This blog series is inspired by a lecture I had the privilege of attending by Dr. Ronald J. Sider. At the beginning of his lecture, he outlined some basic guidelines for how we should interpret the Bible. Though not every article is directly from this lecture, I am drawing heavily upon what Dr. Sider presented, however I am also drawing upon my education and experience. My hope is that each of these articles will help all of us more faithfully read and understand the Holy Scriptures.
Sources of Authority
When we read the Bible, trying to understand it, there are various sources of authority that we look to in order to help us properly understand the Bible, which Dr. Sider outlined in his lecture.
1. The Bible
The first one is probably the most obvious one to us. When we seek to understand the Bible, the text of the Bible itself must be viewed as important. In our statement of faith as the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, we read, “We believe that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God and that it gives authoritative direction for our faith and conduct.”
We believe that the God is our supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct, and that His Word to us, the Bible, is the most authoritative source of direction for our lives and our behaviour.
God has made Himself known to us, and while He transcends our understanding, our minds are capable of actually and reasonably coming to the conclusion that God exists, and more than that, we can reasonably come to an understanding of who God is—even if our understanding of God will never be complete.
In his epistles, the apostle Paul uses reasoning in persuading people to follow Jesus, and in his instructions for believers in how to walk in the ways of Jesus. Without reason, our belief system would be incomprehensible. If something is completely irrational or contradictory, we usually won’t believe it, but thankfully, even in the Scriptures we find reason and stories that help us comprehend matters of faith, and even our eternal God.
Often it is easy for us to cling to certain beliefs until our experiences don’t align with what we profess to believe. Then we have a crisis of faith, and our belief systems are shaken.
Sometimes when this happens, it is a result of our own sin. We professed to believe something was sinful, dark, and dirty. Then we try it and find out that we like it. So we feel guilty for it, and the only way to alleviate the guilt is to rather repent of our sins and live true to our beliefs, or to change our beliefs so we don’t have to feel guilty anymore. If we do neither, but continue in sin without changing our beliefs, we tend to sear our conscience, desensitizing ourselves to it, and end up growing numb to matters of faith. When it comes to sin, we should surely respond in repentance and confession of our sins.
Other times we struggle with other things. We see so much evil in the world, and we struggle to see God at work in the midst of all the evil around us. So we wrestle with our faith, seeking to align our experience and what we believe—that God is truly good.
Thankfully, people in the Bible wrestle with God all the time, sometimes even literally (See Genesis 32). It is normal for us as humans to wrestle through our experiences, seeking to reconcile what we understand from the Bible and what our lived experience teaches us. I believe that the Bible is the source of authority, and that even our experiences should be subject to the authority of Scripture. But that does not mean that it will be easy. Sometimes wrestling is required.
There are times when God wants us to focus on him rather than on our present circumstances, and live out our faith in Him, even if we don’t understand in the moment. Other times, God might use our experiences to show us a faulty understanding of the Bible. May the Holy Spirit guide each of us as we seek to discern which response your present circumstances calls for.
In this day and age, tradition often gets a bad reputation, and for good reason. Tradition has sometimes trapped people in legalism, turning a vibrant relationship with Christ into a prison of rules. Church tradition, however, is another place we should look to in order to help us understand what the Bible means.
Dr. Sider gives us a very helpful question to ask, “What has/does the entire body of Christ say about this text and its proper interpretation, historically and globally today?”
Church Tradition can be a valuable tool for guiding some of our interpretation. For instance, there are certain false doctrines that pop up again and again throughout history, which the church has repeatedly overcome. If we learn from church history, we can understand why those ideas are heresy, and thus we can avoid being taken in by those false doctrines. Furthermore, if there is some “new” understanding of the Bible which nobody in the church has believed in over two millennia, then there is a good chance that it is a faulty understanding of the Scriptures. Not only that, but there is also a rich depth of understanding available to us in the 2000 years of church history. Thus tradition is another resource and authority that can help us in understanding the Bible.
God is our ultimate authority, and the Bible is our most authoritative means of discovering God’s will for our lives and our conduct. And thankfully, we also have reason, experience, and tradition to help us on our path to better understanding the Bible and the God who reveals Himself to us within its pages.