16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3: 16-17 NRSV
‘But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive’.
Deuteronomy 20:16 – NRSV
The interpretation of the Bible is the single biggest issue in Christianity. Why is this? Because ultimately all arguments about our faith come back to how we interpret the Bible. To quote William Blake (1757-1827): ‘Both read the Bible day and night. But thou read’st black where I read white’. You see, these are not new issues, just ones that seem new. It’s salutary to remind ourselves that those opposing the abolition of slavery and much later the abolition of apartheid, claimed to have the scriptural high ground and saw their opponents as dangerous liberals, undermining the word and laws of God, as laid down in the Bible.
If we start with an assumption that the Bible can be interpreted literally, we quickly run into difficulties. I’ve included above one of the few direct quotations from the Bible about interpreting the Bible from the Second Letter of Timothy. The New Revised Standard Version, NRSV, that I have so far used in my blog, uses the phrase ‘inspired by God’. Other modern English versions translate the phrase as ‘God-breathed’. The Revised English Bible just uses the word inspired, leaving out the ‘by God’ bit. And as if that doesn’t adequately confuse our understanding of what that verse means, The NRSV gives two possible translations. Either: ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching’, or alternatively: ‘Every scripture inspired by God is also useful for teaching’. The latter translation, which appears in a footnote, implies that some, but not all, Scripture is inspired by God. So we’re left with a quandary; which particular translation are we being asked to take literally? Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. If we look at the verse from Deuteronomy that I’ve quoted above, we have to ask ourselves: Is this the ‘Word of God’ and if so, how would it affect our view of the God we worship?
I’m relieved that the Orthodox Christian belief about the nature of the Bible, the one that Anglicans have traditionally accepted, is that it has a dual nature. Firstly, it’s inspired by God through his Spirit to be the medium of his self-communication to us. Secondly, however, this traditional doctrine proclaims that the books of the Bible are human artefacts, created by specific human beings in specific historical circumstances. So, we’re being encouraged to hold these two issues in an uncomfortable tension, which is why this issue remains controversial. Is the subject that we’re reading about a communication from God, or the product of ancient historical circumstances and culture, or some combination of the two? This is where we get to the bottom of the issue and I’m afraid that the truth is that we can’t avoid interpretation. We’re part of this process, whether we like it or not; we’re not passive observers.
In addition to the problems of translation and context, we have the added problem of the huge change of culture from that day to this, so that the meaning that would have been immediately picked up by the first readers can often be lost to our culture, as I’ve tried to demonstrate several times on this blog. Let me give you another example. In the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, in John 4:8-30, we read that the woman has had five husbands, and our culture immediately pigeon-holes her as a serial adulterer. But what would we think if we discovered, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, that in practice only men in first century Palestine could obtain a divorce? What would happen if we started to see her as a woman who’d been abandoned five times and left with no means of financial support? And what if we then read that she was drawing water at noon in the heat of the day, and realise that this might well mean that she’d also been shunned by her own community? How might that change how we read this story?
Whenever we come near the Bible, it’s always able to speak to us differently, and this happens more, as we ourselves grow and change in faith and understanding. I’ve found, particularly when I’ve allowed myself the luxury of reading a passage slowly and with no particular time pressures (as at the moment in lockdown!), that new ideas, new questions and new interpretations often come to mind. It’s for this reason that I’m not uncomfortable hearing the words that many churches use at the end of Bible readings: ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ I believe that it is the word of the Lord, in the sense that God can and does speak to us through the medium of our opening ourselves to the Bible. I’ll develop these thoughts more in Part 2 of this post next week.
Gracious Lord, we ask that you might speak to us through the Bible, through the simple mechanism of guiding us to come to the words without any bias; opening ourselves to what you might wish to say to us this day and at this moment in our lives. Amen