Imagine that you have joined a book club that meets weekly. For the first month, readings are drawn and discussions based on Shakespeare’s first folio of Macbeth published in 1623. The next month, readings are shared from the first edition of ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ published in London by John W. Parker and Son (1858) with discussion following. In month three attention shifts to Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” published between 1776 – 1781.
Since the authors of these works are dead, the book club is not able to interview any of them. Yet it would be fair to expect that greater latitude of meaning might be given to a work of fiction than to a representation of scientific facts or historic events.
How we read a book and how we think or ought to think about it, depends on the kind of book that it is. The events recorded in a book of history are capable of verification and/or falsification as additional historic findings come to light. The same is true in the field of science and medicine. The value of each depends upon their correspondence to what actually is or what once was. Historical misinformation is unfair to the people who once lived and misleads those who now do. Untruths about medical matters may lead to misguided diagnoses and treatments. No one should ever argue that facts don’t count.
Perhaps only Shakespeare cares what we think about Macbeth, but the Bible assures us that what we think about Jesus makes a great deal of difference to God. We ought never treat the Bible as a book of fiction. It should be read and understood in much the same way that we handle accounts of factual reality. That ought to be true, even if we were just members of a book club doing justice to what we read.
But imagine for a moment that the church has been turned into a book club. Imagine that this club meets weekly to read a passage from the Bible. Imagine that this club meets for several months just to read and reread the same passage. Imagine that the ‘teacher’ does not teach. Imagine that each reader simply shares what the passage means or says to them. Imagine no evaluation of any reader response, however nonsensical, illogical, or self-contradictory. For in this book club, the same passage can have as many meanings as there are members and maybe even more. It can change it’s meaning from week to week, even for the person to whom it ‘said’ something else last week. It can even mean one thing this week and the exact opposite (a contrary thing) the next. A single passage can in fact have no end of meanings …or as one person enigmatically put it ‘it can mean all that it means’. In this book club, meaning is constructed through the reading experience rather than discovered. There are no ‘wrong readings’ or ‘misinterpretations’ and it is pretty much forbidden to suggest that anyone else is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The reader’s perceptions rule.
Some congregations – urged on by their leaders – are reading the Bible in the same way that a book club might treat a work of fiction. This elevates the experiences and thoughts of the readers above those of the author, replacing objective meaning with subjective response. It is an exercise in eisegesis instead of exegesis in which the reader’s ideas are projected onto the Biblical text, instead of seeking what the text is actually saying. This ‘method of reading’ gets the order exactly wrong.
I can think of several beliefs and motivations for doing so, including:
1. An unwillingness to be constrained by or limited to what the author has actually said. It prefers one’s own thoughts to those preserved in scripture and puts words into the mouths of the prophets that are not their own . This flows from the sometimes unexpressed belief that the scriptures must continue to ‘speak a new word’ into the lives of Christians. The assumption is that a new word is what is called for or promised by scripture, instead of a true word.
The faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3) cannot by definition remain always new or continue to say new things. It is always the word of God and to the degree that men and women do not know it, it will in fact be new to them when it is first understood. God’s final revelation through his Son as recorded in the New Testament is indeed ‘once for all’, but there is no promise that it will be ‘always new’. Both of these cannot coexist at the same time.
2. The conviction that the Bible is an infinite storehouse of truth. It is not. It is finite in length and limited to what it says both objectively and propositionally. The things that it reveals about infinite persons and things do not make the word itself infinite. It is not exhaustive, yet true. And because it is true, it is sufficient for the purposes for which God gave it.
As the apostle Peter put it: …”for His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (2nd Pet 1;3)
3. That while inspired writing is no longer happening, divine revelation is ongoing.
The catholic church claims apostolic authority and ongoing revelation. They recognize no fixed body of truth and refuse to be limited to the Bible, since the church is ‘the mother of scripture’. God is adding to scripture through the church and ongoing revelation.
On the other hand, some who do accept a ‘closed canon’, still think that ongoing revelation is effectively adding to that canon. Instead of claiming that new scripture is being written, it holds that new ‘readings’ or ‘understandings’ of the word bring forth new meaning that is as relevant today as the original meaning was for it’s day. Rather than arguing for the legitimacy of these ideas, this new set of expectations is promoted by a ‘mystical’ reading of the Biblical text known as lectio divina (which is traced back to a catholic monk named Benedict of Nursia in the 6th century). Once people in the church get used to this new/old/new approach, then anything goes. It is a ‘back door’ by which a new practice leads to new doctrines. Church practice and individual experiences take the place of God’s word and yet are represented as God’s word.
