While wasting some time on social media, I came across this picture posted by someone in a group.
Here are two individuals standing in two different places with two different views and both of them think they are right. The question was posed, can we really know what's true? Isn't it just a matter of perspective? The thread then exploded with everyone giving their answer... from a lower case "a" to a "g" and so on (some were admittedly pretty creative).
This picture got me thinking. I am sure that if you are reading this, you have your own idea of that number (or letter) is in the picture. This cartoon seems to illustrate all too well some of the things we see around us every day. Truth is relative... It all depends on your perspective. Maybe your past experiences cause you to see a lower case "g" and if that's your truth, then good for you! So everyone chimes in with their opinion. Their thought or their interpretation and before long, the conversation descends into chaos.
As I pastor I hear it all the time. This mindset and philosophy (because that's what postmodern relativism is) has crept into the church and in particular into our reading of the Bible. How many times is there a Bible study where someone asks the question "what does this passage mean to you"? Perhaps someone answers "to me, I think it means..."
Well, with all due respect, I really don't care what it means to you... and neither should you. That is relativism. It is taking objective truth (what it really means) and making it subjective (what it means to me)... which may or may not be true. And what do we do if we get two different answers from two different people? Person A: "to me, it means x" followed by person B: "well to me, it means y". The rule of non-contradiction states the proposition a and be cannot be simultaneously true and contradict... and yet that's what happens in many Bible studies, Sunday school classrooms, and discipleship relationships.
Go back to that picture for a moment, because it perfectly illustrates what I'm saying. What are they looking at? Is it a 6 or a 9? Well, the answer is actually surprisingly simple. Whoever made that mark on the ground (in this case, whoever wrote the cartoon) was thinking of a number when they drew it. So, first off, there is an objective truth. It is a 6 or a 9. It is a "g" or an "a". The answer to what it is lies in authorial intent. Whoever drew the cartoon wrote a specific letter or number. Therefore, we as the interpreters, find the truth in authorial intent.
So, it doesn't really matter what it means to you. It doesn't matter if you see a "6" or a "9". What matter is what the author intended, and then we are constrained by that intent when it comes to interpreting, because it is not up to us to make that mean something that the author didn't intent. So, when we read the Bible, what matters is not what you think it means, but what the author (whether that is Paul or John or Moses) intended when they wrote it. When we start to look for authorial intent, we can begin getting at the true meaning of Scripture with confidence. Once we get the meaning, then we can rightly apply it.
By the way, this is not only true of Bible interpretation. This is also true of any other literature. There is a podcast called Story and Star Wars that a friend of mine turned me on it. In it, they dissect the story of Star Wars based on the authorial intent. Alastair Stevens, the host, labors to make the following point; while you may enjoy or dislike the movie, the movie has to be interpreted through the lens of the script (the text). The only way we can rightly interpret it, is by looking at the authorial intent to understand how and why the story hangs together as it does.
For too long, postmodern relativism has invaded the church unchecked. Especially in the area of Bible interpretation. This has led to at least three devastating consequences.
1. Theological error and confusion. Rather than seeking to understand what the author meant when writing, we impose our ideas of what we think it SHOULD mean or what we WANT it to mean. Example: Philippians 4:13. That text is abused because we don't seek to understand and apply it in light of what Paul meant when he wrote it. The author has the right to determine meaning because the author wrote it. It's our job as readers and interpreters to seek to get at that in order to rightly understand what the text means. Much theological error would be avoided if we would get serious about that one simple principle.
2. Lack of confidence. So many people when they take the approach of "this is what it means to me" are discouraged when someone disagrees with them. They begin to wonder if they can really understand what the Bible means. Because people have not been trained and admonished to find meaning from authorial intent, they are left wondering if what they think it means or what it means to them is what it really means. That leads to an erosion of confidence in the Bible and in objective truth. After all, who am I to say that what it means to you is less valid than what it means to me. That leads to the third consequence.
3. Postmodern thinking about truth. If truth is subjective (your truth is as good as my truth) then there is no truth. The very claim that truth is subjective is an objective truth statement. That leads to the rule of non-contradiction. Truth cannot at the same time be objective and subjective. Those two contradict which means one of them must be wrong. Since the objective statement that all truth is subjective cannot be upheld under a worldview that subscribes to all truth being subjective, the whole worldview crumbles under it's own weight. This has crept into the church. Because we have lost confidence in the objective truth of God's word, or our ability to objectively identify that truth, we have succumb to an attitude that passively subscribed to this postmodern thinking about truth when it comes to Scripture. That is why we can sit there and say a text with an objective truth statement means this to me and someone else can say the same thing, and everyone accepts it.
God's truth is objectively true and we can know the meaning if we will seek to understand what the author meant when he wrote it. Over the coming weeks, I am going to be writing on this topic of how to interpret the Bible because it is so vital. We must know what God's Word actually means in order to avoid theological error and have confidence in our ability to rightly apply it in our lives.
So, is it a "6" or a "9" or something else? There is an objective answer and that answer is found by asking the question "what did the author intend when he drew it". In the case of this cartoon, we may never know, but in the case of the Bible, we can.
This next Sunday we will begin a 7 week Sunday School class that will help give you tools to be a better interpreter of the Bible. Please join us in classroom b at 9am starting Sunday, October 14th.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast