Interpretation of Scripture, followed by right application, is the primary way that we are to be like God. This is not an issue of education. It’s an issue of imitation. (p. 23)
It has been the concern of many that the church has abandoned the task of serious Bible interpretation to the “ivory towers” of the academy and the PhD’s that dwell therein. This has resulted in an unhealthy and shallow church as well as a look of suspicion upon the academy. For too long the church has relegated the task of interpreting Scripture to those with formal education while churchgoers go along reading their Bible’s simply at “face value”.
This is the current model of thinking for many Christians. But according to Curtis Allen, this should not be the case. To combat this wrongheaded thinking he has written Education or Imitation?: Bible Interpretation for Dummies Like You and Me. This is a challenging and thought-provoking book that will shed new light on what it means for Christians to faithfully and fully imitate Jesus.
Imitating Christ by interpreting Scripture
Allen’s central thesis is simple: the primary way in which Christians imitate Christ is by being faithful interpreters of Scripture. Initially, to many who read this statement, it will come across as very odd, out of place, if not down-right wrong. After all, aren’t the Church’s two main responsibilities to evangelize and disciple the nations to the glory of God (Matt. 28:19-20)? For Allen, those two commands may be the beginning and end of the mission of the church but there is a middle to consider as well. Allen asks, “What are the means that produced the end?” (p. 19). The answer – “Interpretation of the Word of God, spoken and applied, is the primary means that Jesus used” (p. 19).
If interpretation of God’s Words is the primary means of imitating Christ, then there is a lot of bad imitation, since there is so much bad interpretation taking place within the world and the church. “Bad interpretation of one kind or another can be seen in all acts of disobedience to the Word of God. And like anything else in creation, bad interpretation had a beginning” (p. 25). Starting with Adam and Eve, mankind has always been an interpreter of God’s Word. In the garden, Adam and Eve had to interpret God’s instructions to them regarding the fruit of various trees and the consequences for eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As we know from Genesis 3, Satan challenged both God’s Word and mankind’s interpretation of it. In the end, Adam & Eve accepted Satan’s misinterpretation of God’s word and correction of their interpretation, resulting in their sin.
Hope for bad interpreters
But Adam and Eve were just the beginning of a long line of bad interpreters of God’s Word. Some notable examples Allen points out are Saul and Satan. In 1 Samuel 10-15, Saul misinterprets Samuel’s words to him concerning how God would mediate His blessing on Saul as king. Later, Satan enters the scene to tempt the 2nd Adam, Christ, while He is in the desert and misinterprets Scripture three times (Matt. 4). Not only does Christ have to correct the misinterpretation of Scripture by Satan, he has to with the Pharisees as well – the religious leaders of the day! Most of Christ’s interaction with these religious leaders centered on correcting their bad interpretations of Scripture.
Thankfully there is hope for bad interpreters like all of us. Jesus. Yes, Jesus is the answer to our bad interpretations of Scripture. Jesus is “the primary interpreter of Scripture because He is the primary object of Scripture” (p. 43). So often we focus so much on imitating Jesus in word and deed that we miss out on an equally important way in which Jesus lived out His ministry among people on earth – as the perfect interpreter of Scripture. Allen points out that “some of the most amazing things recorded in Scripture are not actually miracles but the instances when God explains His own Word to people and then shows them how to apply it….Interpretation and application of God’s Word is of the highest importance to Jesus” (p. 43-44). Time and time again, Jesus challenged the bad interpretations of the religious leaders of his day. After correcting their bad interpretations, He would go on to corrects their bad applications stemming from their bad interpretations. This is what Jesus wants to do for us. He corrects our bad interpretations and applications so that we can better live for Him.
By following the example of the Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily to see if the words of the apostles were true (Acts 17:11), Christians are to be actively involved in interpreting Scripture for themselves and not just leaving it up to those educated in biblical studies. Allen is not saying we cannot learn from others. After all, God speaks through His Word to all believers. However, we are not to entirely depend on the interpretations of others (p. 69). Allen’s words are bold, “All believers should be able to interpret the Bible with little to no theological education.” (p. 72) Again, Allen is no discouraging formal theological education. In fact he encourages it for those who are able and gifted to do so. Rather, he is encouraging all Christians to realize that intentional, active and faithful interpretation on Scripture is a necessary part of imitating Christ. Therefore, all Christians need to take it seriously.
Allen’s proposal is right on the money and he should be applauded for his work here. There is only one thing I felt was missing from the book. Besides a few passing references to the Holy Spirit, there was no extended discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit as the believers helper in imitating Jesus as an interpreter of Scripture. In John 14, as Jesus tells the disciples that He will be leaving them soon, He encourages them with the coming of the Holy Spirit. In 14:26 He tells them that the Holy Spirit will “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” It seems that the Holy Spirit would be the primary means enabling the believer to imitate Jesus as a Spirit led interpreter of Scripture.
Nevertheless, Education or Imitation? is definitely a challenge to much of the contemporary Church’s thinking on education as a requirement for interpretation and the, quite frankly, lackadaisical attitude that too many believers have towards interpreting Scripture for themselves. This is the kind of book I would want to put into the hands of everyone in my church and would pray that every Christian reads it. Allen’s book is spot on and his words need a wide hearing.
About the author
Craig Hurst received his BA in Church Ministries from Clearwater Christian College and is pursuing the MA in theology at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He currently lives outside of Grand Rapids, MI and attends Grace Community Church, where he serves as a volunteer youth worker (along with his wife), and teaches some elective classes. He blogs at Theology for the Road.