If you’ve never gone to seminary or studied ancient languages, it can be difficult to know how to interpret the Bible. There are so many interpretations that many critics of Christianity claim the Bible is essentially meaningless, since people can use it to justify anything.
I’m not a theologian. I’m just a lay-Christian, as most Christians are. We read books and listen to sermons by people who have studied ancient texts. We try our best to figure out what our stances should be on various issues in modern life based on what was written in cultures removed by time and often place as well.
I don’t know that my interpretations of the Bible are always right. Some passages seem to need reconciling with other passages (an eye for an eye or not?). Some passages seem to need reconciling with the common sense of everyday life (I don’t plan on literally gouging out my eye any time soon). So the way I make sense of the Bible is to look at what priorities the Bible itself places. What is the greatest commandment? What virtue is the most important?
Here’s what Jesus has to say:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40 TNIV)
Loving the Lord your God is quite abstract, and the implementation of that principle is subject to interpretation. But loving your neighbor doesn’t seem too difficult to understand. Who’s your neighbor? Well, the person you’re supposed to hate, of course (read the parable of the good Samaritan, if you don’t believe me). You can see this shown through the stories of Jesus’ own life. Whom did he scorn and publicly humiliate? The people with theological authority who judged others as morally inferior. Whom did Jesus love and associate with? Just about everybody else—the outcasts, the “sinners,” the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the lepers.
So try to think about, in today’s society, who the theological authorities are who judge others. Then think about who the outcasts and “sinners” are. Love the latter. Associate with them. Then call the former on their bullshit, just as Jesus did.
Let’s take a look at what Paul says:
If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body [to hardship] that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3,13 TNIV)
Yup. That’s right. All that religious stuff you do? Pretty cool stuff. All that stuff without love? Worthless. Love trumps all. If you don’t love, as far as I can tell, you’re not a Christian, just a religious legalist. So the basic guideline you should have when struggling with scripture, working out interpretations, trying to resolve apparent discrepancies, figuring out practical applications to life: love. Make sure you remind yourself that both Jesus and Paul have said the greatest thing is love. That’s the priority.
I may not have seminary training. I may occasionally get some biblical interpretation wrong, but if I love people and God, I know I’m on the right track.