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Reading, Understanding and Applying Scripture - a 'New View'

"The most important theological debate over the next 20 years will be about the doctrine of scripture: how we read, understand and apply the Bible." believes Andrew Wilson [2012].

Certainly, how we read, understand and apply the Bible has a huge influence on what we believe and do about God, the world, others, etc.

Jesus of Nazareth criticised the Jewish experts 2000 years ago for not seeing in the their Scriptures the true character of Yahweh God. They saw God as a ruler with strict demands couched in their Law; Jesus saw God as a Father, who values all 'ordinary' people, yearns over the evil in the world, acts to save it, and has a final glorious future for it, and the One who had sent himself as Messiah. They took Scripture very seriously, yet could not see.

Are we making a similar mistake?
- even though we might take Scripture very seriously?
What was it about the way they interpreted Scripture
that blinded them ?

Those questions have formed my ways of interpreting Scripture
leading me to explore ways that might be new.

I believe the Bible is God's communication ('Word') to humankind [Note 1], so the main question I have is: how should I read, understand and apply the Bible so that every part is be relevant and coherent with all the others, and no part to be discarded as meaningless or irrelevant today? [Note 2]

This has sub-questions, which dictate the contents of this page:

See also Understanding the Laws of Moses: Some Principles to Help Us.


How Scripture is Interpreted

Philip Alexander [2014] suggested there have been at least five main eras of people commentating on the Bible:

I suppose I feel closest to the Reformation and Postmodern, but also use reason and reference to discoveries in the Bible Lands. Philip Alexander's thinking is formed from looking at written commentaries, which reflects some of the thinking during historical periods of time. However, this view is perhaps academic; the question is how people treat the Bible today.

The following table gives some more down-to-earth ways in which people treat the Bible today. The following table tries to capture many of the ways in which the Bible is interpreted. (Please let me know if you find more.)

How Scripture Interpreted (Who)
Scripture is ... Strengths Weaknesses How I interpret
... statements to believe literally, being given word for word by God (Fundamentalists, also Muslims, Mormons) Tends to takes parts of Bible they read seriously. But tends to restrict which parts they read and take seriously, ignore many other parts. Like the Pharisees and Teachers of Law in Jesus' time were, they are not open to surprises or new things from God.

Holds a false view of what language is. Misunderstands the nature of the Holy Spirit's inspiration.

