Friday, 5 September 2008

Reading Scripture

How to interpret Scripture has always been the key to the Christian faith. Even before we had the writings that ended up in the New Testament it is clear that people were working the Scriptures.

So how do we read the Scriptures? The most important point is to read each part according to the whole. This is a tricky thing because we are reading Scripture and working it well before we understand the whole. This is one reason why dismissing Scriptural texts, especially ones representative of the important themes of Scripture can prevent the reader ever understanding the whole.

A few examples at this point. Take some of the well known stories of Genesis 1-11. They are not meant to be read literally; this is not the point of why they are where they are in the Bible. Genesis 1-11 is, if you like, setting the scene for what is to unfold in the remainder of the Bible. These stories represent the universal predicament of humankind and creation, the cul de sac from which we are to be liberated. Genesis 12, on the other hand, begins God's response to the universal predicament. The response is the calling of Abraham and Sarah, culminating (if I am permitted to telescope things a bit!) in Jesus. To become bogged down in the historicity of Adam and Eve or the ark is to miss the point of how these stories function in the Bible. (Reread Romans 5:18-21 with this in mind as it will make a huge amount of sense of what Paul is saying.) In this case we read these first chapters in the light of the total structure of Scripture.

John 14:28 is another example of the need to read from the perspective of the whole.
Jesus says "The Father is greater than I." The heretics love this because they use it to reinforce their alien understanding of the eternal relationship between the Father and Son. The Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father. If it were so that the Son was eternally subordinate, the whole gospel unravels, for God remains the shadowy figure behind Jesus and our salvation is not inclusion in the very life of God but a subordinate relationship. Read from the perspective of the whole (and in this case the whole as represented in the historic Creeds of the Church) this verse does not mean an eternal subordination. It refers to the manner in which the eternal self-effacement of the Son is translated in the life of the incarnate Christ.

But how do we work each portion from the perspective of the whole? It is essential to work each part of Scripture, no matter how small, on its own terms. But 'on its own terms' includes the wider context of the passage. So one must work a few verses in the context of the chapter, the book, the testament, the whole Bible, and the historic faith of the church derived from working these Scriptures before you and I were even around.

It is important for each of us, as we work Scripture, to bear in mind the whole that we are constructing. Does the Scripture we are working fit the whole? Before it is rejected, it is important to gain a sense of why it doesn't, and in rejecting it how much other Scripture we are leaving out. The less Scripture left out from our 'whole', the better. (And please, unless you are of the stature of Hans Urs von Balthasar or Karl Barth or the like, don't tell me you include all Scripture in your 'whole'. Indeed, even those two greats probably struggled with some of Scripture and how to fit it into the whole.) It is more likely that, instead of rejecting a piece of Scripture, it can be reworked in the light of the whole. A few examples of this latter procedure will follow in the near future.

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