(Image from last Christmas)
I can remember being a Freshman in college and signing up for “this new Facebook thing”. It was such a cool way to connect with other people on campus, and it really did that at the time. However, in recent years Facebook has shaped our culture in so many other ways besides merely connecting people throughout the world. In a lot of ways, it has become a platform for sharing peoples’ beliefs. Unfortunately, it’s the loudest, most extreme voices that are often seen and heard.
As a Christian (and now pastor), I have spent the majority of my young life studying the Bible, both personally and in an academic setting. So when it comes to Facebook extremities, it’s all the bad theology I come across that gets my blood boiling more than anything else. People have so many different interpretations (I’m sure my overall interpretation is a bad one to many people). I don’t think Facebook is generally the place to debate, but I am glad it has got me thinking about how I read and interpret the Bible. After much critical thinking, I think the following sheds a fair light on my personal process:
II. Inspired, not (always) literal
I do see the Bible as inspired and authoritative over all matters of Christian living and practice, but I don’t believe you have to read it literally 100% of the time in order to hold this belief. Just as the Bible is woven together with various literary styles over various periods of time, so am I called to read it and work through the various ways in which it reveals truth to people. And this is what the Bible does. It reveals truth to us about God. It isn’t a history book or a science book; it is a theology book. It’s sole purpose is to show us God through the story of God’s people. It does this in many ways; it does it through narrative, law, poems, parables, song, prophetic word, etc.
Because the word of God is revealed to us in many ways, much is required of us as readers and interpreters of it. We have a responsibility not just to literal interpretation when necessary, but we also have a responsibility to creativity and imagination. Within this responsibility lies freedom, which I believe is harder work than its antithesis.
So, while I may not always read the Bible literally, I do always pray that I am open to the Spirit when reading and interpreting.
III. Studying the Bible
When I study the Bible, I consider the three worlds (Hauer and Young’s “An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds”, 2005). The world behind the text makes me think of context. What social, political, ethnic and economic realities are peculiar to that place in time, and how do they play out in the text? The world of the text makes me consider the structure of the text itself – the writer, the date the setting around the book, the audience, etc. Finally, the world in front of the text reminds me that this is not just a story from the past. It is sacred, and it speaks to all times and all people. So, I wonder: as a living word today, what is it’s meaning for us today? I try not to study the Bible without considering these three worlds.
Studying the Bible this way makes it extremely difficult to read and apply literally at all times, as explained above. It also protects me from any temptation to prooftext, which is taking any part of the text and applying rigid truths to it in isolation. When I read a passage for exegetical work, even if I’ve just done the work over a small part of scripture, I always have to step back and question if it really fits with the overall rhythm of the Bible.
I once heard someone compare the books of the Bible to pearls. Only when holding them together as one are we able to see the pearl necklace in it’s entirety. The full strand is much more beautiful and valuable than any single bead on its own. This is how the Bible can be viewed. We should always remember that holding up one passage can be beautiful. However, it is but one bead on a larger strand and should be treated as such.
IV. Not a fan of Marcionism
I realize many Christians have little appreciation for their faith history. That is to say, there is little value placed on knowing about and embracing ancient traditions that make up the Christian faith. Jewish tradition is one example of this. Many aspects of Jewish tradition are also a part of our tradition as Christians. By devaluing the need of understanding it, our own faith experience is dulled.
Even worse is the tendency for the modern Christian to seemingly disregard the Old Testament. Personally, I feel a special calling to make the readings of the Old Testament more accessible to people who may find little meaning there. This is why I often preach on Old Testament texts. I think we should treat the Old Testament as equal canon to the New Testament, but unfortunately this sentiment is more often ignored.
Even with my love of the Old Testament, when I apply the filter of the three worlds to it, I can’t help but read and interpret it in different ways than the New Testament. After all, it was written at a different time and to different people. Furthermore, unlike the gospels and epistles, most of the books are made up of multiple authors and were edited and reedited again and again over time.
With this in mind, reading these passages only at face value, especially knowing it is impossible to take off our 21st century lenses when doing so, is doing this sacred text an injustice. The Old Testament is packed with redemptive truth for our time, but finding these truths takes serious searching and openness to the Spirit.
V. Christ is love
Even with all of my appreciation for Jewish history and love of Old Testament tradition, as a Christian I really cannot read any text in scripture without reading it in light of Christ. My understanding of Christ is that he was and is the embodiment of love, goodness and freedom, which is the essence of salvation. In the Gospels, we see Christ go against the grain when anything threatened his fully injecting these things in the world.
This is not to say spiritual disciplines are not important. Jesus was a devout Jew who was extremely well-read in the law. In fact, he was so well read he was able to find his essence (love, goodness, freedom) in it instead of taking it at face value. This is what stumped and infuriated the religious leaders of his time.
Jesus, as the face of God in the world, brought love, goodness and freedom, and he made it accessible to everyone. Jesus showed the world that things of faith are important, but at the end of the day, only one thing matters most. Love. Love of God and love of neighbor.
Someone once told me that there are many gray areas in the Bible (and we especially love to disagree about which areas are gray and which are not). However, there is one area that is almost universally considered black and white. This is the clear call to love. And until we can all truly say we have gotten that one down, maybe we ought to lay off all of the arguing and judging of others who see things differently.
Interpreting the Bible and the applying and teaching of interpretation is important. Spiritual disciplines are important. But love is what matters most (Jesus said so! Matthew 22:36-40). And if love really is what matters most, then I daresay it is love that will ultimately do the trick.
“The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:7-8