When one surveys the various aspects of “Christendom,” it does not take long to notice the great variety in doctrines, teachings, and practices among the various denominations and groups who claim to follow Jesus. Most such groups claim to base their understanding and practice on the Bible: they will profess the Bible as their standard of authority. Most will even agree about the basic contextual meaning of most of the Biblical text. It is in the endeavor to apply the Bible’s message to modern faith and practice where most of the divisions become evident. Since everyone is reading the same Bible but so many are coming to such different conclusions, what is the modern believer to do?
This is a major challenge and difficulty; if everyone is reading the same Bible, we all should be able to come to a common understanding of what God would have us to believe and do (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10). And yet many sincere people with plenty of training, insight, and understanding come away with very different understandings, interpretations, and applications of the Bible’s message. In such an environment, it is quite easy and tempting to profess a level of “hermeneutical agnosticism”: to declare that we humans truly cannot fully know how to properly interpret the Bible, and therefore we should be wary of challenging or condemning a given form of interpretation as wrong or inaccurate (“hermeneutics” involve methods of interpretation, and “agnosticism” involves declaring the impossibility of knowing a given thing or matter).
In our increasingly relativistic world, hermeneutical agnosticism is the expected response to divisions in doctrine and practice: if what is right for you need not be right for me, and vice versa, then there remains little need to come to a consensus about the nature of truth as revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, hermeneutical agnosticism tends to be cloaked in a profession of humility: who am I to declare which interpretation is right or wrong? In such a view, it is arrogant to presume to have better insight or understanding than others. But is hermeneutical agnosticism really the way forward when it comes to what God has revealed in Scripture?
Jesus therefore said to those Jews that had believed him, If ye abide in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).
Since we remain human and in the flesh, we find ourselves continually falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23): therefore, it remains highly unlikely that any one person has completely accurately understood, interpreted, and applied the Scriptures in every instance. All of us can be and often are wrong; we must constantly examine ourselves according to the standard of God in Scripture (2 Corinthians 13:5, 2 Timothy 2:15). We do well to consider our biases in interpretation and how our culture, upbringing, and traditions have led us to understand the Bible in certain ways, and whether those ways are accurate or not.
But just because we will not know everything perfectly does not mean that we cannot know anything at all. We must always remember that God has revealed His message to us in the Bible so that it might be understood. Jesus affirms that we can know the truth. Paul expects believers to be able to become one in mind and love (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2:1-4). Division and sectarian denominationalism are works of the flesh, a source of confusion from the Evil One, based in misdirected traditions and accommodation to cultural norms (cf. Matthew 15:1-9, Galatians 5:19-21, Colossians 2:1-9). Even today it is possible to know the truth of God so as to be saved.
Hermeneutical agnosticism, therefore, is a dead-end, for God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). There always remain proper ways to understand and apply God’s message in the Bible to our lives. We must all be “convinced in our own minds” (Romans 14:5). No one will stand justified before God declaring that they did not know what to believe because of all of the different teachings of different religious organizations; those who will be justified on that day are those who knew God’s will and sought to do it (cf. Matthew 7:21-23). We must stand in God’s truth by faith, entrusting ourselves to God in Christ, seeking to do all things by His authority and not our own (Colossians 3:17, Hebrews 11:6). Let us seek to understand God’s will as revealed in the Bible, rightly handling the word of truth, living and acting by faith!
Ethan R. Longhenry