I never knew that there was a right or wrong way of reading the Bible.
I have always thought, naively I will now acknowledge, that all that mattered was how one responded to what they read in the Bible. Nope, I’ve been all wrong. I don’t know where I learned this idea either. I’ve absorbed a way of looking at the Scriptures that I never questioned.
“It’s how I was raised.”
What do I mean? Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals (and I was taught to believe this but no longer) have a view of the Bible that it’s perfect, as in ” inerrant and infallible” by which they mean, it’s a divine product and its authority comes in “that God literally wrote it” by whispering his intents to people who then wrote it down (like God’s holy scribes). And unless it clearly was metaphor, most every word was literally the truth, word for word from God. These people also believe that the Bible is basically all God wants us to know in communicating his will to us, which precludes the work of the Holy Spirit and prayer, among other things. They believe the Bible has everything we need and is totally relevant to the Christian life today. That it is simple and plain, obvious; meaning if you just read it you’ll “just get it.” There’s a morsel of goodness in that idea that anyone can read the Bible. Unfortunately, even though anyone can read it isn’t simple! What about the fact that it was written in languages we do not read or speak (most of us) and in a culture and time that we know nothing about. And the last, most heinous thing that simplistic reading of the Bible brings is the idea that one can pick and pull verses out of the context, not believing context is that important. They read the Bible seeking blessings and affirmations for life.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
I do believe, and it is important to affirm, as Temper Longman says in How to Read Genesis, that the Bible is:
“… grounded in the ultimate divine authorship of the whole. Thus in spite of a variety of styles, genres, themes and motifs, it is important to ask how the parts fit into the whole.”
And that is what I have known. I guess one can make the Bible say pretty much whatever you want it to if you work at it. People do it all the time! I’m forty-five years old, been reading the Bible for myself since high school, and in many ways this is how I have always understood things.
That is what makes thinking about it in a new way so frightening.
I have to admit that I’m learning.
That fact should not be embarrassing, but it is. People don’t like to admit very often that they don’t know something. We all like to come off as experts, if not experts than knowledgeable, if not knowledgeable then at least well-informed. (
(Sigh)). It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong, uninformed, even lacking knowledge. It is hard to admit but I believe if I’m willing to do that then perhaps others will become open to considering the same.
Do I dare even talk about this topic of reading the Bible? I am by no means an expert but I’ve read some things recently. I am armed and dangerous but I’ll list my sources so that you can do your own homework. (And you always should.)
Here’s what I’ve learned.
The Bible is a piece of literature.
It is a book made up of books. It is a big story of God and the world. It is made up of stories and poems that tell us about God. It is also a series of smaller stories. It is, like any other book you read, written within a genre and knowing the type of genre you are reading helps you know how you are supposed to read it; whether it is poetry, myths, parables, history, legends or a combination. And like other literature you study you should know a little of the customs and culture of the time it was written.
“The truth of the matter is that the proper interpretation of any piece of literature, and in particular a text as ancient and important as the Bible, deserves our careful reflection.” — T. Longman.
Hermeneutics is just a technical name for interpretation or “how you read.”
There is a way to read the Bible for what it is not just for what we’d like it to say. And as we learn to interpret the Bible — as literature, within a genre, written in a time and place, a culture, with a certain purpose, we are less likely to be “Biblical Literalists.” Just because you find verses that supports your view doesn’t mean you’ve probed fully the biblical view.
How we read the Bible has become very divisive among Christians and has been a contributing factor in the “culture wars.” Biblical literalists fear the “culture slide or culture creep” and tightly hold a grip on the Church and on their ideas; that a few texts yanked out of any context or culture, are prescriptive of how to “do church” for all time. This keeps churches from changing, in ways that may seem obvious to those of us (women and men) being raised with a different way of looking at Scriptures – raised to think, study and apply scripture for ourselves.
I do believe that the Bible guides us and has everything to say to us in the twenty-first century, it can and should guide us, it changes our ideas about our moral and intellectual life, it forms how we think and behave, how we treat others, and transforms us and shapes who we are becoming …
It’s all about how you read and interpret the Bible.
I think there may be many people in the Church today who were raised to be biblical literalists. I was. I no longer believe this is correct in fact I know now that it is wrong. But I don’t exactly know what I do think, yet. That’s why I’m “developing my biblical hermeneutic.”
I’m learning that there are some that believe there are lots of parts of the bible that you cannot take literally, either as historical fact or direct will of God.
I agree with Tom Wright when he says that the authority of God is embodied in Jesus himself, not in the literal words of the Bible. (Loosely quoted.)
Of course how you read and interpret is subject to the wisdom and biases of humans.
Everyone comes at the Bible with a “world view.” We are all guilty of cherry picking verses to be factual and literal truth or determining that something is cultural. Everyone does it.
Take 1 Timothy for instance.
“Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with hair braided, or with gold, pearl, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”
If you read it literally, women are not permitted to teach or have authority over men but also they are not to braid their hair or wear pearls or gold or expensive clothes. Also women are responsible for the origin of sin in the world. The “good news” is that we can be saved by bearing children. If you interpret it literally these are God’s instructions/restrictions for behavior and roles of women. Some churches choose to prohibit women’s leadership in churches because they use this verse to “prove” that God doesn’t approve. But they happily ignore the rest of the verses as cultural.
But if you look as the Bible as being written by a person in a particular time and culture, if you know the historical cultural setting they were writing in then you see that this is how one man in the early Christian church saw things.
When you read it with context, looking at the contrast between this and other texts in the New Testament, if we recognize or listen to more than one voice speaking about the role of women we can seek to discern which voice to honor. In the New Testament there are examples of women apostles and teachers, women financing the ministry, women sitting at Jesus’ feet learning from him with the other disciples, a woman being the first to speak to Jesus after his Resurrection. These stories all empower of women in the early church. You can see this if you don’t restrict your reading to Timothy’s set of verses, which are very restrictive.
Listen to more than one voice.
Look for themes and overarching ideas. I believe one must recognize more than just one voice in trying to figure out anything in the Bible. And it takes discernment and wisdom and doing your homework in trying to figure out which voices to honor. I look at how Jesus treated women when it comes to this topic. I do not look at the verses about early church as prescriptive of how we should run our churches today. But that’s just me. But as you can see, a lot is at stake in how we read and understand the Bible.
Everyone wants to read the bible for today – for guidance and wisdom for today’s problems, for today’s trials, for this moment. The problem inherent in that is that without doing the hard work of asking the questions of the context and placement in history, we endanger our ability to hear God. I am greatly encouraged with the knowledge that there are essential ideas from God that are clear and reinforced many places in scripture. Those broad strokes from God are the things that guide us — point us to God and deepen our relationship with the trinity.
Those are my thoughts offered humbly because like I said, I am no expert and I am likely much too opinionated.
On the topic of unlearning and learning How to Read the Bible Again:
- The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. He’s a professor at North Park Seminary. He also has a blog Jesus Creed which is for me critical reading.
- Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by NT Wright.
And to add to my list of commentary suggestions (from why I’m Afraid to Read the Bible):
- New Testament Commentary for Everyone, by Tom Wright. They could be in the “For dummies”series. But not really, for everyone is a nicer way to put it. These are really good. They go through books of the bible and explain the background and what it’s saying. I really like them. Straightforward, not dumbing it down too much, just enough to make easy. Not everyone has time to do a lot of study. These are really informative and interesting. And short.