Questions of interpretation—whose interpretation, which interpretation, what interpretation—are at the forefront of discussions about truth and certainty in our postmodern milieu. In this milieu, it is suggested that the modern assumptions of objective and definitive truth are false. We are left with suspicion as to whether or not we can know anything truly.
Issues of interpretation, of course, are not simply matters of intellectual speculation. Rather, most of us, at one time or another, have been personally involved in discussions about the interpretation of reality. What political party accurately assesses national realities? Which media outlet presents the news fairly and without bias? Which cultural icons and artists illuminate the human condition in all of its complexity?
Of course, people of all faiths wrestle with questions of interpretation, as well. What does this passage mean? What are its implications? How does it make sense in the world today? And how can there be so many different interpretations for the same passage?
Questions of interpretation notwithstanding, the Christian faith claims to know and to represent the truth. Christians claim that the truth is contained in Scripture. But we are less clear in the murky world of interpretation about how that truth is to be presented and how it is able to transcend culture and language. St. Augustine, writing in the fourth century, asked similar questions about the opening words of Genesis:
Does it mean in the beginning of time, because it was the first of all things, or in the beginning, which is the Word of God, the only begotten Son? And how could it be shown that God produced changeable and time-bound works without any change in himself? And what may be meant by the name heaven and earth? Was it the total spiritual and bodily creation that was termed heaven and earth, or only the bodily sort? And in what way did God say Let light be made? Was it in time or in the eternity of the Word? And what is this light that was made? Something spiritual or something bodily? (1)
Augustine's questions concerning the first chapter of Genesis give just a glimpse into some of the complexities of interpreting the text of Scripture. Yet, even with questions, Augustine understood that as one inhabited the world of the Scriptures, God was being revealed through a living story. The story of Israel and the person of Jesus portray a God who redeems. The writers of the Old and New Testaments were inspired to write down their time-honored oral traditions in order to make them "alive" for future generations, and to give testimony of God's redemption for future generations.In this way, God saw fit to "enflesh" not only the essence of the spoken and written words that had come before, but also something of the very nature and truth of reality.
Christians believe that Jesus is God's ultimate act of speech. He is the living bible, and the one who interprets the very nature and truth of God. The writer of the letter 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 Gospel of John we are told that God's ultimate word to us, God's ultimate form of speech is the inscription of the person of Jesus: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from God" (John 1:1-2, 14). These writers of the written word tell us that the ultimate, final, definitive word of God is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Jesus is 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 very point. There is a distinction between what had been inscribed (the law and the teachings of the prophets) and the living word, Jesus Christ, who was sent by the Father. Of course, the advent of Jesus as the living word does not nullify or invalidate the written word. Indeed, the two have something of a reciprocal relationship. All of written scripture points to the living word, Jesus, and to the saving activity of God. Jesus fulfills the written word, and all of the written 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! Jesus says this about himself in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." In his life, Jesus embodies God's Kingdom and as the Word made flesh interprets for us what it looks like to live in God's kingdom-order.
Issues of interpretation will continue to press us as we seek to faithfully communicate and make sense of reality. People of Christian faith are called to be living bibles as we claim to be followers of Jesus. British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says it this way: "The authority of scripture is most truly put into operation as the church goes to work in the world on behalf of the gospel, the good news that in Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has come and the living God has defeated the powers of evil and begun the work of new creation in this world."(2) Like the God who has given us a living story of redemption, those who act on behalf of redemption re-tell this story. The God who saved is saving still—our lives make plain the interpretation.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.
(1) Saint Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Volume 1 (Ancient Christian Writers Series; NewYork: Paulist Press, 1982), 168-171.
(2) N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 113.