If you were studying the Bible (which is fairly unlikely) and you happened to read 2 Kings 21 (which is exponentially more unlikely), you might experience déjà vu from the last time you were reading 2 Chronicles 33 (which is—let’s not kid ourselves—impossible; when was the last time you opened a book of Chronicles that wasn’t written by C. S. Lewis?). The sense of familiarity you would experience would be understandable, though, given the fact that the chapters cover the same subject: Manasseh’s reign in Judah.
But if you were to study these passages a little more closely, you might notice a major plot point that is included in 2 Chronicles but left out of 2 Kings. The stories read almost identically until you arrive at vs 12 where Manasseh “[entreats] the favor of the Lord his God and [humbles] himself greatly before the God of his fathers.” From there, Manasseh turns his life around and becomes “one of the good guys.”
This is big. As far as 2 Kings is concerned, Manasseh’s life can be summarized as follows:
Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he made Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh and all that he did, and the sin that he committed, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?
And to boot, Manasseh’s son, Amon, is described in light of his father’s evil (vs 20). These pictures of King Manasseh are vastly different, and one would be hard-pressed to say they are accurate portrayals of the same man. Was Manasseh a righteous king or an evil one?
Oddities like this can be found throughout the scope of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. When you read Job, for example, you may notice its attitude and wisdom stand in direct opposition to the sage advice of Proverbs, which teaches a theology of earthly retribution—i.e. God ensures that good people get good things in this life, and bad people get bad. There are dozens of verses in Proverbs that advocate this way of thinking (see 19:8, 28:13, and all of chapter 11), but 11:5 puts it best, “The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight, but the wicked falls by his own wickedness.” Job, on the other hand, is an entire book dedicated to the premise that retribution theology isn’t true; Job is blameless and yet he suffers unimaginably.
And, of course, possibly the most well-known example of these sort of tensions is the Genesis account(s) of creation. In chapter 1, you have the days of creation spelled out for you in a very deliberate and easy-to-make-into-a-song order. Part of that order is vegetation on day 3 and animals on day 6 with humans appearing slightly after. In the very next chapter you find, “When no bush of the field was yet in the land… the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature,” and then a few verses down, “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them.” Pretty straight-forward, and pretty not-the-same as the first chapter.
Reading the Bible is scary business, and I mean that with the utmost sincerity. In fact, I cannot overemphasize how truly trying and at times frightening, studying Christian scripture can be. That’s because reading the Bible correctly does not qualify for points on the SAT; instead, interpretation counts for how one lives. The way in which you buy groceries and pay your utility bills is informed by your reading of a document written over 2000 years ago over the span of 1500 years.
The way you interact with your coworkers.
The way you take care of your pets.
The way you make and associate with friends.
The way you talk about politics.
The way you act around family.
The way you love your spouse.
The question of whether you are loved in return.
The question of if you are invited to family gatherings.
The question of self-worth.
They are all informed by our reading of a document written over 2000 years ago over the span of 1500 years.
And that’s why it’s scary. I’ve written on and linked to others on this subject a lot because it matters. People’s method for hermeneutics—whatever that means—accounts for a lot of loneliness and crises of faith. It accounts for a lot of fear.
It’s scary to not know.
By far the most influential event in church history—especially in regards to interpretation—is the Protestant Reformation. It is a time of theological giants, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who engaged in dramatic confrontations with the church powers. They learned from the Church Fathers and medieval exegetes and developed their own robust methods of interpretation, distinguished by their emphasis on the biblical authority. Set off by the emergence of a new view in the church concerning revelatory authority, which held that the Spirit worked in the papacy to give it dominance in matters of doctrine, they challenged the status quo and forever changed the landscape of interpretation and ecclesiology.
The Reformation came hand-in-hand with the Renaissance, which valued all fields of study and emphasized the creative and logical faculties of human beings. Thus, common sense and morality emerged in the Reformation as the primary criteria by which to evaluate Scripture. Naturally, from this, reading for the “plain sense” of the text became the preferred method of exegesis, which threatened to undercut the authority of Catholic leaders who commonly relied on spiritual readings. According to men like Luther, in the past not using the literal sense of Scripture had led to various heresies, and so he and the other Reformers strove to stay in Aquinas’s legacy of predominately literal interpretation.
