COLUMNS

Volume 44 - Issue 3

But That’s Just Your Interpretation!

by D. A. Carson

In mid-June of this year, a former theology student (let’s call him Demas) posted the following. Demas had successfully completed his M.Div. at a well-known evangelical seminary, and then had served a few years as a fruitful pastor of a growing church in a metropolitan area, while pursuing a PhD in New Testament studies. He was a pretty good student, a steady preacher, and was invariably warm and personable with people. Sadly, he entered into an adulterous relationship and ended up selling real estate. Mercifully, he and his wife held their marriage together. So this is what Demas posted on social media in June of this year, several years after resigning his pastorate:

Here’s my public contribution during #PrideMonth: Whenever I talk with a conservative Christian or pastor (who [sic] I love and esteem, and whom I believe good things about, and which I used to be) about homosexuality now, whatever I actually end up saying to them—what I’m actually THINKING is, “Look. I’ve done biblical and theological training at a very high level. At least as high if not higher than you (for 99.9% of the population). And I’m telling you: You. don’t. know. for sure.
You don’t know for sure that your reading of the Bible is right. Or if your hermeneutics are correct. You do not know for sure how interwoven or weighted the divine and human authorship(s?) of the Bible is. You do not know that.
You don’t know 100% for certain which ancient books are actually God Almighty’s eternal Word. Because there were a lot of books. And we rely on these particular books because they’re the ones the Church happened to be using when the Church first put a “Bible” together. Moses did not bring the whole Bible down the mountain from God. We love these books, but we have very thin understandings of how this collection of books came together and why and on who’s [sic] authority. We do not know.
We don’t know for absolutely certain how God wanted us to use these books. How he wanted them applied to the 21st century western world.
We do not know for certain. We cannot know for certain.
Believing in the Bible is an act of faith. For everyone. And I believe in the Bible. But when my eyes are open to the fact that I can say BOTH “This book is holy” AND “There is a lot of uncertainty about how it should be applied to our society” I immediately realize that I could get the “answer” to the homosexuality question wrong—one way or the other.
I could end up approving something God hates or hating something God loves. Could go either way. Because the issue is not certain. It’s not. We know the same facts. You know it’s not certain.
So, if my potential mistake it [sic] to love something God hates, then I’m going to err on the side of what looks and feels to me most like love. Because whatever else I believe about God, I believe that God Is Love. So, I should try to approve of the things that look most like love.
Which makes me an LGBTQ+ affirming Christian. And I should be willing to say that more.
Happy Pride Month.

In the past, Christians who spoke about the status of the Bible tended to speak of the Bible’s truthfulness, reliability, sufficiency, inspiration, inerrancy, and so forth. In line with many contemporaries, however, Demas, without overtly calling into question any of these more familiar categories, has undermined several of them by raising epistemic and hermeneutical questions: How can I know with certainty what the Bible is saying? How can I be certain what books really belong in the Bible? How can I be sure that my interpretation of any text is correct, and, still more, what its proper application is when I draw lines from texts that are two or three thousand years old and written in another language and in another culture, to our life in the early 21st century?

At a milder level, many preachers who are not entertaining the sweep of the epistemic challenges that Demas raises may nevertheless face somewhat similar challenges as they prepare their Sunday morning sermons. Which interpretation of the text in front of me is correct? How can I declare what the Word of the Lord is saying if I cannot be certain what it is saying? Or which of us have tried to explain what the Bible says on some sensitive topic or other, only to be dismissed with the line, “But that’s just your interpretation”?

The subject is much too large and multi-faceted for a brief editorial, but it may not be inappropriate to lay down a handful of markers, the first four in a little more detail than the final entry.

First, it is deceptive, and even idolatrous, to set up omniscience as the necessary criterion for “certain” or “sure” knowledge. Recall that Demas keeps saying that you cannot know “for sure” or “for certain” or “for 100% certain” and the like. His argument seems to be that if you do not know something “for 100% sure,” then you do not truly know it. In other words, you must possess omniscient knowledge about something before you can legitimately say that you know that thing well enough to build life-decisions on your putative knowledge. In the concrete example that is the focus of Demas’s concern, unless you know with omniscient knowledge that the Bible really does condemn homosexual behavior, and unless you know with omniscient knowledge that the books of the Bible with those passages in them really do belong to the canon of God-inspired books, and unless you know with omniscient knowledge that this is the way God himself wants those ancient texts to be interpreted and applied today, then you have no right to speak as if these things are truly known at all. According to Demas, you are free to choose some other path.

