Of all the issues and disagreements that divide Christians, interpreting the Bible is the most important.†
One’s understanding of how the Bible was written, what was intended by its authors, and how we are to read and implement its words today has unparalleled impact on how Christians live and how they practice their religion. It determines their politics, where they look for ethical guidance, if they eat shellfish, if and how they incorporate women into ministry, how often they pray, where they find Jesus in the Old Testament, if they even care about the Old Testament, the sort of places they choose to live, how old they think the universe is, if they think its acceptable to condone slavery, their attitudes toward different races and genders and sexualities, and if they will give away all their possessions. All that and more is determined by one’s reading of a book written 2000 years ago.
So there’s a lot of pressure to do it right. But there’s also a lot making that difficult; there’s complexity—sometimes not so obvious complexity—in reading the Bible. When trying to interpret Scripture, one must answer an array of questions, starting with the meaning of “inspiration.”
(Warning: technical jargon to follow)
Beyond the exact meaning of “inspiration,” there’s the issue of Scripture and Tradition—Christians must find the proper balance between the authority of their one holy book and the traditions and teachings of their church. Christianity in its long history has shifted from viewing Scripture and Tradition as coinciding, where the two share the same content and are equally authoritative (Coincidental view), to understanding Tradition as supplementary to Scripture, giving insights not found in the Bible (Supplementary view). Later, alongside the rise of sola scriptura in the Reformation Era, Christians adopted the Ancillary view in which Tradition is simply a tool to help understand Scripture. Most recently, the Unfolding and Contextual views have arisen in some Christian circles, holding that Church Tradition is relative to time and cultural context.
There’s also hermeneutics that has to be addressed. Christians have employed a wide range of tactics when interpreting the Bible. The writers of the New Testament exemplified their own Jewish way of reading Scripture (demonstrating methods that you and I and most modern Christians would generally avoid) and these practices continued on into the early church which eventually institutionalized an allegorical interpretive method versus a literal hermeneutic. In the Medieval Age, Christians began to employ the historical-grammatical method which became widespread in the Reformation and focused on discovering the intended meaning by the author. The similarly named historical-critical method developed out of the Enlightenment and sought meaning in the text as affected by historical and other human influences.
We should probably also ask where meaning is found when interpreting Scripture (or any written work). Three different answers have classically been proposed for this question: authorial intent, inherent meaning of text and words, and reader response. Even for those who view the primacy of the author as obvious, the inescapable influence of the other two must be acknowledged.
And that doesn’t even begin to answer all the questions. There’s still “Silence of the Scriptures,” progressive revelation, human experience, manuscript and translation issues, and the Rule of Faith that must be understood to maintain a thorough method of interpretation.
It is these sort of issues that I hope to discuss over the next few weeks. This 5-part series will examine the big questions that inform how we read the Bible and will look to how it has been done in the past and how it is being done now. Inspiration, authority of Scripture, hermeneutics will all be within our scope.
Undoubtedly my opinions will be evident, but the intent of this series will be to explore the different positions and ideas that people have had about interpretation. I encourage anyone who follows the series to participate in the same way, exploring other ideas. One way you can do this is by choosing an understanding of Inspiration that is not like your own or that you can’t imagine sympathizing with and then reading this entire series with that position in mind—always asking how people who believe that way would deal with these questions. Below I’ve included a spectrum of beliefs regarding Inspiration (which you may have noticed I conveniently skipped over above). Look it over and maybe one will catch your eye. I hope you’ll subscribe or check back each week to see how we deal with these questions.
†Most important? That’s pretty important. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s definitely top ten.