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Interpreting the Bible for Our Generation

There are many reasons people may read the Bible, but for people of faith, the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological.
Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.

Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity.

In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world.

But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters and times of their own era.

These stories extend beyond their own frames of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.

So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live?

Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?

One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation.

Fundamentalist Christians and some conservative believers refuse the findings and methods of modern biblical scholarship, believing them to be human-created methods intended to refute and corrupt what the Bible says.

But a critical approach to reading Scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.

A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations.

Reading the Bible critically means giving close attention to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them.

These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours.

They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently than we do today.

Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have.

This means that we cannot always read the Bible literally, for the Bible is not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate in everything it says.

While developing our theology from the Scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.

For example, to read the creation story from Genesis as a literal telling of the beginnings of our universe and human existence is no longer valid.

Not only is the story not scientific; to read it as answering questions that science is more capable of answering really takes the focus off of the poetic and theological richness of the story.

Another relevant example would be those texts that encourage and even command inequalities, oppression and violence.

To continue to support the validity of those passages that legitimate prejudices, violence or oppression against groups based on gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation is no longer acceptable.

Yet, as we read and interpret the text of Scripture in order to shape theological thinking in our own context, we must also recognize our own presuppositions.

Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us.

When we approach the biblical text, we do so with these presuppositions and ideologies, which often find their way into our reading texts of Scripture without realizing it.

We often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and in not doing so, we cling to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.

Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside.

They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything. If we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.

A primary step in doing this is to read the text of Scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings.

A text of Scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of Scripture. A scriptural passage may have a multiplicity of valid theological meanings, and reading in community can help us see other meanings.

Yet, while we can read them in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions. Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us and are from the same social and economic situations.

Reading the text with people from other races, religions, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, social and economic conditions, and ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly differently.

We need not be defensive of our faith and particularly of the Bible when someone challenges our thinking.

Rather, we should listen carefully and be open to different points of view from others who understand God quite differently than we do, or from others who do not believe in God at all.

Reading the text with those both inside and outside our community can offer us a way of seeing fresh interpretations that shape a theological thinking that is more relevant to our world.

DrewSmith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at WildernessPreacher.