It happens so many times. Someone says something false about the Bible or what the Bible means. The other person challenges arguing what the Bible actually means in those verses. And then it comes. The response that ends all Biblical debate: “Well, that is just your interpretation.” There is something appealing about this argument. It allows me to dodge engaging with your position and affirm my own. But it doesn’t work because words have meaning. If they didn’t then why are you reading this?
We disagree about stuff, lots of it. And there is plenty of disagreement about the Bible. But the “your interpretation” argument is meaningless. Stating the existence of different interpretations doesn’t say anything. It’s an observation, not a proposition. If I use it what do I mean by it? Do I mean that all interpretations are valid? If not, then which ones are? If the argument is “people disagree about the Bible thus my interpretation is valid” then I call shenanigans. No one believes that, not even the one who says it.
The problem with “That’s just your interpretation” is not that it is untrue, it just isn’t an actual argument. It actually hurts my argument for two reasons:
1. It negates my own position
If I use this argument to mean that you are wrong or have no authority to speak because you disagree with me then I cut the legs out of my own position. First, it’s dishonest. My real argument is that your interpretation is incorrect. But my evidence is only stating a basic observation of fact: you interpreted the Bible. Second, you can negate my argument by saying I have my interpretation too. At this point we might as well say the sky is blue. Searching, I might say something like “You have your truth and I have mine” or “You believe what you want and I will believe what I want.” But that is saying the same thing in different ways. It misses the point. No one is arguing about compelling me to believe something I do not. But to say “you have your truth and I have mine” makes no sense.
First, it assumes that truth and interpretation are the same thing. They are not. Truth is reality and any interpretation is subject to that reality. Second, there is no such thing as your truth and my truth. If your truth is that it is good to punch me in the face then I would argue (strongly!) that you are wrong. Third, if two positions contrary to one another are said to be equally true then they are equally false. For example, you say that the Bible is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit. I say that it is only a book, the work of men and deeply flawed. These positions cannot be reconciled. It would be disingenuous, disrespectful, and illogical for me to say, “Well, you have your truth and I have mine.” Someone is wrong and someone is right. If I say “That’s just your interpretation” then I have not advanced the argument any further. I have not said anything which would explain why my interpretation is right. “That’s your interpretation” is a dead-end at best.
2. Interpretation is subject to truth and testing
This is true even if you don’t believe the Bible to be inspired by God (which I do). Interpretations are many and they can be wrong. I can be wrong. So can you. It reminds me of when I sat down with LDS missionaries and one of them told me with tears that he believed with all his heart the Book of Mormon is true. I said that I believe with all my heart that the Book of Mormon is false. That’s my honest evaluation and belief. His sincerity was never in question. At no point did I ever say, “I don’t think you really believe this.” I believed these LDS missionaries were wrong because of the claims they made about the Bible and the Book of Mormon. So you have your interpretation and I have mine. You have your conviction and I have mine. You have your feelings and I have mine. Simply having these things doesn’t tell me whether they are true. We have to have a way to test our interpretations to determine whether they line up with truth. Our feelings and intuitions are not helpful guides here.
This is true for our interpretations of Bible texts. If we are claiming the Bible says X then we must be able to show from the Bible why this is so. Our claim is going to be true, false or a mixture of truth and error. This is why we need to understand what the Bible meant to its original audience (no easy task). Then we need to see how that is interpreted through the lens of Christ and the rest of the New Testament. There is a whole area of study called “Hermeneutics” devoted to this task. The Bible means something to the God who wrote it. As a Christian and Pastor I am beholden to the text.
Now some respond by saying they don’t believe the Bible is inspired or only certain parts of it are or that they are working from the “spirit of the text”. But at that point we are not using the Bible to interpret itself. We are using modern standards, ideals, values and individuals. Those who want to argue that way have to justify it. I can’t stop anyone from interpreting the Bible for themselves in any way they choose. If I could then Joel Osteen would be much more faithful to the scriptures. But when someone cites the Bible as an authority to justify a position which is patently unbiblical I can challenge them on it. Yet I can only argue according to what the Bible says and how the Bible interprets itself. The Bible is the standard of our testing.
A better way: Clarity through curiosity
We live in a culture that encourages us to engage in drive-by commentary and social media hit jobs. This doesn’t help things. We must accept that we earnestly disagree about certain interpretations of the Bible. And these discussions, if we are going to have them, are going to get complex. For not only do we have disagreements on particular interpretations, but we also have significant disagreement on the method of interpretation! Also not all disagreements are on the same level of importance. I am not going to argue as vigorously about interpretations concerning Jephthah’s daughter as I am the deity of Christ. But as complex as it may get, we would all do better to remove “That’s your interpretation” from our vocabulary. It would be much better if both sides said, “Ok, I’m pretty sure I disagree with you, but could you explain why you believe that to be true?” We should be able to restate the other person’s position back to them in such a way that they will say, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” You don’t need to respond at that second. It’s okay to say, “You’ve given me a lot to think about. I need to research and get back to you.” Would you be offended if someone told you that they were going to seriously consider what you said to them? This way we can agree or disagree with someone’s actual position with thoughtfulness and charity. We can increase our understanding of why we believe what we do. And who knows? We might learn something along the way.
How to do this
The place to start is not demanding others to let you explain your position. It will be getting curious about how they arrived at theirs. It starts by loving your neighbor as yourself. Make a goal to clearly understand what they are saying. You will be surprised at how many people have not thought through their beliefs. Now some may not care to return the favor. They will be happy to take advantage and dominate the conversation. But those are not the people who are willing to engage in dialogue. But others will care especially when you have thoughtfully considered their position.
I’m also not suggesting I’m the paragon of virtue here. There have been plenty of times when I have ungraciously shut someone down or mischaracterized their position. I have been impatient and frustrated with someone’s position. The point is not our imperfections or failures. The point is to strive toward better conversations about important subjects.
So the next time someone says, “Well, that’s just your interpretation” you can respond with, “That’s true. Can you help me understand yours?” (If you want more resources on this check out Greg Koukl’s Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions).
What about you? What have you found to be helpful when talking with someone you disagree with? You can contact me here. Thanks for reading!