Reading the Bible Literally

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Reading the Bible: The Treasury of Allegory.

The Publican and the Pharisee

It has been said that you can find a verse in the Bible to justify just about any thought or behavior.  Most believers, however, do recognize that taking verses willy-nilly out of context and quoting them does not in any way reflect truly understanding them nor does it bring us to the message that God wishes for us to understand from them.  Part of what the 16th Century Reformers alleged against  Roman Catholicism was the Church’s ability and willingness to justify most any practice by quoting some verse of scripture regardless of how the verse had to be twisted or decontextualized to give it the meaning claimed.   This pushed the Protestants toward accepting only “the plain” or literalist interpretation of the text, which they naively in turn imagined would be free of human error.  Yet nothing has so relativized the scriptures, and caused endless denominations from dividing from the rest of Christendom than the rejection of Church tradition and authority in interpreting the Bible.

Arguing for the literal meaning of a verse of course doesn’t stop people from decontextualizing and “proof texting” – using verses to uphold any belief or practice one wants to defend.  The problem remains the same – the Scriptures were written by those inspired by God AND were accepted and interpreted within a living community.  The text of the Bible is proven to be true in and by the experience of the Christian people who are also inspired by God.   There is no perfect divine copy of the Bible which is pure truth without human mediation.   The Bible is God’s Word, but God spoke through the prophets and inspired humans to write it down; God did not try to free the scriptures from human influence or mediation.   Rather God chose humans to be His heralds of the divine revelation and used their languages and cultural concepts to convey His eternal truths. 

The New Testament has numerous quotes from the Old Testament which it claims are prophecies of Christ – but the texts in their original context don’t necessarily say they point to Christ.  For that is the Christian community’s understanding of these texts; it is the community of believers which sees in the text the fulfillment of God’s promises and prophecies.  The New Testament, which is the Christian understanding of the Old Testament promises and prophecies, doesn’t just read the Old literally; it sees in the Old a deeper meaning which is revealed only in Christ.  The literal reading is but one reading of the text, and may not be the most important one.  The Church followed a Christocentric reading of the Old Testament, not necessarily a literal reading.  As Jesus said in John 5:39-40, the scriptures bear witness to Him, they don’t have eternal life in them; rather the scriptures serve to bring us to Christ.

Consider for example the Twelve and the women disciples of the Lord first being confronted by the empty tomb on that first Paschal morning:

“So, neither seeing Christ on the cross, nor the report about the empty tomb, nor even the encounter with the risen Christ prompted the disciples, finally, to know the Lord: the tomb is empty, but this in itself is ambiguous, and when he appears he is not immediately recognized.  Rather, the disciples come to recognize the Lord as the one whose passion is spoken of by the Scriptures (meaning, the ‘Old Testament’), and who is encountered in the breaking of the bread.  Consuming Christ’s offering, they become his body.  These two complementary ways—the engagement with the Scriptures (understanding how Christ ‘died according to the Scriptures and was raised according to the Scriptures’ [1 Cor 15:3-5]), and the participation in the Lord’s meal (‘proclaiming his death until he come’ [1 Cor 11:26])—specify what St. Paul claims he had received and then handed down, or ‘traditioned,’ to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11:23, 15:3).”    (John Behr in THINKING THROUGH FAITH: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, p 74)

Even when facing the bare facts of the empty tomb, the men and women disciples of Christ still needed some explanation to be given to them before they began to realize what had happened.  They have encounters with the risen Lord who explains to them the Scriptures, who eats with them, and in these encounters the facts are made alive and real. 

“Every word, both as a separate unit and within the context of the sentence in which it is written, has to be interpreted by the reader’s mind.  There is no such thing as a ‘literal’ meaning of any sentence, since the whole point of writing is that thoughts and ideas be communicated through words.  The thoughts and feelings of the writer are made available to the thoughts and feelings of the reader, in order that communication can occur as a sort of resonance between the experience of the writer and that of the reader.”   (Meletios Webber, BREAD & WATER, WINE & OIL: AN ORTHODOX EXPERIENCE OF GOD, p 67)

“…the Church’s spiritual elders have always recognized that truth is more than sheer fact, and the Scripture speaks more in the figurative language of poetry than in the analytical language of science.  This is because truth is ultimately ineffable. … While the fathers placed different emphases on the historical value of any given Old Testament passage, they were united in their tendency to look beyond its purely historical significance in order to discover the deeper, higher or fuller meaning that God Himself, acting through the Holy Spirit, wished to convey… typology is in fact an aspect or function of the larger interpretive process of allegory.”     (John Breck,  LONGING FOR GOD: ORTHODOX REFLECTIONS ON BIBLE, ETHICS, AND LITURGY, pp  31, 44-45)

Next: St. Paul and the Literal Truth