How I read the bible

Today I’m joining up with Balaam as we cross-post about how we each read the bible. This began life as a “positive alternative” to the extremely conservative view as espoused by Kevin DeYoung in his book, Taking God at His Word (see here a review of my review). It’s changed shape a bit since then, but I hope it still hangs together.

I will begin with a summary I have used before:

I view the bible as a collection of books which is the most reliable source we have for understanding the origins, themes, aims and beliefs of the christian faith. To get as true and fair an understanding of christianity, out of which flows a faithful adherence, the Church and its members must make the best effort to understand the bible in its historical context and from there to apply it to the society, geography and time that we find ourselves in today. That understanding may be aided by any available tools we have, whether that be linguistics, historiography, tradition, etc. (all of which may be brought together under the umbrella term, ‘theology’).

There’s quite a lot condensed in there and there are some things I’ve chosen not to say. For example, you not find in that affirmation a statement of inerrancy or about authority. So let me try to unpack some of these.

The Chicago statement

One of the best known statements on the authority of scripture is the Chicago statement on biblical inerrancy. Drafted in 1978, it gained the backing of a number of well respected biblical scholars including Don Carson, Norman Geisler, Wayne Grudem, John Meyer, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer and R.C. Sproul. What is most bizarre about the statement is that only applies to the original texts, none of which any person alive has ever seen and where it is extremely doubtful if they even exist any more. It doesn’t apply to copies of the texts (which we have) or to translations (which we have in our homes). It is, in effect, a statement of confidence about a series of objects where their content can only be inferred, and even then, not perfectly. Yet the idea of inerrancy necessitates the idea of being able to reconstruct the texts perfectly. If we can only have a “pretty good idea” what the original texts said, down to the nearest letter, then inerrancy is a non-starter.

The temptation of inerrancy

If the bible could be shown to be inerrant, then of course it would make things a lot simpler. There would be no need to wrestle with issues or to think things through for oneself. You could simply open up a book and know that it is flawless.

As such, the idea of inerrancy is one that is greatly tempting. It is a temptation that many fall into. Yet to do falls foul of one clause of what we speak of as the greatest commandment: to love God with all your mind. Statements of inerrancy are a wish fulfilment; a wish to not have to work for understanding.

Paul instructs the church at Thessalonica to “test everything, hold on to what is good”. What happens when we apply this to the bible itself? When tested, we find that one cannot claim the bible is inerrant and remain an honest person. As a simple test, read the book of Acts. You find there three accounts of Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. Ask the question: did his companions hear a sound? Read the texts carefully and you will find self-contradiction within a single book. You may read much more widely and find discrepancies between books.

Authority of scripture?

The idea of ‘sola scriptura’ arose with the reformation as a reaction against catholicism, where tradition or the word of the pope were taken as authoritative. Scripture was relegated in importance and free reign was given for the catholic magisteria to make up whatever they wanted, hand that down, call it tradition and that became “orthodoxy”. It was from this approach that various aberrations sprung, including indulgences, papal infallibility, prostitute racing in the Vatican and transubstantiation.

Of course, a correction was needed.

Sola scriptura was what was formulated by the reformers as a kind of restorative simplicity. The trouble comes when you apply to the field of interpretation. There are few better examples of this than that demonstrated by Kevin DeYoung in the aforementioned work. In it, he claimed that scripture interpreted scripture and that since scripture was infallible then scripture’s own interpretation of scripture was also infallible. This is clearly an absurd circular argument, yet its adherents stick to it, because of their vice-like grip on the notion of infallibility. What ends up happening is that they shoe-horn in their own interpretation (which may or may not be correct) and defending it on the basis that it is scripture’s interpretation of itself.

Scripture, tradition and reason – an alternative trinity

Whenever the question of christian understanding crops up, there are 3 sources of information often cited: scripture, tradition and reason. How these three relate to one form the framework of many a person’s understanding. Some choose to emphasise one over the other two, two over the other one or they try to use all three equally.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I’m not the biggest fan of tradition in the world. It’s mainly because when it’s boiled down to its essence, it’s doing something because it’s something that’s been done before. It might sound all well and good to say that you are following in the same direction as esteemed women and men who have gone before us, but it rather breaks down if they’ve set off in the wrong direction.

So is reason the best way to go? Well it’s better than tradition, but if it is devoid of an evidential basis, then it just becomes stuff we make up. Some of it might be right, but there’s no proper way to tell. In this respect reason-in-a-vacuum is little different from the worst examples of mysticism.

