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.