395. language is fuzzy (part 6) – how do we read the Bible?
I ended my last post with these questions:
If the church has been wrong about its interpretation of the Bible before and may be wrong today then how do we read this thing we call the Bible? How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?
And here’s where I hope that all the groundwork I’ve laid in the this series will pay off.
How do we read this thing we call the Bible?
The church has been wrong before about how it interpreted the Bible. The story of the astronomical move from geocentrism to heliocentrism is just one example of this.1 But this isn’t the only disconnect in church history. Around the time of the Civil War, there were many churches (and not just in America) using scripture to support the institution of slavery. And, there’s a contemporary analog to this – the church today is wrestling with how to reconcile scripture with the issue of marriage equality.
In light of all of this, what are we supposed to do with this thing we call the Bible? How do we read it when its been misread before and when people continue to disagree over how it should be interpreted today?
Well in part 3 of this series, I talked about the vase/face illusion. I wrote that people can disagree over whether they believe the face or the vase is more prominent in the picture, but no one is going to take seriously the idea that it’s a picture of a rainbow. And how do we know it’s not a picture of a rainbow? Because in the grand community of our collective humanity, no one is going to say that with any seriousness. And it’s that communal aspect that I think is especially relevant to this discussion about how we read scripture.
So how do we read this the Bible in a time of differing interpretations?
We read and interpret scripture in community because it’s only in community that we can have any hope of coming to understand what it means for us today.2
And I believe that we should strive to read scripture in as wide a community as we can find, and that doesn’t just mean reading with liberals/conservatives in the American church today, it also means reading with the global Christian community.3 But for Christians, the interpretive community also includes paying attention to how scripture has been interpreted by readers of the past. NT Wright puts it this way:
Paying attention to tradition means listening carefully (humbly but not uncritically) to how the church has read and lived scripture in the past. We must be constantly aware of our responsibility in the Communion of Saints, without giving our honored predecessors the final say or making them an “alternative source,” independent of scripture itself.4
And in when one reads the text in such a diverse community, differing interpretations are inevitable. But that’s not a bad thing because it’s my firm belief that the “true”5 meaning of the Bible emerges most clearly, not in any particular interpretation of it, but somewhere in the midst of divergent interpretations. In other words, in any biblical text or issue in dispute, it’s not that interpretation A or interpretation B is the one true interpretation. Rather, the “true” interpretation is more likely somewhere between the two.6 And if this is the case, then the goal of discussing varying interpretations of the Bible is not to sway the other person to one side or the other, rather, the goal is for interpreter A to try to understand how interpreter B came to their interpretation and vice versa.
It’s important to note that understanding does not mean agreement. It’s entirely possible for person A to understand how person B came to their interpretation while still disagreeing with them. But the process of discussion and understanding is still important because without understanding the other, disagreeing over interpretations can (and often does) devolve in to pointless shouting matches.
And here’s another important aspect of this process: person A tries their best to understand how person B arrived at their interpretation in order to question their own interpretation, not the other’s. In other words, I believe the primary goal of discussing differing biblical interpretations is not to prove another person’s wrong, rather, it’s to check one’s own interpretation. At the end of the day, person A might still disagree with person B (and vice versa) but when done well, each person will leave the discussion with their own position slightly changed and/or bolstered and thus, both people leave the exchange blessed by the other.
But what if we can’t pin down biblical interpretation down to one side or another, then that brings us to the second question:
How is the Bible reliable or authoritative in and for the life of the church?
And I’ll get to that question in my next post. Stay tuned!
1 This disconnect between science and scripture continues to play out today in the creationism/Intelligent Design/evolution debate.
2 N.T. Wright calls the church “the scripture-reading community.” N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 116.
3 I am really looking forward to diving into Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’brien!
4 N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York, NY: Harper One), 118.
5 The topic of truth is well beyond the scope of this blog series, but is another important topic of discussion. If you’re interested in how we hold truth in today’s postmodern, global context, I’d recommend Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age by J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh.
6 That’s not to say that both interpretations are closer to the truth to the same degree. It may well be the case that one side or the other is closer to the “truth,” but there can still be elements of the truth on the other side.