My latest Grove booklet is on How to Interpret the Bible. After exploring the four questions of genre (kind of writing), (historical) context, content and canon, I offer the following conclusion. You might by now be wondering ‘What happened to simple, believing reading of the Bible that I was taught to do when I first came to faith?’ The answer is that such ‘simple’ reading has looked around and realized what happens in the real world as we read the Bible—and is aware of three particular experiences.
The first experience is sometimes finding the Bible difficult to make sense of. Like the Ethiopian eunuch meeting Philip the desert (Acts 8.26–40) or Peter reading the letters of Paul (2 Peter 3.16) we find some things hard to understand, and realize that we need help. The second experience is finding ourselves corrected; we might have thought a text meant one thing, and then later experience, or further reading, or hearing a sermon makes us realize that we the text probably means something else, and we need to read with this new understanding. The third experience is meeting people who disagree with us about what different parts of the Bible mean. (The only way to avoid this is to live in a cave, or never use the internet, or attend a church where everyone agrees with you about everything—or all three!) Disagreeing about what Scripture means has been a feature of every era of Christian history.
Simple, believing reading is essential as a place to start, but all these experiences tell us that we need to add something more—to find a way, in our reading and interpretation of Scripture, of being not just as innocent as discipleship doves, but also as wise as hermeneutical serpents (Matt 10.16). We need to be wise—to have understanding—in relation to ourselves as readers, in relation to others who read with us, and in relation to the role the Holy Spirit plays in our reading.
Reading Ourselves: The Need to Always Believe Again
In our own approach to reading Scripture, we can often observe a dynamic that goes something like this. We read a verse or a passage, and the mean-ing immediately leaps out to us. We are certain that this is what the passage means, and that God is saying something to us through this. This is what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls a ‘naive’ reading—and since this is our first reading, he calls it the ‘first naïveté.’ Then something happens: we gain more information about the text; something happens to us which changes our outlook; or we come across a discussion suggesting that there is more than on way of interpreting the passage. Unless we decide to retreat in denial, we then need to engage in a process of ‘critical’ reflection. ‘Critical’ comes from the Greek word krisis meaning ‘judgement’ or ‘discernment’; we need to stand back from our naive commitment to our first reading, and evaluate the options with which we are now confronted.
But, says Ricoeur, we cannot stay in this ‘critical’ phase forever, since the danger of criticism is that it not only undermines bad readings of the texts. If deployed on its own, it undermines all readings of the text, since no interpretation will be without some question or other. ‘Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again’ says Ricoeur—called to what he describes as a ‘second naiveté.’ Having evaluated the different possible ways of reading a text, we need to come to a decision (‘make a wager of faith’), and commit to a belief that this is the right way to understand the text. In other words, having considered what kind of writing this is, what it meant in its context, having attended carefully to what it actually says (and not what we hope or assume it says), and noting where it comes in the story of the whole of Scripture, we then commit ourselves to the meaning that we find, and live in the light of it. This will never give us absolute certainty (of what can we be absolutely certain this side of the grave?) but it will give us confidence in the meaning of the text—a confidence that is settled, and yet open to correction when we come to read this text again in the future. Both confidence and openness are necessary in the faithful reading of Scripture.
Reading with Others: The Role of Tradition and Reason
One of the major problems with the ‘simple, believing reading of Scripture’ is that it is often done individually, in isolation from other readers and other reading traditions. But Scripture is consistent in depicting its audience as being plural and communal—as God’s word to the whole people of God, to be received by them together. We can see it in the interpretation by members of the community to the wider community in Neh 8. We can see it in the teaching of Jesus to groups of disciples, of followers and of the crowds. We can see it in the practice of the early church of attending to ‘the apostles’ teaching’ in Acts 2.42. We can see it in Paul’s letters being mostly addressed to the early Christian communities, rather than individuals or leaders in those communities (only in Philippians does Paul mention leaders in his opening greeting). And we can see it in the blessing in Rev 1.3 on the lector (singular, the one reading aloud in the congregation) and the hearers (plural). Errors arise in our reading of Scripture when we detach ourselves from the believing community to whom the Scriptures were given.
This means that we should actively seek to read Scripture with others. In thefirst instance, that will mean finding opportunities to read with other people we know, for example in a Bible study group in our local church community. Even this experience of listening to how others read and sharing our own reading will be both challenging and enriching for all. But there are two other groups of people that we should seek to read with.
One is those believers who have been called to study Scripture very carefully, possibly in an academic context of some sort, with all the intellectual tools at their disposal, whose readings are available to us in books and commentaries. Assuming that these readings seek to move beyond mere criticism and make a wager of faith in offering a reading that is both wise and believing, we should see them neither as a threat that undermines our own reading nor a priestly power that simply mediates the truth to us and takes the place of Scripture itself. Such commentators are our brothers and sisters alongside whom we sit as we read Scripture together.
The other group is those believers who have read the Scriptures in generations past, who have left a legacy of understanding and interpretation for our benefit. Once again, there is no need to take these as a mediating authority whose insights cannot be questioned; they are finite and fallible just as we are, even those much closer in time to the apostolic generation than us. But we are likely to miss something if we do not pay any attention to the way that Christian in the past have read Scripture; very often the first group (commentators) will help us engage with this second group (previous generations of readers and commentators).