But it is deceptive to set up omniscience as the necessary criterion for “certain” or “sure” knowledge, and this for at least four reasons.

(1) We commonly speak of human knowing without making omniscience the criterion of true knowing. This is true even in the Bible. For example, Luke tells Theophilus that although many people had undertaken to hand down reports of Jesus’ life and ministry as reported by the eyewitnesses, he himself carefully “investigated everything from the beginning,” and then “decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4). Luke uses words that are entirely appropriate to human knowing, to human certainty; he is not promising omniscient knowledge to Theophilus. Again, John tells his believing readers that he is writing his first epistle “so that you may know that you have eternal life”: he is not writing so that they may become omniscient with respect to their knowledge of their status. When Paul encourages Timothy to become “a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15), he is anticipating that Timothy will become a faithful interpreter of Scripture, but not that he will become an omniscient interpreter of Scripture.

(2) If Demas’s arguments are valid for the issues that concern him—that is, if because we do not enjoy 100% certain knowledge about what the Scriptures are saying regarding these ethical issues, therefore we cannot legitimately adjudicate their rightness or wrongness—then to be consistent we must adopt the same agnostic position on everything the Bible says, including what it says about the most deeply confessional Christian truths. For example, Christians hold that Jesus is truly to be confessed and worshiped as God. But the deity of Christ is denied by Arians old and new, including Jehovah’s Witnesses: one cannot say that there is universal agreement that this is what the Bible teaches. Must we therefore say that because we don’t know “for sure” what the Bible says about these things, therefore we should leave the matter open?

(3) Believing in the Bible, Demas asserts, “is an act of faith.” True enough. It appears, however, that Demas pits faith over against knowing. If I understand him correctly, his argument is as follows: You may believe that the Bible says such-and-such about LGBTQ+ issues, but you cannot know “for 100% sure,” and therefore you are not warranted to pronounce that LGBTQ+ behavior is disapproved by God. This, however, buys into not only a misguided view of knowledge, but also contemporary secular definitions of “faith.” On the streets of New York or Montreal, “faith” has one of two common meanings: either it is a synonym for “religion” (there are many “religions”; there are many “faiths”), or it refers to a personal, subjective, religious commitment, without any necessary connection to truth. Something like the latter is what Demas appears to accept, even though “faith” is never used that way in the Bible. In the Bible, faith is intimately connected with truth. The Bible never asks you to believe or trust what is not true or trustworthy. Indeed, in the Bible one of the most commonest means of strengthening faith is by articulating and defending the truth. What is to be believed or trusted is often propositional, sometimes not, but it is never untruth. To pit the truth of what the Bible says against the beliefs that the Bible elicits, makes, from the Bible’s perspective, no sense at all.

(4) One cannot help but ask how Demas knows that God is a loving God. Many so-called “new atheists” viscerally deny that God is great or good.1 The Bible itself depicts God as standing behind judgments that amount to genocide, and many people wrestle with God’s “goodness” because of such passages. So why does Demas base his ethical decisions on his conviction that God is good? To be consistent, shouldn’t he say that we cannot know “for 100% sure” that God is good? Isn’t he making ethical decisions on the basis of what (his own logic must tell him) he cannot know?

It appears, then, that Demas has succumbed to the categories of this present evil world to arrive at, or at least support, his conclusions. Essentially, Demas is undermining the clarity and the authority of Scripture on the ground that we cannot truly know what Scripture is saying because we don’t enjoy omniscient knowledge, and that even our view of the Bible is grounded not in knowledge but in (his understanding of) faith. But I have tried to show that this appeal is deceptive, for our common use of language shows that, whether in the Bible or in general usage, we commonly speak of human knowing even though such knowing is not anchored in omniscience. But the ploy is not only deceptive, it is idolatrous. It demands of human beings that they enjoy an attribute that belongs to God alone, if they are to know (“for certain”—i.e., well enough to make ethical decisions) anything at all. Of course, Demas and his friends are claiming we don’t enjoy omniscient knowledge: we are not to pretend we have the attributes of God. So why am I charging them with idolatry? It is because by claiming we cannot know anything (“for certain”) we are being forbidden to think about human beings and human knowing in a biblical fashion: the Bible demonstrates, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly, that human beings can grow in knowledge, with appropriate certainty, responding to God’s revelation with thought and active faith and obedient submission to our Maker and Redeemer. The ideal of knowing God and making him known is traded in for dogmatic focus on what we cannot know, without reference to what God says about human knowing, and by the forging of epistemological chains that make us deaf to and careless about what God has disclosed of himself, of our world, of moral and ethical conduct. God has been de-godded. The name of this game is idolatry.

