“All scripture is . . . profitable for teaching,” according to Paul’s second letter to Timothy.
The apostle tells the young bishop that the scripture is useful for correction and preparation in righteousness and good works (3.15-17). But how? When we look to the story of Jacob, for instance, are we to walk away with the belief that cheating one’s family, sorcery, and polygamy are acceptable behaviors?
Just because something occurs in the scripture does not make it scriptural — not in the sense that it’s prescriptive. So how do we know how to read such passages? How do we know what we’re supposed to walk away with?
The debt of knowledge
Following Paul’s example is helpful. He sees the Old Testament in large part as a witness to Christ and uses it to validate and explain the church’s experience of the savior. For instance, he allegorizes the story of Hagar and Sarah to make it about Israel and the church. Who is fruitful? Who brings forth Christ? For Paul that’s what the story is about.
But let’s be honest now: An unvarnished reading of the text doesn’t get us to Israel and the church. We are never going to come up with that interpretation without Paul providing it for us. That is to say, we are indebted to Paul for this understanding.
Our debt extends much further. There is an entire body of such interpretive knowledge within the bosom of the church. The Bible, after all, is a collection of “the Church’s holy books,” as Augustine called them in the Confessions. The Bible did not produce the church; the church produced the Bible. Without its direction and instruction we arrive at interpretations which are, in Augustine’s word, “ridiculous” (6.11).
Increasing our flocks by means of magic would be one such ridiculous reading. But because of the church’s teaching, we overlook Jacob’s faults; we don’t adopt them.
It’s the same with polygamy. There’s little to nothing in a plain reading of scripture that would bar a person from polygamy. Unsurprisingly, then, an untutored and self-serving reading is how Joseph Smith came to not only approve but insist upon polygamy. But Smith could never have landed there if he were reading the scripture with the church.
To be schooled by the church is to see that monogamy is the proper way. The fact that Old Testament patriarchs and kings had multiple wives does not mean that it is acceptable for the Christian — indeed, it was unacceptable for the patriarchs and kings. But again, we overlook faults; we don’t adopt them.
Directed by the church
What we overlook and what we adopt is given to us by the church. We’re not meant to determine such things alone. The list of people who have gone off the deep end by trying to do so is equally as long as it is tragic.
Something isn’t true because the church has always said so. Something is true and therefore the church has always said so. It confirms and upholds the truth. The church, not the solitary believer, is the pillar and ground of truth, as Paul also told Timothy (1 Tim 3.15).
It’s useful to reflect on the attitude of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Though a faithful man and one endowed with great authority, he was nowhere near as presumptuous as the average Christian today. In Acts 8 we encounter him reading the book of Isaiah. Philip approached and asked if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian responded by saying he was unable to understand unless someone showed him. The Holy Spirit sent Philip to do exactly that (vv. 26-35).
The Ethiopian knew that he could not understand without guidance. This is the approach of humility and one worth emulating. An unvarnished reading of the scripture will lead to errors and misunderstanding. We are all in need of tutors; we are in need of the church and the traditional understanding it provides.
Narrow or open?
To some this might sound like a very cramped way to read scripture, but I don’t think so. For instance, while commenting on the opening lines of Genesis, Augustine said, “Let each one, then, take it as he pleases; for it is so profound a passage, that it may well suggest . . . many opinions, and none of them widely departing from the rule of faith” (City of God 11.32).
And another: “To ask questions like these, and to make such guesses as we can at the answers, is a useful exercise for the intellect, if the discussion be kept within proper bounds, and if we avoid the error of supposing ourselves to know what we do not know” (Enchiridion 59).
The sum of these two statements is that a passage of Scripture might have several valid interpretations and humble speculation can prove useful — provided our conclusions do not oppose the received understanding of the church. That suggests a wide latitude and a lot of room for diversity. But latitude does not mean we’re free to take a text any way we choose. Augustine’s openness here still implies that the reader never approach the scripture alone, but always with the church.