The Bible is essential to the Christian faith. Some read it literally, some don’t, and there is a never ending discussion over the peculiar descriptor “innerancy.” Christians make many claims about the Bible, how they read it, and how they use it in worship and life. As a pastor I have observed that most Christians love the Bible, revere it, defend it, and refer to it often. However, most people do not actually know the Bible, nor do they regularly read it, or even interact with it in any significant way on a daily basis. Some claim “I just go by what the bible says,” but they clearly pick and choose.
I’m auditing a class right now on Genesis that is being taught by Terrence Fretheim. Fretheim is a world class Old Testament scholar who teaches at Luther Seminary, and he’s an expert on Genesis, and it’s a serious treat to listen to him teach. He began his lectures with some quick guidelines of how we read the scripture. I’ve simplified, quoted, paraphrased and amalgamated his 14 guidelines to create the following list which is not my original thought, but comes directly from Professor Fretheim:
1. Readers continually bring their own point of view to the text, (male, female, American, Protestant, conservative, rural, urban, rich, poor, Christian, Jew…). If you want to be a good reader of scripture, you must be constantly mindful of your point of view.
2. Strictly speaking, the only thing which should follow the phrase, “The Bible says…” is a direct quotation from the Bible in the original languages.
3. Remember that you are not reading the Bible, but a translation of the Bible: they are all different, they constantly make theological/interpretive choices, and not all translations are equal at all points.
4. No Bible passage has a single meaning. Every text is capable of meaning several things, (although not in such a way that “anything goes”).
5. We must continually offer up our interpretations to those who come from a different community, history, and point of view (see #1). If we do not, we will be formed into an “opinion cocoon” and we will most certainly be poorer readers of the scripture.
6. The Bible was not written by modern people. If we do not understand the context in which is was originally written and read, we will tend to misread the text. The Bible does not have “answers” to all of our questions because the Biblical writers were completely unaware of many of today’s issues (like quantum physics, biology, evolution, gunpowder, nuclear bombs, birth control, gay marriage, and so on).
7. The bible contains different kinds of literature. Good readers will not read poetry like history, or prophecy like the weather report, or apocalyptic literature as a timeline for the end of the world.
8. Not everything in the Bible is meant to be interpreted literally. (e.g. metaphors – God is not really a rock or a fire; Jesus is not really a lamb; and so on). As a general rule one can read a text “literally” unless there is good reason not to do so, and there are often good reasons.
9. Not every passage in the Bible has equal value for faith and life. We give special weight to some passage we do not give to others, and the Bible itself seems to want us to do so, (e.g., we give the 10 commandments more weight than Paul’s commandment to Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach).
10. “Bible readers must be prepared to recognize that the Bible does not have a single point of view about a whole range of matters, and whether the point of view is being commended by the author needs to be asked.” What role the bible should play in all of our questions and controversies is not always clear, but must be approached with the wisdom available to those who have been shaped by the reading of this text. Truth about the world accessed through other means (science, archaeology, ethics, and more), is a valuable resource through when thinking about the issues we face.