Second, we must at all costs avoid being manipulated by what a friend has called “the art of imperious ignorance.”2 Returning for a moment to the digital post of the man I’ve called Demas, the thing to note about his argument is that he not only claims that he himself does not know whether the relevant texts are from God, and/or what they mean (which is an admission of his own ignorance), but he also claims no one else may legitimately claim that they know (which is a dogmatic declaration of their ignorance). This is “imperious ignorance”—that is, an imperial declaration that they must be ignorant whether or not they admit it.

The example of imperious ignorance that Ovey provides has to do with the Council of Sirmium (AD 357). The theological debate concerned Jesus’s nature: was he homoousios, of the same substance as the Father, or homoiousios, of a similar substance as the Father? The former word would be a confession that Jesus is truly God; the latter would be an indication that he is god-like, but not God. Sirmium was pro-Arian—it sided with the view that Jesus is less than God. But instead of coming out and saying so clearly, the Council came to the conclusion that the arguments on each side were so finely drawn that we can’t know which is right. Their conclusion was that it was wrong to affirm one side or the other; indeed, their decision was an implicit prohibition against claiming anything specific, because, after all, we can’t know. The orthodox theologians Athanasius of Alexandria and Hilary of Poitiers criticized the decision of Sirmium, not only because, they insisted, it was wrong, but because it was blasphemous. The decree, they said, had an element of compulsion—but how can you legislate against someone else’s knowledge? Indeed, because it prohibited the confession of the truth, it was blasphemous. The claim of imperious ignorance means, in practice, that people are allowed to adopt whatever position they prefer.

I thought of Sirmium when a few days ago I read Andrew Bartlett’s book, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts.3 The book contains many astute exegetical observations. But more than once (e.g., on 1 Cor 14:34–35) the author argues for the view that the arguments are so finely drawn that it is impossible to decide one way or the other. This is more than an admission that Bartlett himself cannot decide; rather, it is an argument that the exegetical evidence is such that it is impossible to decide, so that others are implicitly forbidden to decide under risk of being charged with careless exegesis. This is a fine example of an appeal to imperious ignorance. I think that in every case some can decide, with varying degrees of certainty, even if others confess that they cannot decide. But that is quite different from legislating ignorance in order to avoid conclusions one wants to avoid.

Third, we should be careful to sniff out publishing ploys that seem designed to introduce new waves of uncertainty. Consider a recent book edited by Preston Sprinkle, titled Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.4 Most of us are familiar with the “two (or three, or four) views” books. Many of them are very helpful: four views on the millennium, say, or three views on the rapture, or whatever. In the past, the “views” books have usually dealt with debates within the constraints of Evangelicalism. Such books are usually not of the sort that claim to offer “two views on the Deity of Christ.” Sprinkle’s book, published by an evangelical publisher, now makes the debate about the legitimacy of homosexual practice an intra-evangelical matter. The advertising for the book maintains that both sides argue their case “from Scripture”—though of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses argue their case “from Scripture,” too. The point is that if there is such a thing as orthodoxy, then not all disputed things are properly disputable. Sometimes the Christian church is built up and strengthened by far-sighted publishing ventures; sometimes it is being manipulated by publishers with little or no confessional loyalty or ecclesiastical discipline.

Fourth, become informed as to the nature of some postmodern epistemologies that, though now rarely teased out, are very widely assumed. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, it was required of most students of the arts—English, history, social studies, politics, journalism, and the like—to become familiar with the ideas (and, in the better universities, the writings) of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and a host of other writers of related persuasion. In other words, it became necessary to learn and defend the theory that lay behind postmodernism, especially postmodern epistemology. Today relatively few study these authors, but nevertheless many have drunk deeply from the effluent of the movement. In other words, many still think in transparently postmodern ways, even though their grasp of underlying theory is relatively thin. In some cases they no longer know what Foucault meant by totalization, but they deploy a similar argument if someone makes an exclusive religious claim.

