This is an edited version of a talk I gave at St Bride's Liverpool on 26th March.
Among Christians the authority of the Bible, and how to read it, are hotly contested. The best known debates at the moment are about the ethics of same-sex partnerships and gender relationships.
Christians hold a great many positions, but to keep things simple enough for here, I summarise them as two main types. One is literalism:
The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behaviour.
This is part of the Doctrinal Basis of UCCF, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. This is the organisation to which Christian Unions sign up in Britain. Statements like this are very influential in some Protestant circles today.
The other way of interpreting the Bible is by means of scholarly criticism. This treats it more like the way we would treat any other old literature.
Why do people write things down? Governments write laws, and their fans write histories to show that they are right. Philosophers, poets and story-tellers express their reflections on life. Organisers write the words of the prayers we are going to say and the hymns we are going to sing. Campaigners write down what’s wrong with society and how we need to put it right. The Bible contains all these.
Before they are written down they are passed on by word of mouth and they are easily changed. When old texts are preserved it’s usually because later generations value them. They may think the texts are inspired, and give them a transcendent authority, as if they come from God.
Allegorising outdated texts
When written documents are preserved it’s harder to change them. When they become out of date, problems arise. The ancient Jews had a tradition that their laws had been given by God to Moses, so it became difficult to justify changing them.
Pagans faced the same problems with their own scriptures. By the time of Jesus Greeks had long resolved them by means of allegory: in other words, they said their scriptures were true not in their literal sense but in their deeper spiritual meanings. Jews and Christians copied the idea. Sometimes the New Testament allegorises Old Testament texts. The first Christians often allegorised the parables of Jesus. The parable of the Sower is an example.
The main problem with allegory is that it allows virtually any meaning to be drawn out of any text. In practice Christians interpreted biblical texts in such a way as to reconcile them with with each other. They also reconciled them with what they already believed. As John Barton puts it in his People of the Book (pp. 19-20),
The Old Testament Scriptures… were ostensibly the absolutely authoritative divine revelation; but in reality they functioned as a tabula rasa on which Christians wrote what they took (on quite other grounds) to be the meaning of Christ… Since it enshrined the truth, it had to be read as saying what one already believed the truth to be.
Which of course still happens.
500 years ago the Reformation opposed this method. Both sides accepted that God had given the Bible to Christians as the supreme authority. Catholics added that God had also given the Church as the authority on how to interpret the Bible. This is where Protestants disagreed.
So how should we interpret it? At first Protestants said the Bible should not be interpreted. It should be accepted as it is, uninterpreted. The literal meaning alone. To justify this idea they argued that every text in the Bible is easy to understand. If you have ever heard people talking about ‘the clear, plain teaching of the Bible’, this is where it comes from.
This tradition has its own characteristic logic. Because revelation transcends reason, we cannot judge it. We have to accept it as complete and certain. On every question there must be a single biblical answer which is certainly correct, so a person who disagrees with it is certainly wrong. Because the Bible’s revelation is complete, there is nothing to learn from other faiths and there is no place for discovering anything new.
So we should all believe the same things. If you have questions, look up the answer in the Bible.
Of course this just takes us back to square one, with all those difficult texts. People who believed the Bible was easy to understand learned to interpret each text in a particular way, but had to face the fact that other people, who also thought it was easy to understand, interpreted it in a different way. The result was the bitter disputes that have characterised sectarian Calvinism.
You’ve probably seen streets where there are two churches across the road from each other, because at some stage half the congregation thought their minister wasn’t being true to the clear, plain words of the Bible; so they left and built their own church, and if they could afford it they made sure their church was bigger than the old one. St Brides is one of them.
By the end of the seventeenth century Protestant thought was dividing. Some stressed that the Bible is clear so we all ought to believe the same things. Others stressed the need to study it, and developed what is now called critical scholarship.
The word ‘critical’ sounds negative, but it isn’t intended to be. Critical scholars presuppose that the Bible was written in much the same way that other texts get written. So they begin by looking at each text and asking what the human authors meant. They study the languages, the history and the culture of the time. Different theories are proposed and usually a consensus emerges. When we have established what the original author of each text meant, we can then put the different texts together and ask what general principles emerge from the Bible as a whole.
This means we treat the Bible more like the way we treat everything else. When our cars go wrong we entrust them to a mechanic. When our teeth go wrong we entrust them to a dentist. We do not expect these experts to be infallible, but they know more about the subject than we do. In the same way we don’t expect to know all about the Bible, but we value the expertise of people who know more than we do.
Two traditions: the differences
These two traditions approach biblical interpretation from opposite ends. One begins with a faith commitment about the Bible: that God is the true author, that every text is consistent with every other text, and that every text expresses a Christian truth. It responds to the questions of the day by expecting to find a single answer in the Bible. That answer will be known with certainty, regardless of all other evidence or argument. What’s so special about the Bible is that it’s completely different from all other written documents.
The other tradition begins not with a theory about the Bible, but by studying each biblical text in its own right, using all the tools available. It asks of each text why the author wrote it, what the author was bothered about, what was the context. When we have done all that, it’s still an open question what we make of it.
My own view is that there is an underlying strand through the books of the Bible. History is usually written by the winners. In the Bible we have a thousand-year tradition written by the losers. It expresses the values of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, people who don’t want to take more than their share of the world’s resources or win victories over other people. Instead it appeals to a god who has made a good world and invites us to live good lives by caring for each other and not fighting each other. It does this in a disorganised manner because it has put together books written by different people for different purposes.
Still, it expresses a tradition of hope, that contrasts with the values of ancient Persian, Greek and Roman empires. It also contrasts with a great many values expressed through our air waves and newspapers today.
Some questions for you
1. When you find a text in the Bible that you find difficult to accept, how do you respond to it?
2. Do you think you need to know for yourself what the Bible teaches, or are you happy to leave it to others?
3. In your experience, do you find the Bible to be special?