Tag Archive: Hermenuetics

Interpreting the Bible: One Book, Endless Interpretations

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Evangelicals would have you believe that the Bible is an inexhaustible book filled with the very words of God. Someone can read the Bible for fifty years and still not mine its depths. It’s the only book ever written that can never be fully understood, or so Evangelicals tell us. This is why no two Evangelicals can agree on exactly what the Bible says. As a Christian, I engaged in numerous discussions about a particular Bible text only to have my opponent say, well Brother, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Each of us had a version of truth, each of us had proof that our interpretation was correct. If the Bible is what Evangelicals claim it is, shouldn’t truth be concise, clear, and easy to understand? Why all the disagreement and heated debate among Christians over what the Bible teaches? Doesn’t the Bible say that God is NOT the author of confusion? Yet, everywhere I look I see confusion.

One of the reasons for the confusion is the Evangelical (and Baptist) doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Unlike the Israelites of the Old Testament, Evangelicals don’t need Moses or a priest to go before God on their behalf. They can directly access God without going through a middleman. The same goes for the Bible. Since God himself, the Holy Spirit, lives inside every Christian, they have no need of a human to teach them what the Bible says. God is their teacher, and who better to teach a Christian what the Bible says than the author, right? Here’s what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2:12-16:

 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

According to this text, the Christian has received the Spirit of God and is taught by him. The reason someone like me, a natural man, can’t understand the Bible is because I don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of me. Only the Christian can spiritually discern what is truth. In fact, the Christian has the mind of Christ, Christ being God, so this means that the Christian has the mind of God.  If this is so, why is there is there so much confusion about what to believe and what the Bible says about most anything?

Christian sects can’t even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, and communion. Each sect thinks their interpretation is the one ordained by God and clearly taught in the Bible. Two thousand years of councils, decrees, confessions, and doctrinal statements reveal that Christians are incapable of coming to any common agreement on anything. Even the nature of Jesus and God are in dispute. Broaden the discussion to ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology, throw in the endless debates over hermeneutics and orthopraxy, and you end up with endless versions of the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.

The Bible says one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, One God. It also says that God’s chosen people are to be of one mind, dwell in unity, and love one another. Yet, everywhere I look, I see the opposite. Many Lords, many Faiths, many Baptisms, many Gods, many minds and disunity, dysfunction, disagreement, and internecine war with one another. Christians object when people like me point these things out. How dare I judge Christianity! All I am doing is using the same standard to judge Christianity and Christians use to judge my life and that of everyone else who is not a Christian. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, yes?

In 2003, I pastored Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. Victory, a Southern Baptist church, closed its doors a few years after I resigned. While many of the members were decent people, the church had a lot of dysfunction, thus qualifying it to be rescued by Bruce Gerencser. As I look back on the 25 years I spent in the ministry, I can now see that I was drawn to churches that I could either start from scratch or fix. Victory was a fixer-upper, a church I thought God and I could get back on track. Instead of fixing the church, it fixed me.

Victory had a traditional Sunday school, one that used quarterlies. I hated quarterlies, but I decided that I didn’t want the turmoil that would come from trying to change the Sunday school curriculum. One of the men in the church taught the adult class. Every week, the adults would get together and take turns reading the lesson and the appropriate verses. Then they would discuss what the lesson/verses meant to them. That’s right, each class member had his or her own opinion, and each opinion was given equal weight. It was like taking a test where there are no wrong answers.

One week, the lesson was on election. As a Calvinist, I had a good understanding of the various beliefs on election. It was quite interesting to hear the various ‘what it means to me’ interpretations of election. The Sunday school teacher, a man with no theological training outside of being able to read, said the word “election” in the Bible meant we get to choose. I tried to explain to him that no sect taught such a belief, but his mind was settled; election, like in voting for a president, meant each of us making a choice for God and Jesus.

Take the photograph at the top of this post. This photo was taken at a specific place on a certain date and time. It only has one meaning, yet using the ‘what it means to me’ approach someone might conclude that BONO, of U2 fame, started a Baptist church or there is a church named after him. Surely, every belief, every opinion should be given the same weight and respect, right? Of course not. The photo is of the sign for the Bono Baptist Church in Martin, Ohio, an unincorporated village in Ottawa County. The sign is located on State Route 2, across the road from I ‘Heart’ U, God sign I wrote about earlier today. I can vouch for the photo because I am the one who took it.