These shifts in hermeneutics derived in part from the Reformers’ unique view of Scripture. They undoubtedly had a radical appreciation for the Bible’s authority over ecclesiastical authority, the former of which they rooted not in human deduction but in the power of the Spirit. Scripture was considered to have “material sufficiency”—having in it everything necessary of salvation—and the Reformation slogan sola scriptura was adopted to underscore its role in their theology.
As years passed, the intellectual pursuits of the Renaissance and the theology of the Reformation led to the rise of a distinctly Protestant interpretation, a radical interpretation that saw the church as being subject to Scripture and being built around it. This ideology gave birth to modern biblical criticism, and in so doing, the Reformation together with the Renaissance helped transition the world from the Medieval Age to the Modern Era.
Dealing with contradictions and tensions in the Bible like the righteousness of Manasseh, the theology of the Wisdom Literature, and the order of creation has become a central sacrament of Western Christianity.
A significant amount of time, effort, and ink has been spent by Protestants on developing apologetics and combating those who would disavow the faith based on biblical contradictions and impossibilities. I, myself, have bolstered this cause, attempting to defend Scripture in such cases. But I am merely participating in a culture of intellectual warfare, one that has conveniently forgotten the existence of the word “contradiction” in favor of “tension,” one that takes seriously those massive databases of inconsistencies built to disprove religion.
This culture has dealt with the issue of Manasseh’s righteousness in a number of oblong and contorted ways. The chief response of those seeking to defend the unanimity and coherence of the Bible is to state that omission is not contradiction. This line of reasoning finds no difficulties in one book ending its summation of a man’s life by declaring him the pinnacle of wickedness, while another redeems him as a servant of God, second only to David.
When dealing with Wisdom literature, this culture asserts that Proverbs isn’t as straight-forward as one might think, that what is being said is actually something quite different. Proverbs, in this culture, is a little more ambiguous (to the point no one has any idea what any of it really means). And as for Job, those attacking Scripture are constantly reminded of the book’s brief and hurried ending: Job is redeemed in the end! Because of his righteousness, he is blessed more heavily that he was originally.
And this is the culture obsessed with hidden meanings of the Greek, the sort of people who go digging around the Hebrew for the precise meaning of “shrubbery” (see NASB) and attempt to really tease out the tense of vs 19.
In the Reformation, rationalism divided with “eternal truths,” and the battle between these two modes of thinking has raged on ever since. The new methods of interpretation introduced by the Reformers opened up theology to a world of possibilities, but also came with their own problems—namely, in the period since then, the authority of Scripture has been challenged, and many of the more “spiritual”—or allegorical—insights of the past have been lost.
Yet, with these challenges, the Modern Era has brought its own fruitful understandings: virtues that had not been addressed for centuries suddenly rose to the forefront of Christian thought, and new ways to interact with the Word of God were considered. Under the guidance of modernity, textual studies and the literal meaning of Scripture became increasingly important, and the critical methods, ushered in by the Enlightenment, still dominate biblical studies to this day.
As a part of this development, the term “literal”—which has been used extensively throughout church history—began to take on new meaning. For Protestant fundamentalists, literal began to mean “historical,” which is a completely different understanding of the word than that of pre-modern theologians who associated the literal sense with authorial intent. Specifically, the twentieth century saw a shift to literal, text-centric interpretation and then later to a reader-centric interpretation (this decidedly individualistic approach to reading Scripture originates in Descartes’s revolution).
Through these developments in interpretation, Scripture began to be viewed in two polarized ways. The first is a naturalization of Scripture where its authority has been demoted because authority and revelation are seen as antithetical to the critical freedom of truth—not because its authority conflicts with Tradition’s. This view is directly linked to Deism, which arose in modernistic circles because of men like John Locke and Isaac Newton (despite their best intentions). Attacks by deists on the authority of Scripture led to natural law and Stoicism as the “undisputed criterion” for authority, and the Bible, in turn, lost its significance in philosophy and ethics.
