It seems like every so often, some perceptual illusion goes viral on the Internet. A few years back, it was whether the dress was black with blue stripes or gold with white stripes. Yesterday, I started encountering a recording which, when played, sounds either like “Yanny” or “Laurel”, depending on who you are. I’m Team Laurel, by the way, which I suppose means that you hear “Laurel” if your three-year-old son ruined your hearing by repeatedly sneaking up behind you and screaming in your ear. Thanks, Marky!
Such differences in perspective are trivial, but similar differences emerge in the critically important realm of understanding God’s word. For instance, a week or two ago, I put up a sermon manuscript in which I argued that in the Exodus account, God began actively hardening Pharaoh’s heart sometime in Exodus 9. However, I have some friends who are hardly Biblical lightweights who see things differently. They think God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart from the very beginning of his encounters with Moses. We’re reading the same text, we agree on what each verse says, but we disagree on what it means.
How do we handle that?
First, I think we have to acknowledge that SOMEBODY HAS IT WRONG. As a disciple of the One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” I believe in absolute truth and think that postmodernism is a load of nonsense. There is such a thing as my perception and your perception, but there is no such thing as my truth and your truth. Somewhere, there is a dress that is either black and blue or white and gold. It isn’t both. Somebody was recorded sometime saying either “Yanny” or “Laurel”, but not both. Maybe we need to adjust our monitors or our speakers, but if we believe the other way, we’re mistaken.
So too, when men moved by the Holy Spirit wrote, there was a particular truth (or truths; many Scriptures have multiple layers of meaning) that they meant to convey. Either we grasp that intended meaning, or we have missed the point of the passage. When two people read a Scriptural text and don’t see the same thing, at least one of them is wrong. Saying so passes for rudeness in our society (which presumes that equally sincere people have equally valid views), but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.
However, before we get too excited about the possibility of the other guy being wrong, we ought to consider that IT MIGHT BE US. I’ve never had it tested, but I think I have a teeny bit of color blindness. As a result, it may well be true that my perspective on dress color may not be the best. Similarly, fathers of shouty sons stand an excellent chance of being wrong about “Yanny” versus “Laurel”.
We also must acknowledge the possibility that we’ve gotten a text wrong, and we need to be humble about the characteristics that would lead us to such a mistake. I once was a brash (very, very brash) 18-year-old with lots of opinions about the Bible. I had an aptitude for interpreting text, but I didn’t have the depth and breadth of experience of a brother who has been wrestling with the word for decades. When I disagreed with such brethren back in the day, it was certainly possible that I was seeing the truth that had eluded them for 30 years. However, it was more likely that they understood something I hadn’t seen yet.
There is no substitute for time spent in study. Of course, we shouldn’t treat the most learned Christians as though they’re infallible. Nobody is. However, when we arrive at different conclusions than they have, we should respond with humility and deference rather than arrogant self-assurance. People who insist, “Those who know more than I do are wrong!” are almost never right.
We must be similarly humble in acknowledging that WE MIGHT NOT BE ABLE TO TELL. Once the dress has been destroyed and the speaker and his hearers are dead, there’s no way to tell what the picture and the recording are actually conveying (absent some sort of digital analysis, I guess). Similarly, I believe that even though the Bible is inspired, simply because human language is limited, our analysis of it runs into the limits of human language.
Take, for instance, Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 3:2 that the overseer must be the husband of one wife. I’ve studied the issue up, down, and side to side, and as far as I can tell, there is no way to determine for certain exactly what Paul meant. I think some interpretations are clearly wrong, but if you want to argue either for “not a polygamist,” “married,” “married once,” or “faithful to his wife,” all of those alternatives seem plausible to me. I think there are reasons to prefer the last, but I still can’t say that somebody who disagrees with me clearly has missed the point.
Of course, not all sources of Scriptural disagreement are like this. If you can come away from 1 Peter 3:21 saying that baptism doesn’t save, not only have you made a mistake, but I’m inclined also to suspect that you aren’t being honest with the text. Different passages have differing levels of clarity, and we have to be honest about that too, in both directions.
Finally, we need to admit that IT MIGHT NOT MATTER. This is clear when it comes to dresses and recordings, but it’s often true when it comes to the Scripture too. Both my friends and I believe that when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He did not take away his free moral agency. That’s an extremely important shared belief, and next to it, the question of timing is insignificant. It makes for an interesting discussion in Bible class and on Facebook, but not much more.
Likewise, some questions have a practical application, but the application is so remote and unlikely that it isn’t significant. As every preacher and elder knows, when it comes to marriage, divorce, and remarriage, the number of permutations is nearly infinite. Some of these permutations are very common, but others occur only in such a specific set of circumstances that most preachers and elders never will encounter them. When dispute arises over one of these unicorn hypotheticals, the best solution is to agree to disagree until and unless the unicorn walks through the church-house doors.
Underpinning all of my other beliefs about the Scripture is my conviction that ordinary people are capable of understanding it. However, once multiple students start working through the text, disagreement over its meaning is inevitable. We are called, though, to manage that disagreement wisely. If we do so, we safeguard both our churches and our souls.