The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. But it’s also probably the most argued-about book of all time as well. It doesn’t take much for a disagreement to start about what a specific passage is describing and how to interpret it. That doesn’t mean that the basic storyline of the Bible is hard to understand – it isn’t. It just means that people bring a lot of assumptions to the Bible, assumptions that influence how they understand different passages or even the whole thing.
Why does this matter? Well, the assumptions and approach we bring to the Bible drastically affects what we take from it. It’s like reading the Bible with different types of glasses that reveal different things. Different approaches have different advantages and disadvantages, and we need to be honest about them. It’s also helpful to understand (especially within Christian circles) where others are coming from, because often we argue and accuse each other of not taking the Bible seriously, which is rather unfortunate and causes a lot of division that is often not really necessary. In some ways, I am writing this post so I can share my approach to Scripture and to ask for honesty and understanding from those who might not share that approach. I hope that in the end you can see some value in some of the other ways to approach Scripture, even if you don’t fully agree with every aspect. As a Christian, some approaches definitely don’t hold much value. But some (more than one) do.
Below are 7 ways to interpret the Bible. It’s not an exhaustive list – there are probably variations on each of those, and maybe categories I haven’t thought of. But it’s a helpful place to start. Where would you fit?
- Hearsay – okay, this isn’t really a way to read the Bible, but it is the approach that many people use. People in this category will usually quote someone else and what they have said about the Bible without actually reading it themselves. Obviously, people in this category don’t take the Bible too seriously, and can be frustrating to deal with when they clearly don’t really know what they’re talking about. Like any of us who try to pretend we know more about something than we really do, right?
- Mythically – People in this category usually treat the Bible as an ancient document that may or may not have some truth in it, but is largely on the same level as any other ancient religious teaching, such as the gods of Rome or Greece. The stories are mostly considered mythical, especially if there is anything supernatural. They may take the Bible “seriously” as an ancient document, but certainly not as the Word of God.
- Casually – many would fall into this category, although for many different reasons. Some believe the Bible has some good teachings, but it’s no more authoritative than any other moral teaching. Others believe the Bible to be the Word of God (they take it seriously), but never really engage with it much. The reasons can be many (too busy, don’t like reading, not disciplined, find it boring), but they often come across as just excuses. It would be fair to ask how “seriously” people in this category take the Bible, but I also don’t want to be unduly harsh to the many who do take the Bible seriously, but don’t read it much.
- Historically-Critically – the people in this category may take the Bible seriously – some of them, anyway. They may even consider it to be the Word of God. But they have a tendency to be very critical and/or skeptical of what it says and to put themselves above the text, trying to judge what is really true and not true. I have in mind here people like the German textual critics who divide the Bible into many different sources, as well as approaches such as the Jesus Seminar. The first group will often take the Bible seriously (and can have some very important and helpful insights), but their tendency to carve up the Bible – and their extensive disagreements on how it should be divided – tend to undercut faith in the Scripture. A group like the Jesus Seminar, who divided the teachings of Jesus into various categories from “accurate” to “completely fabricated” (and only affirmed a few small phrases as actually being from Jesus) come across as arrogant and, to be honest, completely clueless. While I am all for studying the history of the Bible, this group has placed themselves so far above the Scripture that they claim they can know far better than the eyewitnesses what Jesus really said, and they have placed themselves in the position of saying that they are the deciders of truth, not the Bible.
- Literally (or traditionally) – okay, technically, literally should mean that they read the Bible according to the style of literature it is – read the poetry as poetry, parables as parables, history as history, etc. And most in this category do that. But this term has also been extended to mean, to quote a song I heard often growing up, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me.” In other words, whatever the Bible “clearly” says is what they hold to, even though many of the “clear” teachings (particularly on non-core doctrines) are very culturally interpreted. They hold to “traditional” teachings, which are not always as obvious or traditional as they think they are, and which may not be what the original audience would have understood from them. I don’t want to sound too disparaging to this group, because a) I was in it for most of my life, and b) they take the Bible very seriously. In fact, I have known so many deeply godly and wonderful people in this category that I heartily encourage people to take the Bible as seriously as these! However, I have also seen a lot of anger and dogmatism from this group, and a refusal to allow that anyone interpreting a passage differently than them could have a point. For some, the Bible has become their god instead of a means to know God. As well, I have seen a lot of fighting between members of this group who disagree theologically on various topics (pick one – the return of Christ, free-will/predestination, status of women, etc.) and point to their own verses that “clearly” show that they are right, even though others point to verses that “clearly” show that they are wrong! So while there is a lot of good in this group, there is a lot of potential – too often realized – for stubbornness and insistence on being right.
