Position Statement: Biblical Interpretation

I’ve made allusion to some of my underlying theological positions (my theological “givens,” if you will) in previous posts, but it’s dawned on me that I ought to have some posts that can be linked to easily that reveal my positions (and therefore biases) in my approach to theology so that my readers better understand where I’m coming from (whether or not they agree–there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement on many, many theological issues).

I’m going to start with a concise explanation of my position on Biblical interpretation–specifically, my attitudes toward Biblical literalism and inerrancy.

Let’s start with 2 Timothy 16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

I do not reject this premise at all; I believe it. However, I absolutely disagree with the premise that this statement means that the Scriptures should be interpreted literally (there are times for a literal interpretation, to be sure–Jesus’s statements about the Great Commandments are uncharacteristically plainly stated and should be taken for what they are) or that they are infallible.

By way of argument, consider Adam and Eve. In the second story of the creation of Adam and Eve, God gives Adam spirit and life by breathing into him. He is literally “God-breathed,” and, yet, he is thoroughly fallible, mistaken in many things.

Further, God uses humanity to do God’s work, but in a cooperative, not a coercive manner (well, maybe Jonah). Moses is called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, but he is not forced. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus changes him deeply, but it is knowledge, not threat, that makes him a disciple of Jesus. Even Jesus Himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, has the opportunity to reject God’s call upon him, though He does not.

When read as a whole, we see in the Old Testament an continuing revelation of God’s self to the Israelites and an evolving understanding of the nature of God in the Israelites. At the time of Abram we see a man called from polytheism, but at the time of the Exodus we see an understanding of God that is henotheistic (there are many gods but ours is best/strongest/etc.)–even the Ten Commandments begin with a henotheistic understanding, “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” True, that statement remains metaphorically accurate in a monotheistic understanding, but because the rest of the Commandments are quite literal, I think we must see it in the henotheistic context.

The OT prophets seek to change the minds of the Israelites from henotheism to true monotheism and to shake off polytheistic ideas about the nature of gods. When Elijah battles the priests of Ba’al (Hadad, most likely) on Mount Carmel, he is making the theological statement (through derision of Ba’al in part) that the God of Israel is not a mere localized deity, is not possessed of human needs and limitations (like travel and sleep) but is rather transcendent and omnipotent.

In large part it takes the Bablyonian Captivity for the Isrealites to grow into the understanding of God to which God has been leading them for centuries (or, depending upon your preferred timeline, millennia). In Ezekiel’s vision we see the image of a mobile God who can follow the Jews to Babylon, who is with them even when they are not present at God’s temple in Jerusalem.

Given the record of the need for continued revelation from God to drag the Jews to a better understanding of God (just as revelation continues to do, whether this revelation proceeds from Scripture or elsewhere), it stands to reason that the writers of the Old Testament (and New, for that matter) sometimes get things wrong. When we read that God has commanded Saul to kill all the women, children and animals of the peoples he has conquered, we should be offended if we are being asked to take the statement literally.

Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible makes very good arguments on this subject. For my part, I tend to follow the understanding of the German theologian Karl Barth. Barth reminds us (I am admittedly simplifying his argument for sake of time and space) that the Scriptures are not the capital “W” Word of God–Jesus is (see the Gospel of John). Therefore, we should read all Scripture through the lens of Jesus Christ. That in the Bible that does not comport with the person and teachings of Jesus is something added by man and not by God.

Does this make Biblical interpretation difficult? Absolutely, and humility in approaching the subject ought be the first lesson we learn in the practice of theology.

Jesus speaks metaphorically in the parables for a number of reasons–I think even the most literal of Biblical interpreters would admit to that. So why do we think that other parts of the Bible, particularly those written in styles of literature that rely upon metaphor and symbolism (the OT poetry, the apocalyptic and prophetic modes of both the OT and the NT) should be read literally?

When we believe that only God is infallible, why would we believe that the human contributors to the Bible were made so? When what we see in both the Biblical text itself and in the experience of our lives is that God creates opportunities for humans to work with God but does not force them to do so, why would we believe that God essentially put every word to paper with God’s self? When God came to earth in Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, a teacher, a prophet and an example to us, why would we assume that Scriptures are alone sufficient? When Jesus himself tells the Pharisees and the Sadducees and, yes, even the Disciples that they have misunderstood the Scriptures, why are we so ready to say that a single and narrow interpretation is the only reasonable one? In a world so complex that the head spins to think of it, why would we expect that the answers we find in the Bible are simple, straightforward, and without nuance?

On the other hand, when the Bible is so plainly full of Truths both existential and metaphysical, why should we assume that the proposition is all or nothing–that the Bible has no fallibilities or is completely worthless?

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