These two additional groups of fellow readers can be seen to represent two important sources for our thinking about God—respectively ‘reason’ and ‘tradition.’ Although it is sometimes suggested that Scripture, tradition and reason are three sources of authority in shaping Christian theology, it is better to think of the last two as lenses by which we read the single authority of Christian Scripture. ‘Reason’ is the thing that actually helps us make sense of what God is saying to us through Scripture in our very di erent contemporary context, and ‘tradition’ tells us the way that previous generations of Christians have heard God speak to them in their contexts.
Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
Reading With the Spirit: Becoming Virtuous Readers
There is a quite different objection often made to thinking about the process of our reading and interpretation. If Scripture is ‘God-breathed’ or inspired by the Spirit (2 Tim 3.16), should we not simply rely on the Spirit’s prompting to point us to the meaning of Scripture for us, rather than going through an intellectual process? After all, did not Jesus promise that it would be the Spirit, not critical thinking, that would lead us into all truth (John 16.13)?
We certainly should rely on the Spirit for guidance to direct our reading, excite our interest, and shape our will. But a rejection of thinking about hermeneutics on the basis of the Spirit’s guidance sets the rational against the spiritual, as if we did not need to love God with our mind as well as our body, soul and strength. It suggests that the role of the Spirit is to provide additional information as if by magic. In fact, through the Bible, one of the primary roles of the Spirit is to offer judgement or discernment; the Spirit and judgment are closely associated in John 16.8, 1 Cor 2.15 and elsewhere.
Naive reading of Scripture often expects God to speak to us: immediately, as soon as we open the page; with clarity so that we are in no doubt as to what the text means; with relevance, so that we learn something for our life today; and with familiarity, as a friend speaking to a friend. But for God’s people throughout history (including in the biblical period), they experienced: a delay before hearing God speak; ambiguity or incomprehension of what he said; a sense of distance between what God said in the past and what is saying in the present; and a sense of strangeness or ‘otherness’ about God’s perspective. We cannot simply retreat from this second set of experiences, lest we domesticate God and make him (and the Bible) in our own image. Neither can we abandon the first set, since we believe God has spoken and we do want to hear. Instead, we need to hold the two sets of experience together. To do this we need to cultivate patience, as we wait for God’s word to us to make sense; we need discernment to weigh the di erent options and clarify the ambiguity; we need discipline to engage empathetically with the world of the text; and we need wisdom to respond to the strangeness of God’s word to us. These are the qualities that we need the Spirit to form in us as mature, faithful readers of the words that the same Spirit rst breathed out through the biblical authors
Reading Scripture with the Trinity
None of this is accidental; the issues I have been exploring in this booklet arise because of the nature of the God who addresses us. That God spoke in many cultures in different ways in the past reflects the universal sovereignty of the Father ‘from whom every family in heaven and earth gets its true name’ (Eph 3.15). ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways…’ (Heb 1.1). God’s revelation in a particular time and place arises from the particularity of his self-disclosure in the incarnation of the Son, and the whole canon of Scripture is connected to this. We read the Old Testament because it was the God-breathed Scripture that Jesus read; we read the New Testament because it is a witness to this once-for-all articulation of The Word. ‘In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb 1.2). And we expect God to speak to us today through the Spirit-breathed Scriptures because the Spirit of God continues to speak to us as the down-payment of the promise of salvation and the sign of hope to all (2 Cor 1.22, 5.5; Eph 1.4; Rom 8.23). What I have set out here is a distinctively Christian way of reading the Christian Scriptures; other religious traditions do not, in general, read their Scriptures in this way.
And interpreting well, wisely and with both discipline and grace is essential for the health and effectiveness of God’s people as they grow into the maturity of Christ in the transforming power of the Spirit. Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim 3.15 are often quoted as making the institution of the church of central importance:
If I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
In fact, the word hedraioma used here does not mean ‘foundation’ so much as ‘support’ or ‘buttress’ and so forms a natural pair with stulos meaning ‘pillar.’ Paul is clear there is only one ‘foundation’ (themelios) which is Jesus himself. But his whole people (the meaning of ekklesia here, not a reference to an institution) need to shape their lives (‘walking by the Spirit,’ Gal 5.16) by the apostolic teaching about him—which Paul has been emphasizing to Timothy in this letter. We can only be effective in the way God wants if our understanding and our conduct are both formed by the right understanding of God’s word to us.
John records Jesus saying something very similar in his so-called ‘high-priestly prayer.’ Having promised that ‘the Spirit will lead you into all truth’ (John 16.13), he prays that the Father will ‘sanctify them in the truth—your word is truth’ so that ‘they might be one’ (John 17.17, 22). We nd our unity and our sancti cation as we are shaped by God’s word given to us in Jesus and recorded faithfully by the writers of the New Testament guided by the breath of the Spirit. If we want to continue as one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, we need to treat the interpretation of Scripture as of central importance.
You can buy How to Interpret the Bible: Four Essential Questions from the Grove Books website for £3.95 post free in the UK, or as a PDF e-book.
Don’t forget to book your place at the Festival of Theology on Jan 30th!
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