Reading the Bible Better Today: Lessons from the Past

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the history of how Christians have read their Bibles. While the Bible has always had an important place in the life of Christians and our faith communities, we have understood both the Scriptures and their role in remarkably diverse ways. In some times and places, the individual’s experiences have taken priority, at others, the collective wisdom has held sway; in some communities, historical context has been thought to be the best way to understand the Bible; in others, the focus has been on the text’s ability to change lives today. The point of this exercise has been to show that it’s too simple to talk about having a ‘high’ or ‘low’ understanding of the Bible, for a ‘high’ understanding of the Bible has looked — and does look to this day — very different in different times and places.

Each of the different perspectives we’ve looked at has had its strengths and weaknesses. The New Testament’s own hermeneutic was great at seeing the continuity between God’s revelation in the Law and God’s revelation in Jesus, but it also devalued the the Old Testament stories themselves. The Church Fathers’ understanding of the Rule of Faith created a common vision of the Bible for Christians, but created a closed, self-perpetuating cycle that essentially predetermined the reading of a text before it was read. The Reformation did well to recover the Bible as the source for Christian belief and practice, but too often failed to recognize the immensity of the problem of interpretation — and when it comes to its literalist and Fundamentalist manifestations, naively so. Postmodern readings are helpful in questioning the motivations behind the text and traditional readings of it, but are better at tearing down than they are at building up. I could go on, but it suffices to say that while each of the approaches we’ve looked at has things going for it, each is also insufficient. When it comes to hermeneutics, the point is that these approaches aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but partial.

It stands to reason then that, for those of us who care about reading the Bible as well as we can, we would do well to keep all of the various approaches in mind and integrate them into our own hermeneutics. This is why my own Integral Hermeneutic method, which I’ve outlined and used throughout this blog’s history, employs just such a composite approach. It starts with the experience of reading the text, moves on to asking questions about who it is I meet in the text, then to questions about linguistics, text and context, then continues to challenges about motivations and whose voices aren’t being heard, before bringing all of these together in an integrated, edifying way.

I say this less to commend my own methodology than to explain why it looks the way it does; it is no more ‘the correct’ approach than any other, but it is one way we might attempt to combine the wisdom of all of the historical hermeneutical approaches while mitigating their weaknesses.

Irrespective of which of the approaches we’ve explored resonate the most with you, I hope you’ve come away from this series with a greater appreciation of the complexities of interpretation and why it’s too simple to talk about a ‘high’ or ‘low’ view of Scripture, or ‘the traditional’ or ‘the literal’ reading of texts. The Bible is a wonderful gift for the Church and individual Christians, but it is a complex and diverse gift. That shouldn’t make the task of reading the Scriptures exclusive: the command St. Augustine received in his vision, ‘Tolle, lege’ — ‘take it up and read’ — is for all of us. But it should make us humble in how we approach the task at hand. It should make us curious about the stores of wisdom and truth it contains within the ‘jars of clay’ of human language.

I’ll end this series with my favorite image for the Scriptures: “black fire on white fire.” This image from the Talmud beautifully captures the living, unpredictable, ever-changing, transformative nature of these sacred texts, which like the great lion from the Chronicles of Narnia are never safe, but are nonetheless good. May all of us who take up the Scriptures and read be prepared to be surprised, be prepared to truly encounter the living God, be prepared to be changed.

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