Reading and Misreading the Bible

Reading and Misreading the Bible

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Published:
January 22, 2018

Official instincts about prop­er Bible reading continue to be partly right yet crucially wrong. One problem is that, for lack of willingness to converse—to speak and to listen, we continue to talk past one an­other. This lack baffles me. It hurts everyone and everything, not least discipleship itself.

In the “Week of Prayer” issue of Adventist World, NAD Edition, dated November 2017, General Conference President Ted Wilson lauds those daring Reformers who took the risk of trans­lating Scripture into the languages of ordi­nary people. In several cases, they gave their lives for doing so, such was the fury of the church authorities, who distrusted the mem­bership at large and thought access to the Bi­ble would make them wander into heresy.

The instinct behind such praise is right, incontestably; so is the instinct behind quot­ing, as the president does, Ellen White’s dec­laration that Christians should not “depend on the minister” to read the Bible for them. Formal authority gives no certain advantage in interpretation. Every voice counts. No single voice or group of voices can have the last word.

Trouble comes, however, when the idea of the “plain reading of the text” joins itself, as in the article, to the implication that our “critical” capacities give no help in the inter­pretation of Scripture. Here I insert the word “implication” because in official theology the word “critical” is never (at least to my knowl­edge) straightforwardly anathematized. It’s just that the conventional invective against the “historical-critical” method, here trotted out as usual, creates misgivings about it. The “historical-critical” approach to the Bible is associated (plausibly, I might add) with skep­tical assumptions about the reality of God. But a good bit of it is useful even when, as with every community of Adventist Bible read­ers that I know, such skeptical assumptions are themselves called into question.

“Plain reading” without “critical” assess­ment is verifiably disastrous, principally because it prompts fixation on fragments of Scripture that, taken apart from their im­mediate or overall context, offer seeming support to one or another of our prejudices. This way of reading, let’s remember, gave us Bible-backed anti-Semitism and genocide in Europe, Bible-backed apartheid in South Africa, Bible-backed slavery in the American South. It’s tiresome to have to constantly repeat the point that these doctrines de­pended on the “plain reading” of small bits of the Bible, just as it is tiresome to have to bring up, again and again to plain readers, such a passage as Psalm 137:7, 8, where the beleaguered poet screams revenge against Israel’s “devastator” Babylon. For this poet, payback, even against children, brings hap­piness. “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Would a “plain reading” of these words, without help from our “critical” capacities, be at all edifying? If my finger fell by chance on these verses, would they be directly in­structive for what I think of God or how I live my life?

I believe, with the author of 2 Timothy, that all scripture is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for cor­rection, and for training in righteousness” (3:16). But that can be so only if we also confront another of the official instincts about Bible reading that turns out, in fact, to be true, again incontestably. The Bible is “vital­ly important,” says the General Conference president, “because it brings us face to face with Jesus Christ.” Yes. But his remarks, as is undeniably conventional in Adventism, and also undeniably misleading, fail to pay serious attention, or any attention, to Hebrews 1:1–3. In these verses the Good Book declares that God spoke in the past “through the prophets,” but has now spoken “by a Son” who is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (italics mine). And if words so crucial for biblical hermeneu­tics go unnoticed, so do equally crucial words from Jesus’ Gospel Commission in Matthew: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18). The same perspective on Christ’s authority, Zane Yi shows in the latest issue of Spectrum, comes through in the story of the Transfiguration. Again, however, it doesn’t register.

But here, surely, is the true heartbeat of the idea that the Bible brings us face to face with Jesus Christ: He is the one point, the only point, at which the will and way of God come into perfect focus. That makes Him the lens you look through for authentic Christian application of any biblical insight or story. Now, knowing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you can consider, for example, the revenge theme in Psalm 137 and say (as C. S. Lewis did) that if such revenge is the “natural re­sult” of suffering injury, it is nonetheless “profoundly wrong.” Its inclusion in Holy Writ may be God’s re­minder that of all “bad men,” those who are religious are “the worst.” In any case, this psalm, in most ways so beautiful and mesmerizing, actually is, in its en­tirety, “useful” for teaching, correction, and training in righteousness. We get a reminder of how piety can go wrong.

At the November annual meetings, in Boston, of two of the church’s theological associations—the Adventist Society for Religious Studies and the Adventist Theo­logical Society—speakers turned often to the theme of scriptural interpretation. At a Friday evening joint session, both presidents addressed the Bible, and one of them, Olive Hemmings, of ASRS and Washington Adventist University, made a point similar to the one I am making. The right understanding of the Reforma­tion sola scriptura principle, she said, upholds Christ as “the logos, the Truth, and the telos” of the written word. She was suggesting that Christ is the divine word, the divine reality, the divine purpose—made flesh. Christ alone, and no inanimate object, whether of wood or stone or paper, is God incarnate.

Again, and again, I tell myself: this should be the simplest of lesson in biblical hermeneutics. The Bible is a challenging book, encompassing different strands of thought and many kinds of stories. But the climax of its thought and stories is—Jesus, the “exact imprint” of divine being. Either this does not sink in, however, or conventional Adventist thinking simply doesn’t believe it, doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, is the final criterion of Christian life and convic­tion. How can this be? How can it go on?

I myself wrote one of the papers presented in No­vember. Shortly afterwards it hit me that I would per­sonally speak to the need for more conversation about these matters. There is scholarly backing for a view similar to the one the General Conference president disseminates in his many articles and sermons. There is an official pronouncement, in the church’s State­ment of Fundamental Beliefs, on the authority of the Bible. And in too much of what is said, reference to Christ is either inadequate or, as in the official state­ment of belief, missing altogether. So, I hereby an­nounce that I am going to encourage representative people, along a wide range of opinion, into tangible, or public, conversation, either in print or in person, about these differences of hermeneutical outlook. I imagine something small, but I also imagine some­thing real: something truly honest and forthright and something fully and appropriately responsive to the wisdom Jesus set down in Matthew, Chapter 18. I will move forward in hope, and, in time, I will report on what happens.

At my age and in my station, I am fully aware that the effort may be feckless or quixotic. But why should that matter? We are not called to success, but to witness. Surely we can agree, all of us, on that.

 

Charles Scriven is Board Chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

Further Reading:
Why Hermeneutics is Our Biggest Problem — a Spectrum interview with David Ripley, Ministerial Secretary for the Northern Asia-Pacific Division
Forgotten Homework: The 2020 Study in Hermeneutics — by Spectrum columnist Matthew Quartey

 

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