So what’s the alternative?

Epistemology

When discussing the nature of the bible, the question of epistemology comes up very rarely. This is something I find both surprising and disappointing, as it seems to cut through a lot of the undergrowth created by the obsession with authority. Those who err on the conservative side of things have a tendency to treat the bible as a normative document, that which gives clear, reliable facts and instructions. At the more liberal end of the spectrum, there is the idea of the bible as formative, telling the story of God’s dealings with his people, often told parabolically. One should get the gist, but not get hung up too much on the details, particularly with regards to history.

I don’t wholly agree with either, but I think each has their merits. The person who anachronistically projects relatively modern standards of historiography onto the biblical authors, imagining them to have been the idealistic journalists of their day, detailing the facts in an impartial manner, is a fool. Such an approach gives rise to young earth creationism, an utterly defunct view that has done nothing to advance the proclamation of the gospel and has in fact given christians (including those who denounce such nonsense) a bad name.

To me the starting point of christianity has to be Jesus. Many have started off with the idea of “God” and many words are spilled before we even get onto Jesus. A very influential example that I’ve been reading about lately is Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica begins with a lot of questions and talk of God, but scant all about Jesus, who is relegated to later parts of the book. This approach, adopted by many after Aquinas, can be called “Godianity” instead of “Christianity”. It is this parody that ends up as the target in so many critiques of the so-called “New Atheists“. The idea of God gets attacked, with Jesus barely getting a look-in.

But if we make Jesus the starting point of christian epistemology, then many of the critiques lose their focus. Instead, there is then either a resort to the Christ-myth hypothesis, which is in the same league of intellectualism as young earth creationism and homeopathy, or one has to undertake a serious engagement with Jesus. And how do we know about him? In the bible. One has to be able to read it critically, without the naivety of thinking the gospels are accounts that were documentary accounts, but such an approach shouldn’t allow for reading non-evident material into the texts. Though they may not be inerrant, they remain the earliest and most reliable evidence we have through which we understand the person, life, actions and deeds of Jesus. This understanding is then the lens that we put in our glasses, and through which we view the rest of the bible and the world.

This lens, though, can always be refined. By understanding the context of the time, religion, politics, geography, etc. in which Jesus’ story is told, we can better understand the hues and textures of the biblical story.

What then, of sola scriptura? If one gets stuck with the obsession over authority, then sola scriptura still stands, more or less. My proposal is that if we pull ourselves out of the mire of authority and instead go with epistemology, then biblical study becomes somewhat easier. There’s still hard work to do, and there is plenty in the bible to wrestle with, but I don’t agree with those who choose to ignore or simply argue around those aspects we find difficult, particularly in regards to the hot topics of today.

It might be argued that I’ve missed the point of sola scriptura, if one still thinks of the bible as the primary source of our epistemology, and that the key question is over who is allowed to interpret scripture. Here, I refer the reader to my idealistic view of theology, where church is informed by the theology of academia, but where academic theology is also informed by the life of the church, in a kind of virtuous circle. No person should be restricted from biblical interpretation, but it doesn’t mean that everyone’s view is necessarily right. It is a community matter to discern correct interpretation from false.

Conclusion?

How might this be summed up? Well, the bible is the starting point for our knowledge of the story of God acting in the world, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From this start, we use whatever tools we can (be they reason, history, literature, sociology, etc) to try to understand it. If those conclusions, when tested, turn out to be good, they may be passed on and become something akin to a tradition, but we retain the right to constantly question received wisdom of ages past, nomatter how treasured they may be.

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4 responses to “How I read the bible

  1. Pingback: How I read the Bible | MAKING AN ASS OF MYSELF

  2. Really interesting take on scripture, although I struggled to keep up at some points.. Are you basically arguing for contextual readings of scripture and drawing on other disciplines, rather than face-value interpretations and the isolation of the Bible from history/linguistics/other informative fields?

    • That’s a far better summary than I was able to come up with! As a specific example, I would cite the parable of the Good Samaritan. One can gain a reasonable level of understanding from a face-value reading, but without knowing the context of the depth of hostility between Jews and Samaritans, it potentially loses some of its impact. In effect, it plays on racial prejudice which I’m not sure comes across in an English translation.

  3. Pingback: Do not over analyse | MAKING AN ASS OF MYSELF