Now, multiply ‘what it means to me’ by the number of Christians and you end up with millions of Christianities. Catholics love to point out that this is a Protestant problem, but they have their own version of ‘what it means to me’. The pope, the vicar of Christ, God’s representative on earth, is quite clear about using birth control being a sin. Yet, most Catholic women, at one time or another, use birth control. The same could be said of a number of set-in-stone Catholic teachings. Both the Protestants and the Catholics have a paint-by-number Christianity that allows Christians to ignore the color guide and use whatever color fits their fancy.

So, when a Christian sect, pastor, priest, blogger, Bible college professor, or church member says THUS SAITH THE LORD, the BIBLE says, or THIS is THE truth, I hope they will forgive me for laughing. At best, Christianity is a religion based on personal interpretation and opinion, with each person, to quote the Bible, “being fully persuaded in their his own mind.” At worst, it is the faith of the uneducated who, thanks to tribal and cultural influence, mouth beliefs they have no intellectual ability or desire to defend.

Like my friend John Loftus at Debunking Christianity, I have come to the conclusion that every Christian sect and every interpretation of the Bible is correct. DING! DING! DING! They all win! The Bible, along with 2,000 years of Christian church history, can be used to prove almost any belief. Calvinists and Arminians have been squaring off and fighting for centuries, each believing that their interpretation is correct and God is on their side. And even here, there are uncounted shades of Calvinism and Arminianism, with each shade resolutely saying theirs is the right color. From the most ardent fundamentalist to the most liberal Christian, followers of Jesus use the Bible to prop up their beliefs. Yea! Go Team Jesus!

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You Are Wrong!!

garfield never wrongOver the past 8 years, various people have taken it upon themselves in an email, blog comment, Facebook comment, tweet, letter to the editor, sermon, or blog post  to emphatically tell me “Bruce, You Are Wrong!!” Be it my liberal politics, the teams I root for, or my humanistic, atheistic beliefs, these beacons of absolute truth are infallibly certain that I am wrong.

Let me confess right away that I have been wrong many, many, many times. I bet you didn’t know that did you?  In fact, there is not a day that goes by that I am not wrong in some moment, circumstance, or detail.

Over the past eight years, various people have taken it upon themselves in an email, blog comment, Facebook comment, tweet, letter to the editor, sermon, or blog post  to emphatically tell me ”Bruce, You Are Wrong!!” Be it my liberal politics, the teams I root for, or my humanistic, atheistic beliefs, these beacons of absolute truth are infallibly certain that I am wrong.

Let me confess right away that I have been wrong many, many, many times. I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  In fact, there is not a day that goes by that I am not wrong in some moment, circumstance, or detail.

Usually, when someone writes me to tell me I am wrong they have a deeper, more sinister meaning for the word wrong. For the most part, I write about religion. Occasionally, I write about politics, education, sports, photography, and other sundry subjects, but religion and all its trappings is my main focus. I spend a great deal of time telling my story, detailing my journey, as only a good, humble, narcissistic ex-pastor can.  This blog, whatever else it may or may not be, is “Bruce’s Story, Told by Bruce, According to Bruce, the best he can remember it.”

When I am telling my story, my understanding of the journey I am on, I have little patience for those who tell me I am wrong. They dissect my life with the razor knife of their own experiences and beliefs and determine that I am/was not what I say I am/was. They tell me I was never saved, never a Christian, never a real pastor, and I suspect someday someone will even challenge my circumcision.

These kinds of people want to control my storyline. They want to set the standard by which my life, the one I lived, the one I am living now, is judged and it infuriates them when I won’t let them do so. I refuse to allow my story to be co-opted, controlled, or judged by any other standard than my own experiences. It is my life and I know what I believed, how I lived, and I am certain I know my life better than anyone who only had this blog to judge me by. My dear wife of 36 years is my best friend and she knows me pretty well, but she doesn’t know every part me.

garfield liarFoolish is a person, armed with only printed words on a computer screen, who judges a person’s life in any meaningful way. I certainly want people to enter into my story, in fact I invite them in. But, my readers are just visitors. They only know what I am willing to let them know. If my wife or my counselor can not pierce the inner sanctum, don’t think for a moment any visitor can.

