The Art of Reading the Bible #2

The Art of Reading the Bible #2

A few months back I offered the first in what was to be a series of blogs on reading the bible, bouncing off an approach outlined by Richard Hays. Hays suggested that interpretation is a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive: what a particular book of the bible meant to its original audience;
  2. Synthesis: how the ideas, themes, injunctions of each book/text fit within the bible as a whole;
  3. Hermeneutics: how the themes and patterns of the synthesis task speak to our lives;
  4. Pragmatic: how the conclusions of the hermeneutic stage are given effect in our lives.

I have found Hays stage 2 very helpful to remember. In the academy this step is well recognised and scholars debate the ways the texts are put together. But in popular discussion we easily forget that whenever we move from a single text or group of texts to the declaration that “the bible says…” we are assuming a particular understanding of how the texts we cite fit together with the rest of the Bible.

A good example of this is found in Matthew 19.1-12. The Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. The Law of Israel said:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession

Deuteronomy 24

The Pharisees concluded from this that God approved of a man divorcing a wife if he “found something objectionable about her”. They disagreed however on what was meant by “something objectionable.” The rabbinic traditions preserved by generations after Jesus suggest that some took the phrase to mean anything objectionable, such as the way a wife spoke to her husband or served his food, while others argued that the reference was to things far weightier, such as sexual infidelity.

Jesus’s response was that the Pharisees had not synthesised the biblical texts correctly. He gave primacy to the description of marriage in the creation accounts (Genesis 1-2) to conclude that God’s intention was that husbands would not divorce their wives but respect that God had put husband and wife together. Deuteronomy 24 should not be read as God’s approval of them severing their marriage but as a concession to their “hardness of heart”. Jesus did not elaborate, but I take it he identified Deuteronomy 24 as something akin to “harm minimisation.” In the patriarchal culture of the ancient world, wives were subject to the whims of their husband and if divorced could be batted back and forth between men. Rather than approving of this, Jesus suggests Deuteronomy 24 recognises that it happens and seeks to minimise the damage it caused. One gets a sense of just how deeply ingrained was the assumed privilege of men that Jesus’s male disciples conclude that if they were not free to divorce a wife they found objectionable that it would be better not to marry!

We like to pillory the Pharisees but they were not theological lightweights. They were dedicated to understanding the Scriptures, spent long hours discussing and debating the meaning of the Scriptures, and sought to live by them. Where they appear to have been derailed was in the way they put the texts together.

How do we avoid the same error? I’m not sure we can. My life has been a long journey of learning, unlearning and relearning. I have revisited and revised my reading of Scripture on many things and assume I will continue to do so. I have however found the following things helpful.

  1. Read myself. I try to remain aware that my reading of Scripture is socially conditioned. We have all learned to read the texts in particular ways and these tend to justify our values, beliefs, and practises. Sometimes this will not be problematic because our values, beliefs and practises are headed in the right direction. But there are also times they are misguided. I therefore need to be brutally honest with myself and interrogate my reading and conclusions.
  2. Read with others and particularly with those who read differently. I have found that while reading the text with people who think the same as me is affirming, it is reading and engaging with people who read it differently that has often helped me see things in new ways.
  3. Read as narrative. The biblical documents narrate a story that moves from creation to new creation with Jesus as the pivot. I have found that gaining a sense of the flow of the biblical story helps me make sense of how its many moments fit together.
  4. Read outcomes. For a long time I read the Bible with the goal of being right (and still do) but saw the goal of being good as the application of being right rather than part of the process of synthesising and applying the texts. I no longer think being right and being good can be so neatly separated. If my reading of Scripture is not shaping me towards being good – ie towards compassion, grace, kindness, generosity, and the other things that characterised Jesus – then it’s probably not right. Similarly, if my reading of Scripture does not promote “shalom” – ie blessing, wholeness, wellbeing – then it’s probably not right. And again, if my reading of Scripture paints God as anything other than like Jesus, it’s probably not right.
  5. Read without anxiety. God has not given us a bible that enables us to be right and certain about beliefs and ethics. We have a bible that invites discussion, disagreement, learning and unlearning. It took me a long time to be able to admit this. It no longer bothers me. Rather I find it liberating. (Jesus didn’t say that right doctrine and unswavering certainty is the sum of the law and the prophets. Rather, he claimed that the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God and love each other. Likewise, he didn’t say people would know us by our unchanging beliefs and universal agreement but by our love. The apostle Paul taught us that it is faith, not an impeccable belief and ethic that puts us right with God and that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. If I am seeking to love God and love others and putting my trust in Jesus I figure I’m headed in the right direction.)

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught  us.

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught us.

For much of the history of the church the practise of slavery went unchallenged. It’s not difficult to see why. Slavery was a longstanding feature of human society that was rarely questioned by those who were free. In the sixth century BC the philosopher Aristotle argued that slavery was a dictate of nature, that some human beings were by nature given to be ruled while others were by nature given to rule (Politics 1.1).

