June 5, 2009

How We Read the Bible

What happens when we read the Bible? How do we interpret what we read? In other words, how do we understand? Let's break down the process a bit and consider some theories about what might be happening:

First, our eyes look at the words--translated into our own language, of course. And then ...
  1. We understand the exact meaning intended, because that's what always and automatically happens when we read.
  2. We understand the exact meaning intended, because of good intentions and careful concentration.
  3. We understand, because of a miracle, the one exact meaning ever and always intended.
  4. We understand, because of a miracle, the unique meaning that God wants us to have at that moment.
  5. We understand something, based on our understanding (= our interpretation) of what the words mean to us in our own culture and time, but the meaning may be different from what was originally intended by the author--or the translator--or what was originally understood by the original audience of native speakers from those cultures 2,000 - 5,000 years ago. Therefore, only the history scholars and language experts among us can aspire to perfect understanding.
  6. Even if we are scholars and experts, what we understand is filtered through our own personal experience (as per Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading), and will change as our experience changes. Our understanding of verses about God as father, for example, is affected by our own experiences with our own fathers and our experiences with or without children of our own.
  7. We understand something, but not necessarily the complete and perfect, higher-than-our thoughts of a supernatural, eternal, and omniscient God.
Experience should tell us that options 1 and 2 are ridiculous. Those of us who have ever taught students at any level know this full well.

Theories 1 - 3 are also contradicted by our experience of doctrinal arguments between different denominations. Universal understanding even by well-meaning clergy and laity is not what history reveals.

Theory 4 is harder to refute, since we don't know what voices people are hearing in their heads. Any argument against personal experience is difficult unless we can read minds. However, most honest people would admit to errors in their personal understanding of scripture, to thinking God had told them something but realizing later that it was fear, emotion, or their own desire to believe, and not the voice of God. This happens to even the brightest among us.

The perfect understanding held out to us in theory 5 would appear to be contradicted by the lack of agreement among scholars and experts.

Theories 6 and 7, then.... For us mere mortals, we appear to be left with incomplete understanding, and no certainty about how accurate we actually are when interpreting a given passage. And this uncertainty, this ambiguity is very threatening to some.

Interestingly, this is our condition even if we hold to the most extreme doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Every word may be the exact and perfect one, and perfectly true and authoritative, but this doesn't mean that we understand fully or that we all have the same understanding. Confidence in the Bible is different than confidence in my ability to fully grasp the thoughts of God after carefully reading it once--or a hundred times.

I love and believe the Bible. My argument here is not that the Bible is irrelevant or that we read it without hope of understanding. Rather, I see the need for patience and care when reading, for diligence to learn more about the language and context, for prayer that the Holy Spirit would aid in the understanding, and for humility when interpreting or when disagreeing with somebody's interpretation.

More importantly, I love and believe in the Lord himself--amazing mystery though he may always be to me. I believe that I can know him--as I am fully known. This is different from knowing about him through reading the Bible. I can know information in a book, or a book itself, but those will always be qualitatively different from knowing a Person. As in other relationships, perfect knowledge and perfect understanding on my part are not requirements or priorities. We know in part, and ultimately, knowledge will pass away.

1 comment:

Rafael said...

Very nice, and right on. I can't help but notice that when many of my undergraduate students affirm the Bible's inerrancy, what they're often more concerned about is the sufficiency of their own readings (or those of their preachers).