How We Read the Bible: And How the Pros Do It

It has been my intention in this series thus far to flood you with information, to show you all the different approaches to the question How do we read the Bible? And hopefully as you’ve received all the data, you have reflected on it—you’ve considered the different questions involved in reading Scripture, you’ve pondered the implications of the biblical authors’ interpretation, you’ve sought to recognize your own dependence on previous church practices—and I imagine if you’ve reflected on it at all, you’ve thought to yourself: these are hard questions.

If you have thought that, you’re not alone. Most people have difficulty with these questions, and most people are uneasy with the proposed answers. This is exacerbated by the fact those that Christians might naturally look up to—scholars and clergy—often employ tactics in interpreting the Bible that are, at best, confusing and, at worst, dangerous to the faith. They call these tactics critical methods.

I have mentioned critical methods in this series a few times already, but some further explanation is in order. For the last thousand years, Christians have been developing or borrowing smarter ways to read the Bible that would be completely foreign to first century Christians. The first main way this manifested was in the historical-grammatical approach. This way of reading Scripture is very popular among evangelical, conservative, and mainline Christians, and simply strives to discover the Biblical authors original intended meaning through analyzing the text and historical backgrounds. This approach evolved in the Modern Era into the historical-critical method (sometimes called higher criticism) that took the scientific approach of reading the Bible even further and employs a number of tactics in order to better understand Scripture. Higher Criticism does not necessarily deny supernatural readings of the Bible but seeks to understand the human dimension of the biblical writings and use the same tools used to interpret any other ancient document.  

These are the methods that most biblical/religious scholars and ministers are taught in their schools and seminaries. And when they try to bring these skills into a congregational setting, it scares a lot of Christians. People are afraid that these new methods are uprooting the certainty they have in reading the Bible or that by taking away the simplicity of reading Scripture, scholars are attacking the priesthood of all believers.

While we should approach any issue of interpreting the Bible with trepidation, there is a lot that we can gain by listening to these men and women in leadership roles. We have to remember that they have been through the same process—going into their schooling with the same background as each of us. And yet, when they emerge from their studies—regardless of their beliefs—they have learned a great deal about how to read the Bible. Perhaps we should listen to them.

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Part of listening, however, is understanding the variety of beliefs within scholarship and ministry (as well as the places where they are unanimous). When we recognize the beliefs of these leaders, we will develop a greater sympathy for their positions and be able to better assess them. So lets launch into some statistics:

According to a Pew Research study, evangelical leaders are in nearly unanimous agreement on some key beliefs—they believe that Christianity is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, that abortion is usually (45%) or always wrong (51%), that society should discourage homosexuality (84%), and that men should serve as the religious leaders in the marriage and family (79%). Virtually all the leaders surveyed (98%) also agree that the Bible is the word of God. They are pious by any conservative standard.

However, there is a fair split among these ministers on how to interpret the Bible. They are evenly divided between those who say the Bible should be read literally, word for word (50%), and those who do not think that everything in the Bible should be taken literally (48%).

Similar trends can be found among biblical scholars. In 2005, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the largest association of scholars and teachers of the Bible in the world, received a resolution from some members in response to the 2004 election. The resolution stated that the values most commonly identified in public debates were the issues of gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research,” but went on to claim that these are rarely discussed topics in the Bible and the national conversation should be reoriented to “focus instead on concerns such as the well-being of individuals, the integrity of community, care for the powerless and vulnerable, economic justice, the establishment of peace, and the stewardship of the environment.” The Executive Council for the SBL put the matter up to a vote, in which 56% voted for the resolution and 44% against—a near even split.

Also worth noting is how demographics affect ones opinion in these matters. In a study by the Barna Research Group, they found that 51% of evangelical ministers possess a biblical worldview (which for them generally lines up with conservative ideals and interpretive methods). This was heavily influenced by denominations (with Baptists leading at 71% and mainline churches at the bottom with 28%), as well as gender (men at 53% and women at 15%) and race (whites at 55% and blacks at 30%).†

Key among their findings was the connection with education. According to them, ministers least likely to have a “biblical worldview” were seminary graduates. Gallup, in one of their polls, found something similar: people’s conviction that Scripture should be interpreted literally decreased with education. (Some might suggest that there is actually a reverse connection here—that those with liberal agendas control academia—and while that may be true, two things to consider are that there is little to be gained from adopting an agenda and much more to be gained by intellectual honesty in the university setting, and also that the use of higher criticism has been present in schools for well over a century.)

A good exercise for understanding how trained individuals deal with these interpretive issues is looking at the specific example of interpreting Genesis and the age of the Earth. According to a LifeWay poll, ministers are split on the issue—many interpreting Genesis 1 as poetic symbolism and allowing for an old Earth and the evolution of man, while others opt for a more straightforward reading of the passage.

And then theres actual scientists. Contrary to popular opinion, scientists are a fairly pious group. A study by Rice University on the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest organization of its kind, estimates that 75% of scientists are religious (of those 17% are evangelical). They are also claimed to be more active in their churches. Pew Research found similar results in another study of theirs.

Its worth noting, though, that according to Pew Research, 98% of scientists connected to the AAAS say they believe humans evolved over time (including theistic evolution) yet only 66% of the general public thinks there is a consensus—those rejecting evolution being much more likely to fall in the other third. The actual answer to that question is neither here nor there, but its importance to the topic of interpretation is that researchers and scientists who are every bit as religious as you or me have found interpreting Genesis in one way easier than interpreting their data in another.

Weve dealt with a lot in this post, so lets reflect: For a number of centuries, clergy and scholars, people just like us (if not called to higher standards), have undergone a great deal of study and reflection in order to better understand Gods word. But their methods can often scare us because they remove a level of confidence we have in our own interpretation. Beyond that, these leaders are not even in agreement amongst themselves. But if we at all value learning and those who have striven to learn, then we will open our ears and, without blind eyes, seek to learn ourselves, open to where our studies will take us.

Bart Ehrman

† Another interesting finding from Barnas study was that Christians often hold reactionary beliefs to their context and location. Conservatives that enter academia or move to California become entrenched in their conservatism and liberals that move to the south become more liberal.

4 Comments

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  1. You can’t just throw on a picture of Hauerwas without mentioning some of his stuff on this subject! He has a great article called “The Interpretation of Scripture: Why Discipleship Is Required.”

    It is probably my favorite individual piece on interpretation — I often think of it & try to express the same sentiment whenever the issue comes up.

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    • Ha, I am ashamed to admit that I used his picture because after fifteen minutes of fruitless searching, it was the first decent picture of general “biblical scholar.”
      But yeah, it probably would have been good to include some modern trends of taking the argument beyond literal and allegorical and toward community and transformation. I think Grenz and Vanhoozer hit some similar trends.
      (Also, I’ll try to find that article and check it out.)

      Like

  2. Seems a bit one-sided on the facts presented regarding the interpretation of Genesis 1-11. Since a symboling Genesis interpretation has more holes than swiss cheese I would quickly conclude that these evangelical scientists probably are not sound in the scripture, regardless of the high rate consensus.

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