How to Read the Bible
A wide range of voices claims that a crisis of biblical interpretation is taking place. But contrary to many pundits, the crisis does not simply involve a decline in the Bible's authority. Even when the Bible is turned to as the authority, it's not necessarily interpreted Christianly.
Consider, for example, a recent Christian bestseller that offers a "Bible diet." The book claims to enable better concentration, improve appearance, increase energy, and reverse the process of "accelerated aging." To want to improve your appearance and energy level, do you have to be interested in knowing God or Jesus? Of course not. There is nothing intrinsically Christian about the advice.
Similar trends appear in Christian books that promise biblical solutions for success in finances, relationships, and family. These books can help Christians see implications of their faith for various aspects of life, but they often communicate that the Bible is the authoritative answer book to felt needs and problems. This message centers on the individual and his or her preferences, and does not interpret the Bible in a way that calls felt needs into question or looks beyond them.
It's not just well-meaning writers but also many biblical scholars who fail to approach the Bible as Christian Scripture. Some approach it only as ancient history, using it as a piece of evidence in answering archeological or sociological questions about the ancient world. Other scholars try to reconstruct the thought of a book or author. A scholar can write an in-depth essay about Paul's theology without ever considering that God could be addressing the scholar's own time through Paul's ancient texts.
Even those who try to connect the historical-critical context of a passage to today's world can inadvertently suggest that most of the world's Christians cannot truly understand God's Word because they are not scholars. After returning from a semester of teaching church leaders in Ethiopia, I heard a well-known biblical scholar argue that "historical reconstruction" behind and within the biblical text is the central way to avoid idolatrous and unfaithful biblical interpretation. I left the lecture wondering: Where does that leave Ethiopia, a country with millions of Christians and a growing church, yet with very few who could historically reconstruct the Bible?
Partly due to the inadequacies of popular and scholarly readings of the Bible, an increasing number of scholars have been advocating a "theological interpretation of Scripture." They encourage us to read the Bible as God's instrument of self-revelation and saving fellowship. This school of interpretation includes a wide range of practices, but all of them move us toward knowing the triune God and being formed as Christ's disciples through Scripture.
The Spacious Rule of Faith
When examining how we interpret Scripture, we should pay attention to our functional theology of Scripture: how our use of Scripture reflects particular beliefs about what the Bible is. There are two common approaches to using Scripture today.
Some readers start with a detailed blueprint of what the Bible says, then read individual passages of Scripture as if they were the concrete building blocks to fit into the blueprint. They translate each passage into a set of propositions or principles that fit the established details of the blueprint. This approach assumes that we already know the larger meaning of Scripture; our system of theology gives us the meaning. Thus, the task of interpreting Scripture becomes a matter of discovering where in our theological system a particular passage fits.
Others prefer a smorgasbord approach. Imagine a huge cafeteria loaded with food of many kinds for many tastes; you are at the cafeteria with the members of a small-group Bible study. Can you imagine what some of the other members of the group would choose to eat? I suspect that there might even be patterns based on age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, but each person chooses which foods to feast on based on his or her appetite. In the smorgasbord approach to Scripture, the Bible becomes the answer book for our felt needs and personal perspectives.
With both the blueprint and smorgasbord approaches, we end up using Scripture for our own purposes. We are in control. The Bible may be viewed as authoritative, but it provides either confirmation of our preconceived ideas or divine advice for felt needs.
Blueprint readers rightly sense that one cannot read the Bible without bringing some understanding to the table; we each come with some theological assumptions about the Bible when we open its pages. Smorgasbord readers rightly believe that the Bible is a book through which God addresses us; it's not just a book of ancient history or doctrine or worldview. A theological reading of Scripture makes use of both of these assumptions, yet in a deeper and fuller way.