Reading the Bible in practice

I believe that the key to the riddle of the Bible – how it can be both the uniquely authoritative Word of God and a collection of miscellaneous books whose interpretation everybody disagrees about – must be that this is how it was meant to work. The uncertainty and the disagreements must be the whole point of the exercise, otherwise the Good Lord would surely have arranged things better. After all, he could have given us a simple theological primer full of clear and unambiguous teaching if that was His intention all along, but He chose to do otherwise.

Our model, I think, is Jacob who had to wrestle with the Lord when he finally met Him face to face (Gen 32, vv22-30). He knew that he was in line for a blessing but he had to fight all night to get it, and the fight left permanent scars behind. With the blessing came a new name – Israel, He Who Fights with God – “because you have fought with God and man and you have won!” Jacob was the man who fought God to a standstill and God was pleased with him. So when we have to wrestle with Scripture to get any kind of blessing out of it, we need to remember that we are standing in a good tradition.

If Biblical teaching was as clear as most Evangelicals claim it to be, none of us would ever be able to distinguish between following the Bible and following the mob, because it would always amount to the same thing in practice. You only know what it means to take God’s Word as your supreme authority when that Word says one thing to you and some other authority says something different. Then only can you have the experience of making a choice, the experience that Luther had at Worms. It’s an experience that God clearly wants us all to have, but there can be no choice where there is no difference.

Every time somebody tells you, “The Bible says...” and you believe him, you are choosing to make that person your ultimate authority in matters of religion. He may be a fine Christian, he may be right in most or all of his interpretations, but when you follow him, you are not accepting the authority of the Bible; you are accepting his authority. That is a very different matter in practice and it will lead to very different results in your spiritual life.

That does not mean that you must wrestle with the Bible entirely on your own. God will send you all kinds of unexpected help if my experience is anything to go by. The first part of this study was based on a sermon that I heard a few years ago from a member of the ministry team at my local church. The second part was triggered by a book reading on Radio 4. Bible study groups can also be extremely valuable in giving you access to other people’s take on a passage. But ultimately you do have to decide for yourself what that passage says to you. And if a Bible study is based (as such studies often are) on a printed or downloaded booklet which tells you what the readings mean and what questions you are allowed to ask about them, you had better take all of that with a very large pinch of salt.

Which takes us back to the $64,000 question: if I am supposed to interpret the Bible for myself, and I get it wrong, what is going to stop my bad and mistaken interpretations from harming my neighbours or splitting my church? Every heresy after all starts with some individual preaching bad doctrine. And even if I do no one else any harm, won’t my mistakes harm me?

Well, no, they won’t actually. If you think that, you have a very limited idea of God and His power. There is only one thing that can come between you and God and that is your deliberate decision to turn your back on Him. Making mistakes is something you do all the time, and not only when you are reading the Bible. You trust God to correct your mistakes as you go along the road of life. That’s part of what it means to say that the Lord is your shepherd. It means that you don’t have to be constantly terrified that you will somehow blow it all, because you know that He is looking after you. What kind of God would He be after all if His plans were so easily thwarted?

As for your relations with other people, a very important part of loving your neighbours as yourself is applying the same rules to them as you do to yourself. If you’re not going simply to believe someone who says “The Bible teaches…”, then you can’t say that to someone else and expect them simply to believe you. Why should they? Who made you an authority for them? Encourage them to read God’s Word for themselves and decide what it means for them. If you grant them the freedom that you believe God has given to you, your mistakes in biblical interpretation are most unlikely to do them any harm. When people take it upon themselves to interfere harmfully in someone else’s life on the basis of something they read in the Bible, it’s the enforcement of their reading on other people that does the harm and not the reading in itself.

I believe that the same logic applies to the fear of heresy. One person with unorthodox ideas or interpretations is not a heretic but merely a harmless eccentric. A heresy is a group of people who share unorthodox ideas and go on to define them as the key to separating true believers from a misguided church. Such a group can be brought into existence only by the conviction of its founder that he (it’s usually a he!) has the right to tell other people what to believe on the basis of his reading of the Bible and not theirs. And of course they have to believe that he has that authority over them, otherwise they won’t follow him. They are more likely to do so if they have been taught by their Church that their own interpretations are unreliable in principle. Conversely the more people refuse to be bound by what anyone else says about the Bible, the more difficult it becomes for a heretical movement to gather any kind of momentum.

Here is yet another paradox to go with all the others: the more the Church tries to tame the Bible by providing authorised interpretations or safer alternative sources of authority, the more dangerous it becomes in practice. When people are not encouraged to interpret the Bible for themselves, they end up at the mercy of any charlatan who offers to do it for them.

There are foods like cassava and pufferfish which are poisonous when raw but safe to eat when well cooked. I believe that the opposite is true of the Bible: it is safest and most nourishing to the spirit when taken raw. Cooking it destroys the vitamins!

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