By George Clifford
The volume and variety of responses to my last Daily Episcopalian post, Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not, suggest that I wrote about a vital and controversial issue. An essential follow on question is: How should Christians read the Bible? The answer to that deceptively simple question may help to identify differences between the norm and how Christians actually read, or recommend reading, the Bible.
For at least a century, The Episcopal Church (like most other Churches) has insisted that its seminarians learn the historical-critical method for reading and understanding the Bible. An implicit, if not explicit, premise of seminary biblical studies and other courses is that the historical-critical method is the preferred, if not the recommended or even the normative, approach to reading the Christian scriptures.
Yet, after graduating from seminary, many clergy default (revert?) to other ways of reading and interpreting scripture. Exegesis employing the historical-critical method is time-consuming hard work for which many parish clergy feel both under-prepared and unsure of its necessity or utility. Historical-critical exegesis can also challenge some long held and popularly cherished interpretations, e.g., the story of Jesus feeding the multitude reflects post-resurrection theology rather than factual history. Consequently, clergy tend to use scripture in daily morning and evening prayer (whether privately or as a public service), formation programs for children and youth, and adult studies in a manner that presumes that readers/hearers will understand the text’s meaning with little or no effort.
Presuming that casually reading (i.e., the devotional reading of texts not complemented by historical-critical study) scripture can be uplifting and formative but that preaching requires solid exegesis entails an oxymoronic dichotomy. On the one hand, scripture’s meaning is apparent and easily grasped when encountered in the context of a prayer office (apart from preaching). On the other hand, scripture’s meaning requires solid exegesis – even from a text that is part of the daily office lectionary – when expounded in preaching. A cynic might characterize this apparent inconsistency as clerical hypocrisy indicative of a lack of integrity or as clerical hubris indicative of believing laypeople lack the ability or faith commitment to master and use the historical-critical method.
My ruminations repeatedly prompted reflections on how other “people of the Book” (a Muslim phrase that includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims) read their scriptures. Unlike some people who attempt to straddle religious traditions, I’m very clear about my identity as a Christian. I’m a committed Christian, not a Jew or Muslim. On the other hand, unlike some Christians who think that we can learn nothing from other religions and non-Christians, I’ve often found that examining my beliefs and practices from multiple perspectives brings clarity and fresh insights.
Islam is riven by a sharp divide over how to read the Koran. Most Muslims today, as has been normative for centuries, read and interpret the Koran in the context of its history of interpretation. Various schools of jurisprudence (a term that reflects Islamic emphasis on the Koran, God’s recitation to Mohammed, containing God’s commands for people) provide the continuing conversations that help Muslims rightly understand what God’s timeless words mean in the present.
In sharp contrast to that approach, Salafists believe that only the Koran and Hadith (the compilation of Mohammed’s words and actions not included in the Koran) are useful in understanding how people today should obediently submit to God. Salafist schools often teach only the Koran; well-meaning but ignorant instructors sometimes teach highly individualized interpretations as definitive. Unsurprisingly, these groups interpret Islam in ways that occasionally diverge radically from mainstream Islam.
For example, the Koran teaches that men and women should dress modestly. The Koran also instructs women to cover themselves with an outer garment when they leave their house. However, neither passage directs a woman to cover herself completely. Radical Islamists often require that women cover themselves completely based on Mohammed instructing his wives to hide behind a curtain. In keeping with longstanding Islamic tradition and jurisprudence, most Muslims believe that this latter guidance applied only to the Prophet’s wives, not to all women.
About 85% of Muslims are Sunnis, who have no authoritative clergy. Denying the value of centuries of Islamic juridical scholarship has multiplied individual interpretations and had the unanticipated result of producing extremist movements that include al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Turning back to Christianity, I find the analogues strikingly clear and horrifying. A few terrorist groups self-identify with Christianity, e.g., Operation Rescue, which targets abortion providers and bombs abortion clinics. These allegedly Christian groups, like their Muslim counterparts, justify their crimes with idiosyncratic readings of scripture. Mercifully, scripture study leads blessedly few Christians to become violent terrorists.
However, appallingly large numbers of self-identified Christians inflict terrible emotional and spiritual damage on others because they, like Muslim Salafists, reject their religion’s mainstream normative approach to reading and interpreting scripture in favor of individual interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit. These Christians include those who argue that women should be subordinate to men, all homosexual behaviors are sinful, effective child discipline requires generous and frequent doses of corporal punishment, and caring for the environment is unimportant.
No analogy is perfect. Christianity has had a dynamic, evolving approach to interpreting its scripture. Thankfully, the Church no longer regards allegory as a key interpretative principle. Yet from the second century forward, allegory figured prominently in reading and interpreting all of scripture. Similarly, after bruising controversies (e.g., with Galileo), the Church began to move away from a literal reading of the text toward a more complex reading informed by multiple disciplines (history, linguistics, psychology, science, philosophy, and so forth), tradition (i.e., a continuing conversation among God’s people), and reason (to include experience).
I’m not arguing that scripture and its interpretation are properly the exclusive prerogative of the clergy. In any case, widespread literacy and access to the Bible and other materials prevent that from happening again. Nor do I want to adopt something akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium.
I am arguing that Christians rightly use the historical-critical method to read and interpret scripture. Engaging in that endeavor requires effort and education; it also entails dialogue with the Christian community, directly (e.g., conversation) and indirectly (e.g., reading commentaries). I wonder what the Church might look like today if substantive biblical study that used the historical-critical method replaced the pabulum that widely passes for religious education. Every parish could, indeed should, regularly offer substantive, Bible study for all ages that teaches and uses the historical-critical method, empowering people to read and seek to understand scripture.
Judaism teaches that God gave the scriptures, particularly the Torah, to Israel. The scripture does not belong to an individual but to Jews collectively. Interpretation, therefore, belongs to the community rather than to individuals. Rabbis are not priests but Jews who have received an education in Torah, devoted themselves to the study of Torah, and to whom the Jewish community grants authority to teach because of that education and devotion. Judaism reads and interprets its scriptures through an ongoing dialogue between living rabbis conversing with scripture, dialogue with the rabbinical tradition of interpretation, and one another. This communal interpretive process explicitly recognizes that Jews today read the scriptures within a very different context than the one in which Israel received its scriptures from God.
Episcopalians, thanks be to God, are not Baptists or Pentecostals. Unlike many in both of those traditions, we believe in the importance of an educated clergy. We don’t ordain the uneducated, naively trusting God to guide them when they teach and preach. It’s time that we also believed in an educated laity. Only then will we honor both their calling as God’s ministers and the Christian heritage of reading scripture informed by multiple disciplines, tradition, and reason.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.