Sermon: Interpreting the Bible

11.05.2017       Preaching Text: “[When] you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word…” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Last week we talked about how translating the Bible from Latin into popular vernacular was an important project within the Protestant Reformation. Since then, be it noted, the Bible has become the best-selling book of all time!

Which, for me, raises a question. How are we to interpret this document, one previously so closely guarded? Or does it even need interpreting?

The concern of church officials during the Reformation, and the reason the Catholic Church went to such lengths to keep it out of the hands of the public, has to do with this very issue – interpretation.

The Counter-Reformation worried that by making the Bible widely available, people would distort its meaning. The idea was that the proper interpretation of scripture required a learned clergy. Steeped in biblical studies, the church and its clergy would render an authoritative interpretation of what is undeniably a challenging text.

Reading the Bible today is no less challenging. The last of it was written some 2,000 years ago, while much of the rest of it goes back as far as another 500 years or more. Understanding the intricate cultural meanings and historical anomalies is daunting enough, and easily misunderstood.

Given this, assigning the meaning of the text to the “professionals,” to those who’ve studied it and dedicated themselves to the kind of religious life commended by it, seems not altogether unreasonable.

I mean, people have other things to do. They have jobs, families, and other demands. They don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to study the text rigorously, much less contemplate its deeper meaning.

So in a sense, the Catholic Church had a point. Which was, simply, that the Bible is a spiritual document written by the church for the church. As such, it is the church, and no entity outside it, that’s charged logically with making sense of it.

But that didn’t stop the Reformers from coming up with a curious notion, sola scriptura. The literal translation is “scripture alone,” something I never thought made a lot of sense. The reason is simple. In order for the Bible to stand on its own, one is forced to assume that its meaning is altogether clear.

But that’s simply not the case. One of the mistakes of the Enlightenment, and subsequently the Protestant Reformation, was the radical assumption that words (or reason itself) are objective, and thus require no interpretation. Yet how can this be so?

Using an example I’ve already overused, Charles Manson purportedly read the Bible and thought it was telling him to initiate a race war. Now this is, admittedly, an extreme example. But that’s the point. It illustrates how wildly different people can interpret what’s on the page.

The Catholic Church saw this coming. They rightly worried that taken out of the church’s hands biblical interpretation could easily be corrupted. More to the point, they argued (and still do) that it is the Holy Spirit who alone interprets Holy Scripture.

In truth there’s no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of the Bible (or any other text for that matter). It is the Holy Spirit who lifts the words off the page and gives them life, revealing to us their godly, spiritual meaning.

And where does this Holy Spirit reside? In the church. It is therefore the church’s task not only to interpret the Bible but to define the spiritual contours of the whole of Christian life – and this to every age, including our own.

The church is in effect the repository of the Holy Spirit through time. It’s the church’s job, therefore, to separate out the wheat from the chaff, to discern spiritually not only the meaning of the text but life itself.

The problem with sola scriptura is that the role of the church is circumscribed and made irrelevant. Here the text supposedly speaks for itself, without the need for the revealed, interpretive insights of the church.

Fundamentalism, along the lines of sola scriptura, argues that the language of the Bible is objective and universally available to anyone who reads it. No need for the church there. It is, as such, a modernist heresy, a post-Enlightenment novelty, or invention. Such a stance seems oblivious to the role interpretation plays in any reliable reading of the Bible.

In what is perhaps the most obvious example, there are but two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. One says that human life was the last of God’s creative efforts while the other says that human beings came first. If we’re being literal (and not interpreting) how exactly do we square that circle?

Last week the movie Noah was shown in the Parish House. It attempts to portray the Old Testament story of the Flood. A wooden interpretation of the story would be to take it at face value – meaning that the events occurred exactly the way the story reads in Genesis.

But the fact is, the story is itself an interpretation loosely based on Israel’s “oral tradition.” In other words, there likely was a big flood that occupied the land at one time. The incident was then passed down from generation to generation.

Hundreds of years later, however, Israel’s theologians attempted to give it theological meaning. Since they believed Jahweh was the Lord of history and that what happens in life is under His authority and control, they came up with a theological explanation for this otherwise inexplicable event.

Did it happen exactly as the story reads? I sincerely doubt it. But then again, they weren’t interested in reporting historical facts. They were doing theology. Any literal interpretation, therefore, simply misses the point.

It’s important to note that throughout both Jewish and Christian tradition, there has been lively debate regarding biblical interpretation, and much disagreement. The most famous debate within Judaism is the midrash, a word that means “to seek, study, inquire.” The midrash is an ongoing theological debate over interpretation that seeks to discover the deeper meaning of the text.

Indeed the Old Testament itself is chocked full of contradictions (the 2 creation stories being but one example). This is because the theologians who wrote it didn’t always agree on the meaning of events and chose to leave in place their studied uncertainty for posterity’s benefit.

The same can be evidenced in the Christian church. Throughout its history Christian theologians have frequently disagreed on the meaning of a given text. But it is in this lively exchange, this “blessed rage for order,” that our understanding is deepened.

It’s not, therefore, simply a matter of turning to a given chapter and verse to obtain the “objective” meaning. No, the Bible is a theological document and, as such, requires a theological interpretation.

Today, as I’m always harping on about, we seem to oscillate between two extreme views when it comes to interpretation. One is that the Bible is literally and objectively what it says it is, while the other claims that all interpretation is up for grabs (most often conforming to newer, more contemporary, and largely secular methods).

Once taken out of the hands of the church, in other words, we either default to a wooden understanding of the Bible or a wildly subjective rewrite, both of which risk jettisoning the Bible’s own timeless internal logic and coherency.

Lost in this interpretive shuffle is the church, along with its spiritual mandate to discern theologically the intrinsic meaning of the text, and as it is marshalled to face the inevitable challenges, demands, and learnings of each new age.

Moving through time, only the church is uniquely equipped and granted the authority – though not without struggle or disagreement – to assess the eternal meaning of the text as it relates to our ever-changing, dynamic world. Amen.