My good friend and former roommate Keith Otto has a post with the above title on his blog. (I should point out for clarification that biblical studies is not Keith’s field, but language acquisition is, plus he is one of the smartest people I know.) Keith hits most of the main points that I think are relevant in assessing how we understand what we read. He has 7 possible scenarios that I will let you read for yourself and I don’t want to steal his post but his conclusions are a good reminder to those of us “in the trade” as well as all those who read the Bible for faithful reasons as well.
For us mere mortals, we appear to be left with incomplete understanding, and no certainty about how accurate we actually are when interpreting a given passage. And this uncertainty, this ambiguity is very threatening to some.
Interestingly, this is our condition even if we hold to the most extreme doctrines of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility. Every word may be the exact and perfect one, and perfectly true and authoritative, but this doesn’t mean that we understand fully or that we all have the same understanding. Confidence in the Bible is different than confidence in my ability to fully grasp the thoughts of God after carefully reading it once–or a hundred times.
I love and believe the Bible. My argument here is not that the Bible is irrelevant or that we read it without hope of understanding. Rather, I see the need for patience and care when reading, for diligence to learn more about the language and context, for prayer that the Holy Spirit would aid in the understanding, and for humility when interpreting or when disagreeing with somebody’s interpretation.
It is the middle paragraph above that I wanted to highlight. KO is absolutely right to point out this significant problem for those who hold to extreme views of infallibility and inerrancy. Even if one holds that each and every word as we have received it is without error and perfect we the interpreters are not (this is a doctrine that I believe all those who hold to inerrancy would also accept) so the understanding and application of Scripture will thus always be significantly compromised, or at least problematized.
This, by the way, is one of the more compelling arguments brought forward by the last set of Mormon missionaries with whom I engaged. “How do you properly understand the Bible if you do not have a living prophet to help you interpret it,” they asked. Good question and well worth pondering.
One thought on ““How we read the Bible””
It is a good question. Protestant Christians would of course quickly cite a variety of “helps” primarily the role of the Holy Spirit yes? (When researching a paper on early Baptist confessions of faith and what they say about Scripture I was… surprised? by how much they mentioned the role of the Holy Spirit right next to their statements on the authority/reliability/primacy of Scripture.) Along with good translations common sense certain hermeneutical principles and so on. Catholic Christians would quickly cite – or so this former-now-outsider would guess – the role of the Holy Spirit working in and through the leadership of the Church especially and primarily the Bishop of Rome. Orthodox Christians also would not be dismayed by the question but would cite the role of the Holy Spirit in and through the entire Church (although they would also be quick to argue that Scripture and Tradition are not separate but rather two sides of the same divine revelation).
I think (responding to our fine LDS friends) the problem is not so much we lack such “helps” as a living prophet (which only shifts the problem onto a different human being yes?) as we are unaware of the helps we may and do already have.
That having been said… I am becoming increasingly less satisfied with the Protestant answer. An army of living prophets? Ah well.
Thanks for the post and good to hear from Keith.