Sermons do not usually have subtitles.
But if today’s sermon had to have a subtitle, it likely would be “The Power and the Point: How to Read the Bible”.
We all know, of course, that reading the Bible is key to the Christian life, and is the central resource of Christian spirituality.
As Christians – and particularly as Presbyterians, who derive a significant part of our heritage from the insights and principles of the Protestant Reformation, the Bible plays a key and central role in the way that we come to understand and explore our faith and our spirituality. And the emphasis in the Reformation on the centrality of Scripture – and the priesthood of all believers, in which each of us has a right and a responsibility to seek to faithfully read and interpret the texts for ourselves – creates the potential for significant fragmentation in the Church (which has certainly happened) but also for the bearing of significant personal and individual responsibility for the understanding and living of our faith (which we all hope happens).
Which means that it is good for us to pause, from time to time, and ask ourselves some basic questions not simply about what the Bible says, but also about how we read and interpret what the Bible says. After all, there can be no doubt that the same words, from the same document, on the same page can be read, and understood, and interpreted in many different ways. Which is not to say, as certain contemporary philosophical approaches would seek to suggest, that each and every individual interpretation is equally valid and equally true – such an argument is both intellectually and spiritually indefensible. But there can be debate, there can sometimes be seemingly irreconcilable differences in the way that we interpret texts, even though it is often in the messiness and seeming chaos of these differences and debates between contending viewpoints and interpretations that truth actually reveals itself.
To be sure, the task and responsibility of interpretation is a very complex and in many ways a beautiful art. To interpret a text correctly – and perhaps especially ancient texts to which we ascribe some degree of spiritual, or political, or ethical, or economic, or cultural authority – must be done with great care and attention to the assumptions and biases that we bring into the process of interpretation. It is not enough simply to say, “this are the words that we read” – rather, we must also ask questions about how we understand those words, and how our understanding leads to beneficial – or destructive – applications in our lives and in the world. There are questions that must be asked; what were the intentions of the author, and can we ever even actually know what those intentions were? What were the influences in the historical and political context of the time of writing, and do those influences have an effect on how a text was written and how it should be interpreted? What are the assumptions, preferences, principles and priorities that we bring to the text, and how do those prejudices affect the conclusions that we draw about the meaning of a text?
These questions are not only true of the Bible. We often overlook how many of the standards and guidelines by which we live, in our democratic and literate culture, are in fact mediated by written texts. The Bible, the Koran, the Magna Carta, the American Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ecclesiastical canon law in certain traditions of the Church, the long history of common law in British and Canadian culture which records the written decisions and legislation of our ancestors – in politics, in religion, in social and legal realms, we are guided by written texts that exert a degree of authority over us – but which can be interpreted in different ways.
This task of interpreting written texts is even true in the realms of literature and of art. Often, when people analyze and seek to interpret the work of Plato, or Shakespeare, or Tolkien, to name only three examples, they find themselves having to ask questions which will affect their interpretation. Was Socrates a real person, or a construct of Plato, and does it matter for our understanding? How much did Shakespeare know about Julius Caesar, or the court in Denmark, and was the author of Shakespeare’s work actually Shakespeare – and does it matter? Was Tolkien intending some real-world analogy or metaphor in his description of the ring of power and the harrowing journey of courageous yet humble hobbits in their dangerous but essential quest to destroy it?
Lest one think that the responsibility to be aware of how texts are interpreted is simply a pleasant intellectual pastime, one only needs to ponder the ongoing debate amongst our friends to the south about how to interpret a seemingly small phrase such as “the right to bear arms” to know that there are real consequences to the task of interpretation. Should the Constitution be interpreted in line with the original intent of the writers, or should it be viewed as a living text that can and should be best interpreted, not simply within the context of its original authors, but of the issues in our modern age?