It may help to begin with an example that was much more current in the middle of the twentieth century. When I was a seminary student, one of the books on hermeneutics we had to read was Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation.5 I was exposed to the book in its first and second editions, where there was no interaction with postmodern hermeneutics. The third edition added some material to tip the hat in that direction, but most of it shared the assumptions of the first two editions. The task of biblical hermeneutics is to develop skills to enable “me,” the interpreter, to ask questions of “it,” the text. I, the knower/interpreter, direct appropriate questions to the text, and the text, as it were, answers me back with equal directness. But the “new” hermeneutic (now quite old!), i.e., postmodern hermeneutics, points out, quite tellingly, that the “I” who is asking the questions is never neutral, never reliably objective. Perhaps the “I” is a white, middle-class, Western, well-educated male, looking for tenure at a fine university. Probably the questions he asks won’t be the same as the questions of an impoverished, semi-literate, street urchin in a Lagos slum, becoming interested in a health-wealth-and-prosperity gospel preached in a nearby tabernacle. Apparently neither of us asks a purely neutral question. Our social and cultural locations guarantee that my question is not a direct hit; it’s more of a glancing blow that reflects an angle that says more about the “I,” the knower-interpreter, than it does about the text. So similarly, the text does not answer back directly either. It responds with an answer that is substantially determined by the kind of question that has been directed to it, which itself is determined by who the “I” is. So “I” hit the text with a glancing question, and it responds with a glancing answer. The “I” is doubtless affected in some way by the answer he or she has received, so that when the “I’ fires off another question, it is subtly different from the previous question, as is the answer provided by the text. And thus, text and interpreter have set up a “hermeneutical circle,” with no obvious way of escaping the subjectivity. And insofar as this model is valid, it affects how we interpret literature, how we shape the history that we write and read, how we evaluate evidence, and so forth. And suddenly, we have tumbled into some profound reasons, some postmodern hermeneutical reasons, for justifying the skeptical charge, “But that’s just your interpretation.”

The result is a cornucopia of innovative interpretations that transform personal beliefs and (if enough people buy into them) cultural assumptions. As Richard Topping has pointed out, “Remember we live in a time when six of the seven deadly sins are medical conditions—and pride is a virtue.”6 When enough people absorb the interpretations that postmodernism has authorized, it is easy for a traditional Christian to feel excluded. Topping goes on to remind us of the well-known line from Flannery O’Connor, who said, “[Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.”7 By contrast, if with Demas you decide you cannot know the truth, then in the culture steeped in the effluent of postmodernism, you will not be odd. And neither do you know the truth.

The beginnings of an answer might be summarized in several points.

(1) It is important to avoid a response that is needlessly polarizing, for transparently no interpreter, no “I,” no knower, is perfectly objective. The only way to achieve perfection in that department is (here we go again!) by becoming omniscient. In other words, traditional hermeneutics owes a debt of gratitude for reminding all of us how we cannot escape our subjectivity, our finiteness, our cultural blind spots.

(2) Yet it does not follow that all interpretations are equally valid, or invalid. Experience shows us our efforts at interpretation do not consign us to a hermeneutical circle; rather, our knowing, our interpretations, are rather more akin to the movement of a hermeneutical spiral: as we circle in on the text again and again, we get closer and closer to faithful understanding, even if it is never the understanding available only to Omniscience.8 Or to change the mathematical model, persistent attempts to understand something, not least biblical texts, regularly place us on an asymptotic approach to perfect knowledge (i.e., we will never get there [for that is the prerogative of Omniscience], but we may sidle up so closely that it’s “as good as” or “as if” we managed to get all the way, much like the approximations in a discipline like calculus.)9

(3) The appropriateness of these models of learning and knowing (i.e., we grow closer to faithful knowing with time) is confirmed by the way we learn, whether the subject is Greek, Spenserian verse, statistics, microbiology, or biblical studies. Our first attempts at knowing any subject expose how large is the distance between what we think we know and what is actually there (as measured by those whose diligent study has brought them asymptotically close). We human beings learn; we come to know by degrees; we self-correct; we compare notes with others. None of this supports the notion that by diligent hermeneutical discipline we may obtain perfect (i.e. omniscient) knowledge, but it surely excludes the conclusion that all putative knowledge is no better and no worse, neither more faithful nor less faithful, than any competing putative knowledge. Along similar lines, while we ought to excoriate those condescending cultures that are dismissive of all other cultures, we find it hard to justify the view that all cultures are of equal value and worth to all other cultures. Is the culture of Naziism of equal value and worth to the culture of, say, Mother Theresa?

