I had a sad encounter today. I had another believer tell me they are secure in their faith because of their ‘interpretation’ of the Lord’s Word. I have come to a point where, every time I head someone speak words to the effect of, ‘That’s your interpretation,’ another piece of my heart dies. How is it that otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that they have the liberty to ‘interpret’ the meaning of another person’s words? Worse still, how do believers convince themselves that they have this liberty with YHWH’s Word? Well, I’m telling whoever will listen that none of us have such liberty. If you’ll let me, I’ll explain why.
Whenever you write something, you are trying to convey your thoughts to others. These are your thoughts. You can be said to have ‘property’ in those thoughts. If your thoughts are your property, then you have a ‘Right’ in them, as well. IN a way, they are proof of your free will. Now, if you have free will, then no one has any authority over your will. Well, if no one has authority over your free will, then they do not have authority over your thoughts, either. And, if they do not have authority over your thoughts, then they cannot have authority over your words. This is all simple, logical extension: one thing logically follows the other.
OK, so, no one has authority over your thoughts/words. So, where do those same people find a ‘liberty’ to ‘interpret’ your words? Think about what it means to ‘interpret.’ It is actually a complex process. First, the person who is trying to explain their thoughts has a responsibility to accurately and thoroughly explain those thoughts/ideas. This requires a careful choice of words. If we chose the correct words in explaining our thoughts, we can limit the need for others to ‘interpret’ what we mean. We can further reduce the need for ‘interpretation’ by being thorough in our explanation. This often requires us to give illustrations and examples that help others understand what we are trying to explain. If we do a good job of explaining ourselves by choosing the correct words, being thorough and by giving illustrations and examples, then others will have little to no need to interpret our words. They need simply read/listen and accept. At worse, they may have to ask some questions to help them understand, but this should be the least they will need to do.
On the other hand, if we are trying to understand what another is explaining to us, then we have a duty to know, accept and confine ourselves to the rules of the language that person is using to explain themselves. This means we must know the language: the rules of grammar, the meaning of the words that person is using, and the proper context in which that person is explaining themselves. If we do not know all of these things, then we are not at liberty to just assume we understand what is being explained. We couldn’t possibly understand because we are missing crucial pieces. However, even when we have a firm grasp on the language and context, we still have a duty to accept the straight forward meaning of what is being explained. We do not have the liberty to read our own thoughts into the words of this other person. The moment we do this, we seize hold of that other person’s thoughts, which is a violation of their Rights. Therefore, we have no liberty to ‘interpret’ the words of another in any way other than the way that person intends for them to be understood.
Now, this does not mean we cannot use the thoughts of another to help us with our own thoughts. This is perfectly acceptable. Where we are restricted is when we try to over-write our thought onto the words of that other person. This is actually a use of force against the person of another, it’s just that we are using the force of thoughts and words. Where this form of force may not cause direct physical harm, it is still very real. In fact, it can often cause much more harm than physical force, as it can affect many more people than just a single individual. But the point here is simple: when we rad the words of another person, we do not have the liberty to interpret those words in any way other than the way the original author intended for them to be understood. And where we are not confident that we properly understand, we have a duty to do everything possible to understand. This requires us to learn the way the language in question was used, who is writing, in what time and context, etc. It may be we will never be confident that we totally understand the words of another the way they intended, and, when that happens, we should make allowance for the probability of our own error. But what we must never do is fill in the blanks of our understanding with our thoughts. This is a violence upon the person we are trying to read and understand.
Now, this is especially important where we are dealing with the Word of the Lord. Scripture is actually very good at defining and explaining itself. We just have to learn the language, the people, their culture, their world and the topics in question. In short, we must study so that we can understand the full context. But what we are never permitted is the liberty to just ‘interpret’ the Lord’s Word however we ‘feel’ it should be understood. That would place us squarely in the realm of the man of lawlessness described in 2 Thessalonians 2.
Therefore, we must learn the full context of every Scripture passage we read. This means we must study every aspect you can that is connected to that Scripture. This includes things that are found outside of the Scriptures, themselves. Even then, we must accept that we cannot ever be totally confident in our understanding of a given passage. When this happens, we should acknowledge and confess our uncertainty. Where we feel confident in our understanding, we should be prepared to explain why we are confident. However, in no case are we allowed to explain our understanding by saying, ‘That’s how I interpret that passage.’ If you cannot explain it, then say so. We do not have the liberty to claim a confident understanding where we are not confident we understand — especially where the Word of the Lord is concerned.
[NOTE: Yes, I am well aware that this issue is not as ‘simple’ as I have made it appear in this post. However, I am explaining the ideal, the target for which we must shoot.’ I am not addressing any of the countless ‘objections’ that people who do not want to accept the Truth of my point will present in attempt to make it appear as though my argument here is wrong. My argument is not wrong, they just don’t want to be constrained by it. This is because they are lawless, but seek to be a law unto themselves.]
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