David Ball writes: When people say, “We read the Bible differently from you,” it begs the question: is there a right or wrong way to read Scripture? In our post-modern context, it is easy for us to think that every reading of Scripture is as legitimate as another. If I read the Bible in a certain way, you have no right to challenge it. It is also true that those of us who believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us may read particular passages quite differently from each other. However, the question still stands as to whether there is a right or wrong way of reading the Bible and how do we decide.
Fortunately for us, this is not a new question and in many ways it was at the heart of the discussions between the reformers and the Catholic church. At that time, allegorical readings of the Scriptures were very common. So was the belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Bible. However, the reformers challenged both of these presuppositions.
(Allegorical readings of the Bible tended to spiritualise passages in the Bible by giving a spiritual meaning to every word or concept. Augustine famously interpreted many passages in the Bible allegorically suggesting many hidden references to Christ that were not obvious in the text.)
The belief that you needed to be an expert to understand the Scriptures was challenged by two doctrines. The first, which is probably familiar to many of us, was the priesthood of all believers based particularly on 1 Peter. This doctrine challenged the ‘special’ place of the priest in many ways, including the idea that the priest’s interpretation of Scripture was necessarily authoritative. The second doctrine was the doctrine of the ‘perspicuity’ of Scripture. In other words, the belief that the message of the Bible was clear and could be understood by all. It was this doctrine that led William Tyndale to challenge a learned priest with his famous quotation: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.” In other words, the reformers believed that ordinary people could understand the Scriptures for themselves.
It was not that they failed to recognise different passages within the Bible that would need careful study in order to understand correctly, but they believed that in the Scriptures God had given them everything they needed for ‘life and godliness’. That is to say that in the Bible an ordinary person could read and understand the message of salvation and God’s requirements for holy living.
(This is the basis of the 6th Article of Religion of the Church of England: Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”)
The power of the church hierarchy was therefore challenged. In the reformers’ view, the Catholic church had no right to claim the sole authority to interpret the Scriptures. With the translated Scriptures in their hands (or read to them in public), ordinary men and women could hear God speaking to them directly. This is why the public reading of Scripture in church became one of the key features of the reformation.
The danger of allowing anyone to read the Scriptures for themselves that could have followed was precisely the danger that we face today. Anyone’s reading of the Bible could be legitimate. How could you decide whether someone’s reading was right or wrong? The reformers were very aware of the many different readings of Scripture in their own day and they set out various principles upon which reformed churches, including the Church of England, should interpret the Bible.
The first of these principles of interpretation was founded on the belief that what God said, God says. In other words, we must study the Scriptures to find out what it meant at the time it was written or spoken in order to understand what God is saying to us today. This led to the church, and subsequent biblical scholarship, to seek to understand the original meaning of the Bible in its context in order to apply it to our context. In other words, it is not our context or culture that determines the right reading of Scripture; it is the context of Scripture itself that determines the right reading.
(This calls into question the legitimacy of some of the so-called ‘reader-response’ approaches to understanding the Bible in our own day. Of course it important that we come to the Bible as we are (with our own presuppositions and understanding), but we need to be very careful that we don’t set this above what the Bible says within its own terms of reference.)
Alongside this search for the original meaning of the text was an equally important principle that said that the plain and obvious meaning of the passage is what it meant then and what it means now. This principle of the ‘literal’ meaning of Scripture has been misunderstood by many (sometimes deliberately). The literal meaning of Scripture does not mean that everything we read must be taken as scientific fact. What it means is that the meaning of Scripture is not an allegorical reading (unless the passage is an allegory), but the plain meaning as it was intended. So, when it comes to interpreting a passage of Scripture the reformers believed that there was a right way to do this and it was to understand the Bible in its own context and on its own terms. They believed that the clear and obvious meaning of a passage was what it meant.
But what about passages that seem to contradict each other? Can we say that one passage no longer applies because another passage is more important? This is particularly true when we come to the Old Testament as Christians. Surely all those laws do not apply to us because Christ has done away with the law? Here again, the reformers developed various principles for interpreting the Bible. The first of these is clearly set forth in the 20th Article of Religion of the Church of England on the authority of the church:
It is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.
In other words, the authority of the church was limited to what was in line with Scripture. Furthermore, where passages seem to disagree, it is not acceptable for the church to expound them in a way that they disagree with each other. The belief was (and still is) that the Scriptures ultimately have a coherent message and one passage should never be used to deny the legitimacy of another.
How is it then, that we seem to ignore certain laws in the Old Testament while seeming to agree with others? Whether we agree with them or not, the reformers, based on earlier readings of the Bible going back to the church fathers, categorised the Old Testament laws into three categories: Cultic (to do with worship), Civic (to do with the state) and Moral (to do with personal behaviour). It was argued that most of the laws that are cultic point forward to Jesus and particularly to his death on the cross. Hence, we do not sacrifice animals as part of our worship, because Jesus was sacrificed on our behalf. It was also argued that many of the civic laws do not apply directly to us because the nation of Israel as God’s people has been replaced (or more correctly has been transformed) by the coming of Jesus so that God’s people are no longer an ethnic nation, but a community of believers from all nations.
It is true that many so-called Christian countries have taken the civic law in the Old Testament as the basis for their countries’ legal systems (but the legitimacy of that is a different topic). So what about the Moral laws? Here the reformers were again in agreement that these were not necessary for salvation (which was by faith alone). However, they still believed that they were necessary for holy living. Returning to the Anglican Articles of Faith, here is Article 7 in full:
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.
In other words, the reformers believed that the whole of the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, speak of salvation through Christ. They also believed that every Christian believer is still bound by the moral commandments found in the Old Testament. In other words, they affirmed the unity of the Old and New Testament and the relevance of all Scripture for us as Christians today. Of course this is also affirmed by Paul when writing to Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:14-17)
So, we return to the question we started with: Is there a right or wrong way of reading Scripture? The answer that the reformers would want to give us is: Yes, definitely. For those of us who seek to be true to the principles of the reformation, I believe we would want to affirm:
a. The perspicuity of Scripture: the translated Scriptures can be understood by ordinary people and we do not need a priestly or scholarly class of people to understand the basic message of salvation and how we should live (life and godliness).
b. What God said, God says. So we must seek to understand what God was saying in the context of the Scriptures and we must recognise the challenge that God continues to say the same to us today.
c. There is a plain meaning of Scripture and this is the meaning that we should seek to discover. We may need to recognise different types of literature within Scripture. Ultimately the onus is always on those who claim that something doesn’t mean what it clearly says to explain why their interpretation is ‘the plain meaning of Scripture.’
d. We should not explain or apply a passage of Scripture in such a way that it undermines another passage of Scripture.
e. The Old Testament and the New Testament have a unified message of salvation.
f. The commands of the Old Testament are not a means of salvation, but continue to be for each of us a guide for holy living. We will need to read them carefully, but the morality required of the Old Testament people of God continues to be relevant for the church today.
Within these parameters, there will be a certain amount of leeway for different interpretations of Scripture, but the parameters which the reformers developed in their day continue to give us clear guidelines about legitimate (and illegitimate) interpretations of the Bible.
For a guide to the four essential questions we need to ask when reading Scripture, see Ian Paul’s Grove booklet How to Interpret the Bible. For an exploration of interpreting the OT commandments, see Philip Jenson’s How to Interpret Old Testament Law.
Dr David Ball leads the GOLD Project, which offers small-group-based learning about scripture, theology and discipleship. There is an interview with David about how the GOLD project helps people grow in their faith here.