Reading the Bible

September 14, 2006

Gutenberg BibleThis post is probably going to get me in trouble.

I’ve been in seminary for all of 3 days now, so I’m by no means an expert on the topic about which I’m going to write.

But, more and more I believe that there are really no “experts” on Biblical interpretation; only those with stronger opinions.

I’ve been learning this week to put some language around Biblical interpretation, another word for which is hermeneutics.

I’ve learned about the hermeneutical circle.  (Every time I hear that, for some reason I start bursting into song in my head to the tune of Elton John’s “Circle of Life” from the Lion King.)

Anyway – the jist of the hermeneutical circle is this:  We have the text of the Bible, we have what lies behind the text (the author’s intent), and we have what lies in front of the text (all of our own psychological, cultural, and other stuff that causes us to read the text the way we do).  Without getting all fancy and trying to draw it, the circle would look something like this:

our modern view->text->ancient “truth”->text->modern view

One hermeneutic we can use is to use what we know about historical facts and cultures to get “behind the text,” understanding the ancient intent of the text, then apply that to the modern view.  That’s what my Bible professors want us to do.

That’s great.  I like it.  Sold.

But wait, there’s more.

Just as I believe so fervently, and articulated here, I don’t believe God ever works in just one way.  If the text only has one meaning, what makes Holy Scripture different from any other text?  What makes it sacred?

The answer to me is that there are multiple hermeneutics- multiple ways of interpreting the text.

Just as Jesus has many faces, so we can read Scripture through many lenses and get many different results.  This is what makes it such a rich, wonderful, document and testifies to its Holiness.  That is what gives it authority- the fact that nobody can conclusively say that it authoritatively says any one thing.

Using only one hermeneutic is exlcusive.  We must be careful not to invalidate other experiences of the text when we choose one interpretation for ourselves, just as we must be careful not to invalidate other experiences of God just because we have had certain experiences with God ourselves.

I believe that is what has happened to our church.  As I’ve said elsewhere, the issue before us isn’t (at its heart) about sexuality.  The boiling point may have been sexuality.  But this is about hermeneutics.  This is about the nature of Holy Scripture.  This is about theology.  (I happen to think it is about power too, but I’ll leave that aside for a moment.)

We have spent far too much time talking about the symptoms (gay bishops, ordination of women, and so on) and far too little about the crux of this problem.

My reading of the Bible doesn’t give us the option to take exclusivity as a course.  Early Christianity did not require uniformity.  Somehow that has become threatening.  I believe that is a false fear.  Diversity is good.  Diversity of hermeneutical choice leads us to greater understanding of God.  Through it, we can be lead to new insight from each other that we might not have otherwise gained.  If we separate into uniform groups, we will only get the same old thing, over and over again.  How is that of benefit to the body?



3 Responses to “Reading the Bible”

  1. FrMichael Says:

    I think you have just demonstrated why the Protestant rallying cry sola scriptura is a fraud. And identified yourself as more of a Protestant rather than a Catholic in the Episcopalian spectrum.

    “That is what gives it authority- the fact that nobody can conclusively say that it authoritatively says any one thing.”

    What is this? I could say this of the ramblings of the corner drunk: how does his incoherency prove that he is authoritative. The statement certainly is no proof of the authority of Scripture. The authority of Scripture derives from the God who inspired it and the Catholic Church that assembled it. Interpretation of Scripture needs to be in accord with Apostolic Tradition: interpretations that differ from Tradition.

  2. FrMichael Says:

    Oops, had to run and left a fragment of a sentence.

    “interpretations that differ from Tradition… are illigitimate.”

    Now completed!

  3. Jeff Says:

    I don’t think it identifies my point of view at all. I was careful not to say at all how I interpret scripture.

    I’m not tracking with the corner drunk metaphor either; when you get a second please explain.

    I’ll elaborate on what I mean by the authority of Scripture. Scripture for me does not get its authority in today’s world because of the tradition in which it was formed. Let’s take an example: Lev 19:19b: You shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different kinds of materials.

    Somebody in the early church decided this should be canon. Does this give it authority as God’s word to me? I think we can all agree it does not. It must be interpreted, taken in context, and looked at in a fuller sense to understand that this served a different people in a different time. It does not have authority in the same sense that something like Lev 19:18 does: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
    This passage is backed up all over the place in scripture and can be taken in a fuller context today and can be interpreted in many different ways (who is my neighbor, etc.).

    In these passages it is helpful for me to go “behind the text” a little in order to understand who was writing what, why these things were said, and so on. It is very helpful, for example, for me to know that much of the early Old Testament text was created not at the time of Moses, but a thousand years later after the exile to Babylon. Texts that were inserted during this period were likely done so due to the stress the people were under in the search of the identity they had lost in their exile; giving lots of the text its shape.

    That is part of my hermeneutic. Now- is that the only one? Absolutely not. Your hermeneutic sounds like it is based on why the early church chose this text for inclusion in the canon. That’s fine. I’m not invalidating it.

    My point is this: There are lots of ways of doing it. None are wrong. That’s what makes it a wonderful, rich, deep, and many-hued, sacred text. That’s what gives it authority. More technically I would say that the Spirit has selected these texts and in doing so given them authority because they are so powerful. I do not interchange the Spirit and the early church, because I see them many times at odds. I understand as a Roman how you might not make that distinction, though.


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