A lot of what I blog about is based on the Bible, the collection of books that Christians believe to be the inspired Word of God. But amongst Christians there are divisions over the ‘right’ way to read the Bible, to interpret tricky passages and to apply it to our lives here and now. As this is going to be so key to my series on Mutual Submission, I thought I should tackle it first. Most of this is drawn from Alan G. Padgett’s approach in the book this series is based on (When Christ Submits to the Church). But it’s also comprised of my own thoughts and reflections. I’ve decided to structure this in a series of questions I have had about the Bible and answers I’ve come to. This doesn’t cover everything (obviously) or even fully answer all the questions, but it’s a start.
What is the Bible?
I was asking this as a bigger question than merely what is it – as in, it’s a book made up of books from the Hebrew Bible and Greek Testaments about Jesus and Letters from the early Church – but what is it – as in, what is it for, what is it’s bigger meaning and purpose?
The Bible is the Word of God, and contains all things necessary for salvation. But it does not always answer our contemporary questions.
How have people read and used the bible historically?
The Bible has a variety of writing styles within it – stories, poems, historical records of family trees and letters to name a few. Reading these together as a coherent story can be difficult and Christians haven’t always gotten it right. Historically, there’s been two extremes of bible reading. One is narrow literalism – to take everything in the bible, even the metaphors of poetry and parables told as literal truth without interpreting with any nuance. The other has been to interpret everything as allegorical and metaphorical, and none of it as historical truth – which means basically any passage can say anything you want it to. Finding a balanced path between the two is hard and necessary work.
Different ways of reading the bible, like the two extreme examples above, have developed over time. How you read the bible influences what you think about God – your theology. Your theology also influences how you read the bible. I hold to a broad evangelical theology.
What’s evangelical theology?
Evangelical theology is grounded in the gospel – the good news about Jesus. It has a history of focusing on conversion, activism, biblical authority and the centrality of the cross. It is committed to Jesus Christ as saviour and lord, fully human and fully divine, and finds the gospel authoritatively articulated in the Bible, which those who hold this theology confess to be the Word of God written by human beings. We affirm the power of the gospel to forgive sins and change lives, leading to discipleship and mission, and we accept in the historic witness of the church.
Can the Bible mean more than what the author meant it to?
Many evangelical theologians find the mind or intention of the biblical author to be the limit of scriptural meaning for today – but this is to let all the inner thoughts of the original author determine all possible future meanings for the text.
But by putting the whole Bible together and reading it in unity we are already going beyond anything that could have been in mind when the original author was writing. The very fact we read the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament together as one book is an implicit confession of faith that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel.
The larger context changes the meaning and significance of particular texts within the Scriptures. So if we take seriously the claims we make about Jesus and the heart of the Gospel, we can no longer approach the Bible in a way that limits us to what an original author might have thought or intended.
How do I understand the Bible?
Ultimately, the person of Jesus provides a unity for the Bible. This unity includes everything Jesus does – past, present and future. A Christ-centered approach to Scripture doesn’t mean we find Jesus in every verse – rather it mean Christ is the key to unlocking the deeper meaning of Scripture. When we read the Bible through the lens of Jesus and what he did on the cross, we can understand the story being told across the whole bible.
What if I’m wrong?
It’s okay to change our minds on these issues, and it’s important to act towards each other with patience and gentleness when we disagree, and as we wait for progress of the Spirit in ourselves and others.
Thoughtful Christians, especially thoughtful Christian scholars, must resist the dream of there being only one right way to read the Bible. For the Christian community has very different goals in reading the Bible than those within the academic community.