I try to take seriously all parts of Bible, whether I like it or not, but without ignoring any parts. Expect surprises from God, cutting across, expanding and enriching what I believed before. Sees the Bible as genuine language, with a variety of semantics and pragmatics, rather than only literal semantics. Look beyond the statements, to find the 'large messages' and have God's communication written on my heart rather then mere mind [Jeremiah 31:32].
A source of texts for Christian teaching (A certain type of evangelical preacher) Tends to know a lot of Scripture, and to seek out the connections between different parts on given topics. But the texts they pick out and the links they make are often not the Bible's whole message on their chosen topic.
Tend to pick out texts that support the preacher's message (whether deliberately or subconsciously).
Tends to find surface links rather than deeper ones.
Tends to evince a spurious air of authority; the preacher's wide knowledge of the Bible is applauded, so listeners are influenced to accept the preacher's message without question; the preacher has already gained their reward in the form of people's praise.
Tends to overlook tacit knowledge.
For any topic, seek all Scripture says about it, but always be self-critical about the picture we build from this, realising how much we don't yet understand.
A textbook of doctrines (Evangelical theologian) Develops clear understanding of general doctrines. and Builds a clear system of doctrines, and systematic theologies. But the clear system and systematization tends to become rigid and inappropriate to new situations; those who hold the systems of doctrines tend to resist new movements of God.
Reduces truth to that which can be expressed in doctrines, thereby constraining people unnecessarily. "You put heavy burdens on men's shoulders and life not a finger to help."
Tends to overlook tacit knowledge.
Much that is most important in the Bible cannot be expressed in a doctrine, but it is helpful to develop clear, coherent understanding of what is generally applicable from Scripture, which is what doctrines can express. Doctrines are seen as theorizations rather than truth always in need of further modification. Intuitive, tacit knowledge is important.
A text to criticise (or even debunk?) (Liberal theologian) Exercises critique Tends to debunk rather genuinely critique.
Elevates reason as the absolute judge, ignoring that reason is always driven by ideology or other beliefs
Treats Bible as a theoretical treatise and obliterates its pre-theoretical (everyday) nature.
At mercy of academic fashions, especially those in social sciences.
I try to exercise genuine critique, but beware of debunking. I recognise that critique is itself driven by human interests, often vile ones, and try to eschews academic and other fashions. I treat the Bible as a pre-theoretical communication, so that any attempt to theorize and critique it is partial and flawed.
A man-made account, written to maintain a power position (Some liberal theologians ) Takes seriously the humanness of those who wrote and compiled the Bible. But tends to sees the human authors as one-dimensional figures (the power dimension), rather than full, rich human beings.
It ignores that God communicates (because of his love), and tends to deny the reality of divine revelation.
Its focus on power is a twentieth-century preoccupation of the rich North.
I recognises the Divine inspiration of the Bible, because I believe God wants to communicate with humankind. But I also take seriously its human authorship and compilation. I values but try to surmount the preoccupations and presuppositions of twentieth-century (or later) theologians.
Verses that speak to me, because the Holy Spirit lights them up (Pentecostal / evangelical lay person) Recognises that God acts in our lives and this is how he sometimes speaks into our specific situations. But the messages we recognise tend to be only of certain specific types (how often is comfort spoken, and how seldom, challenge?)
Prevents seeing the whole story;
Individualises and privatises the Bible's message.
Tends to make the recipients like 'children' who do not think for themselves but wait to be told what to do.
Has a false view of what it means to be submitted to God (as action or thoughts rather than heart).
I want to mature in my understanding and be formed around the whole story of the Bible, but recognise that God can speak to us specifically. However, these individual messages must not be allowed to bully us, and must be harmony with the attitude and orientation of the whole and we should test them.
One of many religious books (Humanists who shy away from the challenges that Scripture might offer them) Open to seeing common themes between Bible and other religious writings. Tends to be shallow in dealing with common themes.
Their presuppositions hinder them from doing justice to the differences between religions and between different religious writings
Tend to have a very shallow, one-dimensional view of religion, often commenting on it from the outside.
The Bible is God's unique communication to humankind, though it shares many themes in common with other religious writings. The nature of the uniqueness is critically thought about, rather than dogmatically asserted.
The holy book for Christians (Members of other religions, and some Christians) Recognises something of the differentness of the Bible. Discourages (prevents) others from taking the Bible seriously.
Used as weapon by those Christians who want to attack others.
The Bible is meant for all humankind, not just Christians, but it generates a people who take Jesus Christ seriously (not necessarily a religion called Christianity).
A holy book to venerate (Roman and Anglo Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) Treats Bible with respect. But it is usually an unhelpful and misguided kind of respect, which is not what God wants; c.f. "I do no want your sacrifices and religious feasts; instead let justice roll on like a river."
Prevents us allowing the Living God to speak into our everyday lives, attitudes and structures
Treats Bible as an everyday object with which we engage in life, but also with respect.

[While the Bible is indeed holy in the sense of being special and uniquely related to God, it demands being read and understood, and taken seriously to affect all we are, do, aim for and aspire to. ]

I don't like any of those - though each has some insights. So ...

How I Find it Meaningful to Interpret Scripture

I will relate how I understand how I interpret Scripture, and later on refer to what some others suggest. The following account is not yet complete.

Maybe I feel close to Miroslav Volf's explanation in his book Captive to the Word of God because I am certainly 'captive' but in a way that allows criticism:

"I read the Bible as a sacred text and a witness to Jesus Christ; a site of God’s self-revelation; a text from the past through which God addresses all humanity and each human being today; a text that has an overarching unity yet is internally teeming with rich diversity; a text that encodes meanings and refracts them in multiple ways; a text we should approach with trust and critical judgment as well as engage with receptivity and imagination; a text that defines Christian identity yet speaks to people beyond the boundaries of Christian communities."