Now we readily admit that the scriptures encourage us to read them and to meditate upon them. But we cannot skip the step of ‘handling the scriptures in the right way’ (2nd Tim 2:15) as we seek to uncover their meaning. Meditation begins after truth has been uncovered. It is not so much a method of interpretation as a step in our assimilation and practice of God’s truth.
We cannot escape rigours of responsible interpretation nor the demands placed upon us by knowable truth. In the end, creative readings reveal nothing more than what we ourselves think and result in seeing ourselves in the mirror instead of seeing God.
4. A desire to update the meaning of the Biblical text to more closely parallel the views of ‘denominational Christianity’ and/or those found in contemporary culture.
This approach guarantees that each generation will be embarrassed by the outdated views of the previous ones. Biblical hermeneutics that are forever trying to catch up with the flavour of the month, self destruct from their built-in obsolescence.
It is hard to be ‘out of step’ to the degree that the scriptures have always been counter-cultural. There is a subtle pressure upon congregations and their leaders to ‘come in out of the cold’…to be both in the world and of the world. The differences between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the pagan world of the first century remain. The ‘new atheism’, 21st century materialism, ecumenical polytheism and evolutionary pantheism are as old as they are new. And the differences between N.T. Christianity and versions of it found within ‘Christian Denominationalism’ are no less evident. Efforts to overcome these differences by introducing a novel way of ‘reading’ the Bible cannot succeed. Unity at the expense of truth is not worth having. It puts the church at cross-purposes with God and denies the truth revealed within scripture that is able to save our souls.
Philo of Alexandria (20 BC – AD 40) attempted a kind of ‘unity’ between Judaism and the Greek philosophy. He wanted to say that these two were in agreement and resorted to an ‘allegorical’ form of interpretation of scripture to reconcile the differences. The Biblical text did not way what he wanted it to say, so he resorted to a different kind of interpretation to bend it to his purposes.
Some express this as an effort to ‘make‘ the scriptures relevant, but fail to understand that relevance is not a quality that we assign to scripture. It is a quality of scripture that is there to be discovered. As the full and final word of God it is objectively relevant and actively so in every generation.
So, what happended?
How have practices and convictions such as these made their way into congregations of the Lord’s church in Canada? It seems like a matter of demand and supply.
The very thing that the apostle Paul warned Timothy of has come to pass:
“I solemnly exhort you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, and they will turn their ears away from the truth and will turn aside to myths (II Tim 4:1-4)
A ‘new hermeneutic’ along with new doctrines and practices has been introduced by leaders schooled in ‘Progressive Christianity’ and ‘Post Critical Theology’. To put it simply, the new norm in some of our Christian schools is to see the bible as a collections of symbols and myths whose ‘spiritual’ meaning cannot be arrived at through everyday thought forms.
I first became aware of this movement about 20 years ago when attending a Bible scholars conference at one of our American schools. When discussing a miracle of Jesus recorded in the gospels, one of the speakers made a statement to the effect that: “I don’t know if that actually happened, but it is true”. He had separated ‘historical fact’ from ‘religious truth’ and wanted us to believe that the ‘spiritual value’ of the Bible did not depend upon it’s factuality. His view was that the message of the Bible transcends facts and survives even if the story that it tells is pure fiction. If this is so, then one must read the Bible for it’s hidden or ‘spiritual’ meaning…the more inarticulate and incomprehensible, the better. Apparent facts or purported events in the Bible are only symbolic and never explanatory.
If that is true, then it is an exercise in futility to engage in Christian apologetics. Prophecy as foretelling along with fulfillment, prove nothing. Archaeological finds, shed no light. Factuality and historicity count for nothing, even when the scriptures claim to be both.
The scriptures strongly disagree with this view. The apostle Paul was fully aware of the consequences of denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus (1st Cor 15:12-19)
The Bible does not recognize different orders of truth nor does it encourage a departure from logical thinking. Furthermore, there is no evidence in scripture, that the Holy Spirit guarantees a right or correct interpretation for Christians today any more than He did when members of the church distorted and abused it in the first century.
