His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16
We’re given a good reason to avoid reducing Scripture to pithy little (universal) principles (that I keep seeing on Facebook, more than anywhere else). The way it happens, is that people read a Scripture, quote it, then draw out a principle from it. And it’s done so confidently, so ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ -ly. That, I think, is dangerous.
Peter, in this epistle, notes the difficulty in properly interpreting Paul’s letters. The basis of his warning is, Scripture + ignorance = distortion and destruction.
I can hear listeners say, “well I guess we can’t read Scripture then.” You think that way simply because you, like every human, (including myself), have a tendency towards extremism; like a pendulum swinging from right to left. In other words, we are either too confident in our interpretation of Scripture, or, give up the hope for better interpretation.
I like what Paul tells Timothy in his second epistle: “Think over (or reflect) what I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in all these things” (2 Timothy 2:7). Something similar is said by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6). Two things I note from these passages. First, is the need for work. Hard (intellectual) work is underrated in some denominations. It is treated as an optional add-on; the proverbial third plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet: have some if you can fit it in. It is ironic and quite sad that the average Christian (and I’m speaking in my North American context) is progressively getting less thoughtful in a context that is progressively more resourceful with regards to Bible study. Thinking well and thinking hard needs to be emphasized for all ages again – the Church must rediscover the riches of Catechesis, and that sola scriptura always meant, ‘now you can read/study the Bible for yourself’ – a very prominent theme during the Protestant Reformation! Secondly, God is the Engineer in this whole process. He creates, he sustains, he brings growth, he multiplies. He is the One who gets the glory.
The answer, I think, is the need for humility.
It doesn’t mean that we do not attempt to interpret Scripture, but quite the contrary. We work hard, we attempt, and we maintain an attitude that is willing to be wrong, willing to jump in and make a mistake – because lets face it, we all make mistakes in all areas of life. This won’t apply to all things biblical hermeneutics, but it does provide a framework by which one can explore the treasures of Scripture. With learning, humility, and discernment (that is of course, empowered through communion with the Resurrected Lord), one can learn to hear Scripture, and hear the Lord speaking through it.
Lord, help us come humbly to your word, knowing that it bears witness to You, not a principle, but a person who is part of a grand story: the story of salvation, of rescue, of love and grace and beauty, a beauty that has been revealed, is being revealed and has yet to be revealed in its fulness. We are created and you are Creator: all glory is yours.