Thursday, May 10, 2012

Failed Experiments in Reading the Bible

Like I said yesterday, a large force in my ongoing faith journey is to try to discover how to read the Bible.  I love the Bible, I have come to believe that it is divinely inspired, and I believe that it will provide for me a normative pattern for faith.  However, how do we come to find that normative pattern?  What are the options out there.  Allow me to share a few before sharing the basic outline of how I think reading Scripture should be done.

  • Traditional Reading of Scripture
A Traditional way to read Scripture is to read with one question in the forefront:  What is God saying to me?  The underlying assumption is that each verse of each book of the entire Bible is meant to speak directly, and oftentimes primarily, to yourself.  You will find this to be the most readily used method of reading Scripture within Protestantism.  It is also a major reason why there is such a pluralism of ideas concerning the Bible--we allow it to speak without any concern for context.  This reading approach is lazy, ignores the historical nature of what was written, and ignores the biases inherent in personal reading of Scripture.
  • Tradition-Saturated Reading of Scripture
Tradition-Saturated reading, however, provides a very different foundation.  This reading approach leans heavily on the internal history of the church to define what a text should mean by looking at how it has been interpreted throughout church history.  This sounds brilliant, until we dive a little deeper.  The problem is two-fold.  First, a careful reading of church history will notice a MAJOR shift 300 years after Christ when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman world.  Everything began to change, from church structure to military involvement.  Can we trust the tradition of the church to be consistent before and after this event?  Second, most of church history is filled with great church leaders arguing amongst themselves about theology.  Who will be authoritative?  Will you trust the writings of Augustine, Origin, John Chrysostom, or Jerome?  Will you listen to all the church councils, or only those that took place in the Western Church?  Do Western or Eastern fathers (who have VERY different outlooks on theology) get a place of more prominence?  This reading approach simply opens up the material available, while still standing on a foundation built with my own personal preferences.  Surely it will not do.
  • Authoritative Reading of Scripture
Authoritative Reading of Scripture is simple to understand:  I am not meant to understand the Bible on my own, therefore I must rely on an authority figure to interpret for me.  Catholicism uses the Pope while Eastern Orthodox trust the gathering of Church Fathers, and today we even have a new form of this cropping up in Universities where professors have become the authority.  The problem with this, of course, is that you are simply trusting another's personal preferences instead of seeking out truth yourself.  What makes these men authorities?  Within Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Orthodoxy) this sets up a circular argument where the Pope is authoritative because it says so in Scripture, which he is only qualified to interpret (thus being the only one capable of telling you what the Bible says!).  Not a great way to promote honesty in study.
  • Allegorical Reading of Scripture
This method is one that was used by most teachers in the Middle Ages, but has become increasingly popular within Evangelical circles.  We read the Bible, and allegorize the details so that we can find the "inner truth" of a passage.  David v Goliath not sounding too relevant?  What is the giant in your life?  Jesus calms a storm...what are the storms in your life that Jesus seeks to calm?  The problem with this should be obvious--it belittles the historical actions of Scripture in favor of deeper truth.  Does biblical truth exist outside of the actual events that revealed it?  Is truth purely an idea, or is it founded in actual events and actions?
  • Historical-Reconstructive Reading of Scripture
This is a very scholarly method, and it is used by a great majority of the scholars today.  The goal, they believe, is to get behind the text to the actual events.  Mark was writing to a community of people, what was that community like?  Why does he weave the stories he does into the gospel he creates?  What makes his community different than that of Matthew or Luke?  Did Paul recreate Christian theology or was he a product of that theology?  These questions, while good to an extent, miss the point for any person of faith.  I have a lot more opinions on this, but would recommend that you read The Gospels For All Christians if you are interested in my stance by someone smarter than myself.
  • Pure Historical Reading of Scripture
This reading is another version of the above theory, but with a different focus.  Can we get to the history of Jesus (or Moses, David, etc) by reading the text.  Can we understand who they were by using historical research outside of Scripture to help us interpret Scripture.  The problem with this is that it believes that history is the goal.  Understanding who people were is the ultimate hope of the text, not having a life-changing knowledge of God and His works.

