Evangelicals tend to adopt an unthinking view of scripture, which causes many problems - especially to people who fail to understand us and how we use the Bible.
The simple starting point for most evangelicals is the claim that the Bible is God's Eternal Word, and all of it is authoritative at all times in all places. But when you start to talk with them about the specifics, you discover that hardly anybody actually believes this. Or, to be more precise, hardly anybody actually believes it is this simple.
You will hear some people say things like, "I have a simple faith - I simply believe what the Bible says." But when I talk with them, it rapidly becomes clear that this is not actually the case. They may believe it to be true, they may wish it were true, and they may well belong to a group of Christians where everybody makes the same claim.
Whatever they may say, nobody I have yet talked with on this subject 'simply' believes what the Bible says. One way or another, we all interpret. There are, therefore, two basic questions we need to ask.
I hope that this article may provide a starting point to help folk think about these questions.
Yes, the Bible is authoritative. But it is more than that. The rest of this article attempts to describe some of what is going on when we read the Bible, believing it to be God's Word.
There is an old joke among Evangelicals: if the King James Version was good enough for Saint Paul, it's good enough for me.
Of course, we all know that Isaiah and Saint Paul and all the others did not really write in the Elizabethan language of the Authorised Version, but it is hard (for some of us, at least) to believe at times.
There is a deep truth here. In one sense, none of us actually read the Bible - none of us outside the rarified heights of academia, that is. We all read translations. We read the Authorised Version, or the Good News Bible, or the New International Version, or The Message, or one of the many, many alternatives.
But, in a much more important sense, we do read the Bible: each one of those translations is the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God, and while God originally spoke in Hebrew and Greek, with a few smatterings of Syriac and Aramaic thrown in for good measure, God actually speaks to each one of us in our own language.
Yes, it is important that we keep in touch with the original language. We need to check that our interpretations are, at the very least, consistent with the original text; that the translation we use is not misleading us by the familiarity of the words used. Accuracy is important, but it is not enough.
God's Word is alive, and His Word is life-giving. When He speaks, He speaks to us in our own language, and we are touched and changed by the experience: "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us ...?" (1)
Other religions may believe that God spoke once, and everything since then is just a memory of that initial event; but the Christian Church has always believed that God spoke in the past, and He continues to speak to us - through Jesus, through the Bible, through His Spirit, through His people, through His creation.
God speaks. He speaks our language, wherever we were born and wherever we grew up, whether we were educated or ignorant, rich or poor, He speaks our language, He speaks to our hearts, and He speaks today.
Christians sometimes get quite excited about the strengths and weaknesses of each translation we have available to us, especially those of us who speak English and have such a range of options. But most of the time, what we are passionate about is not the technical merits of different approaches, or an analysis of translation principles: we care, because throught the translations which speak our language, we hear the voice of God speaking to us, alive and ever new.
We have to interpret the Bible, and in that sense it is all interpreted. This is especially obvious when we are reading the many narrative passages: every story invites us to interpret it. We want to know not only what this story says, but what it means.
More than that, many parts of the Bible are referred to and interpreted by other parts: stories are quoted, and propecies are fulfilled; images and principles from one place and time are picked up, re-cycled and re-interpreted in another.
So even if we simply want to affirm at we 'believe the Bible', and wish to avoid personal opinion at all costs, we cannot avoid the need to engage with the issue of interpretation - indeed, the issue of multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. (2)
The Bible does not come to us as a single text, but as a collection of multi-layered, inter-related texts that are intended to interpret, explain and illuminate each other.
The simple starting point is that the Bible is God's Eternal Word, and all of it is authoritative at all times in all places. But the Bible does not just speak eternal truths (if it does speak them at all...) - it is a record of a God Who speaks to particular people at particular times.
God told the Children of Israel to go into the Promised Land, then not to go, and then to go. This is not a contradiction: His command changed according to their behaviour and circumstances. What He wanted you to do ten years ago is almost certainly not the same as what He wants you to do today.
We also believe in progressive revelation. Most importantly, we believe that God is fully and finally revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Who was the Christ. Which means that all revelation before Jesus was incomplete and provisional.
Progressive revelation is seen in the first chapters of the Bible. God gives all plants to Adam for food, and later tells him not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The later revelation (don't eat this one) over-rules the earlier revelation (you can eat them all). If progressive revelation did not work, there would have been no sin and no fall. If we believe in the fall, we must believe in progressive revelation.
Similarly, if we do not follow the Old Testament commands about kosher food and circumcision, or if we fail to keep Saturday special, then either we are being disobedient or we are acting on our belief in progressive revelation.
