It is common that I hear people saying that biblical interpretation is purely about individual interpretation. One person believes that scripture says this and another person believes that the same passage of scripture says something else.
On one hand, I have some agreement with this approach to scriptural interpretation, because I think that the written words are only the carrier of the word of God.
Before I go on, let me explain this to you. I find it really irritating when I hear scripture spoken of as the word of God. Firstly, the Word of God is what God has spoken, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The second person of the Trinity is the Word of God. Secondly, if scripture is the word of God, I find this a terrible limitation on what God want to say to us. The word of God is what God speaks and scripture, therefore, is a carrier of the word f God but is not, in itself the word of God.
So, scripture is the carrier of the word of God. Therefore, in our personal reading and studying of scripture, we can hear what God is saying to us in the context of our life, what is going on in our life, our struggles, our celebrations, and our choices that may be life changing. In this sense, scripture is not dead, like the Latin language, it is a living thing.
Having said that, however, what I hear God saying to me as an individual may need to be tested to make sure it is God speaking and no just me, or even worse, the Deceiver. Secondly, what I hear God saying to me as an individual may not necessarily what God is saying to everyone. It may be that I have heard completely wrongly.
There is a story about a man who was having difficulty in his life and he wanted to find a solution to it. He turned to the bible to see what it is that God may have to say to his situation. He opened the bible and began reading, the story of Judas committing suicide after his betrayal of Jesus. Naturally, he thought that this was purely a coincidence, so he closed the bible and opened it again, to read, “Go and do likewise.” I would want to test my interpretation of scripture.
But this is not the only account of times I hear when people get it wrong. I have often listened to sermons and discussion where scripture has been used to make an argument, but because it has been taken out of context, it has been interpreted. Of particular note, the passage from Ephesians concerning women submitting to their husbands, but failing to read about the demands of husbands to love their wives.
And so often I find myself asking, and hear others saying the same thing, is this just me, is this just my interpretation of scripture, of the events, of the word of God?
It is with this question in mind that I hear the passage from Peter’s second letter to the church this morning, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (1:18-21)
The first thing that we notice about this reading is its plurality. We ourselves have heard… so we have the prophetic message. The hearing of the message, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” is not dependent upon a lone listener, but all those who were on the mountain with Peter, James and John, when Jesus was transfigured. the account then has stronger validity, it is “more fully confirmed” more authenticate because it has been witnessed and heard by more than one person.
In my first curacy there were many people who were rather charismatic and assertive in their belief concerning things God had said to them. When they felt that God was telling them something about the leadership of the Church, which was in contradiction to the vision and direction, my Rector used to respond, “That’s funny, God has not told me that.”
Yes, we can feel more certain that what we have read and consequently heard is from God, but it is not until someone else says, “I interpret it the same way, or I heard, I felt, I saw the same thing!” that we feel confident in what we have heard.
Listen to what Peter says in verse 20 and 21, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” No prophecy of scripture is a matter of an individual’s interpretation. It is not to be done alone, but with others. We are told that this is because the prophecy of scripture is not of human origin; it is of the Holy Spirit that speaks to men and women in the plural. Scripture, and its interpretation, is not a matter of an individual’s interpretation, but is done in the context of, and with, others, that is, the church.
This understanding of the interpretation of scripture in the context of a group, not on our own, should stir us into a response, “You will do well to be attentive to this,” writes Peter, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
I have always been a little afraid of the dark. As a kid, I would run from the bedroom light switch on the wall near the door, to my bed after turning off the light. Even when I was older and had to go up to tend the farrowing sows, at night, having finished my tending, I would run back to the house. I still find empty, dark churches rather creepy at night, particularly those old ones. I don’t know where this had its origins, but I can imagine, if I was in a strange place, in the dark, one of the most important things would have to be my source of light.
This is what Peter means, I think, as he says, “You will do well to be attentive to this, as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” The lamp he is talking about, f course, would be an oil lamp. To be attentive would involve topping up the oil and trimming the wick so as not to go out, lest we find ourselves plunged into darkness. You might find yourselves drawn to the parable of the 10 bridesmaids, 5 wise ones tended their lamps, 5 foolish ones did not, and found themselves locked out in the dark.
So, Peter is saying, like tending a lamp, we must tend our reading of scripture, we must tend our interpretation of scripture. We must test what we believe it is to be sating with others.
I think this is one of the reasons that God gave us the gift of Church and Christ called us into it. We were never meant to do it, grow in our knowledge and love of God, alone; it was always meant to be in the context of others. Coming to church, being a part of the church services does not make us a Christian. We do not even have to go to church if we are a Christian. But we do need to be a part of the church in order that we can discern with others the prophetic message of scripture and be more assured of its truth.
This is what is meant by the old catholic saying, “outside the church there is no salvation.” Its not that we are saved by our attendance at church, going to church does not, in itself, make us right with God. However, without being attentive to our reading of Scripture, without being attentive to our faith, with others, we are putting our salvation at risk.
The words of The Prayers of the BCP read, “grant that all who confess your holy name may agree in the truth of your holy word, and live in unity and godly love.” I don’t believe that this means that we will should simply agree on the interpretation of scripture, but that we will find agreement as we do that work of interpretation together, not individually.
Can I encourage you, because the preaching at worship services is a particularly one way street, and believe me I am no position stand above contradiction, I am happy if you want to have conversation with me about what I have said and you have heard, to consider being a part of our house group ministry. The importance of our house groups is to enable us to be in an environment where we can discern the prophetic message of scripture with others and not on our own.