One of the reasons I talk about hermeneutics so much, both here and elsewhere, is that it undergirds almost everything else. If we don’t know how God’s word exercises authority over us, and how to take what it says and apply it today, then we end up fudging the whole kit and caboodle. In the old days, people used to come right out and say that they didn’t submit to the Bible. Thomas Jefferson had the good manners to cut out all of the bits that he didn’t believe. But these days, the opposition to the authority of Christ is more creative. “Ah, but there’s lots of ways of interpreting the Bible”, for all its apparent innocence (and self-evident accuracy), is the contemporary equivalent of “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?”
Figuring out whether you’re interpreting the Bible properly, of course, is of immense importance. There are texts which we find genuinely confusing, the meanings of which have been disputed for centuries by those who love God and his word. But you know what? There aren’t that many. If you compare the sermons of Chrysostom, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and your favourite preacher today, you will be struck by the extraordinary agreement between them on the meanings of almost all biblical texts, rather than by their disagreements. If you read a cross-section of ten commentaries on a controversial New Testament book – say, on 1 Corinthians, you read Barrett, Conzelmann, Fee, Witherington, Schrage, Thiselton, Garland, Wright, Fitzmyer, and Ciampa & Rosner – you will encounter remarkable consensus on what specific texts and passages mean, and where there is disagreement, it will almost always be of such a minor nature that the essential meaning of the passage is largely unaffected. When we consider experts like this from widely different backgrounds (Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Anglican, Lutheran, Neo-liberal), we find people disagreeing about the rhetorical form of the text, possible ancient parallels and various grammatical and syntactical questions – but we don’t find anyone saying that Paul thinks division in the church is good, that sexual immorality is fine, that participating in idol feasts is no problem, or that the resurrection won’t happen. Such scholars may disagree with Paul, but they don’t disagree that much over what he thought was sinful and what wasn’t.