Why is Interpreting the Bible Confusing?

Let me start with the Collect Prayer for the Second Sunday in Advent from the BCP

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Problem Today with Interpreting the Bible …

            I wish to propose to you this evening that a Christian interpretation of the Bible is most properly understood as a spiritual affair and accordingly a matter of theological description. Yet for many today, both biblical scholars and preachers, the interpretation of the Bible is not a spiritual affair. How so? For the answer I must first elaborate on what I mean by ‘spiritual affair’. ‘Spiritual affair’ is a description of the interpretation of the Bible that is first about what God is doing and only then what the interpreter does. A rightly ordered theological interpretation of the Bible assumes that God is first doing something, and only in that context can the reader properly interpret the Bible. The reason, I believe, we’re having sharp disagreements on doctrinal matters (as is the case with the Marriage Canon in the Anglican Church of Canada), is because it’s no longer assumed that the reader’s decisions on how to deal with the text’s historical and literary aspects and the ideas the interpreter brings to the text is encompassed by, first and foremost, what God is doing. Why has this happened?

           I could write another paper on how this shift has happened over the last 200 years or so, but for the sake of time I’ll just say this. The shift from a Word of God centered to a reader centered interpretation of the Bible has occurred because we no longer trust that God is capable of revealing Himself in Jesus Christ in and through the ‘plain sense’ reading of the biblical text. A ‘plain sense’ reading of the text means trusting that the objects, persons and events the words and sentences point to in the biblical text are, in fact, those objects, persons and events, e.g. when the text says Jesus has risen from the dead, Jesus healed the paralytic, or Moses separated the sea those things actually happened! Instead, now that we no longer trust the biblical text witnesses to God and his divine activity as revealed in Jesus Christ, we now have to somehow get ‘behind’ the text – i.e., discover what actually happened and what the author was thinking – or, ‘in front of’ the text – i.e. now that we can no longer trust the text refers to actual historical realities, we use the text and its metaphors as jump off point to elaborate on our preconceived notions of God, ourselves and the world that we bring to the text before we read it. In other words, God is no longer master of what the Bible has to say to us. Instead, we the readers are masters of what the Bible may mean to us.

            Another way to say why this shift has happened from a God-centered to a reader-centered approach to reading the bible is to talk about what most moderns now believe it means to be human. For most moderns, ‘inwardness’ is fundamental to how we know, understand and see God and the world around us. That is to say, what I am as a person is prior to social networks – e.g. the Church, family, and Tradition – so that what I represent of the world to myself by making it an object of my experience is what matters. Let me explain by way of example and quote Spinoza’s approach to interpreting the bible:

I determine to examine the Bible afresh in a careful, impartial, and unfettered spirit, making no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines which I do not find clearly therein set down. With these precautions I constructed a method of Scriptural interpretation …’[1]

When Spinoza rejects the influence of any Christian doctrines so that he can ‘so-called’ examine the Bible ‘impartially’ that is code for, ‘I don’t need God to understand what the Bible has to say to me, and I can figure things out just fine on my own.’ What Spinoza does not take into account is, there is no such thing as an ‘impartial’ reading of the Bible. We all bring our preconceived notions of God, the world and ourselves to the text. But most importantly, when this stance towards the Bible is taken, God can no longer speak to us in an authoritative fashion when we read or listen to it. Instead, whatever we think or feel about God, ourselves and the world prejudges what the bible means for us.

How do we respond?

            Much of the response to this dilemma, especially by some Evangelicals in North American has been to argue for the ‘authority’ of the Bible, thinking that if we can only convince liberals of Scripture’s authority, they will change their minds on moral issues such as the recent proposed change to the marriage canon. In response to the apparent lessening of Scripture’s authoritative status in the life of the Church, advocates of the reformation Solus Scripturaprinciple, have worked hard to come up with a better doctrine of Scripture, thinking that when this happens everybody will read the Bible properly. Such an approach is wrong headed in my estimation.

        I do not believe that the authority of the Bible, its status in the life of the Church, or its role for Christian use is best dealt with doctrinally.  The response to a theory-laden understanding of Scripture is not to come up with a better doctrine of Scripture.  Instead, what is needed is a renewed interest in the patterned of ‘use’ of or reading the Bible.  The best answer to the question, “How do I read Scripture?” is plainly, to read it!  Just as a baseball player must practice his swings to become a better hitter, so must the reader of Scripture practice reading it to read well.  Of course, it’s important that a batter practices the right way if he is to develop into a good batter. Likewise, the Christian must practice reading the bible the right way too. To that end, let me now to point out some ‘features’ of a patterned reading of the Bible. 

