One of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I have great doubt about attempting to know God and his will through studying the Bible. Sola scriptura, the doctrine that the Bible is the supreme authority for this purpose, is pretty common among Protestants, and I’ve often heard other Christians quoting scripture and pointing to it as the answer for everything, but that’s something that’s never really resonated with me before.
I’m currently worshipping with a denomination that abides instead by prima scriptura, which makes greater allowance for other paths of knowing God. Still, scripture is meant to be at the centre of it, and at this point I don’t think I’m quite comfortable with that.
One reason for this is really in the reliance on human interpretation for this to happen. Even if you believe that the Bible is inerrant and reflects the entirety of God’s revelation to the human race, it relies on human interpretation for this revelation to take place, whether through the teachings of others or one’s own study of the text.
Take for instance the chapter on covering the head during worship:
On Covering the Head in Worship
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
This is a passage that is pretty well-known as being applicable to only a specific cultural context (and really, I personally find it hard to argue against that), a perspective I think the majority of modern Christians share (though some still abide by the exhortation for women to wear hats). Is there really anything in the text that explicitly states this, though? Not really – there is some reliance on knowledge of the context (that this is a letter written by Paul to a specific group of early Christians) and parsing of the content of the text (pertaining to the proper attire during spiritual acts) for the reader to arrive at that conclusion.
Isn’t that the case for other portions of the Bible? Wouldn’t active interpretation be needed when reading through any portion of the Bible? And wouldn’t this interpretation be susceptible to human error? The usual retort to this is that the Holy Spirit is meant to be the guide for this, and that scripture is meant to affirm itself (so you can cross-check other parts of the Bible to get the correct interpretation), but the wide range of interpretations that exist today give me pause and I am in no way confident enough to conclude that my interpretation of the Bible is the correct one, even if I feel guided by the Holy Spirit.
(I’ve even read interpretations regarding the controversial subject of homosexuality, for instance, that suggest that since Jesus never specifically referred to homosexual behaviour and that the Bible only refers to it in the Old Testament and in Paul’s letters, the passages against such behaviour were culture/time-specific and may not apply today. I feel pretty open to that interpretation – I think it’s plausible – but know plenty of Christians who would reject such a view.)
At the end of the day, from a practical perspective, I suppose the scripture is perhaps as authoritative a source of information as one can get regarding the Christian faith, so it’s still beneficial to attempt to study it. But when so many conflicting attitudes and stances can be derived from it, many of them harmful (in my view), I feel it is somewhat foolhardy to live your life entirely (or even primarily) by one’s interpretation of it.