The Bible and the Problem of Interpretation

One thing all Christians agree on is the central position of the Bible in the teaching, life, and faith of the Church. This may be a bold statement: Certainly it’s been a historical claim among Protestants that Roman Catholics don’t value the Bible, and today many self-identified evangelicals claim that progressive Christians don’t ‘believe in’ the Scriptures. But these are straw-men of apologetics and not actually indicative of how these traditions work. Roman Catholicism is as rooted in the Scriptures as Protestantism is — its liturgies and doctrinal statements are filled with quotations and references from the Bible. And, it’s hard to get progressive Christians to shut up about the teachings of Jesus and the ethics of the prophets. Where Christians are divided is not in the importance of the Bible, but on how to interpret it. It’s not a question of whether the Bible is authoritative, but of how it is authoritative — what it is, what it’s trying to do, and how we can best understand and apply it.

These are not straightforward questions, and Christians of good faith, genuinely seeking to understand the Scriptures as well as possible, have answered them differently in different times and places. Take the story in Genesis of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. At various points in history, it has been understood to be a story only about Abraham and Isaac, a story primarily about God the Father and Jesus, and a story primarily about Abraham and Isaac and by analogy about God the Father and Jesus. At the same time, Christians have differed in whether God’s command to Abraham was serious, whether Abraham misunderstood God, or even if God and Abraham were engaging in a high-stakes gamble in which both called the other’s bluff until God finally relented.

Texts have to be interpreted. This is both their problem and their joy. We cannot get around the question of interpretation, which in academic circles is called ‘hermeneutics’. And each of us has a hermeneutic — a way of approaching, engaging, and understanding the text of the Bible — whether we have explicitly thought this out (see, for example, my Integral Hermeneutic method) or are guided by implicit criteria.

Over the next few weeks, as part of a bigger, long-term project I’d like to call ‘Reading the Bible Better’, I’m going to spend some time looking at different approaches Christians have taken to the Scriptures throughout history, from the days of the writing of the New Testament itself through until the present day, from the competing ancient schools of Alexandria and Antioch, through the differing understandings of authority and tradition during the Early Modern period, to the various critical methodologies (and reactions against them) we’ve seen over the past couple centuries.

The goal of the project will be not to point to any of these as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but to increase awareness of the breadth of Christian approaches to the Bible throughout history, and to highlight the benefits and challenges of these different approaches to help us all think more deeply about how and why we read Scripture.

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