1. How can we read and interpret the Bible?
2. How was it put together? What translation is used in the UMC?
3. Is it a roadmap, blueprint, GPS?
4. How do you decide what is right when the Bible is vague or churches take opposing views?
Hebrews 4:12: Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
2 Timothy 3:16-17: 16 All scripture is inspired by God and isuseful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
How many of you grew up singing the song, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me!” Well, I didn’t, but I sure caught on quick the first time I helped kids learn it during Vacation Bible School one year…and it was stuck in my head for the rest of the week! The Bible- most of us have read some of it or grew up hearing stories from it, and I’m hoping that all of us have been comforted by its verses at some point in our lives. I know that many of us find it a mystery and are challenged or even confused by the Bible. The Bible has unfortunately been used as a weapon against groups of people. It has been used to spark debates about how we are to live our lives, what should be taught in schools, and what kinds of choices people should be making. I’d venture to say that in many ways, it has done more harm than good.
But what is it about the Bible that makes it so central to our faith, and yet is the most controversial and most read book in the world? The Bible is considered to be the word of God in many Christian circles. The texts are believed to have been divinely inspired, written down by people over the centuries who had an experience of God and wanted to share the stories of how God was acting in the world. One of my colleagues always began his lesson about the Bible with confirmation students with this line: “The Bible is a book written by the people of God, about the people of God, for the people of God.” This may or may not be the typical explanation you have heard about the Bible. I like this simple statement because it gives us a lot of information- the Bible is written BY the people of God- this is key. The Bible never claims to have been written by God itself. The Bible is a collection of documents written by humans- not just that, but written by humans in a particular place, time, and context. Their stories and experiences of God happened at a time that was much different than the time we live in now. This is important to remember. Second, the Bible was written about the people of God- the people of God struggle, they make mistakes, they call out to God, they ask for forgiveness- the writings are meant to give us an idea of the history of God’s people that we might learn from them. And finally, the Bible was written FOR the people of God. Not just for those who were people of God thousands of years ago, but even for us today- the stories, the texts, the poetry- all still have meaning in our lives today. The words on the page stay the same, but they take on new meaning for us as we study and seek understanding in how the Bible still speaks to us today.
But before we get into how we might read and interpret the Bible, let’s talk briefly about how it was put together. How was the Bible put together? Through a very long and complex process! First, we should note that the Bible is really not just one book- it is really a collection of 66 books (39 Old Testament, 27 New Testament) written by many people over thousands of years. It contains history, biography, geography, and poetry, short stories, songs, and letters. Over the hundreds of years that the books of the Bible were written, there were also many other texts being written. The early church leaders felt they were guided by the Holy Spirit to select the writings that would be a part of our biblical canon as we know it today (“canon” comes from a Greek word meaning “rule” or “measuring stick”). Our Bible today also came from series of meetings and councils over the years who decided what would make the list. The writings today were also the ones most widely used for worship and study. (This is a VERY brief summary!)
Summary of Canonization of the Bible (source: http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/1994/issue43/4322.html)
*c. 1400-400 BC- Books of Old Testament written
*c. 250-200 BC- Septuagint- popular Greek translation of OT produced
*AD 45-100 (?)- Books of Greek NT written
*90-118- Councils of Jamnia affirm 39 OT writings
*140-150- Marcion’s heretical “New Testament” incites orthodox Christians to est. a NT canon
*305-310- Lucian of Antioch’s Greek NT text becomes foundation for later bibles
*367- Athanasius’ Festal Letter lists complete NT canon for first time (27 books)
*397- Council of Carthage est. orthodox NT canon
*400- Jerome translates Bible into Latin- becomes standard for medieval church (eventually into English KJV)
The King James Version was the main version of the English Bible for 250 years. In the last 100 years, knowledge from newly discovered manuscripts, archaeological discoveries, and recent scholarship began to lead to new English translations, beginning with the first “Revised Version,” published in England in 1881. Today, we have many translations of the Bible. A popular version used in the United Methodist Church is the New Revised Standard Version- this is mainly because of its readability and its gender neutral language. It is a translation that is most up to date archaeologically due to its publishing after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran. The NRSV was also a project of the National Council of Churches, in which the United Methodist Church plays an important role. It’s also the translation most commonly used with scholars and United Methodist institutions of higher learning.
So now that we know a little about how the Bible was put together, we will explore how we can go about interpreting it for ourselves. There is a common debate among Christians and Christian denominations about how the Bible should be read- should it be read literally? It is divinely inspired? It is perfect, inerrant, and accurate? People usually hold on of three positions about biblical inspiration: it is either all human, all divine, or both human and divine (source: What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian? Thielen). The all human position believes that the Bible is inspired, but no more than any other great work of literature. For people of faith, this is not a good option because most of us do believe that the Bible is in some way divinely inspired, and “the word of God for the people of God. We turn to the Bible for study of God and God’s people, for theology, for guidance on how we should live our lives. Therefore, the Bible must be more than simply an inspired piece of literature.
The second position, that the Bible is “all divine,” holds that everything in the Bible is literal, actual truth. This is the view held by many fundamentalist churches. It’s important to note that biblical inerrancy is not the historic position, but is quite new in the history of Christianity. Its first appearance was around 1900 in reaction to discoveries of modern science, theories of evolution, and new biblical scholarship. Some felt threatened by these new theories and developed the idea that the Bible is “inerrant and infallible” so that it could not be questioned by science or scholarship. Unfortunately, this view is quite problematic and causes a lot of harm in our world today. Just to give you some examples, if the Bible is to be taken literally, then “the earth is flat, creation took place 6,000 years ago, slavery is approved by God, women are the property of men, polygamy is approved by God, God throws raging, jealous fits, killing thousands in the process, eating shellfish is an abomination to God, wearing blended garments enrages God, menstruating women and handicapped men are not allowed in worship, God approves of genocide and commanded people to practice it, women are to be silent in church and to wear veils, the penalty for working on the Sabbath is death, and sassy teenagers are to be executed” (Thielen, 46).
