The Interpretation of Scripture

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Neil Sims

A Summary of Key Points from a Church of Scotland Report of 1998 by the same name.

Introduction. The Bible has always been at the centre of the Christian faith and will continue to be central. It is the source of most of our information about Jesus, about the understanding of God which arose in Israel and in the early Church, and about the Christian view of the nature of the gospel of salvation. The Church believes that God uses the Bible to illuminate our life and thought. This report does not offer an alternative understanding of the authority of the scriptures to what has already been established by the Church.

There has always been a constructive tension between diverse readings of the Bible. Too literal an identification of fragments of Scripture as “Word of God” has been made the pretext for Nazi oppression in Germany and for the apartheid supported by the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.

Some will regard any attempt to integrate scriptural faith with modern knowledge as a dangerous slide into relativism. Others will feel that we must present the ancient gospel in terms that take account of new knowledge and a changed culture. The way that the prologue to the gospel of John re-presents the Jewish faith to a Greek readership shows that the good news has never been static, or insulated from the world in which it is preached.

Some basic principles follow:

The Bible remains the supreme rule of faith and life.

We always read the Bible with some degree of interpretation. For example, some affluent western Christians read the Parable of the Talents as a justification of capitalism, while others being exploited under oppressive political regimes may see the Exodus as a mandate for economic revolution. Again, we all tend to give more or less prominence to some parts of the Bible than to others.

Within Scripture itself, understanding and interpretation can be seen to evolve. Later biblical writings often depend on earlier ones eg. Paul’s interpretation of the significance of the disobedience of Adam (from Genesis 3) in Romans 5.

There are significant issues on which it is difficult to see one clear unambiguous “biblical” view. There are no neat answers to such questions as poverty, military service, corporal and capital punishment. The Gospel in its fulness cannot be expressed by means of proof texts. If our faith does not involve development, growth, sometimes change, it bears little relation to the faith of the Apostles.

Scripture properly addresses different people in different ways. For example, oppressed people may find that the Exodus story confirms for them God’s concern for the poor and compassion for their own situation, while many in the west will overlook this model of social justice and see only evidence of God’s great love and faithfulness towards a chosen people. In recognizing this “elasticity” of Scripture, there are dangers, and it is good to name the importance of the Holy Spirit’s role in interpretation, though this does not safeguard against subjectivism. Where there are opposing interpretations, the corporate mind of the Church is a surer guide than the conviction of any individual reader.

Scripture is unique: and yet it is related to our own experience of God. Within its pages lies the record of God’s definitive self-revelation. Scripture is a regulator; everything since has to be related back to it and evaluated in its light. To accord the Bible such pre-eminence is an act of faith. A God who takes the “natural” - the human, the fallible, the fallen - and transforms it by grace, is an enormous help. If the Scriptures which inspire us all arose through such a sacramental process - human documents transformed and vivified to become Word of God - this is consistent with the incarnational belief to which they witness.

The Canon. The fact of the existence of the Canon speaks of authority. Amid the very diverse books which make up the Bible there is an underlying unity inviting us to read all the books as part of the whole. They were believed to enshrine a definitive and irreplaceable revelation of God and the community’s response to that revelation. To these books, therefore, the believing community must turn again and again - to ask who it is, how it must live and what its witness to the world ought to be.

Translations. There never has been, and presumably never will be, one agreed interpretation of Scripture. We do not have one neat theology, but a tradition of faith constantly in the process of interpretation and reinterpretation. Translation is not an exact science, but an art. Consider the translation of the first two verses of the Bible according to four modern translations, which are well-respected and used. The New International Version and the Revised English Bible commence, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The New Revised Standard Version and the Good News Bible start with, “In the beginning, when God created ---.” The NIV says, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” while the REB declares, “the spirit (small ‘s’) of God hovered over ---.” The NRSV speaks of “a wind from God swept over ---” and the GNB talks of “the power of God was moving over ---”. Should we opt for one of these translations, and if so what guides our choice, or should we be exploring the richness in all of the translations? (Comparisons of translations on other verses of the Bible eg. 2 Timothy 3:16 raise similar issues.)

