutics leads to proper exegesis– and that can safely lead us to an accurate interpretation and application of God’s Word on all matters of importance in human life (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
4. The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who helps illuminate one’s mind to ‘truth.’
1 Corinthians 1:18-through chapter 2 in the New Testament talks a lot about this. In short, it simply means that people who profess to be Christians but who do not possess the presence of God within them, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, may be religionists or socially religious practitioners, but they fail to meet the biblical description of a person who is a biblical or born-again Christian (1 John, chapters 4-5), especially 1 John 4:13-17.
When a person has this type of intimate, indwelling reality of “Christ in us,” such a person is given a special type of relationship with God in which truth is more readily realized, perceived, and experienced. Illumination has to do with God guiding you in and toward “truth.” People without this indwelling– whether or not they ‘profess’ to be Christians (because professing and possessing are two different things), do not have the same capacity to apprehend truth as a person who legitimately enjoys a relationship with God through Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit of God.
Why Does It Matter?
The reason it is important to properly interpret the scriptures and where they land on different issues, is because “truth matters.” Truth represents reality. And if we are incorrect on our view of what is true, that means we are living in a false reality. Our perception does not create reality– all that really matters is what is ACTUAL and REAL. When we base our beliefs on false ideas that are not true, but only propaganda, the problem is that we then ACT on those false beliefs. When we act on false beliefs, ramifications follow– and those ramifications are often destructive.
So when a person interprets something wrong or comes up with the incorrect position on a moral or ethical or political or economic view, there are real consequences to those ideas. This could include making mistakes that lead to many detrimental effects on our lives that affect both ourselves and others. That is why, however painful reality can be, it’s less painful than living in false hope, holding onto a lie, that only ends up allowing one’s life to collapse like a house of cards. “And great was the fall of that house, for it was not built upon a rock.”
That’s why truth matters.