Perhaps the greatest issue of interpretation, within the church, at the present time, concerns matters related to human sexuality. These issues have been divisive both in the Church and in wider society. And while I truly believe that our forebears in this particular congregation made the right and proper stand in favour of embrace and inclusion, literally decades before it was socially or denominationally popular to do so, and while I have no intent of addressing that issue any further this morning, it can be good for us to acknowledge and accept that a lot of those debates have turned on – and continue to turn — on questions of interpretation.
So, whether difficult discussions and debates arise in the political world, or in the church, or in realms of philosophy and ideology, or in social and cultural contexts, and, God knows, perhaps in the realms of social media more than in any other form of human communication, so often we assume that our reading, our interpretation, is the only right and correct one, and we then begin to entrench ourselves, and surround ourselves by the echo chambers of the like-minded, and stop listening to anyone other those who interpret things in the same ways that we do. Which is profoundly dangerous, but seemingly inevitable. In such times, and particularly when we descend into the demonization and denigration of those with whom we disagree, there can be great wisdom in pausing, even in the midst of significant disagreements, and taking the time to seek to understand not simply the other person’s point, but also to seek to understand the principles that they have used to come to their interpretation – a conversation that requires something more than what can be summed up in a nasty meme or snarky cartoon or cutting soundbite.
All of which is a long prelude way to a little piece of profound and transforming wisdom that is found in part of a single verse from 2 Timothy. Because I truly believe that if we realize – and accept – the principle of interpretation that this verse is seeking to convey, it may have a tremendous influence on the ways that we read the Bible, and the way that we conduct ourselves in the world as followers of Jesus Christ.
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
The first part of that verse is what usually occupies our attention with its claim about the inspiration of Scripture. One is right to ask, of course, what books or texts were understood to be “scripture” when the passage was originally written, since a majority of what we, as Christians, know as the New Testament may not yet have been composed when these words about “all scripture is inspired by God” were first penned.
But the latter part of the verse is, I think, even more important. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” – all of which are powerful uses of holy and sacred writings. But the real point, the overarching interpretive principle, is found in the words that follow – “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
So that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
That is the point of attributing authority to written texts, to sacred writings, to scripture. To be proficient and equipped for every good work. Which means, of course, that if a holy text, a sacred writing, is being used to do harm, if it is being used to destroy or to justify anything that is not good, then it is being misused. If the way that we read and interpret a text increases suffering rather than compassion, this simple principle would lead us to conclude that it is not the text itself, but rather it is our interpretation of it, that is wrong.
So, how to read the Bible? We do so in order to be equipped to do good in this world.
Which means, of course, that first and foremost, we have to read it. We are called to make the reading of it a discipline, a regular daily habit, a part of our life. And read it with the expectation that it can teach us, reprove us, correct us, train us in good relations with God and with others, make us more effective and mature and proficient in our spiritual life, equip us for goodness.
In so doing, do not be surprised that it is going to challenge you, to the very core of your being. To be equipped for every good work does not mean that the Bible, and our reading of it, is going to just pat us on the head and assure us that “it’s all good.” It’s not. The Bible’s call to holiness is issued to people like you and me, for whom true holiness is neither our usual or our typical way of being. The Bible’s call to be perfect as God is perfect is extended to people like you and me, for whom the word “perfect” is far from applicable. The Bible’s call to forgive is presented not as a suggestion, but as a command, to people like you and me, for whom forgiveness is neither our default nor our preferred way of dealing with hurt and offense. The Bible’s call to love, or more precisely, its command to love, are words that people like and me need to hear, again and again, until we realize that it is a command that is meant for us.
So we can debate how to interpret these old texts – and perhaps even realize the power that they contain. But realizing their power, or elevating them and idolizing them and proving their inerrancy and infallibility has never actually been the point. The point is to read these texts, and ponder them, and apply them in our lives, so that we can become more holy, more perfect, more forgiving, more loving, in short, more like Jesus Christ – to whom these ancient texts actually direct our attention.
Or, as the author of 2 Timothy put it, to allow these texts, and our interpretation of them, to do their work so that we can be equipped for every good work.
Which is why – and how – we should read the Bible.