Differences of Emphasis. Even within the same book in the Bible (eg. Genesis) we find different ways of speaking about God. Within the Bible, the same themes are handled differently. For example, Jeremiah sees the Exodus and wilderness wandering as the honeymoon period in Israel’s relationship with God, while Psalm 78 sees the whole period as a story of disobedience. New Testament writers believe that the story of Israel comes to its climax in Jesus, but there is no agreed way of saying this.

Approaches throughout History. The earliest period of interpretation was characterised by a rich allegorical approach eg. Origen. During the Reformation, some of the most bitter disputes between Luther and Zwingli about the nature of the Church and the Sacraments hinged upon different interpretations of certain verses in the Bible. It is comparatively easy to look back and identify the main theological, intellectual, social and cultural factors which influenced the way in which Scripture was being interpreted in the past. It is far more difficult to accept that our interpretation is similarly influenced by who we are today.

“Critical” Scholarship. With the “new learning” of the Renaissance, there was an increasing insistence on checking by investigation. In the last two centuries, there have been divergent tendencies in modern theology. The “liberal”/“radical” traditions have agreed that the study of Scripture should be conducted on the same principles as the study of any other text , i.e. questions about authorship, transmission, context, genre etc. are all open. The methods of critical enquiry sought to establish

the best available text, (textual criticism);

the sources of texts in literary precedents (source criticism);

the stages and forms of oral transmission (form criticism);

the historical/sociological context of the documents (historical criticism);

the editorial contribution to the final shape of the text (redaction criticism).

“Criticism” does not have the negative overtones that the word has in general conversation. It means something more neutral, like “discernment’. This does threaten fundamentalist views of the Bible which assume verbal inerrancy or guaranteed dictation by God. If Scripture is seen as a human collection of documents, then its uniqueness may be questioned.

Truth and Interpretation. Readers need to distinguish between different kinds of truth - to acknowledge that poetry may be as enlightening as prose. When the Bible says that the Temple curtain was torn in two at Jesus’ death, is that literal or metaphorical/symbolic/poetic truth. Mark, Matthew and Luke give different significance to this truth. The relevant question then is not, “Which account is true?” but “What truth does each account have to teach us?”

Postmodernism. Recently, there has been a loss of confidence about universal rationality, moral consensus and optimism. Literary studies have come to the conclusion that every text has its “sub-text”, that is to say that it represents a vantage point at which the writer or speaker has, so to speak, vested interests in the outcome. The aim of critical reading is then to “deconstruct” or clarify what the sub-text is. All our accounts of God’s truth are clearly our accounts. This can lead to a word-weariness that no longer expects to find a clear meaning. However, the alternative between interpretive dogmatism and interpretive scepticism is the conviction of faith. The ultimate service of postmodernity to the Church may be to remind us of the need to “lift up every voice.” The plurality of approaches, concerns and interests that readers bring to their study of the Bible need not result in an interpretive free-for-all, but rather in an attempt to recover a genuinely Pentecostal diversity. Biblical interpretation in the Church today need not succumb to the relativistic spirit of the age, but instead pursue the plural unity that characterises life in the Holy Spirit.

The Appeal to the Senses. For many centuries, when only a few had access to written texts, the people of the Church knew their Bibles through story, depiction (eg. stained glass) and drama. Mind and senses together brought Scripture to life in the community of faith. We are sensual beings. To draw also upon the senses is both to enable an appropriate response to parts of the Bible in which there is the hand of the creative artist, as well as to allow Scripture to address and nourish the whole person. Perhaps this is a point in the Church’s history when we need to “come to our senses again”. Many are exploring ways of releasing the power of the biblical narrative and of helping people reach in imagination inside the story to become part of it, and thus to take the Gospel to heart.

