On Reading the bible

"Allow Scripture and not you to be the authority of what you will believe and not believe."

This is a well-intentioned instruction to always interpret scripture as literally as possible. But right away, this ignores that we tend to interpret scripture, first and foremost, through our own cultural, theological, and experiential lenses before we even begin to read what the Bible says. We read things like 'do not take the Lord's name in vein", and we automatically bring a huge set of assumptions to the text without even realizing it; and the more we memorize scripture without perceiving it, the more compounded the effect is.

One problem is that cursory readings of scripture, which don't take into account the broader narrative context, language, and cultural/political contexts that the text came to us through, can't give a clear picture of intent. This subconsciously leaves us no choices: we are left to our own cultural and intellectual (read: comfortable) understanding of the Word. Having said this, when we come across a passage that is confusing, or strange, as we research we should be willing to take it on faith that somehow it works together with the whole of scripture - but we should begin interpreting all passages in the light of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. We should also be willing to be wrong.

In this respect, we should not use our own understanding of scripture as the bar by which we 'pass or fail' any one interpretation of the bible. In the example of Exodus 20:7, the context and language both suggest that most of us don't really grasp what the text is actually saying. Our current interpretation says that Exodus 20:7 is really all about not using the names we have for Jesus and God as a way to express anger. But this is far from a complete picture. The language of Exodus 20:7 suggests that taking the Lord's name in vein has to do with how we live, the choices we make, and in light of the gospel, the love we show toward others (which can include how we speak). The Hebrew word translated into "take" is "naw-saw", which means to lift, to carry, to take. It is not figurative for speaking. This doesn't mean that it is good to use the names of God to express our anger - because doing this likely means that we don't really respect who God is. What naw-saw does imply, however, is that this command encompass more than words. Taking the Lord's name means that we carry God's name with us wherever we go - so this command is actually more like a framework for all of life.

When we take the bible "literally," an extreme measure of care needs to be taken - too often people who claim to read the bible literally are in fact reading many things 'into' the bible, or are taking one portion of the bible literally without considering its place in the broader narrative. We need to first and foremost look to the bible for it's primary function in pointing us to Jesus. Then we can allow Jesus as revealed in scripture (the WORD made flesh) to inform our interpretation of all of scripture as we are lead into truth by the holy spirit. It doesn't mean that one's heart isn't in the right place (or that they are not spirit lead) if they read scripture in a North American cultural way, or in a specific theological way - but we must recognize that this can be a major road block for people who are seeking out truth and a deeper, more robust faith. We should be open to seeing the bible from someone else's vantage point (even if we think it's totally wrong). We might find valuable truth if we mine around instead of taking everything at its surface value, or doing insane mental gymnastics to try to 'disprove' certain theologies.

As an example, throughout the middle ages and much of modern history, scripture was used as the ultimate proof-text for the justification of slavery and the oppressive subjugation of women. We have only comparatively recently started to break free of that old worldview, which was "bible-based" in a sense, but was definitely not "Christo-Centric." In contrast, we see through Jesus' ministry, life and teachings that He held a high view of all people including women, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the have-nots in the outskirts of Jewish territory, slaves and even their masters. And that, I think, nails something down for me ... I don't want to simply be told what to think, I want to conform all of my thinking to that of Jesus'. In that sense, I want - I NEED - we all need to be shown how to think.

This brings up two tough questions:

If we are generally unaware of the assumptions we bring to the bible, do we tend to interpret scripture with only one eye opened?

If that is true, how can we fix it?

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