It is widely recognised that 'a text out of a context is a pretext' - but determining the context is not a trivial task, and different people will define it in different ways. What you consider to be the context will depend, to a degree, on your understanding of how the Bible came about and the details of how the text came to be inspired and written.
For example, is it valid to claim as the meaning of a text something that the original hearers and perhaps the human author could not have known and understood?
The Bible is not just a book of doctrine, truth and principles to understand and follow. It is not a work of systematic theology.
The Bible contains various types of literature. It includes poetry, which nobody ever thinks to take literally. Most importantly, for the present discussion, it contains lots and lots of narrative. Stories. History. It contains stories of people telling stories.
Even the laws in the Old Testament, the closest the Bible ever gets to presenting a coherent set of principles we should live by, are given to us in the context of a story. Even the Ten Commandments are not presented as eternal truths: they just pop up part of the way through the story of Moses and the start of the Children of Israel. They come to us as words given to a specific man, at a specific place and time, for a specific group of people.
When I say that the Bible contains stories, I don't mean to suggest that these stories are not true. Some of the stories - the parables - are presented as not being literally true, but the rest are presented as history and biography. It is clear that the authors of the stories are using the stories for a reason, but, as Tom Wright points out, "there is no such thing as 'neutral' reportage. All stories are told from a point of view; without that, you have no principle of selection and are left with an unsorted ragbag of information." (3)
Part of our problem in reading the Bible is that there is a great deal of narrative, but little meta-narrative. And what meta-narrative we have is often confusing: when Paul distinguishes between what he says and what the Lord says (4), is he right to make this distinction? If he is right, then part of the Bible is not what the Lord says; and if he is wrong, part of the Bible is wrong.
Similarly, we have many stories in the Bible; but we are not told why we have these stories (and not other stories), or why they were presented in this form (and not otherwise).
To make the question more specific: were the stories chosen to be included in the Gospels selected because they describe the way things were all the time, or because they describe events which were unusual and therefore noteworthy? Or, in some complicated way, a mixture of the two; and (if so) how do we distinguish these two types of story?
For example, when we read that "Many followed Him, and He [Jesus] healed them all" (5), was this recorded as a confirmation of what we expect (because Jesus always healed everyone, didn't He?), or is it recorded as a noteworthy event (because, on most occasions, some people were not healed by Jesus)? The text does not tell us, but it significantly changes how we read and understand the passage.
In interpreting Paul's letters, we take account of the original recipients. Paul's instructions were given to specific people with specific needs.
The meta-narrative sometimes colours our reading of the passage, but sometimes it completely determines the meaning. There are various passages where we are told what a person or group of people did, but we are not told whether they were right or wrong.
For example, how you read Acts chapter 1 rather depends on whether you believe that St Paul was the person God intended to replace Judas as the twelth apostle. Possibly this question never bothered you, but it was self-evidently true to the people who attended the church I grew up in.
Possibly more important is the question of cultural sensitivity. When we read in Acts chapter 17 about Paul's sermon on Mars Hill, are we being told we must practice cultural sensitivity (because we should follow Paul's example), or are we being warned to avoid it (because Paul tried this approach and failed - he should have stuck to preaching the gospel)?
Most of us are probably not conscious of the ambiguities inherent in these passages: for most of us, the answers to these questions is self-evident, so there is functionally no interpretative choice to be made.
But the fact remains that many other Christians interpret each of these passages differently to the way we do, and the reason for our choice of interpretation lies outside the Bible. The Bible does not tell us that Paul was or was not the intended replacement for Judas, or whether Jesus normally healed everybody. We can search the Bible for evidence to support each of these possibilities, but it comes down to weighing the evidence. And, for different people, different pieces of evidence carry different amounts of weight.
This is not to say that we can never determine what the Bible means: on all the important questions, it is crystal clear. But we must recognise that some doctrines are clearer than others, and some of the examples we follow are more securely established than others. A degree of humility is wise.
Note 1. Luke 24:32
Note 2. In the New Testament, the Gospels give us four pictures of Jesus; in the Old Testament, Kings and Chronicles give very different perspectives on the same events. One obvious example of the contradictions we are presented with is the question: did God instruct David to undertake a census, as 2 Samuel 24:1 says; or did Satan tempt him to do it, as 1 chronicles 21:1 tells us?
Note 3. Tom Wright, How God Became King, page 109.
Note 4. 1 Corinthians 7:10 & 7:12
Note 5. Matthew 12:15