- Historically-Culturally – people in this group view the Bible as a document written by humans under the direction (inspiration) of God. To be fair, many (most?) in these last four categories would agree with that. The difference is that those in this group (who also take the Bible very seriously) place a high value on understanding the influence of culture, history, and our humanity on the text, as well as trying to understand how our own culture and context influences how we read and understand the text. This group tends to raise a lot of questions – how does our understanding of the Ancient Near East culture influence our understanding of the creation account? How did Paul’s cultural reality and upbringing influence his comments and actions regarding the role of women? How do we understand the conquest of the Promised Land and some of God’s commands to kill everyone? They also tend to be a lot less firm on many secondary doctrines, because they see uncertainty in the text. The benefit of this approach is that it digs deep to try to understand the message of what God was really trying to communicate in their culture and context and how we can appropriately convey this message to our current culture and context. The challenge is that it can be easy to move subtly into group 4 that I mentioned above (they are very similar, after all), standing critically over the text, or becoming so skeptical about what is accurate that they end up sliding into a belief that the Bible is not really God’s Word. Another challenge is that of becoming arrogant due to the amount of learning about different topics that is required, and becoming just as dogmatic about secondary topics as those in the literal group. But let’s be honest – arrogance and dogmatism are common traits for anyone in categories 4, 5, and 6. It doesn’t take much for us to think that we’re right and everyone else is wrong!
- The Bible as narrative – The basic idea here is that we should understand the Bible as a story (not meaning fiction, just story) that reveals how God was working in a particular time and place. The focus is less on developing theology and doctrines, and more on relationship and how people listened and related to God in a specific time and from there, how we can listen and relate to God in our time. The concept is used rather broadly and in a variety of different ways. The focus on relationship with God can be very beneficial and can both bring alive our relationship with God and assist us to see how He might relate to us in our present situation. On the other hand, some have used this method to move away from key and traditional church beliefs as well as the original author’s intent. It can use a self-centred approach, ignoring theology and church history and using humanity and our feelings and society as a starting point to make the stories (and God) fit into our beliefs. Most proponents would probably argue that they take the Bible seriously; however, depending on their approach and assumptions the results can be wildly different. I believe that adding an understanding of the Bible as narrative or story can be very helpful, but I don’t think we can ignore 2000 years of theology to do so.
So those are the 7 categories that I see. With that in mind, I want to pull out two key concepts.
First, except for categories 1 and 2, there are people in each category who take the Bible seriously – often very seriously. However, their approach to Scripture varies for different reasons. I would encourage us not to assume that someone holds a low (“not God’s Word”) view of Scripture simply because they don’t approach Scripture the same as us – or hold to all the same interpretations as us.
Second, as someone who gets tired of all the fighting, I would like to ask us all to show tremendous grace to people in other categories. This is especially true for those who find themselves in the last four categories, which is where most of the intense disagreements in the church seem to come from. I find myself presently in category 6, and it can be very frustrating to hear people who view the Bible “literally” say, directly or implicitly, that I don’t take the Bible seriously because I differ in my interpretation of a verse or doctrine. I take the Bible very seriously. And I know you do, too (assuming you’re a Christian). But my serious study of the Bible may lead me to a different conclusion than your serious study of the Bible. It’s okay for us to disagree, assuming that we maintain orthodoxy (if we start to ignore Christ and reject primary beliefs and creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed or the resurrection of Christ, then it’s a whole other issue).
My next post will (hopefully) address the creation account, my interpretation of it, and why it is something that has helped me to continue in my faith rather than losing it. But I felt that it was important to challenge us all to be honest about how we interpret the Bible, and to strive for grace and understanding when others interpret some parts differently.