Wineskins Archive

January 20, 2014

Reading the Bible in an Age of Crisis (Jan – Feb 1994)

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by Darryl Tippens
January – February, 1994

23Let us begin with two remarkable scenes. The first is set in Achaia about A. D. 51. Finding no successful way to silence the Apostle Paul, his frustrated opponents drag the great missionary before Gallio, the Roman magistrate. First, the plaintiffs lay out their accusations. Paul, about to reply, is interrupted by Gallio:

If it had been a question of crime or grave misdemeanor, I should, of course, have given you Jews a patient hearing, but if it is some bickering about words and names and your Jewish law, you may settle the matter yourselves. I do not intend to be a judge of these matters (Acts 18:14-15, Revised English Bible).

Gallio is no fool. He knows these enthusiasts, especially their penchant for theological debate. With serious crimes and grave misdemeanors crowding the court docket, he dismisses the suit.

The second remarkable scene comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest which opens dramatically with a ship about to sink in a violent storm. Two groups of men appear on the deck—the common sailors who work feverishly to keep the ship afloat and a group of aristocratic passengers, including the King of Naples, who badger the deck crew and interfere with its ability to save the ship. When one of the noblemen orders the boatswain to be polite to the aristocratic company, the boatswain replies in so many words, “I’ll be patient and polite when the sea is!” The boatswain asks bluntly: “What care these roarers [winds and waves] for the name of king?” Considering the crisis, the sailor asks in effect, “Why are you quoting Emily Post?”

Today, the air is apocalyptic. Our society feels the growing weight of multiple crises. “Tempest” is a proper metaphor for our very existence. Living in a time of “crimes and grave misdemeanors,” ordinary people have every right to ask us: “Do you spiritually elite have anything to say to us? Do you have a word from God, or do you just quibble about names and words? We need to know because we’re drowning!”

A strange thing has occurred among Christians in the late twentieth century. As the world’s crises mount, as the need for faith grows daily more apparent, even at this moment of grand opportunity Christians find themselves preoccupied with complicated questions of how to interpret the Bible. Ironically, this general preoccupation with method is diminishing our ability to proclaim good news to a lost world. The traditionalists proclaim, “We already have a perfect method, and someone’s trying to wrest it from us.” The avant-garde reply, “We don’t have a perfect method yet, but we’re working on it. Give us time.” Both groups are united by the Enlightenment dream of a perfect method. Their only disagreement concerns whether it has been already realized or not. “Method” possesses them, not the desperate audiences who need the message.

Meanwhile, the ship sinks. Meanwhile the crisis worsens.

I am all for finding a sound method of Bible reading. As an academic I care about complicated hermeneutical issues. I care about the modern crisis in meaning afflicting all branches of learning today including philosophy, anthropology, psychology, the sciences, literature, and theology. But as a Christian I am troubled by the unspoken assumption that we could solve our spiritual problems if we could just agree on a method of reading.

I have to ask, even if a golden age of hermeneutic consensus were to descend on us, would the tempest go away? And until consensus arrives, what are we to do in the meantime?

I believe that we must proclaim the good news to a crisis-ridden world now, and that we can do it quite well even without a settled method of interpretation. We are much like physicians who can enjoy the luxury of debating medical theory in their journals, but who also have to lay the journals aside in order to help real patients afflicted with real illnesses. Christians must do the same.

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). There is little dispute about this text and many others like it that the world desperately needs to hear. The essentials are clear and easy to articulate.

Since we want to be sure that our message is life-giving bread, not a stone or a snake, how can we be confident of our message? Let me suggest six broad tests for good interpretations of the Bible in an age of crisis. Although these tests will not necessarily help us settle the particular issues that currently enamor us, they can help us to decide what is most important, and they may help us to know what will earn a “patient hearing” (in Gallio’s terms) among those caught in the tempest:

First, good readings begin with a solid understanding of the Bible in its original languages and historical setting. Since the medium of Scripture is language (there’s no way around this fact), it stands to reason that those proficient in biblical languages can generally give us better readings. Just as a good physician knows his physiology, so a good reader knows his grammar and lexicons, “the bone structure and nervous system of language,” as George Steiner puts it. Yet linguistic and historical proficiency alone never guarantee truth. If it did, the world’s seminaries would be bastions of biblically-centered believers, and Bible scholars long ago would have settled the big disputes for us. Yet nothing is more obvious than the endless, irresolvable arguments that consume the attention of the world’s Bible scholars. Good scholarship gives us only probabilities, not certainty. Something more is required for a good reading.

Second, good readings rely on the full canon of Scripture. Good readers are aware of the human inclination to reduce the canon, and so they try to be receptive to all God’s word. A friend told me that he once examined his father’s well-worn Bible. He noticed that the gold edges between Romans and Philemon were worn away, but the pages of the Gospels were still mostly untouched and shiny. Perhaps never realizing it, this reader had narrowed the canon to the Pauline epistles. For centuries, Christians with a Puritan bent have privileged a few texts from Paul over the Gospels. Shouldn’t we ask why?

The next time you listen to an interpreter, don’t just hear what’s included; notice also what’s excluded. You may discover glaring omissions—the life of Jesus, the Psalms, Job, Isaiah, or the prophets. Good readers understand that certain elements of Scripture are central and privileged (the story of Jesus, for example). However, understanding the danger of shrinking the canon, they do their best to resist it.