Feature One:The Bible as the Word of God

        First, we need to understand Scripture as the ‘Word of God’. By Word I mean Jesus Christ.  More specifically, Word means the communication of God’s self in Jesus Christ.  By Word I do not mean the transmission of information.  Rather, Word means God presenting God’s self in Jesus Christ and thereby encountering and thus entering into a relationship with the reader of Scripture as the reader is interpreting the Bible.  God’s Word is bound up with the life, death and resurrection of the particular man, Jesus Christ so that this Word is bound up with His flesh.  It is this person, Jesus of Nazareth, as presented to us by the Bible that constitutes God’s Word and hope of encountering Him in the reading of Scripture. The same Jesus of Nazareth can encounter us because He is also the resurrected and ascended Jesus who is ever present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

       Therefore, our understanding of what the Bible is – cannot be more significant than the doctrine of the Incarnation – i.e. the person of Jesus Christ.  Problem with some of the evangelical tradition, and its arguments against liberal interpretative practices of the Bible, is that its focus or theorizing of Scripture supersedes Jesus to the point that Jesus sits at the background hoping for look-in.  Evangelical theorizing of Scripture can turn Scripture into an idol at the expense of Jesus. I want to say instead because the principle of Scripture – Solus Scriptura– need always be relativized by the Christ alone – Solus Christus– principle, which I believe was what the Reformers and Patristic readers of Scripture believed and guided their interpretation of the Bible. I’ll get to how this prioritizing of the person of Jesus Christ over the solus Scriptura principle impacts our interpretation of the bible a bit later.

Feature Two: What is the relationship between the Bible and Revelation?

       A second feature for a recovery of a patterned use or reading of the Bible deals with the relationship between Scripture and Revelation.  That is to say, what is the relationship between the biblical text on the one hand, and, that God communicates with us on the other hand.  How does God and text relate to one another? The answer to this question is crucial to understanding how the Bible is meant to properly function. I suggest the proper way to understand the relationship between the Bible and revelation is to say this: Revelation ‘engenders’ Scripture and Scripture ‘attests’ or ‘witnesses’ to revelation. What do I mean when I say that revelation ‘engenders’ Scripture? 

       Scripture is what it is by virtue of God’s act of communicating with us. In Trinitarian terms, the Father speaks to us in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through Scripture.  And therefore, what makes, in some cases, rather poorly written set of writings ‘Scripture’ is that God uses them to communicate through them with us. This is another way to talk about what we mean by the word ‘inspiration’.  What brings Scripture about, as the Church’s normative text is God’s self-communicative activity in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. That is to say, the authority of the Bible does not rest in the words of the text per se, but rather, in God’s decision to use the words of the biblical text. 

       Another way to say this is that Scripture ‘attests’ or ‘witnesses’ to revelation.  Scripture functions as a witness through which we are able to encounter God’s self-given manifestation in the person of Jesus Christ.  Revelation is, not so to speak, deposited in the Bible.  Scripture is not a safety deposit box for Revelation. Instead, the relationship between revelation and Scripture can be thought of in terms of ‘sacrament’.  That is to say, just as God makes use of the bread and the wine as a means of His grace, so does God choose to make use of the Bible to reveal Himself in Jesus.  Just as God does not become the bread and the wine (and here I understand my Reformed understanding of Holy Communion may conflict with some of my more Anglo-Catholic clergy friends), nor does God become the Bible. This is contrary to a Fundamentalist’s approach to Scripture in which case, the Bible becomes an idol!  Such an idolatrous or literalist reading of the Bible can’t explain why Christians should fight against slavery when there are instances in both testaments that it appears Christian teaching supports it.

Feature Three:  God makes use of Scripture

       A sacramental account of the Bible recognizes that it is a natural, human product, as any other piece of literature.  The Bible is comprised of an ancient set of texts, written by specific individuals, to specific people, for specific reasons.  Therefore, certain treatments of the text, as we would treat any other text are warranted. For instance, understanding what the words mean in the original Greek – e.g., how pistis in Romans 3.3 refers to the ‘faithof Jesus Christ’, rather than to our own faith, or the historical circumstances – the nature of the Father/Son relationship in the parable of the Prodigal Son, or the literary nature of a particular text – whether at text is a narrative, poetic, or wisdom literature will determine how you interpret it. We should not avoid using historical and literary tools to assist us in our interpretation of the Bible. Yet, as I said earlier in this paper, the Bible serves as a witness to God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ. And therefore, the subject matter of the whole Bible, Jesus Christ must always be the ultimate determining factor in our interpretation of it. In other words, hermeneutical tools may and should be used, but because the text is meant to function as God’s instrument of his self-communication in Jesus, the same God/Man who died for our sins and rose from the dead is the subject matter of the Bible and therefore, the hermeneutical key for how we use historical and literary tools of interpretation.

