IORG: Embrace the difficult work of biblical interpretation
ONTARIO, Calif., Aug. 27 -- Interpreting the Bible can be a challenging task said Gateway President Jeff Iorg during convocation on August 26. He said exegesis is a duty “undertaken by sober-minded people with full understanding of the gravity” of their work.
“While that seems ominous, we take on the task with joy – knowing God has revealed himself and wants us to know him,” Iorg said.
Iorg’s sermon was on 2 Peter 3:14-16 and it introduced listeners to the theme of Gateway’s fall chapel series: Difficult Passages. It also was the first chapel service held on campus since COVID-related restrictions prevented on-site gatherings in March 2020.
“We have chosen about a dozen troubling texts and asked careful scholars and capable preachers to help us understand them,” Iorg said.
“And not only to understand them, but to model for us methods and principles for interpreting difficult passages so we might better fulfill our biblical mandate of ‘correctly teaching the word of truth [2 Timothy 2:15].’”
In his introduction, Iorg said “the Bible itself acknowledges this dilemma,” as Peter, in the text, refers to some elements of Paul’s writings as “hard to understand” [2 Peter 3:16].
Iorg said it is important to realize Peter regarded Paul’s writings as Scripture. He described three qualifiers that confirm Peter’s perspective on Paul’s letters. First, Peter warned about people who twist Paul’s words as they already do with the rest of Scripture. Second, Peter referred to Paul’s work as deriving from “wisdom given to him” [2 Peter 3:15]. Third, Peter referenced Paul’s other letters, indicating he had some level of access to a set of circulating copies and underscoring the value Peter placed on them.
“In summary, Peter viewed Paul’s collected letters – by their origin, content, and efficacy – as Scripture,” he said.
Then Iorg described what Peter meant when he said Paul’s letters contain perplexing elements.
“The word translated [as] ‘hard to understand’ is used only in this instance in the New Testament,” he said.
“It’s meaning is relatively straightforward – something hard to understand. It does not mean impossible to understand.”
This is an important distinction Iorg said. “The Bible may have some difficult passages but they are not unsolvable riddles. God wants us to obey his Word, therefore we must be able to understand it.”
However, Peter’s description leads to two important questions according to Iorg: Why were some of Paul’s writings difficult to understand in the first century? What passages was Peter referring to?
Iorg offered possible answers to the first question. It is likely most churches only had one or two of Paul’s letters and therefore no comprehensive understanding of Pauline literature. Additionally, some of the letters specifically address issues potentially only known by the himself and the original recipients. Iorg also said early believers read Paul’s letters in their own cultural contexts.
“The ancient world was not monolithic,” he said.
“People in different cities, from diverse backgrounds, representing various cultures, and at various levels of faith development would have interpreted Paul’s letters in their context – just like we do today.”
Finally, he said, early believers were “sin-tainted with flawed reasoning,” as modern readers are today. He asked listeners to compare their own cultural contexts with that of a Saudi Christian woman when reading passages limiting women’s participation in public worship services like 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 and 14:34-35.
“In American culture, steeped in feminist ideology and liberation theology, these statements evoke strong responses ranging from outrage to reasoned workarounds to soften the edges,” Iorg said.
“But consider how these verses might be heard by a Saudi Christian woman living in a culture which severely restricts women – prohibiting them from driving a car, traveling without a male chaperone, or being in mixed-gender social settings.”
“The Bible assures a Saudi Christian woman she can go to church with her husband, sit in a social gathering with other men and women, feel valued as a sister-in-Christ in community with women and men, and discuss spiritual issues on equal terms with her husband. These are liberating breakthroughs in her context, not onerous restrictions.”
For the second question, Iorg described his observations as reasonable, but not definitive. He reminded listeners of Peter’s struggles with the “practical and cultural tensions” of the gospel being for all people, even though he himself had experienced a vision of a large sheet filled with animals [Acts 10:34-35]. Peter’s own interpretation of this vision was that the gospel is for all people.
However, Iorg said, “Peter later struggled to resist peer pressure from Jewish Christians to maintain legal and cultural practices as part of establishing early Christian communities.” Paul sharply confronted Peter about this behavior, as recounted in Galatians 2:11-14.
“Peter may have struggled with Pauline passages which demand an inclusive gospel like Galatians 3:28, ‘there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ or Ephesians 3:6, ‘the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,’” Iorg said.
Iorg then shared a number of interpretive principles to help guide believers as they read and interpret challenging texts in the Bible. He said readers ought to affirm the Bible can be understood but should be prepared to commit to the hard work of interpretation with a humble spirit. He also said they should work to recognize cultural influences on their interpretations as well as literary genres and overarching themes and principles in Scripture. They must allow “clear biblical passages to interpret difficult passages” and to pay attention to the interpretive witness of the church through history, he said.
The final insight from the passage, Iorg said, is tragic.
“The most severe warning in our text is not to the person who misunderstands difficult passages in the Bible, but to the person who distorts the clear meaning of more straightforward texts,” he said.
“The most troubling false teachers are not people who dismiss the Bible outright, but instead those who reshape its meaning to suit a personal or cultural agenda.”
Iorg concluded his message by affirming the Bible is the Word of God and recognizing the “weighty consequences” of interpreting the Bible accurately.
“We commit ourselves today,” Iorg said, “to this new semester of study, and to a lifetime of helping people understand and obey the Word of God – including the difficult passages we may struggle to interpret.”