Third, good readings occur in the light of the community’s collective wisdom. Good interpretations are best achieved in community. They gain power and plausibility from the collective perception of the saints, living and dead. One church father observed: “While there were many things in the sacred word that I could not come to understand by myself, I could often grasp their sense when I was in the presence of the brothers.” When I was young, I noticed that my fellow believers cared deeply what older Christians thought. It mattered what Brother Ayers or Sister Wilks thought. We weren’t bound by their opinions, but we were respectful of them. Listening to the wisdom of the past—Steiner calls it “counting heads and counting years”—is intelligent. As G. K. Chesterton put it: “Tradition is democracy of the dead, extending a vote to our ancestors, refusing to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.”

Tradition is a dirty word for many, but it shouldn’t be. Though fallible, historic readings of the Bible provide balance, perspective, and sheer insight. Without them, we are cut off from the collective wisdom of the world’s greatest Bible readers.

Fourth, good readings emerge from the spiritual life of the interpreter. As we listen to the interpretation, it is appropriate to examine the spiritual life of the interpreter. If he or she claims to wield the sword of the Spirit, but you can’t find the fruit of the Spirit (love, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, etc.) in this person’s life, something is very wrong.

Ancient Christians didn’t just listen to words; they examined the prophets who spoke the words. Interpreters were not expected to be perfect, but they were expected to conduct their lives in a certain way—honestly, confessionally, and humbly. Hence Paul tells his readers: examine my life, see what I do (Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6, etc.). Paul believed a true Christian interpreter emptied himself daily and identified closely with the life of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:10-11). The life of Jesus and the life of the interpreter should be a seamless robe and a single narrative.

There’s a corollary to this test: Good readings not only come from good interpreters; good readings are completed by good listeners to the interpretation. There is no interpretation unless there is open-minded, open-hearted audition. Before we agree or disagree with a reading, we must practice self-reflection. What in me makes me able to hear or not to hear? How might my own brokenness, my own tendencies to jealousy and pride, lead me to distort what has been said? What might cause me to accept blindly or to attack unfeelingly the words of a fellow interpreter?

Good reading and listening demand, above all, a deep humility. Proud men and women, Scripture tells us, are deaf to the Word of God. Only in confession and humility, only when we conquer our smug assumption that we already know what God is saying can we truly hear God: “Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18).

There is no hearing without a deep respect for Scripture’s transcendent “otherness.” The Word stands above us and beyond us. It is not something we master or totally penetrate. To think otherwise is to make an idol of one’s interpretive prowess. We freely confess that our particular reading of God’s word is never identical to the whole counsel of God. We see something in the Bible; we do not see everything. We recognize one pattern in the carpet, but we know that the pattern is not the carpet. We are constantly humbled by Oliver Cromwell’s exhortation to the Scottish assembly of preachers. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

Fifth, we look for the Jesus story. The New Testament writers proclaim that Jesus is the model, the test case, the exemplar of faith. If you would please God, you must think and live like him. This central New Testament premise must guide our interpretation: “A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher” (Luke 6:40). While we honor the diverse portraits of Jesus in the Gospels, with Paul, Peter, and John we personally submit our lives to the powerful paradigm of Christ’s Passion which we have been called to imitate.

Whenever Paul wanted to get something straight, especially relationships in the church, he cited the example of Jesus. Quit pleasing yourself, he would say; build up your neighbor, “for Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:3). “Let the same mind be in you which was in Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 2:5). John and Peter agree: “As he is, so are we in the world”; “you should follow in his steps” 1 John 4:17; 1 Peter 2:21).

The goal of a good reading of the Bible is never information for its own sake but for conformity to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).

Sixth, we consider the practical effects of the interpretation. All interpretations have consequences. Before we fully accept a reading, we have every right to inspect it for its “fruitfulness.” Does it lead to love of God and love of fellow creatures? Does it promote faith, hope, and charity? If not, approach with caution.

A good reading is not always pleasing, but it does bring hope to sincere seekers. John 6 illustrates how the Word of God can cut two ways at once. After Jesus explains that his flesh is the bread of heaven which must be eaten if the disciples would be saved, many turn away in disgust, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they ask. Jesus then turns to the Twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:60). Peter gives the forlorn reply of one who knows what it is like to sink in the tempest, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:63). When the Word is spoken, the comfortable are afflicted, and the afflicted are comforted.

Do you want a litmus test for a good reading? It is one we can take to the streets. A good reading makes sense to people living in darkness. Ask: How will it sound in the cancer ward or the AIDS hospice? How will it resonate in the ears of a grieving mother who has lost her son to drugs? How will it play in the streets of Sarajevo or Mogadishu?

While people sink into the deep, we tidy up the life vests and swab the deck. While people starve, we debate the nutritional content of the bread. We must reorder our priorities. We don’’ have an information problem or a methodological problem. We have a heart problem. The question is not, “Where can we get a good method that will guarantee our message?”” But “Why are we not telling people that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners?””

I don’t know who you spend your time with, but most of the people around me are like Gallio or Shakespeare’s mariners. They live in crisis. They’re not sure they’re going to make it. The tempest rages, and they’re grasping for something solid. They want to know: Do we have a word from God for them? Will it make a difference? The answer is, yes, yes. And we do not need to wait for any method to tell us what to say.Wineskins Magazine

Darryl Tippens

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