The Bible is the book of Christian Scriptures. For Christians, no other book is as sacred, nor as authoritative on details of the Divine. As such, it provides much of the raw material for Christian religious and spiritual reflection. However, while this attitude toward the Scriptures is generally shared amongst Christians, approaches to listening to them, learning from them, and submitting to their authority vary significantly by community.
This article aims to provide a brief introduction to some of the different ways Christians handle their Scriptures, and lay out a short guide to encountering the Christian Scriptures in a way that combines several of these techniques.
Critical Questions for Approaching Christian Scriptures
Who interprets the Scriptures? (The Private-Public Axis)
Prior to the Reformation, there was little question about the process by which the Christian community interpreted the Scriptures. It was done publicly through the mediation of the Church. The shifting attitudes of the Reformation, however, combined with the new public access to the Scriptures brought about by the printing press to permanently disrupt the long established order.
Since then, the Church has been engaged in a long term, ongoing debate about the distribution of interpretative authority.
For most contemporary Christians, the authority to interpret the Scriptures lies partially with the individual, partially with the local body of Christians, and partially with the church (ie. the larger denominational body.) This mix has been complicated in the last century by voices of secular scholarship, who generally have authority to the extent that their opinions are deemed "reasonable" by the individual (and, often, his or her community.)
Today, the interpretation of the Scriptures happens both in public and in private, in small groups, in church pews, and alone, through experts and priests, pastors and laypeople. The relationship between these interpretive groups and agents is dynamic and highly localized, and often, because of the free and fast movement of information that our society allows, opinions easily interact and become hybridized.
Consequently, for most Christian communities of today, the primary locus interpretation is the private individual. Public vehicles of interpretation still exist, if somewhat stymied in this atmosphere, and they play an important role in defining and forming faith. But the individual makes the ultimate decision, and is ultimately accountable.
What is the source of the authority of Scripture? (The Historical Revelation-Divine Revelation Axis)
Depending on their tradition, Christians today understand the authority of Scripture to be derived from one of three sources. It is thought of as either
- the Word of God; God's plain self-revelation, inerrant and infallible.
- a container for the self-revelation of God, but in need of interpretation to separate the cultural elements from the Divine.
- a historical and literary work passed down through an unfolding community of faith to Christians of today, who are its heirs.
Each of these positions has its own advantages and disadvantages. For a Christian who views the Bible as solely the product of culture and history, it is fairly easy to explain apparent incongruities and passages that are distasteful to modern readers. On the other hand, with this perspective, it is difficult to defend (or even explain) the ongoing existential and cultural relevance of the Bible
A Christian who views the Bible as the perfect Word of God has very clear and simple reasons to take the Scriptures seriously, but are faced the challenge of defending everything in the Bible, including areas that seem to be contradicted by modern scholarship, and those passages that seems barbaric or antiquated to the contemporary reader.
Most Christians fall somewhere between the two poles: they call the Bible the Word of God, but recognize that it must be interpreted correctly to be authoritative. Such people often face challenges of inconsistency from either side of the debate. They have to find a way to distinguish between what in the Scriptures is relevant and authoritative and what is not. While complex exegetical traditions often help guide these decisions, they are extraordinarily difficult to articulate and justify outside of the communities that use them, and so the challenge of inconsistency remains.
How should the Scriptures be handled? (The Analytical-Mystical Axis)
It is neither wise nor is it often profitable to approach the Scriptures like a modern novel or history book, reading it from front to back. Christians have inherited sets of techniques for reading and interacting with the Scriptures
Common Christian Approaches to the Scriptures
Line by Line
Prophetic (Of Future Events)
The Web of Symbols
The Existential Effect of the Christian Scriptures
How to Read the Bible
Disclaimer: I do not mean to offer this guide as the only, or even the best way of reading the Scriptures. I merely mean to offer it as an option for those new to the Bible, and for those looking for a new way to encounter the text.
To be developed…in a way that is contemplative, respectful, and informative.