THE BIBLE: HOW TO READ IT
By DAN STIVER
A recent Barna study of Bible appreciation and usage among Americans (here referring to people in the U.S.) is encouraging (https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2018-seven-top-findings/). It indicates that half of all American people use the Bible, many “give a lot of thought” to it, and many find it helps them to be better people.
This is significant in light of reports of growing biblical illiteracy and numerous polls showing younger people leaving the church and many “Done” with the church. Yet Christianity and Bible study still hold fairly steady. The sociologist Philip Jenkins projects in “The Next Christendom” that the proportion of Christians in America through the end of the century is expected to be very high, largely due to immigration (ironically for some), making the U.S. one of the only northern hemisphere countries to be highly Christian through the twenty-first century. That should be encouraging for Christians!
The not so good news is that Bible appreciation and usage does not guarantee solid Christian behavior or beliefs. This is a lesson we learn quickly from the Bible itself. The major opposition to Jesus came from the most biblically literate and zealous. Closer to home, for centuries the most conservative, Bible-loving part of the population supported slavery and then segregation. Conservative evangelicals are the major demographic that supports torture. However complex those views might be, it does give one pause.
In fact, Mark Noll, a major evangelical church historian, in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” has provided overwhelming evidence that before the Civil War, the pro-slavery group won the biblical appeal hands down. In part, this was due to the way they approached the Bible rather than the Bible itself. Their approach to the Bible made it almost impossible for them to deal with the complexities of references to slavery in the Bible. Where this issue comes close to home is that when I’m asked how students now approach the Bible compared to earlier years, I see that same way of interpreting the Bible as being still very much with us. I often ask students how they were raised in the church and the impressions they received, and it is dismaying to me to see that they still share this approach, which was the one also in my background.
I treasure the way my home church turned me towards Jesus and instilled in me a love for the Bible, but they, too, had inherited this approach to Scripture. In this light, it is important to realize that such a way of reading Scripture is not the way the Jews or Christians would have interpreted Scripture for over a millennium. It does not reflect some of the most basic principles of biblical interpretation. One is that it generally does not interpret a passage in light of its context and culture. Second, it does not interpret every passage in light of all of the Bible. Third, it does not interpret a passage in light of the movement of revelation in history, such as from the Old Testament to the New Testament or appreciating the movement within the Old Testament itself from Abraham to Moses to exile and beyond.
This approach ironically arose as a part of modernity or the Enlightenment, especially in the nineteenth century in America (a story well told by another major evangelical historian, George Marsden, “Fundamentalism and American Culture”). This is ironic in that conservatives have often often railed against modernity. The rise, however, of a print culture rather than an oral culture and a more rationalistic approach in general led to seeing the Bible as a kind of “encyclopedia of facts” (a favorable quote from the nineteenth century), a tendency to read everything literally and to be clumsy when it comes to interpreting figurative language (which is the greater part of the Bible when one includes story as figurative), and to see it all as a disconnected, flat Bible where one can dip in anywhere and pull out verses atomistically, all on the same level, with hardly any context.
We have tended to approach the Bible as a technical manual or more like a dictionary of terms without regard to the differences in historical settings and the multitude of different authors with their own style and vocabulary and social setting. We saw the biblical authors as already addressing all questions, such as modern science questions, that were far from their interests or even awareness (some find the Big Bang in Genesis) rather than seeing it as a basis and orientation to deal with ever new issues. We assumed English translations were neutral without much awareness of how the range of connotations and meanings could be quite different in the ancient times.
We thought the Bible in effect was easy to understand as long as one just took enough time. I remember having this dawn on me as a kid and almost reluctantly feeling dejected that there would be little challenge for me in the future. Little did I know! It is striking that 2 Peter already cautions that in Paul’s letters that “there are some things in them hard to understand.” (3:16) To be sure, some things are rather simple—they’re just hard to do! Like forgiving seventy times seven or loving one’s enemies. Still, we miss the richness and challenge of the Bible (and God) by assuming that understanding it involves little study or “training in righteousness.”
To end with good news, when presented with an approach to the Bible in light of the basic principles of interpretation indicated above, they make sense to students, and students take to it with eagerness. My own testimony is that these principles helped the Bible come alive again for me. Here’s hoping that as the Bible continues to be highly regarded, read, and pondered, it will be read well and continue to come alive in ever fresh ways. I love the early English Separatist and Baptist saying in the early years of their new movements in the seventeenth century, reportedly said to the Pilgrims as they set sail for the New World, “The Lord has yet more Light and Truth yet to break forth from His Holy Word.”
Dr. Dan Stiver is the Cook-Derrick Professor of Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University