It’s common in Bible study to hear statements like, “that’s just your interpretation!” Sometimes, when we talk about the Bible, the objector is more sophisticated and will say, “Don’t confuse your understanding of Scripture with Scripture itself,” implying rightly that our understanding is fallible but wrongly that we can’t know what the Bible teaches.
The central question is whether or not we can be objective in our interpretation. That is, can we understand what the text means in and of itself, apart from our pre-conceived notions. That last clause is extremely important. One of the hardest parts about getting the Bible right is getting rid of our presuppositions. For example, if you just presume that any reference to burning refers to Hell, you are very likely going to misinterpret Hebrews 6:4-6.
The vast majority of theorists, even in Evangelical circles, have concluded because of this that objectivity is impossible. They say that we cannot approach the text without presuppositions, and therefore, that objective interpretation is a myth. Unfortunately, what they don’t acknowledge is that if all interpretation is merely subjective, then there is absolutely no way to know what the Bible does teach. Truth cannot be known, so we may as well give up on “Thus saith the Lord.”
There are good reasons for thinking this is not the case, however. While it is true that we all approach the text with some presuppositions, two points are in order. First, when someone says that objectivity is impossible, they are assuming that they know something about the way the world works objectively. In other words, if all interpretation is just personal opinion, how can anyone know that all interpretation is just personal opinion? If that were true, then even the statement “all interpretation is just personal opinion” would itself subject to personal interpretation. We would have no way of knowing, and no reason to believe, that it represented reality at all. It appears, then, that objectivity really is possible on some level.
Second, the statement that all people come to the text with presuppositions is itself a presupposition. Now, if presuppositions can be changed (I can change my view of the idea of burning in the Bible), then what about the presupposition that all of us come to the text with presuppositions? Can that be changed? If not, then some ideas are immutable and necessarily true. And if some ideas are necessarily true, then we have an objective ground on which to interpret the text.
As it turns out, there are many of these unchangeable, necessarily true presuppositions. The law of non-contradiction is just one more example. Nothing can both be and not be in the same way at the same time. You can’t say that words “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” means both that God created the earth and that He didn’t create the earth in the same way. Both may be wrong, but both cannot be right.
And by the way, this principle isn’t just true for biblical studies. It’s true for everything. There are many people who actually argue that we can’t know anything, because everything we know is tinted by what we already believe. But, of course, is that is true, then we can’t even know that we can’t know anything, nor can we know that our beliefs effect what we know. All such claims are self-defeating.
Biblical interpretation isn’t easy. Some complain and argue that it should be, but the Bible was written two thousand years ago (and some parts much further back) in different languages, in different cultures, to different people with different problems. Those barriers can be crossed, however, and given the right tools, we can be confident that we know what it teaches. If two people disagree, they can examine their reasons for taking the text like they do and discover which one (if not both) has not considered an important piece of evidence. Biblical interpretation can be objective. It doesn’t have to be just your interpretation.