A Case for Diversity in Bible Interpretation

I would like to make a claim at the outset of this post: proper biblical interpretation requires diversity. Specifically, we need to study the Bible with people different from us in order to best understand the meaning of the text. This claim is not unique to me and when I have heard it in the past, I have brushed it aside. My reasons for rejecting such a conclusion were: 1) as a believer, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit who guides me into all truth (John 16:13), and 2) I believe in the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.

By the second point I mean that, in the words of the Westminster Catechism:

“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7)

So, if the Holy Spirit is guiding me, and all things that are necessary to be known/believed/obeyed are accessible to me, I can understand and interpret the Bible on my own. While I still hold these two foundational beliefs, I have come to realize that my conclusions were short-sided. In reality, to fully understand and properly interpret the Scripture, I now believe that I need others, and more specifically, others not like myself. Here are some of the realities that have lead me to this conclusion:

The Bible was never meant to be personal

In studying the Bible for translation, I have been struck by the assumption in the text that it would be read aloud (Deut 31:9-13, Josh 8:30-35, 2 Kings 23). And not just the Old Testament. Paul’s letters were expected to be read aloud by several churches (Col 4:16). Amazingly, it seems that even when people were reading the Bible personally, they were reading it aloud! Consider the Ethiopian eunuch as an example (Acts 8:26-35). “Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet.” Phillip heard him reading.

My point in all of this is that we live in a very special age, where people are able to own a copy of the entire canon, and read it at their leisure. I think this leads us to believe that this is normative. But in fact, for most of history, people usually engaged in Scripture reading and interpretation in public, with other believers. This wasn’t just an accident of minimal technology, this is what God expected, intended. We are meant to interpret God’s Word together. When Philip then asked the eunuch: “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch answered: “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” He was acknowledging that in order to properly interpret the Scriptures, he needed help.

Of course this does not have anything specifically to do with diversity. I am using this point just to help us see that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves to study, interpret, and understand the Bible. So, why would I say diversity? Well, for this, I will ask you, reader, a question:

Why did the prodigal son end up destitute?

In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the younger son of a father leaves his house and runs off to another country. I am sure you are familiar with the story. So, let me ask you, why did the prodigal son end up destitute?

If you are like me, you answered: “he squandered his property in reckless living” (13), which is certainly true. In fact, though the word is not used in the text, we tend to call this story the parable of the prodigal son. “Prodigal” means “spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant.” However, it has been my experience that people in non-Western cultures will answer: “a severe famine arose in that country” (14) and “no one gave him anything” (16). The latter aspect representing a lack of relationships. Being that the son was in a foreign land, he did not have any relational safety net.

When I first heard this, although I had just read the passage, I had to go back and re-read it. And indeed, all three elements are present in the story. The prodigal son, was in fact prodigal, but that was not all. He fell into hard times not only because of his own recklessness, but also because of a famine and a lack of family/friends to fall back on. The culture, background, and worldview of these non-Western interpreters highlighted different aspects of the passage in their minds, aspects I had missed.

Another example happened just the other day as our translation team began working through the story of the call of Abram. At this point we are doing what is called ‘Oral Bible Storying‘, which produces oral stories that are more like stories in a children’s storybook Bible. So, the text is often reduced and simplified. In the text we had included the fact that Lot went with Abram when he left for Canaan. Now, let me ask you another question:

Why did Lot go with Abram?

This question came up in our discussions during the translation. My first response was, “I have no idea. The text doesn’t say.” However, one of our translators, who is a young pastor, said (as though it was obvious): “Lot’s father had died.”

Since it is a reduced form of the text, I had left out some of the introductory material in the “front translation” we were working with. I had not included the fact that Lot’s father (Haran) had died. So we opened up one of the French translations and, sure enough, it mentions that Haran had died before the call of Abram (Genesis 11:28). In my preparations I had read this fact, but I did not connect it at all to the story of Abram’s calling and decided to remove it from the front translation. But for my translators it was an integral part of the text because it helped us understand why Lot went with Abram.

Now, the text does not say that Lot went with Abram because his father had died. However, it is included in the text immediately before Abram’s calling and surely played a part in his decision to go. This is more clear to my translator friends who have very strong family ties. When I asked them in a devotional time what sort of people leave their families behind to go to a foreign land, they said “criminals, bad people.” *Gulp* This reveals several things, including a need to make sure people understand Abram was not a criminal. But it also reveals that the worldview of our translators actually helps them understand aspects of the Bible more fully than my own worldview.

What does this have to do with diversity?

In case it is not clear at this point, let me make it explicit. Within the Scriptures there are a variety of worldviews, cultures, and even three different languages. Though I have been steeped in Bible study from my infancy, there are still many ways that I miss things in Scripture because of my own culture and worldview. My protestant work ethic background helped me to see the fault of the younger son in the above parable, but miss the other factors in his decline. My transient, detached lifestyle caused me to not even wonder why Lot would have gone with Abram.

I’ve always thought that a good understanding of the Bible depended on me – how educated I was, the kind of church I went to, how well I knew the biblical languages, etc. But I am coming to realize that instead of merely growing my knowledge, I need to look outside of myself to see how the Spirit is helping my brothers understand his word. And this includes my brothers from other languages and cultures. Their perspectives are a commentary of the Scriptures that I have always been lacking. The reason we need diversity in Bible interpretation is because we are not self-sufficient Bible interpreters. God created his Word, and his Church, in such a way that we are not supposed to understand it on our own, at least not fully.

Going back to the Westminster Catechism that I quoted above, I still believe that:

“those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

However, I am not aspiring to have a sufficient understanding of the Scriptures. I am not aspiring to just get by with the bare minimum. A relative asked me at one point when we were about to go to seminary, “How much time do you need to spend on one book?” The answer to that is: “My whole life!” But even with the Holy Spirit, spending my whole life studying God’s Word, I will still be lacking. To better understand God’s Word, I need other people. To best understand God’s Word, I need other people who are not like me.

I hope to write up some implications for Christians seeking to rightly interpret Scripture, but are not living among a different culture. For you, I think it will take more intentionality that it does for me. Look for that in a future post. Sufficient for now is to say that we all need to grow in humility and realize that we cannot best understand the Scripture on our own. God created us to live in a body of believers, interdependent. And while we can all learn a lot from the book-writing-Bible-scholars of the world, I am learning much from the poor, undereducated farmers in Cameroon. So let me ask you another question: Who are you learning from?


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.