Margaret Silf [tells] a story about a salad bowl. She tells of a friend’s induction [as a minister] and of the feast that followed. The members of the congregation tucked into the feast, and soon hardly anything was left … except for a large bowl of rice salad. Eventually she realized why: someone had forgotten to put a serving spoon in the dish. … This course is designed to provide a good spoon to begin (or continue!) the feast on scripture, which continually renews and satisfies our appetite.
So this morning I want to help us understand how to read the Bible, our Bible, the church’s Bible.
I begin with the kind of “principles of interpretation” that we used to always mention. They are still true, but secondary to the main point (which follows).
Type of language: Pay attention to whether a passage is ordinary speech or sarcasm or metaphor or exaggeration, etc. Such as Jesus, “Take the log out of your own eye.”
Type of genre: Observe whether you are reading poetry, or theological history (not the same as reading a newspaper), or parable, etc.
The plain meaning whenever possible: Don’t use “interpretation” to twist the passage into what you want.
Interpret Scripture with Scripture: Paul says in 1 Cor 14 that women should keep silence in church, but in 1 Cor 11 he says that they should wear a covering on their heads a sign of their authority to pray and prophesy (preach) in church. Listening to the whole of Scripture saves us from many problems.
Context, context, context! Cultural context, historical context, literary context.
And so on.
We can learn from some of our Anabaptist cousins, in this case the Brethren in Christ. From a 1986 consultation on a BIC way to interpret Scripture:
NT interprets OT: “The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained.”
Both centre on Jesus: The disciples reinterpreted everything they knew about Scripture in the light of the amazing discovery that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Pure heart and mind: If you are in rebellion against God, you won’t understand God’s Word Written.
Commitment to obey: In order to understand, you must be ready to obey what you hear God say.
Read in community: No “private interpretation” (an extension of 2 Peter 1:20f).
But more important than all of these, and more important than others that we could mention, is the foundational principle: The Bible is first of all a story. In her syllabus for the course, Reading the Church’s Bible, Lissa Wray Beal quotes from Bartholomew and Goheen:
Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story. All human societies live out of some story that provides a context for understanding the meaning of history and give shape and direction to their lives. If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should. … If as believers we allow this story (rather than the Bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will manifest not the truths of Scripture, but the lies of an idolatrous culture.”
We read Psalm 78 to begin with. Like Nehemiah in his prayer (Nehemiah 9) and Stephen in his defense before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7) this psalm tells the story of God’s people—excerpted from the great story of creation and fall to redemption in the Christ-event. So the most important thing is that the Bible is the story!
Read the Bible as a story!
Genesis to Revelation: the story of “God’s Mighty Saving Acts”
Genesis: the problem: God made us—we pushed him out of our lives
The rest of the Bible: the story of how God tries to get back into our lives
A story with a difference: IT’S TRUE!
But, you may ask, “Is not the Bible full of promises of hope and directions to follow?” Certainly. Psalm 78 says to tell the story so that the children yet to be born will follow God, so that they will know his promises and obey his commands. But promises and directions are like the bacon in a wonderful casserole. No matter how much you like bacon, you don’t pick out only the bacon and leave the rest, and then say you have eaten the whole meal. Some might actually do this, but they would be wrong about nutrition, and if you do it with the Bible you miss the best thing of all, the way that God wants to transform you with divine reality.
You see, the Bible is a story with a difference. There are many stories out there—Game of Thrones; Downton Abbey; LOTR; The Matrix; Doctor Who—but the Bible has something more. It is true! Rooted in history, but truer at even deeper levels than history: The Bible tells us the truth about God and all humanity. It is the story of salvation history, what G.E. Wright calls “the mighty saving acts of God”.
The key to this story is Jesus. The whole Bible intends to bring you to Jesus, to “the human face of God”. In the garden the first human pair pushed God out of their lives. The rest of the Bible tells the story of how God seeks to get back into our lives, culminating in Jesus, the Messiah. So 1 Cor 15: I passed on to you what I received as of first importance: and then Paul tells the story of Jesus.
A few weeks ago a couple named Peter and Liz stayed with us. We learned a bit of Peter’s story—from a Christian home, attending a Christian college, then he started reading the story of Jesus and met Jesus in a new and powerful way. He changed direction to follow God’s call, eventually graduating from college and going to Chicago to live in an intentional Christian community. Now they live in London, England, in an apartment complex with Bangladeshi families, building bridges between Christians and Muslims, being Christ to their neighbours. When Peter met Jesus as he read the gospels, Jesus transformed him completely.
The Bible seeks to bring us first of all to Jesus. When we meet Jesus, he changes us forever!