4 Steps to Pursue Diversity in Bible Interpretation

One day, near the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus was approached by a Roman centurion. Jesus had already been doing some shocking things; just a few verses before he touched a man with leprosy, healing him. So, maybe his disciples were growing accustomed to his “different” methods. Maybe his offer to heal the Roman’s servant would not have seemed so strange. They may have been surprised to hear that the centurion believed that Jesus could heal from a distance, but I suspect what surprised them the most was when Jesus replied to him:

“Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10)

It must have stung a bit for anyone there who was following Jesus. But, if they had not already, they would soon learn that Jesus was not afraid to speak hard truth. And the hard truth was, at that point in history, the greatest faith was found NOT in the people who had received God’s Word for thousands of years. The greatest faith was NOT found among those who studied the Torah every day. The greatest faith was found in a Roman, a Gentile, someone with whom the teachers of the Law would not have even shared a meal.

In my last post I made a case for diversity in Bible interpretation. My conclusion is that to better understand the Bible, we need to study it with others and to best understand it, we have to study it with people who are not like us. This might be a pill that is hard to swallow because this means that not even our greatest Western pastors, scholars, and theologians are sufficient to best interpret the Scripture by themselves. In other words, we cannot best interpret the Scriptures only by reading commentaries or listening to sermons.

If you buy my premise, even a little, here are a few steps I think are necessary to pursue such diversity as a way of life:

1. Pray to be humble

In my context, I am considered the Bible expert. Honestly, even if I did not have any Bible education, many people would consider me an expert simply because I am white. And since I do have much more education than the people we work with, it is easy to assume that I am best able to interpret the Bible.

However, I have been astounded to hear feedback from our translation team. It is amazing to see how Kwakum farmers understand the Bible. Some of the most insightful comments have come from our youngest translator that has never been to school and only recently started learning to read, Koo. One of the most striking features of listening Koo is not what he understands, but how he responds. Several times in study issues have come up where the Bible calls us to pursue a life very different from the culture. For the Kwakum, Jesus’ words are not just different, they are often shocking.

However, when Koo hears God’s Word and understands its message, he responds with: “I will do whatever God says.” For him this meant moving out of his girlfriend’s house, paying a bride price, and preparing for marriage. When they get married it will be the first Kwakum wedding I have ever experienced. I can only pray that my heart will become as tender as his to God’s commands.

2. Seek out diversity

For many of those living in Western countries, it is very easy to spend time with people who are just like you. We have an enormous variety of churches, so we tend to find the ones that are the most like-minded. This is not bad, it is natural. But if we are going to accept my premise that the best interpretation of Scripture comes when we study the Bible with people different than us, you are going to need to stretch yourself some.

Most churches these days have small groups of some sort. In our church in Kentucky, we had “Gospel Community Groups” in which we spent time together talking about the Sunday sermon. There are also Sunday School classes and small group Bible studies. Often these groups are intentionally separated by demographics (a “young mothers” group, for instance). Again, I think it is good to spend time with people who understand your struggles. It is good to study the Bible with people like you.

However, I also recommend that you actively seek out people who are not like you, and read the Bible with them. Supplement your college group Bible study with a group of retirees. Join a group committed to reach out to refugees in your city. Engage with new believers at your church or in your community. This is the most unnatural step, and it takes the most work on your part. But it is worth it to step out of your comfort zone.

3. Ask lots of questions and listen

One of the big tasks of a Bible translator is to ask questions. In fact, our teachers said that testing translation should be at least 50% of what we do. What this means is that we go out and we read translated passages to people and ask them HUNDREDS OF questions. The important thing in translation testing is to figure out what the people are understanding. You cannot do that without asking questions and listening to the answers.

However, I have found that we have to ask a lot of questions even before beginning translation. So, I will read a text aloud in French, and before teaching through the text at all I spend an hour just asking questions and listening to their answers. I invite the translators to ask questions as well and we just discuss the text together. I ask questions like: “What does this teach us about the character of God?” “What does this reveal about the heart of man?” It was in this context that the question from the last post about why Lot went with Abraham came up. I would never have thought to ask about Lot, but it was important to our translators.

I think the key here is to read a text together, and then ask questions and listen. It doesn’t matter who is asking the questions, just that questions are asked and people are listening. “Why?” questions tend to be particularly telling. Why did Lot go with Abram? Why did God confuse the speech of those at Babel? Why did God destroy the world with a flood?

4. Be discerning

Whereas differences in culture can create new and exciting insights into the Scripture, it can blind as well. I mentioned in the last post that when I asked about a person leaving their family behind (like Abram), my translators said that usually only criminals and “bad people” do things like that. All of our translators have some biblical background, so I don’t think they applied that to Abram. But it is an indication that some might, or that some people might think that God was asking Abram to sin!

In talking with other translators, I have heard that several projects had to deal with the issue of magic staffs! It is a cultural belief here that some women have a magic staff that can become animals, or even airplanes to send messages to relatives in Europe. In some translation projects, it has become clear that the translators associate Moses’ staff with the same power. Same issue with Nehemiah, who was the cupbearer for the king. Some translators have associated this with someone who pours out libations to ancestors.

For a quick American example, in Luke 13:32, Jesus calls Herod a “fox.” Now, what would you imagine that would mean? Me, I have always thought that it meant that Herod was crafty. That is what it would mean to me. But, as I have researched it, it seems more that Jesus was saying that he was a destroyer, like a fox that gets into a chicken coop. Sometimes our cultural background helps us see the Bible more clearly. However, other times, our culture obscures the truth. This is why diversity is helpful in biblical interpretation: not because every culture has it right, but because no culture has it right on its own.

Paul told us that God designed the church to be like “one body with many members” (1 Corinthians 12:12). While this certainly applies to local churches, I believe it applies to the universal church as well. Just like those with a gift of teaching cannot work effectively without others with a gift of administration, I cannot best interpret the Scriptures without other Christians that are not like me. God has created us to be interdependent. This means that at times the English-speaking church, who has had the Scriptures for almost 500 years, will sometimes be humbled by the Kwakum, who still do not have much of the Scripture. But fear not! Humility is one of the goals (Matthew 23:12).

I didn’t mention it before, but in the Matthew 8 story it says that Jesus “marveled” at the centurion’s faith (10). Obviously, Jesus was not surprised, for he was the one who gave the Roman his faith. The disciples might have been confused, or even hurt, but Jesus marveled. That is the correct response. If you have been a Christian for 50 years, and you see someone completely unlike you who has greater faith, or greater insight, or a better interpretation, marvel! Don’t be defensive, don’t resist it. Listen, learn, and marvel.


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.