To the degree that sin remains within us, we all run to find in the Bible what we want it to say rather than what it actually does say. So, that creates a challenge to humble ourselves before God and to ask him to continue the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying us—not simply in our behavior, but in our attitudes and in our expectations that are colored by what kind of God we think God is. There are some people who say, “God is love,” and so they won’t allow that God is also a God of justice and of anger against sin. That’s just a simple example of the kind of thing where it takes humility—a humility which only God can give in the end—to treat the Bible rightly.
Now let’s talk about over-interpretation and under-interpretation. The under-interpretation is sort of obvious in that some people, for instance with Genesis 1–3, would say that the whole point is that God is Creator and the point of the fall narrative is that human beings have sin in them. Both of those things are true, both of those things are implications of Genesis 1–3, but it’s under-interpretation in the sense that it isn’t the only thing that’s there in Genesis 1–3. There are specific events of God creating light, God creating the difference between the waters above and the waters below, God creating the plants and their reproductive capabilities. You just go through and you say all those things are real, you can’t just say it’s all about a generality and the details don’t matter.
So how do you avoid that kind of thing? I think of Augustine who said the three most important principles for interpreting the Bible were humility, humility, and humility. So he really understood the fact that we have to be fair to Scripture and let it say what God is saying through it and not impose our own ideas. Either by minimizing the thing or saying, “I don’t like that but it’s not the main point so it doesn’t matter whether I believe it.”
Filling in the Details
The over-interpretation comes, I think, particularly in narrative passages. When it’s a story, you picture the story. We can do it with the New Testament. There’s a passage in Luke 5 where Jesus heals a man who’s full of leprosy. When you read that passage and think that passage through, you picture it. And you inevitably end up picturing details that are not there in the text. The thing about the Bible is that almost any—even an extra-biblical description of an event—is a verbal description and therefore always sparse. It’s always much more minimalistic than the corresponding picture that we get in our heads.
Or you think for instance of a video recording or a movie and the thing fills in vast amounts of detail. But that isn’t the way the verbal medium works. Again, that’s God’s own doing so we have to be humble enough to say, “Look, there’s lots of detail that I’d like to know in the narrative about the healing of the leper.” Were the disciples there? What was their reaction? Were they horrified that Jesus touched the leper because that wasn’t expected in the Jewish culture? How did they process it? This story just doesn’t tell you. It’s nice to imagine that in order to get into the story and to appreciate what’s going on but it doesn’t answer all those questions.
It’s a similar kind of thing with Genesis 1–3. Now Genesis 1–3 is a seemingly important passage because it’s kind of the framework. It’s creation and fall, that’s the framework for understanding everything else including Christ’s own redemption, which is the kind of centerpiece of the whole Bible. But to understand redemption, you have to understand what we are redeemed from. We are redeemed from the fall, from sin. And what’s the context for redemption? It’s alienation from God. Who is God? He is the Creator and he made us in his image.
So all those things are really important and that means that there’s more pressure on us and on any reader to over-interpret or under-interpret. To over-interpret so that I can press my own agenda, or to under-interpret because I don’t like some of the things that are in terms of the details that are there. I don’t have a simple solution to that. I believe that reading the Bible over and over again is a help in terms of saying, That’s really there versus What am I picturing in addition? That means that there are going to be unanswered questions.