Yesterday, I attended a very good class by a theologian. There were 8 pastors present, and we represented a variety of backgrounds, from me being the only “liturgical” person, and most definitely the only one calling himself a priest to African Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, independent Pentecostal, Disciples of Christ, etc. The nine of us have formed a good bond, as we are working in Clinical Pastoral Education. Our stories go from laying hands on people to my raising up the bread and wine (ta sa ek ton son, si prospheromen …). But, yesterday we were working theology.
Something the professor said was most enlightening. He made it clear that he thoroughly believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. He is convinced that when God looks at the Bible, he sees it that way. But, he said, the problem is not a Biblical problem or a problem with God. The problem is that of a two-pound brain with very limited experience of reality that we all have in our bodies. The Word of God is infallible; but our interpretation of the Word of God is most certainly fallible. God knows all that has happened. He fully sees reality. He knows that what is in the Bible is infallible. But, we only see a very small part of reality. And even what we see of reality is conditioned by our experiences and our culture.
So, the Bible is infallible, but our interpretations are not. He said that this is why it is so important to read theological writings from other faith traditions. We read so that we may compare our interpretation to other interpretations. Being Protestant, he did not deal with Holy Tradition. Nevertheless, all Orthodox priests know that there are very many areas of theology that are not covered by Holy Tradition. Even where Holy Tradition speaks to a subject, the papers leading up to the Pan-Orthodox Council of last year show that there are differing interpretations of even the pronouncements of an Ecumenical Council, though there is significantly more unity on the interpretation of the doctrinal pronouncements of the Councils.
He mentioned that the believer in most local congregations who says that he believes that the Bible is the Word of God is actually saying that my interpretation is more correct than your interpretation. S/he makes the mistake of confusing their private interpretation of Scripture with what God has said. When you are accused of not believing in the Word of God, it most often means that your interpretation does not agree with their interpretation.
But, it is also not merely relativism. It is not true that your interpretation is every bit as good as my interpretation. If you are a Greek scholar, raised in the Church, having attended Orthodox seminary and having finished a doctorate, the probability is rather high that your interpretation is much closer to what God would say than my interpretation. In the same vein, if you are a holy monk who has spent decades in prayer and fasting and growing in the likeness of God, it is much more likely that you have an innate understanding of God that is deeper than my understanding. We should not sink into relativism when we consider that our brains are fallible. It should force us to sink into humility and to consider that our brother or sister needs to have a hearing from us and should have their words and interpretations deeply considered before being either accepted or rejected.
Bottom line? I believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. But that infallibility will not thoroughly show through until and unless it is correctly interpreted. I believe that my approach to interpretation needs to be a humble approach, in which I am conscious of my limitations that impede me when I try to read the Bible correctly. Finally, I believe that I need to consult my brothers and sisters, the saints of old, and the Church, on the adequacy of my interpretations. Let me remain humble, Lord.