You just make the Bible mean what you want it to mean! How can you expect me to take it seriously?

I was talking to a fellow traveller at an airport. She had just finished reading a book that, she explained, claimed Jesus married Mary Magdalene and ended up living happily ever after in Mesopotamia. Another friend of mine had read the same book and had come to completely different conclusions. When I mentioned this, my fellow traveller was not at all surprised. As the conversation progressed, it became clear that the historical source material was not really important to her. This new book that she had enjoyed, and the variety of conclusions drawn from it by intelligent people, just went to show that there were many interpretations of any text. This was then extended to apply to the Bible and the events it records. Meaning could not really be fixed – there was just a sea of valid opinions and no one ‘reality’ was to be found among them all.

But is this really the case? Does meaning matter? And is it possible to find it? Aren’t we all just picking and choosing the things we want to believe?

The big issue behind the increasing numbers of questions about meaning and interpretation is the question of whether words and texts can have any inherent meaning at all. Does it all just come down to a matter of opinion?

 

Book cover of Amy's revised work

 

Are all interpretations really equally valid? Is perception reality? Can a text or a person actually speak to me or do I make words mean what I want them to mean?

This dilemma was powerfully communicated to my husband Francis (nicknamed Frog) many years ago. He is a vicar and had just taken a friend’s wedding. After the church service, we were sitting at a beautiful reception around a table. I was talking to the young man sitting next to me; my husband was sitting next to the young man’s girlfriend. As we began to talk, the man stopped in mid-sentence and suddenly blurted out an apology – he said he found that, for some reason, he couldn’t lie to me and explained that, before coming to the wedding, he and his girlfriend had decided to ‘swap lives’. He was a wealthy management consultant and she was an artist. They had wanted to see if people would treat them differently according to their status, so they pretended to have each other’s jobs. As we talked about why he might be uncomfortable about lying to me and other spiritual things, we looked over at our partners. He said, ‘I wonder if my girlfriend has managed to hoodwink your husband . . . ’ I thought about kicking Frog under the table, but realised it would be futile.

After the wedding, Frog explained to me that the young woman had also found herself unable to lie to him. They had also begun to talk about God and, at one point, she had said, ‘The reason why I am not a Christian is that I am studying English Literature, and I don’t believe that there is a transcendental signified, so I can make the Bible mean whatever I want it to mean.’ Frog asked her to clarify. She explained that she believed that words have no actual meaning – a word on a page or a word being heard only has the meaning that a reader or a hearer gives it. It does not itself carry any ultimate meaning because there is no God (‘transcendental signified’) to give ultimate meaning to words. My husband looked at her and said, ‘If that is the case – if words have no meaning except the meaning of the listener or reader – is it OK with you if I take what you have just said to mean: “I believe in Jesus and I am a Christian”?’ At that moment, she looked a little worried. She realised that her argument failed its own test. The standards by which she was judging the Bible were standards to which her own thinking could not measure up.

All of us have a tendency to do that – we set standards that we expect opposing views to our own to meet, but quite often we forget to subject our own thinking to those same standards.

This issue of whether or not words have any meaning is incredibly important as we look at the Christian faith, and as we offer the source materials about the life of Jesus – the New Testament Gospels – to our friends who do not believe in him. If the Bible only means what we make it mean, then there is no point in reading it to discover anything about God.

Why do people believe that when it comes to the Bible, everything is a matter of interpretation? 

It may help us to answer this question if we can understand where these ideas about interpretation and meaning come from.

The idea that there is no ultimate meaning in any text became extremely powerful in postmodern thinking; it has continued to have enormous implications for any communication about the gospel. One literary theorist [Roland Barthes] wrote:

Literature . . . by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text (and to the world as text), liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary, since to refuse to fix meaning is, in the end, to refuse God . . . 

Of course, this echoes the strangely prophetic words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘We cannot get rid of God until we get rid of grammar.’ This idea is later echoed by the atheist Bertrand Russell: ‘Everyday language embodies the metaphysics of the Stone Age.’ The desire to liberate the human being from the constraint of a God is powerfully linked with this issue of language and meaning.

*** *** ***

This is an edited extract from the revised and updated 2020 edition of Amy Orr-Ewing’s classic apologetics work, Why Trust the Bible?. You can order the book now from IVP.