Worship and Interpretation. The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were formed principally for public use as the community gathered for worship. There is a sense in which worship is more that the occasion for the public reading of the Bible. Because of its nature, worship also shapes our hearing of Scripture. Here, the penitential moment, the release of forgiveness, the wrestling in intercession, the self-giving, the going forth in service and mission - all are enlightened by Scripture but at the same time they sharpen our approach to Scripture. Scripture is the witness of the prophets and apostles; preaching is the interpretation and passing on of this witness. In Scripture as well as in preaching Christ himself is present.

It is commonly observed that there is often a gap between what is discovered in the biblical studies classroom and what is subsequently heard from the pulpit. Preachers sometimes feel that they are protecting their hearers, whose faith may be shaken by what is commonplace in the colleges.

Imagination and Interpretation. By “imagination” is meant the capacity to look past what immediately presents itself to what is beyond. Imagination carries beyond facts to meaning, and is disciplined in fact by the divine imagination of Scripture itself.

Partner to the imagination is performance. In the case of a play or symphony, the text or the score has the function of preserving an event for the purpose of realising or repeating that event. A symphony exists only as it is heard through the medium of sound, produced not only in faithful reproduction of the score but in the quality of the players’ listening to each other. Conductors preside over quite different “readings” of a score, so that a person may might hear a well-known work as she has “never heard it before”. The performer struggles with the text, to understand the intention behind it, to try to do justice to what was in the composer’s mind. There is an enrichment that comes from the interplay of critical knowledge of the original combined with personal creativity and the times and circumstances of those who appeal to Scripture.

Bible, Theology and Ethics. The Bible plays a crucial role both in formulating and in examining Christian doctrine and Christian morals, for it is the only authoritative witness to the Word of God available to the Church today. As the supreme rule for the Church’s faith and life, Scripture may be likened to the primary “script” that Christians are called, individually and corporately, to play out upon the world stage. Biblical illiteracy is hazardous to our spiritual health. The Bible should be therefore at the centre of the Church’s thinking and of its life - not as the object but as the norm of its worship and witness. Scripture is thus the touchstone for the integrity of contemporary Christian discipleship. In this sense, then, the Bible is a “book of discipline”.

 

GUIDELINES FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

 

A. BE ATTENTIVE

1. Determine what kind of passage you are reading and read to gain a sense of the whole.

2. Be aware that different kinds of texts make different kinds of claims.

3. Locate the passage in the overall story-line of Scripture.

4. Be aware of how one text may allude to, repeat, fulfil or modify another.

 

B. BE OPEN

5. Acknowledge your prejudices and presuppositions.

6. Determine what the authors could have meant in the original context.

7. Become familiar with the history of biblical interpretation.

8. Relate difficult passages to simpler ones.

 

C. BE OBEDIENT

9. Read in the believing community.

10. Distinguish the descriptive from the prescriptive.

11. Prayerfully perform the Scriptures.

Use Scripture to form, inform, and reform your heart, mind and imagination.

 

Conclusion. In the Church we are presented with a variety of inherited interpretations of Scripture. Different strands of our Church community will tend to interpret Scripture in different ways. There is a measure of agreement in essentials, yet diversity may often be a positive gift of God’s grace. Both unity and diversity may be gifts of God, or they may be coerced unities and faithless diversities.

 

In the life of communities, the Bible has had consequences for the use of power, authority and influence. There has been a complex interaction between sacred texts and the construction of culture. It is important to learn to respect difference, to listen to the stranger, not least when the stranger, beyond the self-understanding of the particular group, is God. One of the best tests of a Christian community is the way it treats its minorities. We should not close off options, but wait to hear the Word of God breaking fresh truth for us.

 

The Bible is a central resource for Christian faith and life; it should be read. Many people find support in their faith from daily private reading of the Bible; it is hoped that these pages will offer some encouragement and guidance on the reading of Scripture.

 

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