Bible Reading, Literally

ScarletA360px-Ichthys_svgI don’t know about you, but I am always amazed when folks insist that for the Bible to be reliable every bit of the Bible must be  factually, literally true. And I am even more amazed when they say that if one thing can be found to be untrue, the entire Bible is unreliable.  And perhaps the oddest part of all, both Christians and atheists can be in agreement here. This has just never made any sense to me.

Part of my problem is that Biblical literalists( among others,well- actually all of us)  assume that their reading, their interpretation is the correct reading. They also tend to assume that there is only one possible correct interpretation of any text.

Today I would like to revisit the topic of interpretation and also think a bit about the “all or none” stance that some folks advocate.

To my mind, the problem isn’t so much with the Biblical text as with our interpretation of it. I suspect the question of how we interpret sacred texts has been around as long as the sacred texts themselves. We need to remember all reading involves interpretation. The meaning of particular words themselves can change with context. I love my husband. I love chocolate chip cookies. Both these statements are true, however what I mean when I write “love” is different in each sentence. “Rock” can mean a stone or a type of music. The meaning of words can change over time. “Gay” meant something quite different 100 years ago than it does now. “Computer” in our time means the machine I am using to write this on and you are using to read this on. Years ago a “computer” was a person who did calculations.

8-book-pilesIt is easy for us to forget that our interpretations are shaped by our culture and world view. Christians in the US only have to look to the Civil War to find examples of sincere Christians who read the same Bible and drew different conclusions about slavery.

  Interpretation is a nearly automatic process but it is a complex process. I say one thing and my children hear something different. They heard the paticular words I said, but their interpretation can be quite different from what I meant. God speaks through Scripture but what you and I hear….   

We have to interpret the Bible, because to read it is to interpret it. But this is an enterprise that requires great humility on all our parts. It requires us to acknowledge our fallibility. It requires us to acknowledge that our culture and our personal experiences color our interpretation. 

If we approach the interpretive process with humility, then we can recognize that our best interpretation may still fall short of God’s full meaning. And that allows us to grow and modify our interpretations.

Christians modify our interpretations all the time. If you have spent time in Bible study, you know that your understanding of a particular passage may change as you grow older and have different experiences.  As you share in a Bible study group someone may say something that completely changes the way you understand a particular passage.

So for me, my particular problem or our societies particular problem with a portion of Scripture does not invalidate the entire text. We may merely need to be patient and wait for new interpretive insights. Certainly we don’t use this “all or none” standard anywhere else in our daily living.

For example, we don’t in science. As we talked about last week, theories are big complex things. If we find one part of a800px-Alte_Buecher theory is wrong or just doesn’t fit well, we don’t scrape entire theory. It takes a lot of new evidence that shows the entire way of thinking is wrong before science tosses a theory. It can happen, but not too often.  What Scientists do is use the other parts of the theory it help inform our work on the problem part.   This is not unlike the traditional Christian practice of using other parts of the Bible to help interpret passages that appear problematic.

Of course in science the working assumption is that some parts of any theory will be wrong and need improvement. While we work toward perfect understanding, we also know its not attainable. It is, however, the high goal we work toward.  The working assumption that we will have some things wrong, is an idea I wish Christians embraced more fully. How can we expect fallen humans to have perfect understanding?

 Of course good old common sense tells us that the idea of “one part is wrong the entire concept is wrong” is just plain silly. We really don’t make that argument anywhere else, do we?  No one would be married for more than a week, two at the most if we really believed that.  How about at your workplace?  Your hometown? Your government?

The perfect thing with no contradictions, no problems, no misinterpretations  doesn’t exist anywhere else in this world. Why would we expect our interpertation of  the Bible to be any different?

I’d like to know, what do you think?


Begining June  22 I will have limited to no access to the Internet. So if you post something that deserves a response from me, please know, I’m not ignoring you- I just don’t know what you have posted yet. I’ll catch up next weekend.  There will be, as there normally is, a post next Friday- if I am technologically savvy enough to properly use the WordPress tool that allows me to schedule a post for publication several days in advance.

4 thoughts on “Bible Reading, Literally

  1. I found your blog by way of the Bill Tammeus blog, wherre, ironically, the discussions have been pretty much taken over by atheists making the same flawed arguments you point out.

    So, I am looking around for a place where some real discussions can occur.

    As to interpretation, I certainly agree that we can all be fallible in that regard.

    But why assume that differing interpretations are always, or even usually, made honestly.

    I have found that sometimes people have other motives than “intellectual” for their interpretations, and I found the atheists over at the Tammeus blog to be engaging in blatant, willful, dishonesty.

    1. Student Advocate, Thanks for coming by and commenting.
      Why do I assume most interpretations are made honestly? I suppose because that has been my experience. My experience is that most- not all- but most folks are sincere in their beliefs.

      The discussions that arise as a result of those beliefs can vary from respectful discussion to tastless harangue. Sadly, our culture appears to promote the latter.

      I wonder sometimes, because of the abundance of loud and disrespectful debate on TV,radio and blogs with the emphasis on making one’s point and “winning” rather than listening to one another if many of us have forgotten the art of discussion and conversation.

      Has your experience been different? Do you find a significant portion of people being intentionally dishonest?

  2. I take several classes per week on Biblical interpretation… I find it most fun in groups when others can share their stories in what makes a passage ‘truth’ for them. I think that is what truly makes it a ‘living word’ as it was God’s Spirit that guided the pen as it is his breath that moves us to live.

    I do, however, value a strong balanced approach using a four fold method that looks at scripture in historical, literary, theological and devotional contexts. Reading out of the prophets needs a different perspective than the psalms or the gospel. Having a grounded, balanced approach has enriched the text with more meaning for me, and enlightened phrases, and words in ways I never expected.

    1. Thanks for your comment Cindy. Its always a balance of head and heart. United Methodist scholars talk about the Weslenan Quadralateral– Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think they are right, we need them all, each helps inform the other. (Just to be clear, they do afirm Scripture as primary)

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