Here are some pointers on how I interpret Scripture. Not as a dictation from God (as Muslims and Mormons believe their Scriptures to be), nor as a text book full of information (as fundamentalists believe it to be), nor as a sacred book (as mediaeval Roman Catholicism saw it), nor as an object of criticism to pull apart (as Enlightenment unbelievers and some liberal theologians saw it). But ...

The Bible is God's written communication to humankind,
written by human beings who
were inspired by the Spirit of God
and understood God and his ways very well
not just at the front of their minds
but also in their experience, attitudes and tacit knowledge
within a cultural background shared with others of the time
and even to a large extent with us today.

So, in reading the Bible, I ask:

What did the author mean when he wrote this?
- not only at the front of his mind,
but what was his network of meanings as he wrote that piece?
Those are usually where the Holy Spirit of God worked inspiration.

Meaning, or rather meaningfulness, is not just the semantic meaning of a word or phrase, but links with much else, including what we intend and hope we will achieve by writing, our memories, what we are half aware of as we write, what we take for granted, and the background understandings we share with others. So ...

I test my interpretations.
If I think that a passage tells me X, I ask myself:
"If the writer had believed X, would they have written this,
or would they have more than likely written something else?"

How do we know what the writers and recorded speakers believed? How can we know whether the writers had true insight into the things of God? Remember that Jesus criticised the Jewish leaders and interpreters of his day for not seeing things the right way. This implies that there is a certain world-view, under which we would, if we read the Old Testament, come to the view that Jesus did.

I take the writers to have had a certain world-view,
a certain insight into what God is like and what his 'cosmic plan' is,
in creating, in making humanity within creation, and in acting in his creation.
I assume this world-view pervades entire Scripture,
- none of it is irrelevant.
I seek a world-view that makes coherent sense of all Scripture.

How do we apply Scripture? Not primarily letting verses 'jump out' at us (though we should be open to that). Not primarily as proof texts to prove or disprove our propositional beliefs or theories. Though sometimes we can indeed apply pieces of Scripture in those ways, I prefer ...

I look for principles behind what is written or said.
I ask "Why?" and "Why not something else?"
I try to understand something of the historical situation.
Then I see how those principles were implemented in that situation.
I try to apply them in my situation, while aware of other principles too,
and aware of the times I live in and the past and present.
Crucially, I draw principles from an everyday perspective,
and am suspicious of principles rooted in religious theory or doctrine.
Example: stuff from Westminster Confession or Roman Catholic beliefs.

Am I not feared of getting it wrong? Or do I think my interpretation is 'the correct one'? Neither ...

Getting it right is not on its own going to bring salvation,
because it is God who brings salvation.
And getting it wrong is not a huge problem
because Jesus Christ died to cover and counteract all evil.
So I try to be humbly, cautiously bold and innovative.

So what hermeneutic (way of interpreting) do I bring to Scripture?

All interpretation is a responsible act.
It involves what has been called double hermeneutic:
In fact, I would extend that to multiple hermeneutic: my understanding of the detail informing my view of the whole,
and my view of the whole informing my understanding of the detail,
and both of these informing and informed by
my view of the world, my view of God, of the role of humanity.

The New View sees an interconnected world as meaningful created by God for rejoicing, the role of humanity to be to represent God to all creation with authority, to show the character of God as seen in Christ, who brought us rich redemption.

See also Understanding the Laws of Moses: Some Principles to Help Us.

Expecting Surprises

God's communication is full of surprises, often seemingly going against what we believed up to that point. For example, Jesus showed God as a Father more than than a tyrant or king. It was the ardent Jew, Saul of Tarsus, whom God sent to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit told Peter to "kill and eat" the unclean - to show that he was to associate with ('unclean') Gentiles. Elijah was surprised to find God as low-profile "still, small voice" after the high-profile victory at Mt. Carmel. Much more recently, Helen Roseveare was surprised to find "God thinks as an African".

It is to be expected! What we know of God at any time is not only partial, but also constructed around many cultural assumptions and theoretical presuppositions. ('Theoretical' - i.e. beliefs that we hold to be generally true; 'presuppositions' - those deep ones that determine what we think are meaningful.)

