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Peter Beck Christian Blog and Commentary

What Does This Mean To You?

  • Peter Beck
    Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
  • 2009 Feb 04
  • Comments

Every Sunday in churches all across America well-meaning Christians fall prey to a philosophical error and they don’t even know it. Worse yet, it has the potential to hurt their spiritual life and the life of the church. They sit in a circle and ask each other, “What does this mean to you?”

What’s wrong with that question? Let me suggest several things.

First, we didn’t write the text in question. Paul or John or Moses or someone else wrote the text. To put it most theologically correctly, the Holy Spirit wrote the text as He spoke to and through the human authors. The text belongs to the author and so does its meaning.

Imagine if someone found a private stash of love letters written by you long ago to your spouse or a loved one. Does the person who found the letters get to determine what they mean or do you as the author get to determine what they mean? The answer is obvious. The author determines his meaning.

Second, while the Bible may be inspired and infallible, our interpretations are not. This, too, is proven every Sunday as we share our take on a given text only to discover that the person next to us sees it differently. While it is possible that we are all wrong, it is impossible that we are all correct when our interpretations differ. (Yes, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. No, that doesn’t mean they’re right or even well-informed.)

There is only one right answer to the simple equation 1+1=_______. What would we think, if, one day, we ask that question of our children and they give 3 as answer? Are they right? Does their opinion matter? Or, has God according to the laws of nature determined that 1+1=2 no matter what our opinion may be? So, why do we believe that it’s acceptable when there’s more than one answer to the question, “what does this text mean?”?

Third, when we solicit everyone’s take on a particular passage with the question, “what does this mean to you?”, we are inviting not just opinions but confusion. Imagine an unbeliever or a young believer who might be exposed to the Babel-like babble generated by that question.

“Class, what does John 3:16 mean to you?”

“Well, I think it means that God ‘begot’ Jesus in the same way that Abraham begot Isaac. He’s really His heavenly Father.” “Using the Old Testament! Good answer, Johnny.”

“Jane?” “I think it means that God is going to save all people since He says He loves the world.” “Interesting.”

“What about you, Bill?” “I’m convinced that since God loves the world that we need to address global warming now, before it’s too late.” “I never thought about that before, Bill. Thanks for the insight.”

Have we helped clarify the meaning the text? Have we rightly expounded the profundity of God’s love as expressed in the Gospel? Or have we obscured the true meaning of the text to such an extent that it’s no longer the Gospel? And, along the way, we’ve confused those in the room who don’t really know what the text means but who now think that the text means all those things and maybe a myriad more. They can’t wait until they get to decide what the text means. Maybe next week!

Fourth, worse yet, we are unknowingly walking into the quagmire called “postmodernism.” Postmodernism argues that there is no universal truth (ironically that statement itself is a statement of universal truth). Thus, what is rigth for you is … drum roll please … right for you. That doesn’t mean it’s right for me. I get to decide that for myself, thank you very much.

The problem is that postmodern philosophy doesn’t work in the real world. What happens when "what is right for me" impinges upon "what is right for you"? We both can’t be right and live together in the world as we know it. The position is self-contradictory, internally incoherent, and ultimately morally repugnant as none us really want our neighbors to do whatever feels right to them at our expense.

Yet, that’s what we do when we ask our Sunday School mates what a text means to them. It’s not that your thoughts on the matter are unimportant. It’s not that I believe you have to have a seminary education before you’re capable of rightly interpreting the Bible. The problem is the question is the wrong question to ask in the first place.

Instead, we need to be asking, “What does this text mean to God?” or “What did the Holy Spirit mean when He inspired Mark to right this verse?” or “What did Isaiah mean when he said that?” Anything but “what does it mean to me?”

In the end, I don’t care what it means to me because if it means the wrong thing to me it doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. Do you know what I mean?

Our goal in reading the Bible is not to impose our interpretation on the text but to allow God to impose His will upon our lives through the living word. That can only happen when we ask the right question of the text: “What did God mean?”