The Hebrew bible read by Christians and Jews celebrated the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but did not conclude that slavery was an evil from which all people should be liberated. It was assumed that Israelite households would include slaves (eg Exodus 20:10,17; Deuteronomy 12:12,18;  16:11) and, while no Israelite was to be subjected to slavery,  the Israelites were permitted to take slaves from among the foreigners living in their land and from other nations (Leviticus 25:39-46). Alongside the declaration that

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

Leviticus 26:11

came this

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Slaves taken from foreign nations were considered the property of their owner and could be bought and sold. They were incorporated into the covenant with God as members of their master’s household, and so were to eat the fruit of the land, enjoy rest on the sabbath, and participate in Israel’s festivals (eg Exodus 20:8-11,17; 21:1-27) but they never ceased to be the property of another. 

The New Testament letters recognised that slave and free were included in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). For Paul this enabled a slave to reframe his/her thinking, to see that whatever his/her status in Greco-Roman society, his/her status in Christ was very different (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Slaves should gain freedom if the opportunity arose (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), yet there was no expectation that Christian masters would free their slaves. Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon (Philemon ) and in a number of NT letters the proper relationship between slave and master – in which slaves were obedient and masters kind – appears as a staple of instruction to households (eg Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-25), to which slaves were to remain true even when treated badly (1 Peter 2:18-24).

It is not surprising then that throughout the church’s history there was little objection to slavery. Prior to the US Civil war evangelicals in both the North and South routinely defended slavery (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis, University of North Carolina Press, 2006). This did not mean they supported every expression of slavery. Some US evangelicals opposed the international slave trade, in which free people were kidnapped, transported to another country and sold as slaves, yet passionately defended the American system of trading people who were already slaves and their children. It was common to argue that America’s slaves were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who were cursed with slavery in Genesis 9. 

In addition to the “biblical mandate”, Christians argued that slavery could be seen as a benefit to slaves (the Editors, “Why did so many Christians support slavery?”, Christian History, Issue 33, 2002). Slaves, it was argued, were provided with far greater security of access to food, shelter and community than they would be if they joined the ranks of poorly paid labourers with insecure employment. And slaves were exposed to the Christian gospel and the opportunity to find eternal salvation. 

Bishop Stephen Elliott for example, warned that critics of slavery were

“checking and impeding a work which is manifestly Providential. For nearly a hundred years the English and American Churches have been striving to civilize and Christianize Western Africa, and with what result? Around Sierra Leone, and in the neighborhood of Cape Palmas, a few natives have been made Christians, and some nations have been partially civilized; but what a small number in comparison with the thousands, nay, I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Savior through the means of African slavery! At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people—lessons of self-control, of obedience, of perseverance, of adaptation of means to ends; learning, above all, where their weakness lies, and how they may acquire strength for the battle of life. These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.

quoted in Noel Rae,  The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery,  The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2018

Members of the Abolitionist movement argued that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture – God’s concern for justice, the dignity and worth of all human beings as created in God’s image and the call to love our neighbour as ourselves. Some offered a more nuanced argument that it was the practises of American slavery that were incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture. (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis). For traditionalists this was a step too far. They accused abolitionists of turning the Bible against itself, denying the simple, plain and clear reading of the texts, and calling evil something God had permitted and authorised. Abolitionists were deemed guilty of one of the gravest sins of evangelicalism: questioning the authority of the Bible (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). 

Yet despite this, the abolitionist argument won the day. It did not do so because it could demonstrate superior exegetical argument, but because the growing recognition of individual civil and human rights was becoming a fundamental assumption of western civilisation. Once it was accepted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” it was only a matter of time until “all men” came to be seen not only as white men, but all men and women, and that this would make readings of the Bible that subordinated one group of people to another untenable.

In the century prior to the US civil war evangelicalism had spread as growing literacy and cheap forms of printing allowed people to own a bible and read it for themselves. They were encouraged to accept “the plain and simple” reading, which was soon equated with what “common sense” told the farmer sitting at his table with the Bible open before him. For some time that meant embracing the simple affirmation of slavery over against clever sophists who appealed to the grand themes of Scripture.

Historically however, the notion of a “simple and plain” reading was developed as a counter to allegorical readings, in which the text of Scripture could be assigned almost any meaning. It was never intended to mean an ahistorical reading nor a simplistic reading. It was never intended to mean that every text was to be taken as a direct word from God to the believer with the Bible open on the kitchen table and who would read a verse, assume it was God’s word to them and dismiss objections with the pious declaration that “God says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me”.

The engagement with slavery taught us that biblical texts are historically conditioned, that practical guidance issued to ancient Israel and the early churches on how to manage their households and other dimensions of their lives should not be read as universal principles to be applied across space and time, but were part of working out how to live with grace, love, kindness, compassion and generosity in the midst of the messy circumstances of their time and place. 