But, as C.S. Lewis has pointed out in a different context, the new does not obliterate the old, it expands it, enriches it, fulfils it. We try to draw a circle - but when the more perfect circle is drawn with a compass, we see it as what we were aiming for all along. So, when God surprises us. The Father still has authority, but it is different. The Gentiles having access to God makes the Jews' access more valuable and gives it a different meaning, as representation rather than favouritism. The low-profile still, small voice had a power and authority of a different kind. God thinking as an African showed that God's thoughts are higher than ours and that no race is above another.

So, expect surprises. Don't assume that what we currently believe is correct in all ways. If someone seems to come against what we believe, don't assume they are going against God.

Yet, don't go to the other extreme. Don't assume that my new ideas are of God (no, not even the present author's 'New View'!). Be cautious but bold. Be humble either way. And remember that we are here not to promote particular truths, but to be part of God's Plan and Mission.

At What Levels Should We Read Scripture?

The most important level at which to interpret Scripture is one that seems least used:

to see the broad-brush messages that Scripture teaches us.
This is the approach of
A Brief History of God.

Then look for principles that arise from these. Then apply these.

More to be written.

With What World-view Lens Should We View Scripture?

I look for an understanding of God's cosmic plan that is reasonably commensurate with all that is written in Scripture. The only one I have found so far is that being explored and developed as 'A New View'.

One crucial element of the world-view with which I approach Scripture is that the Old and New Testaments together, relate humanity's experience of the Living God, including God's real action in the world, to a degree that is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" [II Tim. 3:16]. (There is one exception to that, the pre-human start of Genesis, which I take to be revelation.) As far as I can tell they are unique among all writings in the world in so doing, and is by a long, long way the best guide to all this, which can be relied on. This is what I understand when it is claimed that these two Testaments are 'the Word of God'.

More to be written.

Comparison with Other Views

NT Wright identifies four methods of reading the New Testament [why only New Testament?] [see Berriman]: I think that this New View takes in elements of each but goes beyond them. We add:

Wilson suggested there are three question we should discuss:

The second question seems OK to me, but the first seems to be the wrong question. It presupposes that we should expect Scripture to provide statements that we can understand or apply either directly or with some modification. And it presupposes that our understanding is with our analytical faculty, rather than tacit or intuitive. I think rather that Scripture shows rather than provides, and that God's people (and indeed all human beings) have a responsibility to work out in humility and with a pure heart what is meant. So, by definition, Scripture is often not analytically clear. The philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd has suggested that the Bible is meant to be read pre-theoretically rather than analytically. It is supposed to be understood and applied with intuition and as part of everyday understanding, primarily, and analysed theoretically only secondarily.

The third question could be broadened to the relationship between other things and Scripture, including aesthetics, assumptions, prior beliefs, worldviews, shared background understandings (lifeworlds), attitudes, the notion of justice, economy and language. Do not all these come into play as we seek to understand and apply Scripture, alongside reason? So we have to understand all of them. (This suggestion too arises from Dooyeweerd via his notion of aspects.

Notes

Note 1. Wilson suggests that evangelical Christians, though once fundamentalist, now distance themselves from both fundamentalists at one end and liberals at the other. This is true of me, too. However, the way I read, understand and apply it seems to be different from how some of my evangelical colleagues do.

Note 2. I recognise that many of the instructions that we so often argue about were written for a particular people and culture, but they are still relevant.

References

Wilson, A. (2012). War of the Word. Christianity, Jan 2012, pp.43-47.


This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 30 August 2009. Last updated: 31 December 2009 Bible summary started. 16 January 2011 keywords; new title 'How to...', keywords. 23 April 2012 cross-context. 29 April 2012 redone the centred bits; Wilson, with Wright, given a new section. 5 May 2012 removed summary, and improved interpretation. 20 May 2012 table 27 May 2012 more in table. 10 June 2012 more. 16 June 2012 Jesus and interpretation. 23 January 2014 Surprises, link to mission-wright, reword Intro, better Contents. 2 February 2014 Philip Alexander. 5 June 2014 Miroslav Volf, thanks to Prof. Dr. Soo-Young Chang, Korea. 17 June 2014 better title. 17 September 2014 small addition about authors; link to law.of.moses, new .end.