(A note from the editor: Bishop Daniel Martins wrote this piece on the very day that Bishop Jake Owensby put up his “Eight Things to Know About the Bible” at Pelican Anglican. Somewhat like I said a few days ago, perhaps we are seeing signs of the renewal of a writing episcopate. If so, thanks be to God. We invite readers to compare the two lists, especially since neither bishop wrote with knowledge of the other’s post.)
For Christians, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the foundational text of our faith, both the ultimate source of illumination in our relationship with God and the ultimate tether in our speculation about God and God’s ways. The practice of using one or more particular interpretive methodologies when reading Scripture is known as hermeneutics. In unworthy homage to David Letterman, now recently departed from the late-night television scene, I offer these ten hermeneutical principles, certainly more by way of a discussion starter than a discussion ender.
1. The Bible is the Church’s book
The texts of sacred Scripture did not fall mysteriously from the sky; they were not “discovered,” either intentionally or accidentally, hidden away in a cave; and they are not the proprietary work of a single human author. Rather, they arose organically out of the dynamic life of a community of people — first the community of ancient Israel, then the community of the earliest Church, the first two or three generations of Christians, of followers of Jesus and witnesses to his resurrection. Because the Bible is a tool at the disposal of the Holy Spirit (see #4 and #9 below), a person may on occasion meet and come to know God merely by opening and reading a Bible. But such events are outliers, not the norm. An academically detached scholar can learn a great deal about #5, #6, and #7 below and still encounter nothing of its power. The only way reading the Bible can be an “eye-opening experience” is when one reads it as an insider, as a member of the community which is its natural home (see #8 below).
2. The Bible is many books
Though familiarly published between a front and a back cover, the Bible is actually a collection of astonishingly diverse documents ranging in length from the one-page brevity of Philemon to the enormous batch of poetry known as the Psalms, from the quill pens (or iron styli) of more authors than can be precisely determined, writing in at least two different languages, and who lived over a span of time that covers at least a millennium. Each of these documents (and documents within documents) has its own integrity, its own “voice.” Each of those voices should be allowed to sing out clearly, and be appreciated for what it is simply in its own right, before being heard in harmony with the other voices. For instance, Christians may with very good reason “see Jesus” in Isaiah 53, and use it liturgically during Holy Week. But the “suffering servant” songs meant something to their author and to their original readership, and it is good for Christians to discern that meaning even as we see it fulfilled most fully in Jesus.
3. The Bible is one book
This is the opposite bookend to #2. Both are essential; both need to be held in dynamic tension. Billy Graham is famous for declaiming “the Bible says … ,” and this can understandably provoke a wince on the part of someone who has actually studied the Bible and is aware of the amazing diversity of voices represented in its pages. Yet, even as that diversity must be honored, so must the essential unity of the Scriptures be honored at the same time. There is a golden thread that binds this array of documents together, from Genesis to Revelation, pointing to a meta-narrative that might be likened to the quite formulaic plot of a romantic comedy: “Boy” (God) meets “Girl” (humankind) in Creation, Boy loses Girl in the Fall, Boy loves and pursues Girl (a long series of plot developments that begins with the Protoevangeliumin Genesis 3:15 and culminates in the resurrection of Jesus), Boy wins Girl and they live happily ever after (from Pentecost to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation). The Bible is a chorus, but if you listen carefully, you will hear those climactic moments when the chorus sings in perfect unison.
4. The Bible is God-breathed
There is a reason, of course, for these moments of unison choral singing, because the conductor of the chorus is none other than the Holy Spirit. Despite artistic renderings of the Holy Spirit-as-dove perched on the shoulders of the gospel evangelists, we are not bound to accept a sort of crude dictation understanding of the inspiration of Holy Scripture; the process was more artful and organic, working with and through the natural proclivities of the various human authors. Nonetheless, the result is canonical — i.e. it stands as a measuring stick, a rule of faith. Ordinands in the Episcopal Church are required to solemnly and publicly attest their belief that the “Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God.” There’s not much room for ambiguity in that statement. It means that whatever is in the Bible is there because God intends for it to be there, and that the Bible reveals what God wants us to know about himself, about ourselves, and about our place in this world. Some might be quick to add that the ordination declaration continues, “and contain all things necessary to salvation,” and perhaps argue that the scriptures are the Word of God only insofar as matters of salvation are concerned. But surely the latter phrase is an elucidation and amplification of the former, and not a qualification.
