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Reading the Bible PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Monday, 09 February 2009 15:54

Reading the Bible

At the end of our fellowship time following the service on Sunday someone came up to me and told me, with a wee smile, that, as the minister I should be careful of saying that something in the Bible might not be right.

The context was our look at the story Jesus told of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18: 21-35) that we used to explore the themes of patience and forgiveness during the service. If you want to hear more about that, you can do so from the podcast page. [There's more...]

The comment was raised in light of what I said with regard to the final verse (v. 35) of this passage. Many scholars believe that this verse has been added by Matthew to the story that Jesus was telling - it is Matthew's way of explaining the story for his readers. Yet, as I mentioned on Sunday, Matthew might not actually have got the point of Jesus' story and may be guiding us in a certain direction after hearing Jesus story, when Jesus actually wanted the story to stand on its own in order to make us think more about what he was saying. Matthew is interpreting Jesus for us, but perhaps we should let Jesus' words speak to us without someone else's interpretation?

Right, at that point I do encourage you to listen to the sermon yourself!! (It starts around 2100 on the player counter.)

The comment about how we treat the Bible as our sacred text and about any implication that something might not be right is well made and worth reflecting on. Truth be told this is a huge subject which could take up many, many blog posts.

Historically people have approached the Bible in many different ways. We are richly blessed today to easily be able to possess our own copy of the Bible in the language we know. It was not that long ago that only the priests or powerful people would have had their own copy of the Bible, and it would have been written in Latin. 

Now we have numerous different translations, even Jamie Stuart's A Glasgow Bible, and not all of them agree on how different passages should be translated. There are some people who think that the King James Version of the Bible is the only English language version that should be used. Truly the language is beautiful to listen to in many parts, but in other parts it can be almost incomprehensible to our modern ears. And the King James Version also does not benefit from the extensive scholarship and archaeological finds that have produced ever older manuscripts of the books of the Bible. 

If you want a very readable review of how The Bible became the Bible then Karen Armstrong's book, The Bible: The Biography, is a fascinating place to start.

The Word of God

The Bible is an extremely complex book. But isn't it the Word of God? Isn't everything in it 100% right? Yes, we do tend to interchangeably use the expression the "Word of God" to mean the Bible. But, when we do so are we referring to the actual physical Bible, or, as the great theologian Karl Barth would say, are we saying that we experience God when we read the Bible - through the Bible we experience God's Word?

It is very important when talking about the Scriptures to know that for the vast majority of the Christian story there has been flexibility in interpreting the text and making it resonate for the present day, only since the enlightenment of the nineteenth century has there been a reactionary movement towards literalism as an approach to the Word of God. Personally speaking, I have never found that helpful. For me, it feels like it fossilises the living Word of God into the words of the text rather than letting them continue to bear fruit, to grow and challenge us in situations that the orginal authors never dreamed about. Indeed, for some it can lead to a kind of idolatry of the Bible, putting the Bible up there alongside God. But the Bible on its own is not divine. It has such power for us because and only because God speaks to us through the stories it contains.

The ancients knew this and for many centuries of the church's history various interpretations of Scripture ebbed and flowed as people grappled with the teachings contained in the Scripture in changing situations. 

A colleague pointed out to me a few years ago the powerful statement in the introduction to the Church Hymnary, 3rd edition, which contains a deep truth:

When Scripture is read and preached, it is not the words of the Minister the congregation awaits but the Word of Christ who is the Word of God.

In John's gospel we find the description of the logos the Word of God, and as we read we realise this is the timeless story of the Word who finds human form in Jesus Christ. This is the living Word.

Sometimes we can be in danger of so protecting our holy text that we rob it of all its power to challenge us. As with God, I believe that our Holy Scriptures are not so frail that asking difficult questions of them challenges their profound truthfulness to us and ability still to speak to us of God today. Indeed, it is in grappling with difficult passages, in studying more about the context, about how we can apply the passages to life today, that these truths become living truths.

So, in my mind, it is right to challenge the Scriptures, to ask the difficult questions, to listen to the wise voices of scholars, and to seek to find ways to interpret the Scriptures for today. In actual fact, for my faith, not to do so is not to treat the Scriptures with the respect they deserve as the foundation for our understanding of God.

We all interpret

Wouldn't it just be easier to accept a literal reading of the Bible? Well, I suppose in one way it would be as you would think it would make life simpler. Except that in my experience there simply isn't a literal reading of the Bible. We all to some degree, because of our backgrounds, the cultures we live in, our previous experience, come to the Scripture with preconceived notions. We may not be aware of them, but we do it all the same. And thus it is better to acknowledge that and openly work with the knowledge that you are always seeking to interpret God's Word for us today than to try to defend what, I suspect, is impossible for us to actually do.

Food for thought, I hope, and I dare say I'll come back to this subject again. If you have any comments, please feel free to leave them. I'm thankful for the comment on Sunday that spurred on this post.

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