Liberals have attempted to salvage theology by placing authority on religious experience rather than the church or Scripture. Conservatives have done something similar by trying to place authority in the historical reality of the Bible—this is the second way that Scripture is viewed in the Modern Era. For this reason, apologies (which use external warrants for truth to regain Scripture’s authority) have grown more prominent in modernity. And also as a repercussion, the hidden sin of Bibliolatry has steadily grown.
That to say, responsible reading of the Bible today is a mess.
The fear associated with biblical interpretation goes beyond social consequences. There is also dread associated with uncertainty and doubt, with not knowing how to study Scripture. We have too many options, and most of them aren’t helpful.
Many, for instance, have adopted the “literal” approach to hermeneutics. This is the methodology consumed with historical accuracy and inner-consistency. It is also the approach that births apologetics and, in some cases, religious extremists.
There is also the “spiritual” approach, and most of us feel much more comfortable with this method. Spiritualizing Scripture attempts to find spiritual application for every story, neglecting the story’s purpose in the scope of Scripture or the original context of the writing at hand.
I remember a teacher in school who was able to mimic this methodology on a whim, and often with comical results. Once during class, he opened his Bible randomly to Luke 5 and the story of Jesus telling Peter, “Push out into the deep.” The teacher addressed the class, “I hope the meaning of this verse is obvious to you.” We had no idea what that verse could mean. “Well clearly, Jesus is encouraging us to take chances. He wants us to push out into the deep. Have you ever had a situation in your life where you felt like, if you went any further, you’d drown? Like you were going out too far into the deep? Well Jesus wants us to find those situations and face them head-on. To do the things that make us uncomfortable.” He went on from there to give us a typical devo on Luke 5, beat for beat. As my teacher demonstrated, it’s almost too easy to totally dismiss context and synthesize a spiritual application.
A specific form of spiritualizing the text, is psychologizing. This is the modern form for “smarter” people. It’s where we diagnose the Madonna-Whore complex of Amnon or the anxiety of Paul in his 2 Corinthians letter. When we psychologize, we’ll trace all sin back to dysfunctional home-lives and unhealthy relationships, and our main goal is to always increase contentment/happiness. (Note, we don’t have to say each or any of these to be guilty of psychologizing.)
Or perhaps we mix-and-match; we try out a conglomeration of all the above. But still, chances are, we recognize something is wrong. Either some tensions aren’t resolved or we recognize that certain methods don’t do justice to the richness of the Christian holy book. And we’re left unsure of how to proceed, how we are supposed to read the Bible.
And it’s scary to not know.
There are options for reconciling most of the tensions we find in the Bible, but the best options usually require understanding the Bible as a dialogue—particularly the Old Testament.
Take King Manasseh: if we understand the theological foundation for Chronicles, then we understand that its author is writing out of a retribution theology framework. So when they see that King Manasseh reigned for 55 years—two decades longer than both Hezekiah and Josiah—the author is making sense of the facts in the only way that works with his understanding of God (a lot like what we do today).
Job and Proverbs become a debate on theodicy, retribution, and the human condition, a debate between the practical sage and the speculative philosopher. Proverbs describes the way that God designed the cosmos to work, while Job describes how we perceive them to work. And rather than Job being the more “mature” book of wisdom, we acknowledge Proverbs 1:20 as the battle-cry for restoring God’s design.
And Genesis 1 and 2 simply continue these debates.
The fear we feel in interpreting and concluding can be assuaged, but it requires pulling ourselves out of rigorous hermeneutics that hurt us more than they help. Being out in the deep will be a little scary, but conservative scholar of interpretation, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, gives confidence in this matter by suggesting that just as God has communicated through Christ and the Spirit in history, so in the same way he has made a covenant to communicate with us through speech acts and Scripture—which can be interpreted and understood.
We have faith that we can, indeed, understand the Bible, but it is hard work. The gospel is easy, but comprehending the canon of Scripture is truly a difficult task. The Modern Era has seen countless individuals try to limit the living beauty of Christianity’s holy book, but let it not be so. Let us, instead, read the Bible on its own term and let it shape us into a holy people.