How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.

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