"So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading"
--Nehemiah 8: 8
"When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.' And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, 'Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.'"
--Luke 4: 16-21
Think of every argument you've heard in church. Think of every dispute that separates us and forces us into our own little silos. I have a theory that all of these come down to one root cause: the interpretation of Holy Scripture. What exactly DOES the Bible say? That question, and all of the various answers to it, has caused so many struggles, so many ugly breakups within the Church. I can remember being a little kid and not understanding why some of my friends said the Bible said one thing, while I was hearing something totally different at my home church. It turned out that the way they read Scripture, and the way my church read it, were completely different. To my friends this seemed heretical, completely contrary to the purpose of Scripture.
They're not alone. About a year ago the BBC did a story on Pentecostal Holiness churches in West Virginia who practice snake-handling. In their report they noted that the folks who participate in this ritual do so because the Bible tells them to. The passage they quote is "And these signs will accompany those who believe...they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them" (Mark 16: 17-18). The folks from the BBC pressed them on the matter, explaining that not only did biblical scholars agree that that passage wasn't part of the original Gospel (it was added in about the time Luke was written), but that they also agree that Jesus did not mean for folks to do this as a way of testing their faith. The response, though, was always the same: it says what it says.
It says what it says. This is a pretty dangerous way of approaching Scripture. Such a mindset has led to the enslavement of peoples, the subjugation of women, and the justification for wars. Taking Scripture at face-value, with no intention of asking questions and attempting to interpret it, leads to a splintering of the Body, a purpose for which Scripture was never intended.
In our Anglican heritage this is most apparent with our brothers and sisters in Africa. In January of 2004, just a few months after The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Church, I was at St. Finbarr's Cathedral in Cork, Ireland and heard the dean of the cathedral explain the Africans' outrage perfectly. He said, "When we (Anglicans) sent missionaries there, we built churches, gave them a Bible, and said, 'Read it!' but we never showed them how. We never taught them we children of the Enlightenment interpret Scripture. So they took it literally, and that's why we're in the situation we're in. It's our own fault for not teaching them."
What the folks in Africa and West Virginia both fail to realize is that people have been interpreting and reinterpreting Scripture as long as there's been Scripture. We see it in Nehemiah when the Jewish people come home from their exile in Babylon. The governor (Nehemiah) and the priest (Ezra) read the words of the law "with interpretation." They did not just read it and then leave it at that. Instead, they read it with the purpose of teaching. Jesus does the same thing. He enters the synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet and then gives his interpretation of what was said. This was not new. Any learned man was permitted to read from the Scriptures and then give his two cents. Interpretations were often contested, but the purpose of synagogue life was to teach the Scriptures, have conversations about them, ask questions, and learn more about what God not only had done, but what God was doing right here and now.
We call this practice Midrash. Saint Paul does it all the time in his letters. Midrash takes a piece of Scripture and interprets it through the lens of time. The stories and customs of that particular community impact how it is interpreted, so that new generations might be able to make sense of it in an ever-changing and confusing world.
Today seminaries and divinity schools do Midrash through practices like textual and historical criticism. Textual criticism asks: what is the deeper meaning behind this passage, and what is going on in the context of the story? Historical criticism asks: who wrote this, to whom, and where? These are the kinds of questions that folks asked in the synagogue when Jesus and other rabbis would give their interpretation These are the kinds of questions Paul asked when writing his letters to the churches and expounding upon what the prophets had said in light of this new phenomenon of Jesus Christ. You see, Scripture has always been read and reread, interpreted and reinterpreted, and it always will. The scholars of old understood that Scripture is alive, that is grows and evolves with us throughout history. Scripture in Jesus' day was interpreted differently than it was in the days of the prophets. Should we really be surprised that it has been interpreted differently down through the years?
Too often I hear folks say that they interpret Scripture at face-value because it is the Word of God. We must never forget that Scripture is NOT the Word of God. Jesus Christ is. While the Scriptures may point us toward Jesus, they themselves are not the agent of salvation that He is. Who we are as Christians is tied not into our relationship with the Bible but in our relationship with Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. It is through reading, praying, and wrestling with Scripture that we grow deeper in our relationship with the living Word.
Perhaps the next time you hear someone say, "The Bible is clear on..." you might invite that person into a conversation about how Scripture has always been wrestled with, that folks have always been asking questions of it. Perhaps that's the point of Scripture. And while we may not convince someone to read and interpret a passage the way we do, being able to recognize how and why Scripture is interpreted a certain way is one way in which we can still honor and respect each other, even when we disagree on what is being said in certain passages.
So keep asking those questions. Keep wresting and struggling with what the Bible says in light of our day and age. Don't run away from it, and don't take it completely at face-value. Take it seriously, not literally. Keep going deeper with it, and you might find them opened up to you in ways you never thought possible as you grow deeper in your relationship with Jesus, the living Word of God.