Debates about the Bible are nearly as old as Christianity itself. Which books should be considered canonical? How should we interpret scripture? Is the Bible meant to be read ‘literally’? How do scripture and tradition interact?
The questions are nearly endless and they’re not insignificant. Many of these questions (and the answers given) have divided believers for hundreds of years.
And the situation today is no different. Conservative Christians argue for a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Theological liberals counter that the words of scripture are so culturally tied-up, they must be unbound and allowed to speak in new ways (or fresh ways – liberals love the word fresh).
But what does a ‘literal’ reading of scripture mean?
- Should Christians embrace polygamy since it’s never explicitly condemned in the Bible? The same could be asked of slavery.
- The books of Exodus and Leviticus describe Sabbath keeping as a permanent practice – it’s even in the Ten Commandments. So why don’t most Christians observe it?
- What does apocalyptic and prophetic literature even look like when read ‘literally’?
Reading scripture ‘literally’ isn’t as simple as it sounds. The Bible is filled with different types of literature addressed to a variety of audiences for a number of different reasons. We don’t read the Bible ‘literally’ by treating it like a dictionary or newspaper. So, how do we read it faithfully?
And how far can this holy text be stretched before it breaks?
- If we relativize scripture based on culture, doesn’t it cease to have any meaning of its own?
- When we pick and choose what we’re going to accept as ‘authoritative’, don’t we elevate our own thinking above God’s special revelation?
- Are there limits to where and how far we can accept scripture being understood as culturally-bound?
Christians today need a solid understanding of how to interpret scripture faithfully. I’ve seen too many believers dragged off into the ditch of flat literalism – where Revelation is an advanced copy of tomorrow’s nightly news – or that of squishy liberalism – where scripture’s meaning is found in the prevailing beliefs of the culture. Neither is a place I want to be.
Fortunately, N.T. Wright has written a book that cuts through the detritus on both sides of the debate. While holding scripture up as the authority for the Church, Wright isn’t satisfied with pat or simplistic answers to the question, ‘What does that mean?’ Instead, he examines what it means for scripture to be called an ‘authority’ at all.
One of the most important statements Wright makes on this front is that “the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.'” Since the Bible is largely narrative in nature, the ‘authority of scripture’ cannot solely be about giving the Christian authoritative commandments or lists of sins. God’s Spirit works through all of scripture to lead us into a story he is still telling – in the life of the Church. And scripture gives us the bounds within which we can improvise our lines faithfully.
While always acknowledging the truth of scripture, Wright encourages us not to read the Bible as if it’s a repository of divine facts. Instead, he argues that we need to see it as it is – a divine story. More specifically, he writes, “we must once more see the Bible as a story with different movements, a play in different acts, and we must understand the whole story in terms of the climax which is reached in Act 4 and the resultant resolution, and the restoration of the original project, in Act 5″ (pg.194). This scheme of interpretation may sound foreign to many of our ears but I have to say, it makes so much more sense of the entirety of scripture than most of the alternatives.
Seeing scripture as a divine comedy – a story in which God creates man in Act 1, man sins and falls into rebellion in Act 2, God rebuilds a relationship with man through the nation of Israel in Act 3, Jesus fulfills the promises of God and institutes new creation in Act 4, and the Church carries that new creation into the world in Act 5 – aids us in understanding why Sabbath laws aren’t binding on Christians or why monogamy is God’s preferred marital arrangement even though scripture never explicitly says that or how we can live faithfully under the authority of God and into the story he is telling.
Wright examines how scripture has been read (and misread) over the past 2,000 years and lays out certain principles which he hopes will get the Church back on track. I believe his prescription is exactly what we need today: reading scripture contextually, liturgically, privately, in concert with contemporary (and past) scholarship, and alongside faithful preachers and teachers. He also puts tradition, reason, and experience in their proper place, as helps to understanding what scripture is saying to us.
The last two chapters are case studies in which Wright examines the issues of Sabbath and Monogamy in detail. He models how we can use this understanding of scripture as a five-act play to more faithfully understand what is going on in the pages of the Bible.
If more Christians could get ahold of this view of the Bible, I believe it would revolutionize the way they see both the text of scripture and their place in God’s work in the world. You see, the story God is telling in the pages of the Bible is not over. That story is being written each and every day – in the lives of Christians all over the world. In my life and in yours. And as we understand the Bible better, we will also understand how we can live more faithfully and more fully under the authority of God.
May we all seek to live into the story God is telling.