       Furthermore, since God’s use of these, humanly contrived set of texts called the Bible is the prior operating factor to our human engagement with the text, the place and status of Scripture in the Christian life is revealed by the expectation we bring to the Bible.  For example, in much of Anglican worship today, there is a tendency to have a high expectation of Eucharistic worship (especially in the BAS liturgy), but a low expectation of the liturgy of the Word.  Liturgically, we see the ministry of the Word on Sunday morning as something we have to get through to the really interesting bit of the service – the moment of consecration during the Eucharist.  The level of expectation that we bring to the Bible – i.e. that God will actually do something – is often quite low.  This low level of expectation is reflected in the way we read Scripture in worship – as if the reader has never read it before or very quickly – and by the low regard for preaching – as shown by preachers who spend little time preparing for their Sunday sermons and the congregation who, even if it was Jesus preaching, would expect Him to preach no longer than 10 minutes. 

       If the place of Scripture is revealed by the expectation we bring to Scripture, what should our expectation be? Why should the preacher make his preparations for his sermon a priority during the week and the congregation be willing to sit patiently to hear sermons that are longer than 10 minutes? Because, if God is ever present and makes his presence known by using the text that was just read, it should be our expectation that upon hearing or reading a biblical text, the Father in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit will encounter us as our Lord and Savior.  The proper reading or hearing read of the Bible recognizes that we don’t handle the Bible; the Bible handles and masters us because it is the living risen Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit who encounters us through the reading and hearing of Scripture. We should follow the example of Luther when he rediscovered the full meaning of righteousness for the first time, or Barth, while in the Swiss mountains in the early 20C, discovered that the Bible was alive!  A proper reading and hearing of the Bible should be an astonished reading of the Bible. Likewise, good preaching should astonish and amaze its audience just as the authors of the Bible were astonished by the Gospel. 

Feature Four: Implications on the Reader and the role of Tradition

       These ‘features’ for reading the Bible has implications on both the reader and the community in which the reader reads her bible, the Church. If a theology of God’s Word is to be taken seriously and that God Himself is the master of how the Bible should be understood, the reader constantly needs to check his preconceived notions that he invariably brings to the text at the door. Let me be clear. It’s impossible to not read into the Bible our own preconceived notions of God, ourselves and the world around us. Yet, if we take seriously that the Bible can be an instrument of God’s self-manifestation to us, we can trust that God can and will reshape our, as St. Augustine would say, wrongly ordered desires of the heart to worship God and do His bidding. But how can we be sure we’re humble and being directed by God’s Word rather than by our wishful thinking?

       Since the telos or the end goal of reading the Bible is to be encountered by the commanding presence of God in Christ, the degree to which the reader is morally and spiritually transformed tells her whether she is interpreting the Bible well. St. Augustine is very helpful on this front. The central theme and goal in reading the Psalms for Augustine is the conversion of our human affections. Their purpose is to convert the reader’s wrongly aimed desires and love for the things of the world, which includes oneself, so that instead the interpreter’s soul thirsts after God (Ps. 62.1). And once the reader’s desires and love are converted to worship the ultimate good, the Triune God, then he can love his neighbor well.

       But then the question has to be asked, ‘how do we know we’re loving our neighbor well? That can only be know if we are active participants in our local Church. Why? Because we can’t tell if our heart’s desires, and therefore actions, are being converted on our own. The nature of sin is falsehood, so it’s easy to lie to ourselves regarding how we’re doing. Therefore, we need others to tell us how we’re doing. Frankly, and this I’ve learned from my Anglo-Catholic Anglican clergy at Pusey House in Oxford, we Anglicans have done a disservice not keeping the office of Confession as a central practice in the life of the Church. We’re less likely to turn to a friend to share our deep secrets and a friend is less likely to be honest with us. Furthermore, just confessing to God directly does not necessarily lead to repentance and a changed life. Of course, if the laity are going to go to their priests for confession and spiritual direction, clergy will need to show that they are not only trustworthy but also have the wisdom to guide their flock.

       Lastly, to make sure we’re humble and critical enough about the preconceived notions we bring to the Bible when we read it, we need to listen to other voices in the long Tradition of biblical interpretations in our church and down through the ages among the communion of the saints. The one important test of a Christian reading will be whether it can be shown to belong to the family of readings which constitute the church’s exegetical traditions as summarized in the Creeds, liturgies, doctrines and 2,000 years of reading examples.

       I’ll conclude by quoting Augustine from his On Christian Doctrine,

It is necessary that we should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will … It is necessary to have our hearts subdued by piety[2].

We must … think and believe that whatever is there written, even though it be hidden, is better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom.[3]

The man who fears God seeks diligently in Holy Scripture for the know of His will[4].

And who can make us say what we ought and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speech are[5]?

[1]R.H.M. Elwes, ed., The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, Vol. 1 (Bell, London, 1883), p. 8.

[2]Augustine,On Christian Doctrine, II.9.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid., III.1.

[5]Ibid., IV.33.

Why is Interpreting the Bible Confusing?