There are two basic approaches to Bible reading: faithful and unfaithful. The faithful approach, as Augustine wrote, is “faith seeking understanding;” the unfaithful approach seeks to tear down faith.
The fact is that truth is interactive between the text and the reader. If no one ever read the Bible, it would become a museum piece that people looked at but never picked up. On the other hand, if people read everything in it literally it would seem absurd: talking snakes, rivers clapping hands they don’t have, hills shouting for joy, a great red dragon sweeping a third of the stars from the heavens with his tail.
As Richard Rohr says, the literal approach is important, but it is the least useful approach and misses so much of the deeply meaningful symbolism in the text.
It is important to realize that the Bible is full of different genres: poems, history, wisdom writings, romance stories, gospels, letters, apocalyptic writing. If you took everything as the same genre, it would be like reading the newspaper comics as if they were the same as stories on the front page.
In fact, the Bible is so rich, so packed and varied, you can find anything you want in it. you can find God as a monster who sends poisonous snakes to kill 30,000 Israelites for complaining to Moses when they have no food in the desert; God killing everyone on Earth in a flood; God condemning people to eternal torture in hell. This is the biblical God atheists like Richard Dawkins find.
Or you can find God as a good shepherd taking care of his flock or God as a loving mother nursing her child on her lap. The question is: what did you want to find before you even started reading the Bible? That’s what you will find because it is interactive.
The Protestant Reformation, which started in 1517 with Martin Luther, attacked the authority of the pope and so the Catholic church made the pope infallible, that is, incapable of making erroneous statements. Protestants reacted by making everything in the Bible inerrant, that is, without error. However, Protestants interpret the Bible in many ways, and without realizing it, it is their own interpretation they take as inerrant.
The Bible did not fall out of the sky, it was written over about 1300 years by about 40 human authors who had different personalities, different life experiences, and who were affected by their own culture’s history and understanding of reality. So, they were capable of writing things that, with our greater knowledge, we know were inaccurate.
There are thus two basic mistakes in approaching the Bible: to take everything in it as equally true, as if there are no scientific or historical errors in it, as fundamentalists do, or to take it as just another book and not inspired by God as some Protestants do.
It is challenging to keep the tension between the Bible as both the inspired word of God and as written by fallible human beings. The Bible was meant as a faith and morals text not as a science and history text.
There are no math or physics equations in the Bible, but there is an evolution of peoples’ understanding of God. Things develop from all the laws in the early books, some of which are humanly made, such as not combining two different fabrics in clothing, to prophets who criticize God’s people when they get off track, to Jesus who fulfills both the law and the prophets.
So, when Christians approach the Bible, they need to take Jesus as their hermeneutic, or means of understanding what is written in the Bible. We need to always look at scripture through the wise and compassionate eyes of Jesus who was selective in his use of biblical texts, that is, he considered some texts to be more inspired by God and some as less inspired. He largely ignores the less-inspired parts.
Faithful interpretation of the Bible necessitates a lot of prayer for guidance by God when reading it, as well as the need to listen to faithful Bible scholars who can help us understand what Jesus meant.
If with their help we can discern how Jesus interpreted the scriptures, then we will get the proper interpretation.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and religious educator of adults. email@example.com