Q. I recently saw two pastors arguing over whether the “cool of the day” in Genesis 3:8 was in the morning or the evening. I was so baffled by this that I did an unscientific Twitter poll and got almost a perfect 50/50 split. Fascinated, I did a Google search and got thousands of results for just this ONE simple topic. The Bible tells us not to lean on our own understanding, but it would seem that this is exactly what every single one of us is doing. So my question is, how do we know we’re not leaning on our own understanding? Unfortunately, I believe it to be an impossible question to answer, because five people can look at the exact same verse and come up with five very different meanings and every single one of them will argue that their interpretation is correct or even inspired. Still, I’d like for you to offer your thoughts on the issue and how you think we can be sure that we’re not leaning on our own understanding.
There seems to be an assumption behind your question, that if we are actually not leaning on our own understanding, but instead allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth as we seek to appreciate God’s word, then we will agree on what the Bible says and what it means. I think this assumption is basically correct, with a few caveats.
First, there are some things that truly are open to interpretation, so we should not expect that people will necessarily agree about those things. To use your example, many interpreters try to understand the phrase “the cool of the day,” literally “the breeze of the day,” in Genesis 3:8 by appeal to the use of the same phrase in Song of Songs 2:17 and 4:6, where there is a parallel line that might help explain its meaning: “until the cool of the day, when the shadows flee.” But does that mean when the shadows of the night flee with the rising sun, or when the shadows of the day flee with the setting sun? The problem remains: Is this the morning or the evening? In the end, it is a matter about which interpreters of good will who are all well informed can legitimately differ. The literary and linguistic data available to us are simply not sufficient to make a definitive determination. So we should not expect all interpreters to agree. However, we should expect all interpreters to be humble and charitable towards one another and acknowledge that their own understanding cannot be definitive.
This leads to a second caveat: If we want to understand the Bible correctly, we need to read it and reflect on it in the correct spirit. The Bible itself says, “A natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to such a person, who is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” In using the phrase “natural person,” the Bible is ultimately describing such a person’s attitude and source of confidence—where that person is “coming from,” to use the popular expression. This attitude is the opposite of humility and reliance on God, which are the attitudes described in the passage you alluded to in Proverbs 3:5–7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes.” So one obstacle to understanding what the Bible says and means, evidenced in not agreeing about what it says and means, is simple pride. All of us should examine ourselves constantly and be horrified if we discover that pride is driving even the smallest part of our interpretation of a given passage.
Finally, I would say that, paradoxically, the very approach that led you to despair of people agreeing about the Bible actually is the way in which informed, humble, charitable interpreters ultimately will agree about what it says and means: considering what others say. People sometimes complain, “I just don’t get anything out of the Bible when I sit down to read it by myself.” My pastoral response is, “That’s because you’re sitting down to read the Bible by yourself.” We are not meant to understand the Bible alone, in isolation, by ourselves. We are meant to understand it in community. Admittedly there is a place for private reading as a devotional practice, but our Bible engagement must be more than that. We need the community to help us understand what we will not be able to understand on our own. So, looking around on the Internet, even doing a Twitter poll, are some good steps in that direction. But I would also strongly encourage participating in a regular group Bible study (composed of humble, open people) and being part of a church that has a commitment to sound preaching from the Scriptures with humility and deference to other views.
I think that if you cultivate humility and a reliance on the Holy Spirit in your own Bible engagement, and if you seek to learn from teachers and preachers who cultivate these same attitudes while diligently studying the Scriptures with all of the tools and training at their disposal, while you will not find that all questions are resolved by unanimous agreement within the entire church, I think you will find that many of your questions about the Bible are resolved to your satisfaction.