Reading the Bible as God’s Word

Perhaps I have a nasty, suspicious mind, but my nerves always prickle when someone says, “The Bible says… ” or “The Bible teaches… ” or “The clear teaching of Scripture is… ”. Books do not teach. People teach. A book, however holy and inspired, has to be read and interpreted by some person in order to produce any kind of teaching. And we have already seen how careless (and sometimes downright dishonest) Biblical interpretations can be used to prove almost anything. Slavery, witch-burning, wife-beating, the persecution of Jews, and the imprisonment (and even murder) of gay men have all been justified as being mandated by Scripture. How then can the authority of Scripture be safely made a part of our lives? How do we avoid getting it wrong, and what might happen if we do?

It really doesn’t surprise me that the Roman Catholic Church once preferred to keep the laity well away from the Scriptures! They argued that the final authority for a Christian cannot be a book, however inspired, because a book needs to be interpreted and some people will always get the interpretation wrong. The final authority has to be a person who, if he is misinterpreted, can always turn around and say, “No! That’s not what I meant. I meant so-and-so.” So eventually the Church acquired an infallible pope and what he said went. The Bible continued to exist and was greatly revered, but in practice it had no real function because the infallible pope could infallibly tell you everything that God wanted you to know.

The argument between Martin Luther and his opponents at the Council of Worms was not about the authority of Scripture, which both sides accepted unconditionally. It was about Luther’s claim to be able to interpret the Scriptures himself and his use of them to question contemporary Catholic doctrine. His opponents argued that the Bible was the Church’s book and therefore could only be interpreted correctly by the Church, that is by theologians who were licensed by the pope. And anyone, licensed or otherwise, who interpreted a passage of scripture to mean something other than what the Church taught as doctrine had clearly got it wrong and wasted his time.

Obviously Protestants believe that Luther was the one in the right here. Or, to put it in a more nuanced way, the Protestant churches exist precisely because Luther was able to persuade a lot of people (via the printing press and some vigorous invective in the German language) that he was indeed right about this. And there was and is one unanswerable argument in his favour: if the pope really is infallible so that he can be our ultimate authority, why would God have bothered to give us the Bible at all? You don’t need two infallible authorities!

But if we follow that logic and make the Bible itself our ultimate authority, with no infallible interpreter, who gets to interpret it in practice? One possible answer might be “every Christian, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit whom he or she received in baptism”. But how do we then deal with the inevitable disagreements?

Surprisingly, this isn’t a very serious problem for most of those who identify themselves as Conservative Evangelicals. These are the people who are most likely to talk about “the clear teaching of Scripture.” But that is, I think, because Conservative Evangelical churches are heavily clericalised, almost as much so as the Catholic Church. A small cadre of ministers, preachers, writers and evangelists are authorised to tell everyone else “what the Bible teaches” and anyone who was born or converted into such a church will read the Bible through that invisible lens. Private reading and study are encouraged but private interpretation is not, because “we know what it means. It means exactly what it says.” And what it says (or at any rate appears to say) is what the leadership team in your church tell you it says. Of course Christians of this sort know perfectly well that other Christians interpret certain passages differently, but to them, those interpretations are bound to seem totally perverse. I mean, how could anyone possibly think it meant that?

But if we are neither Roman Catholics nor Conservative Evangelicals, if we have neither a pope whom we can trust to tell us what the Bible means nor the absolute certainty that we know what it means ourselves, what does it mean to say that this is God speaking to us? Is that even a meaningful claim? How in practice do we turn this complex, confusing tissue of different kinds of literature, written originally in languages that most of us do not speak, into a workable guide for our lives? How do we navigate the inevitable uncertainties without driving ourselves mad, when every interpretation that we make is surely as likely to be wrong as right!

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