Somewhere I once read that a problem with modern Christians is that they tend to read the Bible not as a treasury to enrich their understanding of God and the universe, but as an arsenal for attacking any idea that they fear.
In what will be a collection of blog series, I intend to explore some ideas about reading the Scriptures as that treasury from which we encounter the depths of the wisdom of God. I will be quoting some Patristic writers, some modern Orthodox writers as well as biblical commentators from other traditions.
In a world of great uncertainty, many believers are grasping for an assurance of salvation, an infallible certainty about what the Scriptures mean. In so doing, they sometimes rob the Scriptures of their vitality and depth: that they speak across the ages, across languages, across social borders, and across denominational barriers to all the people of the world. They do speak to me personally, but their purpose and meaning is not limited to or by my understanding of them.
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
It is our own insecurities that cause us to fear the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God, and to try to tame them and conform them to something we understand, and perhaps believe we can control.
We 21st Century Christians are inheritors of the theological battles in the Christian West between Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. Part of that inheritance is a Protestant reaction against the notion that only “the Church” could know or understand Scriptures. Protestantism rejected what they saw as fanciful interpretations of the Bible in favor of what they thought was a method that opened the Bible to anyone: just read it literally, plain and simple. This they felt anyone could do, and thus the Church and Tradition were not necessary for all one needed was the Bible alone (sola scriptura). The literal reading of Scripture however is also a method of interpretation, for the Bible does not say it must be read literally, and there is no doubt that portions of the New Testament clearly interpret passages of the Old Testament allegorically. Jesus spoke in parables, and interpreted some passages of the Old Testament as prototypes of the truth. Scripture thus does not only or always interpret itself literally.
So while reading biblical texts literally is a possible and legitimate way to interpret the text, if one only reads the text in this manner, one will miss the depth and the riches which they obviously contain. A demand for a solely literal interpretation of the Bible can take us as far away from what the Scriptures say as could interpretations by the Roman Church which Protestantism rejected. Of course, one may not need to know how Christians in other generations and places understood a particular text, but one will lose some of the depth of the Bible if one ignores these interpretations.
My intention in this series of blogs, and the other series that will be related to it, is to encourage us to think more about how we read the Bible. Instead of rushing to the footnotes to find out what the text means (which really makes the footnotes the inspired Scripture rather than the text itself), as necessary and important as that may be, I want to encourage that we wrestle with the texts in our hearts and minds as we engage in reading the Bible. We should not shy away from problems in understanding the Bible, but embrace them as revealing to us that the texts are deep and sometimes mysterious. We are encountering the divine after all, why assume that it will be totally comprehensible to fallen human beings? A problematic text may be given to us by God exactly to help us realize that our human logic and understanding at times are not enough to comprehend a text. The prophets of the Old Testament were sometimes speaking about things which they only saw in a shadowy way and whose true meaning was not revealed until centuries later in the coming of the Messiah.
An oft quoted passage from the New Testament tells us something about the purpose of Holy Scriptures: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Rather strangely some use this passage in an attempt to prove that all scripture must be interpreted literally. Yet the passage makes no mention of reading anything literally. The point of the passage is that ALL SCRIPTURE, even the boring passages and the difficult passages and the passages we normally like to skip over and the literally unbelievable passages, have meaning and a purpose for us. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pushing us to search for that meaning in both the obvious and the obscure passages. The Bible is not meant only to inform our minds, but also to form our hearts and our faith, to reform our sinful ways and to conform us to the holiness and image of God.
In the next blog, I will look at Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Parables.
Links to this blog series as a PDF can be found at https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/08/11/pdf-reading-the-bible-means-opening-a-treasury-1-2/