Any Christian who has ever argued theology with people has probably, at some point, heard the phrase, “That’s just your interpretation” in response to a citation of what God actually teaches in His Word. It’s the “whatever” of the literary world—an end to discussion without an acknowledgment that any salient points have been made.
Many postmodernists have long conceived of “interpretation” as though it were a barrier between a person and the true meaning of the text. They take examples of static in the transmission of a text’s meaning from one person to another, cannot see a way to resolve it, and finally conclude that the real text must therefore be forever closed off from us. Instead, all we have are our own interpretations of the text rather than the text itself. Debates over what the text really mean are therefore irrelevant—all these arguments really consist of are two different but equally valid interpretations attempting to occupy the same social space. They have nothing to do with what is written, only with personal thoughts.
Of course, wise people know that this is an incoherent kind of dodge. If it works intellectually at all, then it can be applied to anything, including the views of the postmodernist. Any disagreement could be immediately resolved in one’s favor by “interpreting” everything said by an interlocutor as agreement with one’s own position.
“I completely disagree with everything you just said.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re in agreement.”
“But I’m disagreeing with you!”
“That’s just your interpretation. My interpretation is that you think I’m brilliant… and good-looking.”
Ridiculous, of course, but no more so than its more typical applications. The fact that even postmodernists keep on talking about texts as if their words make sense to other people indicates that they don’t really believe interpretation is an airtight barrier between us and the text, no matter what they pretend when it comes to subjects like theology and philosophy.
In reality, interpretation is simply our reception of the text—a part of who we are as readers. Far from being a barrier, it is not a third thing between us and the text at all, but our very act of reading the text. When talking about Scripture, a better term than interpretation would be a skill called “reading comprehension.” Accordingly, the popular rejoinder of “that’s just your interpretation” should be more accurately expressed as “that’s just your reading comprehension.”
Of course, if the matter comes down to reading comprehension, there is no immediate sense of “my view is inherently just as valid as yours.” On the contrary, it’s quite clear that some people comprehend writing better than others. This is why children are taught to read—so that they can comprehend texts well rather than poorly. This is why most forms of standardized testing have a component for reading comprehension (under various monikers) and why some students do better than others. When reading comprehension is challenged, it is not a dismissal of the subject. It is instead a question of who is comprehending the text better, the resolution of which steers us back to the text in question (often more of the text than was originally cited)—the very last thing that’s-just-your-interpretation guy wants to actually read.
One of the clearest signs that a person’s reading comprehension skills are poor is that they have determined what a text is allowed to say prior to reading it. Take, for example, the Bible’s teachings about homosexuality. Most pro-homosexuality activists are honest in that they openly do not care what the Bible says on the subject. For non-Christians, the Bible is relevant only when it intrudes on their lives in some fashion. The same true of theological liberals who, though less honest because they falsely claim to be Christian, are nevertheless open about seeing the Bible as a product of its time whose value is always subsidiary to modernistic “enlightened” opinions. Sometimes, however, there are people who want to belong to orthodox Christianity—who want to believe that their religion is actually true—but do not want to believe some of the inconvenient details. They cannot dismiss the text as non-Christians do, nor can they completely subject it to the Spirit of the Age as theological liberal heretics do, but they believe they can categorize some Biblical teachings as coming from an “interpretation” rather than from the text itself.
According to these individuals, the Biblical passages about homosexuality are true and applicable to Christians, but are not referring to homosexuality as we understand it today according to their own interpretation. Moses was just talking about acts of dominance that are more like rape. Paul was just talking about Greek pederasty and homosexual promiscuity. None of them were talking about the (supposedly) monogamous and faithful homosexuality we encounter today. If this is my interpretation, than the opposing orthodox view must be the other person’s interpretation—not a teaching a Scripture. Add a dash of misunderstood Sola Scriptura, and the rationalization is complete: our modern kind of homosexuality must be permitted because everything not specifically condemned by Scripture is permitted.
But what happens when we remove the “interpretation” dodge and treat the contention as a matter of reading comprehension instead? Well, then we have to ask, “how do we know that these Bible passages aren’t about homosexuality as we encounter it today?” Here the answers diverge, but I usually only see variations on two general themes. The first is that we know this because our loving and monogamous form of homosexuality is only a modern discovery; so ancient prophets couldn’t possibly have been talking about it. The second is that because our kind of homosexuality is good and loving, and a good and loving God would never condemn something good and loving, so He must have been condemning something else—something sort-of-homosexual that isn’t good and loving.
There are plenty of historical and logical reasons why both of these “how do we know” answers are dubious, but here I’d like to focus on what they mean for reading comprehension specifically. In neither case does one actually need to look at the text itself to see what Scripture actually says. In both cases, the outcome is determined apart from the text. If ancient prophets couldn’t possibly have been talking modern homosexuality, then they couldn’t possibly have been talking about it no matter what the prophets actually say. If God would never condemn something one sees as good and loving, then His words will always mean something other than that no matter what they are. At this point, one does not even need to read the Bible to find out that homosexuality is just peachy as far as Scripture is concerned. In the end, the fact that one’s reading comprehension doesn’t actually involve reading is always indicative that it is very poor indeed.
The example I used is about homosexuality, but it applies to all sorts of subjects anywhere from wifely submission to whether the Sacraments actually do anything (i.e. whether “Baptism now saves you” is just my interpretation of “Baptism now saves you.”) People try to avoid all sorts of teachings for all sorts of reasons by shifting focus from the text to interpretations. The more industrious seek out various creeds, confessions, and writings of the Church Fathers to show that their interpretation is part of the historic church. But as valuable as such documents are to help us refine our Biblical reading comprehension skills, they can never be a stand-in for reading the text itself. When two Christians disagree over what God is teaching them, the problem is not interpretation—the problem is at least one of the two Christians.