Sometimes, charges of being wrong are hurled my way because of something I have written about Christianity, the ministry, the Bible, or some other facet of Western, organized Christianity. They vehemently disagree with my interpretation of a particular verse in the Bible or they object to particular word usages, words like Christian, evangelical, or fundamentalist.

What is the foundation of their charges against me? Why their own beliefs and interpretations or the beliefs and interpretations of their particular sect. Ultimately, the Bible becomes the focus of these kind of accusations.

I am wrong because I have misread, misunderstood, misapplied, or distorted what the Bible teaches. How do they know this? Because the accuser reads, understands, and applies the Bible differently from myself and we all know that every Evangelical (and Catholic and Muslim zealots) is infallible in his or her understanding of a book written by many, unknown people thousands of  years ago.

I could be wrong. In fact, I am quite certain that some of my interpretations are wrong. I have no way of proving whether they are. All I have is my mind and my ability to read, and using these skills, I try, to the best of my ability, to discern what a particular text in the Bible says. People are free to differ with me, but why should it be assumed that I am wrong and my critic is right? How do we make such a determination?

The Bible has the unique ability to be whatever a person wants it to be. Most people have a bit of Thomas Jefferson in them, scissors in hand, cutting out the things they disagree with or the things that weaken their positions or beliefs. The short of it is this…if you need to prove something, go to the Bible. You will likely find the answer you are looking for.

I am quite aware of the fact that I read the Bible differently from the Christians who think I am wrong. The one-up I have on them is that I used to read the Bible as they do. I understand their hermeneutics and theology and I am well aware of their interpretations. That said, I have no compulsion to read the Bible as an Evangelical or a progressive/liberal Christian would read the Bible. I have no great need to make the Bible fit in a systematic theology grid. Instead, I try to read the Bible like the average, unenlightened Bruce would read the Bible. I try to transport myself back in time in hopes of getting a historical and cultural perspective on the passage I am reading.

In the book of Genesis God says “let us make man in our image.”  When I read this passage I say to myself this says there is a plurality of Gods. Let US. As I read the Old Testament it is very clear to me that the Israelites were polytheistic and over time became monotheistic (or as oneness-Pentecostals would assert about Trinitarian Christians, they still ARE polytheistic).

Of course, those who think I am wrong say, but the New Testament says______ and they import their Trinitarian theology into the Genesis text. That’s all well and good if you are Christian, but I am not. I am quite free to read the Bible as it is written without forcing myself to put all the pegs in the right holes. The Christian has the burden to make it all fit, not I.

I may be wrong, but it is a leap of faith to assume that because I am wrong, you are right. There is no way to “prove” who is right or who is wrong when it comes to the Bible. Baptists and Campbellites (Church of Christ) spar often over one Greek word, eis, in Acts 2:38. Who is right? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all the arguments from both sides of the fence. Who is right? All people have to determine for themselves what they believe about God, the Bible, truth, and religion. This blog is simply my take on these things.

Seriously, the amount of skin I have in this game gets less and less every day. Talking about the Bible and what it purportedly teaches is all fun and games. Since the Bible no longer has a mystical hold on me, I am quite free to ignore it at will. I am free to be wrong because being wrong about the Bible is like being wrong about picking the wrong players for a fantasy football league (not the end of the world).

My bigger focus is on those who are considering leaving Christianity or who have already left Christianity. I try to be a good example of a person who successfully broke free and left Christianity. I do not call on people to follow me or to do what I did. All I am is one guy with a story. If my story helps someone, if it gives them the strength to take the big step they need to take, then I am grateful and humbled by being a small measure of help. However, if all I do is piss you off and make you think you have scabies, perhaps your short life would be better served reading other things besides this blog. Telling me I am wrong will not bring the effect you desire. I will gladly admit to being wrong. Next?

Perhaps you are really hanging out here because, deep down, uncertainty is pulling at you, and you are trying to suppress it by lashing out at the poor, deluded, deceived, ignorant Evangelical-preacher-turned-atheist named Bruce.  Beware of uncertainty, for uncertainty is the path to my world.

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