The Bible also has many inconsistencies- just look at the Gospels in the New Testament- they are filled with different stories, some conflicting, about Jesus. Why? Because the stories were written by different people, some many many years after the events occurred. Each person has their own rendition of how, why, or when something happened, and that’s what we have in front of us today. When it comes to the gospels especially, I like to think of each one as a different picture of Jesus- a new opportunity to get an idea of what he was like. If we worry ourselves over the inconsistencies too much, then we miss the point of reading scripture entirely. It’s not about whether or not it is a literal account or matches up exactly like we think it should- it’s about what we take away from it, how the text has challenged us, and what we can learn from it. The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but never claims to be inerrant (Thielen). In fact, belief in biblical inerrancy only does damage to the Christian faith because while it does still speak to us today in many ways, it neglects to acknowledge that the Bible was written for a particular people during a particular time for a particular reason. Biblical inerrancy leads to the classic problem of picking and choosing texts out of context to push our closed minded agendas. That is no way to read or use scripture.
Just because Christians should not take the Bible literally, does not mean that the Bible is not true. The Bible holds many truths, such as God’s love for creation, God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy to the world, God’s presence and action throughout human history, the frailties of the human condition and our need for restoration and redemption. We can easily believe in those truths without believing that the world was only created in 6 days or that the world is flat, or that Noah actually squeezed every animal onto a boat, or that animals talk to people.
And finally, the classic position of the church holds that the Bible is both human and divine, meaning that the Bible was inspired by God. Going back to the text from this morning, this view is line with the idea that is “inspired by God, useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). This view also holds that the Bible is a human document- that people, not God, wrote the Bible, and that people wrote it according to their worldview of the time. The Bible is a human document, inspired by the human experience of God that still speaks to us today in our world. In this way, it is seen as both human and divine.
So how do we see the Bible? Is it a road map? A blueprint? A GPS? I suppose it could be all of those things. Most importantly, it is a collection of writings that point us to God. It is not something to be worshiped in itself- the Bible is not God itself, but points us to God and bears witness to God. That is why the Bible is so central to our faith.
And finally, how do we know what interpretation is right in the Bible when people and churches are arguing about it all the time? I will answer this with a story. When I was just beginning my journey of discerning what I believed about Christianity when I was in high school, I honestly did not know much about the Bible. I had always just heard, “Well, the BIBLE says…” and that was the end of the conversation. But when I started attending a church early on that did not allow women to approach the pulpit/chancel area to even make an announcement, I knew something was off. When I went on a mission trip with the youth group from that church and stayed up all night with a group of girls who were crying because they were told that they could never be leaders in their church or equal partners in their marriages because “that’s what the Bible says,” I knew something was off. So I set off to educate myself about the Bible. Yes, there are passages that say that women should remain silent in church. But there are also examples of Paul sending out women to be church leaders and to preach- think of Junia and Lydia. There are women who lead and preach throughout the Bible, such as Deborah, Esther, Miriam. God chose a woman to bear the Son of God, and women supported Jesus throughout his ministry and he empowered them to preach the gospel and to serve. And may we never forget that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
People tend to forget that words in the text that demean women were written at a time when women were basically seen as property of men. I’d like to think our society has come a long way in this realm of thinking about roles of men and women. If we did some things or thought a certain way or treated people just based on “well, that’s just what the Bible says,” than I think we would be in a lot of trouble. The words on the page may not change, but our world is constantly changing, and God changes with us, guiding us through wisdom, grace, reason, and experience. Once I understood that God is much bigger than the Bible itself- once I understood the texts in their original contexts, times, and cultures, a whole new world opened up for me- a freeing world, where the scriptures are important, yes, but the way in which we read them in light of our experiences of God and the world today allow us to really appreciate the Bible even more. So how do we know what is right in the Bible when people or other churches take opposing views? I can’t answer that question for certain, but I believe that when the Bible is life giving, when it is encouraging, when it is challenging, when we grow from reading it, that is when it is right. It is not right when it is used as a weapon to spread hate, intolerance, or does harm.
As people of faith, we should take the Bible very seriously, but not literally. We should educate ourselves enough to be able to interpret and understand it both in light of the world in which it was written and our world today. If I had stayed in the church that forbade women from leading just based on “because the Bible says so,” I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today. So I challenge you to open your Bible on a regular basis and just start reading. See what stories speak to you. See what passages challenge you. Join a study, talk to a friend, talk to me, do some research, dive into “the word of God for the people of God” unafraid. Know that is okay to feel overwhelmed by it- many people do. Remember that our United Methodist heritage gives us ideas on how to read scripture- that we use our reason (our rational brains and problem solving), our traditions (what has history taught us?) and our life experiences (our stories, our worldviews, our lenses) whenever we open our Bibles. We all bring our own understanding to the table- but let the words speak to you first and see where they take you. After a while, you will find that those same words will take on a new meaning years from now- that’s the mystery and God’s hand in scripture- that it constantly holds meaning throughout our lives- if we only let it. Go forth and let the Bible speak to you, each in our own way!