At last we know all truth is gray: no more
Faith’s raucous rhetoric, this blinding trap
Of absolutes, this brightly colored map
Of good and bad: our ocean has no shore.
Dogmatic truth is chimera: deplore
All arrogance: the massive gray will sap
The sparkling hues of bigotry, and cap
The rainbow, mask the sun, make dullness soar.
Yet tiny, fleeting hesitations lurk
Behind the storied billows of the cloud
Like sparkling, prism’d glory in the murk:
The freedom of the gray becomes a shroud.
Where nothing can be false, truth must away—
Not least the truth that all my world is gray.10

(4) And finally, the models change again if we become convinced that Omniscience has kindly spoken to us in the words of human language. That does not mean that God gives us the capacity to enjoy omniscient knowledge ourselves: for that, we would have to be God. But surely it is reasonable to assume that this omniscient God knows which words and idioms and syntax and figures of speech to use so as to best communicate with his image bearers, however lost and blind they may be. And on all the topics on which he most wants us to be informed, in love he says the same thing again and again, in the words of different human authors, in different contexts. Not only so, but he liberally bestows his Spirit to enlighten their understanding. He expects his readers to be like believers in Berea, who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11)—a marvelous example of growing in knowledge without ever claiming to possess omniscient knowledge. In other words, it is possible (as well as urgent) to press toward what Paul elsewhere calls “the pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim 1:13; cf. Rom 6:17), lest we find ourselves in the place of inverting what God declares to be the case (cf. Isa 5:20–21). The notion of a “pattern of sound knowledge” flags how much our understanding of this or that text or theme is itself shaped and re-shaped by the “givens” of our own worldview, of our preunderstandings. But that would demand at least another editorial.

Finally, this special character of the Word of God, in which the omniscient God stands behind it, however faulty our interpretive efforts of it, calls us to humility and godly fear whenever we engage the sacred text. God declares, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa 66:2). For our purposes, there are two lessons to be drawn from this assertion.

(1) The prophecy of Isaiah repeatedly makes it clear that God loathes all forms of religion that are largely for show, a veneer to mask greed, lust, and idolatry. Cognitive skills, as important as they are, guarantee nothing, for idolatry in our cognitive powers is still idolatry. So we rightly look for teachers and preachers who unambiguously place themselves under the Word in transparent humility, while we remain highly suspicious of those who try to be too clever by half, who with a smirk and a wink seek rather to domesticate the Scriptures, than to be mastered by them.

(2) This stance also grants the interpreter a certain kind of humble boldness. Not long ago I was speaking at a Christian meeting along the lines developed in this editorial. At the end of the session, someone approached me in anger and tears, saying that I had repeatedly hurt her deeply. It turned out that she had a lesbian daughter, and by condemning homosexuality (unlike Demas) I had wounded her badly. She was in no condition to be told that I brought up homosexuality simply because that was the hinge in Demas’s argument. I might have told her that elsewhere I have tried on occasion to talk at length about this complex subject; I might have mentioned some excellent and though-provoking authors such as Rosaria Butterfield. But the woman was determined to make herself the victim, and me the abuser and victimizer. So finally I asked her, rather quietly, if her anger and hurt sprang from what I said, or from what God says in Scripture. Was she angry with me, or with God? I make it a practice to listen to alternative interpretations, and I am happy to be corrected: I too must want to be a good worker who does not need to be ashamed as I handle the Bible. But if I tremble before the Word of God, I will not duck what it has to say just because it is culturally uncomfortable. To tremble before the Word of God leaves me content to be odd in a culture that fails to recognize the authority of that Word. But it also affords me a place to shelter.

“But that’s just your interpretation”: well, yes, it is my interpretation. Whose else could it possibly be? But in today’s climate, the question is not designed to offer a superior or better-warranted interpretation, but to relativize all interpretations. And that plea for imperious ignorance must not be allowed to stand. It is, finally, incoherent and idolatrous. A far better approach to holy Scripture is preserved for us in Psalm 119.


[1] E.g., Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hatchett, 2007).

[2] Mike Ovey, “Off the Record: The Art of Imperious Ignorance,” Themelios 41 (2016): 5–7, http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-art-of-imperious-ignorance.

[3] Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2019).

[4] Preston Sprinkle, ed., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016).

[5] Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980).

[6] Richard Topping, “Theological Study: Keeping It Odd,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 37 (2019): 5.

[7] Topping, “Theological Study,” 5.

[8] Cf. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[9] I have tried to work out these models in The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).

[10] D. A. Carson, “The Postmodern,” first published in First Things 93 (May 1999): 51, used by permission.

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and president of The Gospel Coalition.

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