I wrote yesterday here on the Church of England’s debate on same sex marriage in church, and one of the strands of my post was about the use of Scripture. On pondering further it seems worthwhile to share a few thoughts on how to read Scripture.
To understand how to read the Bible it is worth first disposing of several different approaches to the Bible which (while not totally wrong) are faulty on their own. These are very typical ways of reading the Bible, and they are understandable, but when examined in more detail prove to be inadequate.
First up is reading the Bible searching for proof texts. There may be Bible verses that DO prove your point, and that’s fine, but the Bible is not a collection of proof texts for teaching morality or making political or personal points. The problem with searching for proof texts is that, like statistics, you can pretty much find whatever you are looking for and if your side of the argument can find a proof text be assured that the other guy will probably also be able to find a proof text to make his point. Proof texts might be useful as part of a whole argument, but on their own they are weak.
The second approach is to use the Bible as a mine of inspirational and motivational quotes. This is much like the proof text approach, but sweeter. In this case we are taking verses out of context to boost our devotional and inspirational life. Like proof texting, this is not totally wrong–we all like verses like “Love hopes all things, believes all things. The greatest of these is love” and verses like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” However, the Bible is not primarily a collection of bromides and spiritual booster shots. It is okay to glean these from the Bible, but that is not really the way to read the Bible.
The third approach is to read the Bible for thrilling stories, inspiring parables and great sermon illustrations. This approach is much like the first two–picking and choosing bits from the Bible that suit our purposes and make us feel good.
The problem with all three approaches is that they are rooted in an overly literal approach to the Scriptures. Yes, the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are the Word of God, but God did not dictate a collection of proof texts or inspiring quotes and stories which are then expected to become a kind of cast iron, unchanging, literal, monolithic text.
This is essentially a product of the Protestant sola Scriptura understanding of Scripture and is evidenced by the typical Protestant squawk, “But where is THAT in the Bible?” Interestingly, while this sort of approach is most often understood as overly literal and therefore fundamentalist, the liberal Protestants (like the Bishop of Worcester I referenced in yesterday’s post) have essentially the same understanding as the fundamentalist Protestants they so despise. I say they use the same approach because, in response to those who throw Scripture proof texts at them about (let’s say–gay marriage) they summon their own proof texts and private interpretations.
And that brings us to the question, “How DO you read the Bible properly?”
The answer is to consider what the Bible is and what it is for. The Old Testament records the stumbling steps of mankind to be reconciled with the God from whom they are estranged–thus pointing toward and longing for the fulfillment of reconciliation in Christ. The New Testament is the record of that fulfillment and the first Christians’ reflection on that fulfillment. In other words, it is a grand meta narrative of God’s love for the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and his grand grace working throughout human history to welcome home the prodigal race.
Everything else is subsidiary to that. That is the first and fundamental point.
With that in mind, individual doctrines and moral teachings come to us not so much from the Bible verse by verse, but from this whole meta narrative.
The second fundamental point is that this revelation of God to the human race is not a static thing. God’s Word is living and active and sharper than a two edged sword. The Word of God is not open to private interpretation. Instead we need the living and dynamic interpretative authority of the Church to rightly read and discern and teach and interpret the Sacred Scriptures. The same Holy Spirit that inspired the Scriptures inspired the Church and continues to lead the Church into all truth. This continued inspiration does not bring about new Scriptures. The canon of Scripture is set. However, the Holy Spirit does continue to inspire Christians to live and learn and enact the truths of Scripture. The Holy Spirit continues to inspire theologians, Bible scholars, teachers and preachers to understand and expound the Scriptures for our day.
The debate then turns on the question of which Christians rightly discern and understand the Scriptures. You think it says this. I think it says that. You say PoTAYto and I say PoTAHto.
As a Catholic I believe that it is the teaching authority of the Catholic Church that has the last word. Only the Catholic Church exercises an authority that is universal geographically and chronologically. Only the Catholic Church retains the treasury of the teaching that extends back to the apostles and reaches to every culture and corner of the globe.
There are therefore two basic things to remember when reading the Bible. First–get the big picture. Understand the whole. Everything is connected. When it comes to marriage for example–the Bible’s teaching is not contained in this proof text of that, but in the whole story from God’s creation of Adam and Eve to the wedding stories in the Old Testament and the prophet’s use of nuptial imagery and then to Our Lord’s teaching on marriage and St Paul’s affirmations. The big picture teaches a sound, reasonable and powerfully positive understanding of marriage.
The second fundamental point is to check what we read in the Bible with the teaching of the Catholic Church–not this theologian or that Bible teacher–not this Twitter personality or podcaster or even this priest or that bishop, but with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There you will invariably find the interpretation that makes the Bible teaching clear.
Everything else is a matter of opinion.
Great points, Father. My daughter is in the sixth grade and her religious ed teacher told her class that Purgatory is not real, since it’s not found in the Bible. (He’s a Bible only Catholic, I guess!). I explained to her that his opinion is not correct, that we are not allowed to pick and choose our own religion. I told her that Purgatory is a reality, as taught by the Catholic Church and showed her in the Catechism where Purgatory is defined by the Church. I find that, with the Church as my guide, I don’t have to worry about what this or that passage in the Bible means. It’s not on me, which is quite a relief. If the Bible was a matter of my interpretation, I would have trouble reading it! Thank you!
The word Purgatory is absent, but its reality is implicit and interwoven in the Scriptures. See 2nd Maccabees and 1 Corinthians chapter 3 for example. Early Christians did pray for the dead, so that the departed may be loosed from sins; how does this happen? Through the purging flames of the Lord. Here we have a case of doctrinal development – the content is there, which people over time eventually understand.