To hear God’s word to us we need to do precisely as the abolitionists did, to listen for the grand themes of Scripture, and allow these to shape the direction of our ethics, recognising that at times this will mean championing things that contradict some of the time bound guidance offered in the biblical documents.  This does not represent a step away from the Scriptures but a faithful and thoughtful engagement with them.

This message is particularly resonant in view of the saga surrounding Israel Folau and his freedom to quote the bible in public. Sure, Israel should be free to say whatever he feels is a faithful expression of his faith, but this should not be mistaken with the assumption that by quoting bible texts in public we are articulating the word of the Lord.

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

Why empathy matters. Reading the Bible to hear the word of God #1

I was revisiting Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament recently and was reminded of his very helpful description of how we can discern God’s word to us through the Scriptures. He speaks of a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive Task: Reading the Text Carefully. This seeks to identify the messages of the various texts/books of the Bible “without prematurely harmonising them”. It is to make sense of a text on its own terms, within its historical context;
  2. Synthetic Task: Placing the Text in Canonical Context. How do the various texts fit together to contribute to a whole-of-bible ethical perspective? Hayes suggests that the themes of community, cross and new creation provide an interpretive framework we can employ to identify this;
  3. Hermeneutical task: Relating the Text to Our Situation. How do we bridge the “temporal and cultural distance between ourselves and the text…to appropriate the New Testament’s message as a word addressed to us?”
  4. The Pragmatic Task: Living the Text. How are the biblical imperatives embodied in the life of the Christian community? Hayes argues that “The value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by their capacity to produce persons and communities whose character is commensurate with Jesus Christ and thereby pleasing to God”.

I plan to write a few posts that use this fourfold task to reflect on what I have discovered about reading the Scriptures and being shaped by them. For now I want to suggest a fifth task to add to Hays’s list. This is “the empathetic task”.

For many years I saw the first three of Hayes’ four tasks as something I could achieve within the confines of my study. Close attention to the text in its original languages, appreciation of the genres of the Bible, and critical reading of the commentaries of scholars would be the keys to success.

Yet when I look back to those occasions my understanding of biblical ethics have most profoundly changed, the catalyst was not what happened in my study, but hearing the stories of those whose lives were most impacted by the church’s ethics. It was hearing the stories of people who had been divorced and subsequently marginalised in their churches that drove changes in how I read, synthesised and applied the relevant biblical texts. It was meeting women who had been wounded by the sexist attitudes that prevailed in our churches when I was a young man (and sadly in many ways continue to do so) that led to a revision of my reading of the Biblical texts on men and women. More recently it has been the voices of gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, transgender and intersex Christians that have caused me to revisit a biblical ethic of sexuality and gender.

I am not saying that hearing the voices of others should replace robust work across Hays’s four tasks, but that it indelibly shapes that work. So much so that I am convinced that it is near impossible to hear God’s word to us without hearing the voices of those who are marginalised, wounded and offended by our ethics.

There are, I think, at least two reasons for this. The first is that we all approach the text with assumptions, values, and biases that don’t simply impact on how we apply the text (Hays’s steps 3 and 4) but what we see in the texts (Hayes’s steps 1 and 2). This is true even for the greatest of biblical scholars. I have sufficient confidence in the capacity of human beings to communicate that I don’t buy into those theories that suggest reading the Bible is never an act of understanding another but only ever an act of self-expression. But I also accept that every reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation in which the interpreter is an active agent whose perspectives, assumptions, values, biases, etc shape their reading across all four of Hayes’s interpretive tasks. I think this is why hearing the voices of those who are marginalised and disempowered has been so powerful in my reading of Scripture. They see things I don’t and force me to recognise ways that the dominant readings of my particular church tradition may reflect the interests of power rather than the voice of the Spirit.

Second, history suggests that it is in the protest and pain of the marginalised rather than the intricacies of biblical interpretation, that new movements of the Spirit of God often emerge. Indeed robust biblical interpretation often lags behind the intuitions of the Spirit. It was the voices of slaves and the recounting of their cruel and indecent treatment that pricked the conscience and fired the compassion that drove the abolitionist movement. Mark Noll shows in his book on the US Civil War as a Theological Crisis, that the early abolitionist movement was driven by an intuitive sense that something was wrong rather than robust and defensible readings of Scripture. The theologies of the early abolitionists were weak and their “biblical ” arguments easily refuted. It would take some years for a robust biblical defence of abolition to emerge. Those who sat in their studies and didn’t take the time to listen to the voices of the marginalised and oppressed missed the early signals of a movement of God’s Spirit.

This is why I now find my desire to hear God’s voice on social and ethical issues takes me out of my study and into conversation with those most impacted. In their experiences of pain and struggle, of dissonance between their experience of God and the dominant theologies of the church, in the gap between their present treatment by their fellow human beings and their hope, and in their questions and their alternate readings of Scripture, is often found the whispering of God that allows us to go back into the study and together seek the mind of Christ.

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