If Scripture is our shared source of authority, then why does it seem like so many Christians disagree? This is the important question we are wrestling with in this series. We are attempting to explore the reasons for these levels of disagreement and then attempting to think through how we should respond to these disagreements. One reason for these disagreements, however, is due to the fact that we read Scripture differently.
In the last post we noted that one reason we get sucked into doctrinal disagreement is because we read imperfectly. Doctrinal disagreements also arise because we read the text differently. That is to say we have differences at the level of exegesis and hermeneutics. “Exegesis” is the technical term which refers to the actual process of interpreting and explaining a particular text. Exegesis deals with things like vocabulary, grammar, semantics, and syntax. There are a number of reasons why readers may exegete a passage differently. One reason for these differences may be the use of different textual variants. The process of translating texts from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic is a bit of an imperfect process which has resulted in 400,000 variants among differing ancient manuscripts. Most of these differences are minor. As even skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has said:
The vast majority [of differences between manuscripts] are purely “accidental,” readily explained as resulting from scribal ineptitude, carelessness, or fatigue.”The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 27.
These differences are usually related to spelling, word order, or copy error. They are, as Rhyne Putman says, “of little or no theological significance” (When Doctrine Divides the People of God. 71). There are, however, a small number of variants that do matter. So, some manuscripts contain the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) or the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), while other manuscripts do not contain these accounts. 1 John 5:7 does not appear in the Greek manuscripts but does appear in the Latin Vulgate. It is regarded by most scholars as unoriginal and a late theological gloss to verse 8. For the most part variants aren’t a big issue, but occasionally we may disagree because we are reading from translations that use different manuscripts.
At other times we may disagree because we read words differently. Semantics deals with the lexical meaning of words. We often disagree in normal every day conversation because we are using the same word differently; you can appreciate, then, how much more complex this becomes when we read ancient words. Word studies have not always helped us with this issue because we tend to upload modern concepts to words. The most commonly cited example notes that the English word “dynamite” comes from the Greek word “dynamis.” Therefore, it is concluded that God’s saving power is explosive, like dynamite (applied often to Romans 1:16). Word studies don’t tell us nearly as much as we think they do because we learn meaning by reading words in context. The most basic foundation of meaning is the sentence, not the single word. So, our study of words can result in diverse understandings. As Putman says, “imperfect lexical methods can yield diverse interpretations of key passages, which in turn can add to doctrinal diversity” (76).
Sometimes the syntax of a passage is difficult to discern, and scholars dispute the grammatical structure of sentences to draw different theological points. A prime example is the phrase “pistis Christou”. The phrase is typically translated as “faith in Christ” (objective genitive) or “faithfulness of Christ” (subjective genitive). It’s not entirely clear which is the correct reading simply from looking at the Greek. The different readings, however, can lead to different interpretations of passages.
If these exegetical challenges don’t lead to our theological disagreements, then our hermeneutical differences might. Hermeneutics refers to the “specific ways readers approach the particular genres, literary devices, and thematic unity of the Bible” (Putman, 83). We read Scripture differently, then, because we view both the historical and literary context of a passage differently. We may come to different conclusions about the historical context in which a text was written or received which then colors how we understand its point. We may also look at the various literary contexts of a passage differently. So, Putman notes that readers of Romans 9:6-29 and Paul’s teaching on election need to know not simply the context of this verse in the flow of Paul’s argument, and its place in Paul’s overall theology, but you must also know about the context of his quotations from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Hosea (Putman, 88). Finally, we read literary genres differently. Scholars and Bible readers view the function of a psalm or proverb differently. So, are the various proverbs of Scripture to be read as universal principles? Not to mention that there are vast disagreements over the proper reading of apocalyptic literature. One’s understanding of the genre of Revelation, for example, will dramatically affect your interpretation of it.
In truth, these sorts of exegetical and hermeneutical differences are rarely the sole determiner of theological differences. Our theological disagreements involve a lot more than just various disagreements about grammar, but it’s important to note that these issues do contribute to our differences. It’s also important to note that these differences arise from a genuine desire to read the text well and wrestle with the elements of the actual language of Scripture. We do not, then, need to attribute bad motives to one another for every disagreement.
It’s also important to remember that Scripture does have an objective message. The challenges in interpretation should not lead us to conclude that we cannot understand Scripture. There is a great majority of acceptance and agreement on major doctrinal issues throughout the history of the church. We can affirm the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture while also acknowledging that we do sometimes read differently and therefore come to different conclusions.