I have been asked to address the question, ‘why do different people understand the Bible so differently?’ Well, it’s really quite simple; it is because they wear different spectacles to read the Bible.
One set of ‘spectacles’ we often wear is Tradition. Those who have been in a particular church tradition for a long time tend to ‘read’ the scriptures through the lens of that tradition. The approach to preaching, the liturgies, teachings, and practices of the tradition create a sort of spiritual optical prescription. Methodists will ‘see’ differently to how, say, Baptists will. Our traditions constitute spectacles that many have fashioned over long periods of time. They are thick-lens spectacles that are really quite heavy.
Another set of spectacles is Dogma. Church dogma forms a strongly tinted lens through which we view the Bible. Five Point Calvinism, for instance, is a pervasive dogma that strongly influences how people interpret the biblical text. Dispensationalism is another dogma that tints the spectacle lenses. If Calvinism forms a blue lens, then those wearing such spectacles will not be able to read anything printed with light blue ink. If Wesleyan dogma forms a red lens then light red print will be invisible… and so on.
Perhaps the most common pair of spectacles found today is what I call Contextualisation.
Instead of viewing the current social context through biblical lenses, many people tend to view the Bible through contextual lenses. The issues, conditions, and values of current society form the lens through which they see. In my opinion, this is the main cause of the current foment in some denominations over the issue of homosexuality. The same can be said of the current divisive debate concerning female bishops. The conflict arises when one group, usually within a church tradition, view modern life through biblical spectacles while another group view the Bible through the lens of modern life. What I mean by this is that one will seek to apply biblical principles and values to life, while another will try to find scripture to justify modern values and practices.
Our presuppositions are another reason we see things differently. We all wear spiritual spectacles of some sort; no one can claim to read the Bible from a totally unbiased and objective perspective. We come to the Bible with an existing set of assumptions that we have built over our lifetimes. Assumptions concerning the authority of the scriptures, what constitutes truth, and so on. If my starting assumptions are different from yours then we will undoubtedly differ in the way we understand scripture.
The last set of spectacles I will touch on is Exegesis. Some people wear very tiny spectacles that only allow them to see one verse at a time. As a result they build doctrine on words and phrases taken out of the context of the passage, the book, and indeed the whole of the Bible. Others wear very narrow yet wide spectacles that allow them to see only the horizontal humanist dimension of the text.
So then, its all a matter of what spectacles we wear. I believe we could resolve a lot of the difference between Christians if we all chose to wear cross-shaped spectacles. If we focused our interpretation of scripture on what Jesus said and did, then we would soon find ourselves largely in agreement with one another (or am I looking through rose-tinted glasses?). Christ-centred spectacles are of course biblical spectacles. If we insist on viewing the Bible through the lens of current culture, then we will continue to divide over issues such as the role of women in the church, same sex marriage and so on.
Jesus said, “… everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15
A whole section of my book ‘Truth is the Word’ is devoted to the issue of Christ-centred interpretation. If you would like a copy, you can purchase it HERE or read more about it at www.truthistheword.com.