None of these methods do justice to the Bible.  Tomorrow I will share the principles which, when combined, give us a great chance to read the Bible accurately and transformationally.

What reading style to you use?  What principles guide your reading of the Bible?


  1. I don't think that your authoritative reading of Scripture is fully accurate.

    I have added my commentary within braces in your text as shown below:

    I am not meant to understand the Bible on my own {Those that hold to this view would strongly disagree. All Christians should strive to understand Scripture based on many of the valid methods mentioned in your article. However, the question is more accurately stated as: Who has the final voice of authority with regard to the meaning of Scripture when disagreements have a major impact on faith and practice.}, therefore I must rely on an authority figure to interpret for me. {Scripture is replete with examples where we have to rely on God-given authority carried out through human instruments.} Catholicism uses the Pope while Eastern Orthodox trust the gathering of Church Fathers, and today we even have a new form of this cropping up in Universities where professors {or pastors, Sunday School teachers, and opinionated self-appointed experts}have become the authority. The problem with this, of course, is that you are simply trusting another's personal preferences {Those that hold to this view would state that it is more than a personal preference. They would espouse that God has appointed men to these roles, beginning with Peter and the other apostles.} instead of seeking out truth yourself {Again, holding the authoritative view and seeking out truth are not mutually exclusive.}. What makes these men authorities? {Again, this authority would be established by Jesus before His ascension.} Within Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Orthodoxy) this sets up a circular argument where the Pope is authoritative because it says so in Scripture {This may be one's conclusion when one discounts the reliability of historical accounts (some of which were recorded in Scripture)at the time), which he is only qualified to interpret {This statement is only on target when you consider his interpretations in an official capacity as an inerrant authority.} (thus being the only one {Don't forget the great number of Popes through the ages.}capable of telling you what the Bible says!){Again, the language here is pretty loose. Many can state with great accuracy what the Bible says. In this view, only the Bishop of Rome can do so with assured accuracy. What are the consequences when such final authority is not established? This is a vital question with which I have been wrestling.} Not a great way to promote honesty in study. {Please explain what you mean here.}

    1. Great additional insights John! Allow me to note a few extra thoughts here in response:

      1. There is no doubt a sense where we have God-given authority figures. The question we should be asking is: who should these people be, and should their position grant them total authority (the Bereans, after all, searched for themselves to test the authority of Paul)?

      2. I am curious about your concept of historical accounts of the first century. The only extant records we have from that period are from Scripture. No other tradition goes back anywhere close to that (the writings of Polycarp and the Didache are the oldest--estimated around 150AD). Also, just because an event happened (such as Peter's confession) does not mean that the Papacy's claim that this initiated the papacy is correct.

      3. My last statement stands upon the conviction that honesty in study is promoted by accountability. Is there someone else there to correct me? I believe this is why there were a plurality of apostles and elders--one man is not capable of being given complete authority.

      4. Finally, I do want to make sure that I point out that I do not intend to say that these views are completely bad. On the contrary, I believe that we need to address the issue of authority when handling Scripture. However, simply trusting church leadership (whether Catholic or otherwise) without testing that leadership with other methods is extremely dangerous.

      I know that you have a great love and respect for the tradition of the church (as do I). It would be my strong advice for you to do some careful reading of early church history (I recommend Justo Gonzalez book), and also do some reading from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. Both of these things, I believe, will show the major problems I have with the Catholic structure of authority.

    2. Hi Matt,

      Here are a few of my thoughts?

      1. These are good questions, indeed. Can the church serve as an authoritative role as mentioned in I Timothy 3:15?

      2. My historical knowledge is admittedly weaker than I would like it to be. My reference was not only to the first century, but to later eras that held a high view of apostolic succession.

      3. I don't think that accountability is any weaker because they see an individual as being a final arbiter. The RC is especially strong with regard to accountability with regard to the catechism.

      4. The big question is who gets to make the test (methods) and evaluate the results? How can certainty be gleaned without a final authority?

      Thanks for your recommendations. I read a great deal of Eastern Orthodox writings about twenty years ago. Do you have the Gonzalez book that you could loan me?