Editorial: Reading the Bible

I confess right up front that the discipline of Biblical Studies is not my expertise, but I have lived most of my adult life in a milieu where formidable challenges to the Bible’s inspiration and authority have been made, and where guilds of scholars have given the impression that an accurate reading of the Bible is only possible if a person is either highly educated or “tuned in” to their latest commentaries.

All you have to do is step out of “the Western world” (here meaning “the world that can be presumptuous and arrogant regarding its own perspectives and capacities”) and travel to other parts of the world where ordinary women and men daily open their Bibles, reading them with understanding and devotion.

It is not my purpose in this post to discount the contributions of scholarship.  I’ve lived my life in the academy, and I can quickly point to numerous advances due to the commitment and insights of scholars.  But it is my purpose to say, as clearly as I can, that the Bible is not a “secret book,” only yielding its true meaning to a rarefied and comparatively small group of “illuminati.”  The Bible is a book intended to be read and understood by anyone who takes the time to ponder its message.  So, the question becomes, “How do we read the Bible to connect our lives with its meaning?”  I offer these considerations.

First, we read confessionally. That is, we read as those who believe that the Bible is God’s revelation (not a man-made product) and who receive the text as we have it (not as a seriously flawed document).  We read, as Dr. Richard Hays has said, with a hermeneutic of affirmation, not one of suspicion. We do not worship the Bible, but we do revere it.

Second, we read congruently. That is, we read as those who seek to align our lives with the Bible’s message, not as those who attempt to make the Bible confirm our personal and cultural presuppositions.  Rather than allowing current categories of debate to determine how we see the Bible, we allow the Bible to determine how we see the current categories of debate.  When a text is hard to interpret, we do not say that it is insufficient; we say that our ability to grasp it is insuficient.  Dr. Robert Tutttle sometimes puts this phrase beside a difficult passage: “awaiting more light.”  But while we do this, we assume that if the passage is affirmative in principle, it is something God wants us to do.  If it is negative in principle, we assume it is something God doesn’t want us to do.

Third, we read communally. My biggest problem with some modern biblical scholarship is that it is based upon an assumption that we only began to “properly” understand and interpret the Bible about 250-300 years ago.  Without meaning to be mean-spirited in this post, I have to say that I have concluded this is nothing other than arrogance.  And some of it comes from a desire to eliminate the Bible’s message in favor of our “new and improved” messages.  As one of my professors in my Ph.D. program said, “The main problem with a lot of contemporary biblical studies is that it’s freelance–knowingly disconnected from the history and insights of Christian tradition.”  We run the risk of serious misinterpretation of Scripture if we act as if there is no insight or instruction between the first century and the twenty-first.

Serious problems occur when we cease to read the Bible in the three ways I have noted in this posting—the most serious being that we move the Bible out of its central place, and put ourselves at the center.  This just happens to be one of our “favorite pastimes”—with many things other than the Bible—as a thoroughly self-centered people.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to Editorial: Reading the Bible

  1. Tom Pope says:

    Steve,
    Thanks for this post. Having been back in the church for awhile I find the average Christian doesn’t really care about the things we took so seriously in our biblical hermeneutics. They want to simply read the Bible and want to know how it applies to their lives. Actually it is pretty refreshing.
    Blessings,
    Tom

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