Questions of interpretation—whose interpretation, whichinterpretation, what interpretation—are at the forefront of discussions abouttruth and certainty in our postmodern milieu. In this milieu, it is suggested that themodern assumptions of objective and definitive truth are false. We are leftwith suspicion as to whether or not we can know anything truly.
Issues of interpretation, of course, are not simply mattersof intellectual speculation. Rather, most of us, at one time or another, havebeen personally involved in discussions about the interpretation of reality.What political party accurately assesses national realities? Which media outletpresents the news fairly and without bias? Which cultural icons and artistsilluminate the human condition in all of its complexity?
Of course, people of all faiths wrestle with questions ofinterpretation, as well. What does this passage mean? What are itsimplications? How does it make sense in the world today? And how can there beso many different interpretations for the same passage?
Questions of interpretation notwithstanding, the Christianfaith claims to know and to represent the truth. Christians claim that the truthis contained in Scripture. But we are less clear in the murky world of interpretationabout how that truth is to be presented and how it is able to transcend cultureand language. St. Augustine, writing in the fourth century, asked similarquestions about the opening words of Genesis:
Does it mean in the beginning oftime, because it was the first of all things, or in the beginning, which is theWord of God, the only begotten Son? And how could it be shown that God producedchangeable and time-bound works without any change in himself? And what may bemeant by the name heaven and earth? Was it the total spiritual and bodilycreation that was termed heaven and earth, or only the bodily sort? And in whatway did God say Let light be made? Was it in time or in the eternity of theWord? And what is this light that was made? Something spiritual or somethingbodily?(1)
Augustine's questions concerning the first chapter ofGenesis give just a glimpse into some of the complexities of interpreting thetext of Scripture. Yet, even with questions, Augustine understood that as oneinhabited the world of the Scriptures, God was being revealed through a livingstory. The story of Israel and the person of Jesus portray a God who redeems. Thewriters of the Old and New Testaments were inspired to write down theirtime-honored oral traditions in order to make them 'alive' for futuregenerations, and to give testimony of God's redemption for future generations.In this way, God saw fit to "enflesh" not only the essence of thespoken and written words that had come before, but also something of the verynature and truth of reality.
Christians believe that Jesus is God's ultimate act ofspeech. He is the living bible, andthe one who interprets the very nature and truth of God. The writer of theletter to the Hebrews tells us that "in the former days, the days of old,God spoke through the prophets; but in these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2). And in the Gospelof John we are told that God's ultimate word to us, God's ultimate form ofspeech is the inscription of the person of Jesus: "In the beginning wasthe Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongus, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of theonly begotten from God" (John 1:1-2, 14). These writers of the writtenword tell us that the ultimate, final, definitive word of God is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Jesusis the living bible and his life communicates the truth of God to us. Therefore,the truth is more than facts and information to acquire, the truth is a Person.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes this verypoint. There is a distinction between what had been inscribed (the law and theteachings of the prophets) and the living word, Jesus Christ, who was sent bythe Father. Of course, the advent of Jesus as the living word does not nullifyor invalidate the written word. Indeed, the two have something of a reciprocalrelationship. All of written scripture points to the living word, Jesus, and tothe saving activity of God. Jesus fulfills the written word, and all of thewritten word finds its meaning and its completion in the life and teachings ofJesus. Indeed, Jesus is the living embodiment of Israel's law and prophets! Jesussays this about himself in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not think that Icame to abolish the law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish but tofulfill." In his life, Jesus embodies God's Kingdom and as the Word madeflesh interprets for us what it looks like to live in God's kingdom-order.
Issues of interpretation will continue to press us as weseek to faithfully communicate and make sense of reality. People of Christianfaith are called to be living bibles as we claim to be followers of Jesus. BritishNew Testament scholar N.T. Wright says it this way: "The authority ofscripture is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in theworld on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the kingdomof God has come and the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begunthe work of new creation in this world."(2) Like the God who has given usa living story of redemption, those who act on behalf of redemption re-tellthis story. The God who saved is saving still—our lives make plain theinterpretation.
Margaret Manning is amember of the writing and speaking team at Ravi Zacharias InternationalMinistries in Seattle, Washington.
(1) Saint Augustine, TheLiteral Meaning of Genesis, Volume 1 (Ancient Christian Writers Series; NewYork: Paulist Press, 1982), 168-171.
(2) N.T. Wright, TheLast Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority ofScripture (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 113.