Interpreting Scriptures

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 The Canon of Scriptures.

There are several instances in the Gospels where Jesus asks the Jews committed to studying their Scriptures,  “Have you never read….?” (Matthew 21:16, 42; Mark 2:25) Or “Have you not read…?” (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4, 22:31; Mark 12:10,26; Luke 6:3).  It is a rhetorical question, for they no doubt had read these texts, but Jesus is really asking them, “Did you not understand this text to mean…” and then He provides the meaning He derives from the text.  As St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367AD) wrote, “Scripture is not in the reading but in the understanding.”  One can read all day, but if one doesn’t understand, if one is not inspired by the text, then one has not received the revelation which God intended to convey.

When our minds and hearts are dull, we read without understanding the words, and Jesus can ask us too, “Have you never read… never understood what the Scriptures say?”

“The interpreter, in fact, addresses and questions the biblical text.  In turn, the biblical text responds and confronts the interpreter who listens and discerns the meaning of what is being said.  The process is interactive and dynamic. … Thus, the biblical text is as much a ‘subject’ engaged in the dialogue as is the interpreter.  When the biblical interpreter, mistakenly in my view, sees the text of the Bible as an inanimate object or as merely a specimen to be analyzed, the interpreter quite naturally diminishes the ‘subjectivity’ (life) of the text.”  (James Aageson, WRITTEN ALSO FOR OUR SAKE: PAUL AND THE ART OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION, p 13)  

We read the Scriptures in order to encounter Christ, to have Him revealed to us.  Yet, as the Saints recognized, sometimes the meaning of the text, its ultimate purpose is hidden from our eyes.  A literal reading of the text will not help, for we need to seek beyond the obvious sense of the text to discover the revelation which God has placed there for us.  St. Clement of Alexandria  (d. ca 212AD) wrote:

“’The meaning of the Scriptures is hidden for many reasons.  First, in order that we might search and be always watchful in seeking out the words of salvation; then, because it was not fitting that everyone should know this meaning, lest they suffer hard as a result of understanding incorrectly what was said by the Spirit for the good’…  Clearly Clement is extending to the whole of the Scriptures what Jesus said regarding the parables (Mark 4:11-13).”  (Bertrand de Margerie, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY OF EXEGESIS, Vol 1, p 84)

St. Clement believes the hidden meaning in Scriptures is intentionally put there by God, as Origen (d. 202 AD) said, that we might search for the meaning; to hunger and thirst for righteousness, requires us to go beyond the obvious and literal, to want something more from God.   It may also be the case that there are some texts that God does not want certain people to assume they understand, because in fact they misunderstand the text.  God wants us to be aware of this possibility, so that we move with humility, wisdom and love, and with the understanding of the community of God’s people rather than arrogantly assuming we know best ourselves.   Additionally, interpreting the Scriptures is not just gathering information about God, it is allowing our inner selves to be formed by God.  Consider the marytered saint Irenaeus (d. 202 AD):

“In other words, exegesis was not a purely academic exercise for Irenaeus.  It was part of Christian preparation for martyrdom.  To be a good interpreter of the Scriptures, one must be disposed to lay down one’s life to be united to the witness of their authors (many of whom were martyrs), to render a testimony in blood to their testimony in writing.  It is in this way that one will be able to go through and beyond the apologetic demonstration of the truth from the Scriptures to the theological self-demonstration of the Trinitarian God himself.”  (Bertrand de Margerie, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY OF EXEGESIS, Vol 1, p 76)

The reading of Scripture bears witness to Christ.  The reading of Scripture serves the purpose of making us witness to Christ crucified and risen (John 15:27; Acts 1:8).   Thus the Scriptures are not trying to lead us to a text, but to the Son of God.  We are not worshippers of the Bible, but rather we worship the Triune God whom the Bible reveals to us.

Next:  The Old and New Testaments (A)

The Demonic Truth

This morning in Matins I read the Gospel reading for the day from Mark 1:23-28:

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.   And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

An interesting Gospel lesson, for though we usually associate Satan with being the father of lies (John 8:44), here we have a demonic spirit actually speaking the truth – Jesus is the Holy One of God!   Jesus is not impressed by the demon’s knowledge of fact, and orders the demon to be silent and to depart from the man.  There is no love in the demonic truth.  This is why demons are expelled from the Kingdom of  Heaven.  We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), something those possessed of evil cannot do.

“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder”  (James 2:19).

“Let all that you do, be done in love”  (1 Corinthians 16:14).

If this demon was shuddering, it still spoke the truth.  Jesus is not interested in the demonic truth; rather his interest lies in triumphing over Satan in any form or manifestation.   The issue here is power.  Satan has no power over Christ – can’t even try to get away with telling the truth.

A similar story is told in Acts 16:16-18, this time with St. Paul dealing with  a demon who tells the truth:

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying.  She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”   And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

Truthful demons have no place in God’s kingdom, are given no voice, and in fact are expelled.  There really is a demonic truth:  Speaking a truth is not enough to get you right with God.  The underlying issue is one of love.

A final story for us to consider from Matthew 26:48-50, regarding Judas and those who arrested Jesus:

“Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I shall kiss is the man; seize him.’  And he came up to Jesus at once and said, ‘Hail, Master!’ And he kissed him.  Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, why are you here?’ Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him.”

Judas too spoke the truth – he gave the kiss of peace to the one he wanted the authorities to arrest, just like he said he would.  He addresses Jesus as “Master.”  His words aren’t false, and yet they are. 

“Neither like Judas will I give you a kiss,” we profess before receiving Holy Communion.

Like Judas we each are capable of speaking demonic truth, why else do we tell the story of Judas’ betrayal of Christ every year?  It neither helps Judas nor changes the story nor aids in our salvation.    We remember the story, not to condemn Judas but because it speaks to each of us about how we behave today; for what is to guide our every deed and action is love for God and neighbor.