This begins with the question of how we should read the Bible, not just as a historical set of texts but as something that relates to our life and faith today. Of course, you could argue that we should just take it at face value, but that’s not so easy as it might seem. Biblical interpretation has taken all sorts of twists and turns over the years, depending on what people have felt was important. For some time, the focus has been on historical interpretation, getting back to the time(s) of writing and trying to understand what the texts meant in their original world. This has borne much fruit, but that task is not straightforward and in fact many scholars disagree about many things. This leaves theologians wondering if they’ll have to wait forever for the historians to agree, before they can get on with thinking about what the Bible offers us today. More recently, it’s been recognised that we all bring our own expectations and perspectives when we read scripture, so we naturally all end up taking away different meanings. That might not be such a bad thing, but it can be confusing. It certainly means that we’re unlikely to agree on the meaning if we all just sit down and read it. But what then are we to do? What happens when we disagree? What happens when even the ‘experts’ and historians disagree?
Quite often, we assume that what we need to do is work out the right method for interpretation, but what if there are other ways to think about it? In the world of ethics there are equally many approaches, but comparing different approaches to ethics might help us consider different approaches to reading the Bible. In ethics if you’re trying to think about doing the right thing, you could focus on a method of weighing all the considerations. You could draw on theology, philosophy and so on, and work out a good method for sifting all that so as to work out what to do. But you could alternatively focus on character; rather than coming up with a good method for moral decision making, you could work at becoming a good person, someone whose character was such that they were more naturally disposed to see what was good in each situation. This is traditionally known as virtue ethics, where the main question concerns what kind of people we should try to become. So rather than focusing on what the right thing to do is in a given situation, you focus on working out what characteristics (such as love) you should develop. Of course you can do both, but it’s helpful to lay out some options.
Back to the Bible: what if, instead of focusing on finding the correct method for interpreting scripture, we thought about what kinds of characteristics make for good readers? This might not get us any closer to finding the correct interpretation, but it might reframe the whole point of Bible reading in a way which makes us less anxious about disagreement. Let me explain what I mean.
The idea that we should think about characteristics for reading is not as wacky as it might sound. For example, if I read a news story about a politician with whom I disagree, it’s quite likely that I’ll get so annoyed that I won’t really pay much attention to their point, assuming in advance that they are clearly talking nonsense. But if I can get better at really giving my attention to them, I might be able to appreciate something that I’d have otherwise missed. This is not a science but an art, which is why it’s about cultivating that disposition to listen, rather than applying a method. Some thinkers have described this as reading with love. If love is about caring for the other, about taking time with others to understand them, about abiding with people even when we struggle with them, then reading with love is about all those things too. And for Christians whose calling is summed up by the call to love, reading with love might make a lot of sense. If we can extend love to the author and to the text, we may draw out more than we thought we could. And if we can extend love towards other readers, even those with whom we disagree, our discussion about what a passage means may be much more fruitful, or at least more kind.
Even though I fully subscribe to this idea, there’s still a bit of me that wants to get to the correct interpretation of the Bible. What does it really mean? And if we’re talking about God, then surely we can’t just say that anything goes as far as interpretation is concerned? This has led me to consider another characteristic that might be important for reading the Bible: hope. Could being hopeful help us read the Bible?
To answer that question we’d need to talk about what hope actually is, and that is a huge topic in itself. For now, let’s begin with this: at the end of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that we shall see God ‘face to face’, but for now we see ‘through a glass, darkly’. Roughly, Christian hope is about being called into a relationship with God through Jesus, but we are for now pilgrims. One day that relationship will be made perfect with all of creation, but now we see through a glass darkly, stumbling our way through this present world and asking for God’s help along the road. And that idea alone suggests that all our misunderstandings or disagreements about scripture come about because we are human, frail and often more than a little perplexed. Reading the Bible is tricky because we humans are tricky. And even though we can say that God speaks to us graciously and kindly, including through the Bible, our grasp of that will always be a little shaky because we are humans, redeemed but still on the road to seeing God face to face. So firstly, I think that being hopeful can help put the whole enterprise of Bible reading into perspective. So hope means that we’re never going to free ourselves of the tendency to disagree or be confused, but it is also the thing that helps us keep reading nevertheless.
What else can we say? If we are pilgrims, then hope is the thing that keeps us moving along the road. However dimly we grasp it, it is that vision of restoration, promised by God, which can keep us going. It is humble in knowing its need for guidance, but steadfast in its perseverance. And hope’s anticipation of reconciliation with God shapes one’s vision of the world, one’s perspective, one’s actions and one’s community. But what does all that mean for biblical interpretation?
Let me introduce you to Howard Thurman. Thurman was an African-American thinker who taught Martin King and whose grandmother was a slave who was later freed. He was a significant contributor to the ideas that nurtured parts of the American civil rights movement. He was a theologian and mystic, and in my judgement, a hopeful reader of the Bible. This is most clear to me in his book Jesus and the Disinherited where he considers love, and love for enemies, in the context of racism and slavery. Thurman worked at a time when many thinkers were already rejecting the Bible because of its perceived complicity with slavery, yet Thurman perseveres with the texts, fully aware of his contemporaries’ objections. This fact in itself is a manifestation of hope; he reads in the hope that through the many difficulties he may yet discern something of God. He reads with humility, recognising his own humanity and paying close attention to the many voices of history and scholarship. He does not assume the right to say whatever he wants about the text, but at the same time his Christian hope will not let him simply accept ideas that seem to support slavery and oppression. He thus wrestles with the texts in the hope that God may yet be known. Finally, hope shapes his vision of the world in a way that allows him to see new (though not necessarily novel) possibilities in the Bible. He neither gives up nor gives in to the voices of oppression. Rather, he sees the possibility that love for one’s enemies, even in a time of oppression, may yet preserve one’s humanity and overcome oppression itself. He reads the idea of love for enemies in a way which points beyond the pain of the present to a world promised by God.
This is the briefest of outlines of the idea. I don’t think reading hopefully will make us all agree on the meaning of the Bible, but pursuing hope may help us to work together better to discern God’s word for us. If you want to read more, the link to my thesis is below, though unless you’re really keen I’d probably skip chapter three.