5. The Bible that we read is a translation
The original biblical languages (that we know about) are Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic in some books. The oldest English version that can be commonly obtained is 404 years old. Most of the translations that contemporary Christians currently use have only been extant for a matter of decades, and in some cases, only a few years. There is an aphorism in Italian: traduttore, traditore — translator, traitor. This is perhaps a little harsh, because most translators don’t mean to be traitors. But translation is a tricky craft, even between contemporary languages, and still more when an ancient language is involved. So, in personal and group study, it’s probably best to consult a variety of translations, and not load too much theological or spiritual freight onto one or two words of any particular translation.
6. The Bible contains different literary genres
There include poetry, hymnody, historical narrative, correspondence that contains exhortation and teaching and theological explication and speculation, aphorisms, apocalyptic, prophecies, legend and myth, and other genres and subgenres. Each of these must be discerned (scholars will not always agree), and then respected. One would not read the automotive ads in the Sunday newspaper with the same interpretive expectations that would be appropriate for the lead news story on the front page; the op-ed page would require yet another kind of filter. Hermeneutical train wrecks happen when one genre of biblical literature is read as if it were another.
7. Each text in the Bible has a literary and historical context
Yes, God speaks to us through the pages of Scripture as we read it today. But our ability to hear accurately what God intends to say is tied at least in part to our willingness to understand what he also meant to say to the text’s original readers. For example, to know that the two extant letters from St Paul to the Thessalonians are the earliest of Paul’s epistles, that he had himself planted the church in Thessaloniki, and was writing to them only weeks after leaving them before he would have liked to, for fear of his personal safety, is perhaps not essential but nonetheless tremendously helpful in understanding and applying that text to a contemporary setting.
8. Christian disciples read the Bible with the Church
This is related to, but is a distinct and important amplification of #1 above. The canon of Scripture (the list of documents included therein) was discerned by the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, over some three to four centuries. This canonical list is quite formalized, and most churches now consider it part of the unchangeable deposit of faith. But there is also a strong, albeit informal and unofficial, tradition of interpretation, and this tradition of interpretation is most clearly revealed by looking at how biblical texts are deployed liturgically, in the form of lectionaries for Sundays and other occasions. To the “naked eye,” as it were, Psalm 78 is a poetic narrative of Israel’s wilderness sojourn, including the Lord’s provision of manna in response to the complaint of a hungry people. To the eye attuned to liturgy and lectionary, there is a harbinger of the Eucharist, culminating in the affirmation that “mortals ate the bread of angels; the Lord provided for them food enough” (v. 25). This is but one of an abundance of such examples.
The risks attendant on ignoring the tradition of biblical interpretation became evident in the life and work of an American in the nineteenth century who was dismayed by the multiplicity of beliefs professed by the several denominations of professed Christians. He devoted himself to inferring a purified form of Christian faith, based on the Bible and the Bible alone. He studiously avoided any tradition of biblical interpretation, relying on the insights derived from his own direct reading of Scripture. His name was Charles Taze Russell, and the members of the sect he founded call themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses. Let the reader beware.
9. The Bible may profitably be read devotionally
… as long as you know that’s what you’re doing, and as long as you also read the Bible in other ways as well. Not every Christian has either the charism or the vocation to become familiar with the Scriptures in an academic way. It is certainly an abuse — although not one that is beyond the Holy Spirit’s capacity and will to exploit — to blindly open a Bible, point to a verse at random, and attempt to draw concrete and immediate guidance therefrom (cf. Augustine of Hippo’s conversion!). But there are ways of engaging biblical texts using practices that are completely non-academic and quite prayerful. One thinks here of classic lectio divina, discursive meditation in the Jesuit tradition, and the so-called African Bible Study method, among others. Of course, this presumes one is also regularly encountering scripture in a liturgical context, whether in the Eucharist or the Office.
10. Not everything in the Bible is a positive example
Just because one of the many books that make up the Bible speaks descriptively about a pattern of behavior or a social institution does not justify the inference that the one book that is the Bible condones that behavior or institution. “The Bible” per se does not “approve” of polygamy, slavery, racial discrimination, necromancy, monarchy, or gratuitous violence any more than it can be said to “approve” of adultery, incest, murder, or theft. Characters in biblical narratives engage in each of these behaviors (even characters that are otherwise exemplary), and in contexts where there may not be any immediate judgment or adverse consequences. But it is facile to suggest that the Bible therefore endorses them.
It is meet and right that every literate Christian “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of sacred Scripture. Those words then form the grammar and syntax and vocabulary of our lives in Christ, they tutor us in our eventual destiny of living in the unmediated presence of the Holy One. But reading the Bible is often a challenge. It can be confusing and troubling, and it is easy to be deceived. These ten guidelines are not the Alpha and Omega of successful biblical interpretation. But perhaps they are useful touchstones.
The photo is “Bible” (2009) by Olga Caprotti. It is licensed under Creative Commons.