Archives For Interpretation

13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_nHere’s the second half of our most recent conversation with guest Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

 

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

12. Is the Bible our only authority? 

Of course not.

Jesus Christ, the fullness of God made flesh, who reigns the Earth from the right hand of the Father, is our sole authority.

Jesus is Lord not the Bible nor our imperfect interpretation of it.

The Bible is our primary witness to Christ, but even the Bible’s witness is mediated to us by the witness of the saints and our own experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world- the gift of the world itself speaks to the sheer gratuity of God.

And because all truth is God’s truth, our reason and apprehension of the created world elaborate upon (and sometimes correct) the witness to God we find in the Bible.

‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

– Acts 2.36

13. Are the Bible’s words about God accurate?

Not inherently, no.

The words of scripture are human words, the same words we use to describe ordinary objects like bears, coffee and computer keys. The words themselves possess no inherent capacity to speak of God.

The fullness and meaning of the Word, Jesus Christ, cannot be mined by any number of human words; therefore, scripture cannot be understood as a fixed archive of truths about God as though faithful description of God is reducible to regurgitation of scripture.

Indeed, as the creed’s reliance on the term ‘substance’ makes clear, faithful witness to God may require words that go beyond the language of scripture.

Within the language of scripture itself, the words do not all testify to God in the same way. As St Thomas notes, words like ‘rock’ or a ‘warrior’ can describe God only metaphorically while words like ‘good’ and ‘love’ can be taken literally if analogously.

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” – John 21.25

14. Do Christians who read scripture grasp God better than non-Christians who do not read scripture?

Never.

Sorry.

God is transcendent, the reason there is something instead of nothing, Being itself not a being within the universe. Scripture does not render God any less transcendent nor does scripture rein God in to the universe of knowable objects.

So scripture does not provide us with a schema by which the transcendent God becomes comprehensible.

Because God, by definition, remains unknowable to creatures- known only insofar as he makes himself known- there is no ground on which Christians can claim to grasp God’s essence any better than non-Christians.

Rather, what makes Christians different from non-Christians is that Christians know how, apart from grace, nothing they confess of God can be true, and that even where Christians succeed, by grace, in confessing the truth about God they can never know how it is true.

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

-Matthew 7.21

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

8. How Do I Read the Bible?

The bible should not be treated as a talisman as though it will yield any answer to any question we might ask.

Scripture does not ask us to treat it as a magical object. It does not call for our passive reverence; scripture expects our engagement. With that mind, I offer some guidelines for you to consider when reading a given text:

1. Scripture should be interpreted in light of its historical and cultural context.

This is where an annotated, academic bible can transform your reading of scripture. Knowing the original context of a given passage not only can open up that text to new and fresh hearings it can also prevent uninformed, personal interpretations that are wide off the mark of the text’s original intent.

2. Scripture should not be bound by its original context either.

If, as we believe, God’s Spirit can use the testimony of the past to speak a fresh Word to us, then knowing the original context can help us sort out right and wrong interpretations but it does not limit our interpretations. That is, what Paul said is not necessarily what Paul says to us to day.

3. Scripture should be read theocentrically, with God at the center as its primary protagonist.

Maybe this strikes you as obvious, but in our culture today many Christians value scripture only for its utility, for what it says to me. Scripture should necessarily have implications for our lives so long as we realize that it’s not first of all a story about us. The parable of the prodigal son, for example, is primarily an illustration of God’s character; it’s not first an illustration of us. ‘What does this passage say about God?’ is a question that should always precede ‘What does this passage speak to me?’

4. Scripture should be read corporately.

The bible is the story of God’s engagement with God’s chosen People, Israel and the Church. The bible is testimony about God for the community of God; therefore, you can’t truly read the bible rightly apart from God’s People. Reading scripture with others, on Sunday morning or in small groups, is the best way to hear clearly what the Spirit says today to us. Jews and Christians read in company with others, adapting and even submitting our understandings to the understandings of our fellow saints, living and dead.

5. Scripture should be read in light of one’s own context.

This is both a caution and a command. Realize that what you see or hear is determined by where you stand. A poor Mayan woman in Guatemala who’s suffered exploitation and war will hear the Magnificat differently from a white, upper class woman in the United States. Very often the Word both these women will hear will be a true Word for their context.

‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path…’ – Psalm 119

9. What Plot Does the Bible Narrate?

The worst thing someone can try to do is read the bible from beginning to end. Rather, each and any piece of scripture should be approached with an eye to the whole and how it fits.

There is a thematic, and theological, unity to scripture.

Scripture is not unlike a symphony in which there is a dominant theme returned to again and again but within the larger piece there are any number of variations.

The same is true of scripture. There is within all the stories a dominant theme:

The creation God declared ‘good’ is distorted by Sin. God is determined to get what God wanted in the very beginning. God calls Israel so that through their friendship and witness God’s creation might be redeemed. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to be the 2nd Adam, the New Abraham, for us, and until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the life that is made flesh in Jesus Christ, a life which Easter and Pentecost make possible for us.

And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall webear the image of the heavenly man.’

– 1 Corinthians 15.40

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The Woman Caught in Adultery Homosexuality.

In discussing homosexuality in the Church, I often feel as though those with whom I disagree read a totally different bible than me. I’m sure they feel the same way.

From my perspective, when you hold scripture to be the literal Word of God, you flatten out the texts so that they’re all equally authoritative.

Now the holiness codes of the Mosaic Law or a rhetorical vice list from Paul are on par- authority wise- with the witness of Jesus’ gracious welcome of sinners. A subject which Jesus himself never addresses now has the status of gospel.

The logic of biblical literalism allows all the texts of the bible to be mashed together into one voice, even if that voice is dissonant with the words of Jesus.

What you get, I think, is a bible passage, in this case John 8 (the woman caught in adultery) that might read something like this:

3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery homosexuality; and making her stand before all of them these straight men, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery homosexuality.

5Now because God clearly ordained sex to be within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman the scriptures command us to stone such women sinners. The scriptures clearly say:

{add a pinch of Leviticus}

“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman [and vice versa], both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.”

Now what do you say? Are you soft on sin, Jesus? Do you not believe the bible to be the inspired Word of God? What other authoritative teachings are you willing to throw out the window because the cultural wind?

6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him reveal his lack of biblical faith and the purity of their own doctrine.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground tweeted about it. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without as grievous a sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote updated on the ground his Facebook status.

9When they heard it, thinking he was just being rhetorical, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the sinner standing before him.

10Looking around disappointed, Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ That can’t be right. Liberals.

11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Well, I do not condemn you.

{a dash of Romans}

For the my wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth…by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s my righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds.

[Just this once- because you caught me in a good mood] Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

{come back around with a little Joshua}

Remember, I am a holy God…I will not forgive your rebellion and your sins.

{and bring it home with Romans}

For he I will repay according to each one’s deeds. 

This is the Word of God for the People of God.

Thanks be to God.