The apostle Peter warns in 2nd Peter 3:14-16
“Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found spotless and blameless by Him, at peace, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which there are some things that are hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
Consider the case of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. That congregation was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and it’s member had received ‘spiritual gifts’. Yet they frequently misinterpreted what Paul had taught and had written to them.
In 1st Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul referenced his former letter, saying:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people; I did not at all mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the greedy and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to leave the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is a sexually immoral person, or a greedy person, or an idolater, or is verbally abusive, or habitually drunk, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a person. For what business of mine is it to judge outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the evil person from among yourselves. (1st Cor 5:9-13)
The church at Corinth had clearly misunderstood and was misrepresenting what Paul had said. This was unacceptable to Paul and presumably to the Spirit of God who prompted a response and guided Paul’s explanations. They had chosen to allow a sexually immoral man to remain within their fellowship. Those who argued in favour of it, knew that Paul had forbidden such. To make their case, they tried to reduce what Paul had said, into an absurdity. They would have had to ‘leave the world’ to disassociate themselves from all sinful people. They ignored the fact that Paul’s instructions applied only to their treatment of members of the Lord’s church and not to society in general.
The point that we must recognize is, that the scriptures themselves identify and condemn all forms of Biblical interpretation that misrepresent what the author actually said. Valid Biblical interpretation must make every effort to discern what the author said and not simply read one’s own preferences into the text.
It follows, that any ‘method’ of ‘reading’ the Bible that is not focused on this, is guaranteed to misrepresent and misunderstand, leading quite often to the further folly of practising the very thing that the text forbids.
The church at Corinth was guilty of many such ‘misunderstandings’.
- They were divided and at war with each other, instead of uniting around their common salvation in Christ. They followed men instead of Christ. (Ch. 1-4)
- They were proud of how tolerant they were, permitting immoral conduct by one of their members (1st Cor 5)
- They took one another to court, instead of solving differences internally or simply forgiving each other. (1st Cor. 6)
- They taught things about marriage and sexuality that Paul had to correct (1st Cor 7)
- They ate meat offered to idols, without considering the danger of being drawn back into idolatry and taking their ‘weaker’ brethren with them. (1st Cor 8 – 11)
- They rejected the headship that God had given to men along with it’s implications for the home and for worship (1st Cor 11:2-16)
- They abused the Lord’s Supper, ignoring what Paul had written about its meaning and purpose, using it to widen the divisions that already existed. (1st Cor 11:17-34)
- They elevated certain miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirits above others, ignoring the value of each to the functioning of the church. (1st Cor 12)
- When they assembled for worship, (Chapter 14) the problems addressed in chapters 11 and 12 persisted.
- Tongue speaking without an interpreter was unintelligible. They elevated the unintelligible over speech that could be understood.
- Speakers were unwilling to ‘yield the floor’ to each other’, resulting in chaos and confusion.
- Women spoke out in the assembly, something forbidden by God and out of step with the otherwise uniform practice of the church everywhere. Paul reaffirms this prohibition and points out that the church at Corinth is not an authority unto itself.
- Elders had no authority to permit what God had forbidden.
- Nor did ‘congregational autonomy’ empower freedom in matters of ‘faith’ and ‘practice’.
A further misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings led some to assert that Jesus had not actually risen bodily from the grave. So Paul pointed out the centrality of Christ’s resurrection to everything else both affirmed and promised by God (Chapter 15). Paul explained the implications of saying that Jesus stayed in the grave. If that was true, then faith in Jesus cannot save, nor will we be raised to eternal life through Him.
It becomes even more clear in 2nd Corinthians, that false teacher’s had been responsible for many of the ‘readings’ that misrepresented what Paul and the other apostles actually taught. At the same time, those who were being misled were not excused from the responsibility of dealing with those false teachers. So Paul urges the church at Corinth to reject false teaching and to implore those who so taught, to repent and to come back to God. This is the force of the message in 2nd Corinthians.
It is obvious then that as a ‘method’ a ‘book-club reading’ of the Biblical text is flawed. It accepts all understandings as equally correct and must live with outright contradiction. This can never lead to unity in doctrine and practice nor can it result in genuine insight into the word of God. It treats the Biblical text with a level of disrespect that not even those who advocate it would permit if this method was applied to their own writings. It would appear that the author’s intentions do not matter when God speaks to men, but only when men speak about God.