By Cindy Koch –
“Saved by the grace of God,” she would always say. She did a lot of great things. She showed up to her church on time and brought her kids to every service event. Everything she said made it seem like we were on the same page. But I was never quite on her level of dedication. I looked at my own children, hair not brushed—again, running into church a few minutes late again this week. I am a terrible mother, yet saved by the grace of God. It looks so much messier, but here we are.
But this gal took no comfort in those words, as I came to find out. She dreaded church and the fake smile that she plastered on her face every Sunday morning. Reading the same words in the Bible, we were miles apart in our understanding. Grace was something she was always chasing after, like a few more coins in the grace bank. If she didn’t show up on time, negative grace in the account. Terror and exhaustion to work out her own salvation, it wasn’t anything like the salvation by grace alone that I heard about.
This wasn’t the first encounter with a Christian who understood the Bible differently than I did. I have plummeted through all the emotions, trying to figure out the reason for this disconnect. Anger, pride, ignorance, study. It haunted me that individual Christians, who truly trust in God and believe in Jesus, could teach and encourage such different truths among themselves. Even more terrifying is continuing my own theological education, tasked with the responsibility to discern the true and good interpretation against the false and foolish. How do I know if my interpretation of God’s truth is correct? How can I move forward with integrity before the Almighty on a path that seems so different from another’s understanding?
But here is where we are hovering over an often overlooked foundational reality among readers of the Bible. The manner in which we each read and understand the Bible is incredibly significant. Every single person is comprised of a unique history, of particular individual experiences, rendering various levels and traditions of education, and building off sometimes very different philosophies of truth, existence, and morality. Two persons can read the exact same words of St. Paul in the book of Romans, but each understanding will undoubtedly be freighted with teachings, meanings, and nuances that may come more from the present day reader than the text itself.
We can see bits of this reality in things such as the etymology of words—how their use, understanding, and meaning has changed over time. For example, our use of the word “gay” has a heated history attached to our present understanding of the word. Immediately, we ask certain questions, maybe without even realizing it. Who originally wrote/said this? When was it written? What is the context of the use of the word? Is it referring to being playful and happy, or is it used in a derogatory fashion?[i] All of these questions bubble up in order that we understand what the statement in question is actually trying to communicate to us. And now, depending on our background and beliefs, we will also receive such a statement in a unique way. Our individual station in life may inspire us to either take offense, pass over it completely, or some other reaction. Although incredibly simplified, this is a tiny example to highlight the complexity of understanding a word, a phrase, a statement, or even a Scripture verse.
When we consider our understanding of the Bible, we must be
realistic that there is a lot more going on than just a few misread words. This
communication between authors from thousands of years ago, a heavenly Spirit, and
application into our present day presents many opportunities for gaps in the
message. Yet, if our foundations of interpretation begin misaligned, then our
discussions about the truths we find therein will be built on shifting sand.