by Philip Sudworth.
Over the centuries the bible has profoundly influenced billions of people. God has worked through it to transform both individual lives and also societies. Alongside its message of redemption and salvation, of reconciliation and wholeness, it has afforded comfort and solace, and also challenge. Its message of love, hope, reconciliation, and social justice has been the inspiration for social action and reform. Sadly, there is also a long history of texts being used to oppress and to exclude. The bible has been used to justify slavery, to discriminate against women and minorities, and to silence innovative thinkers. Nonetheless, the multi-faceted messages of the bible have the potential to be life-enhancing for a wide range of people in a variety of situations.
Origen, who pioneered bible study in the third century, suggested three levels to reading scripture:- ‘simple or literal’ (taking the plain meaning); ‘moral’ (appreciating how it affects the way we live) and ‘spiritual’ (gaining insights into our relationship with God).1 That is helpful in understanding how one approach to the bible might differ from others, but the assumption that ‘spiritual’ only applies to the third level is clearly wrong. Those who only know the bible through passages that priests tell them about, clearly can experience deeply spiritual insights that have a profound impact on their lives. Some use the term “allegorical” for the third level. However, much of the bible cannot be read in that way. The term “interpretative” gives a wider scope.
Origen’s approach, as innovative and insightful as it was, is only one dimension of the way we approach the bible. The impact made by any writing depends on the interplay between the original event or idea, the way the writer expresses it, and the very important contribution of the readers and their responses. Indeed, the reader’s interpretation is what will determine the effect it has on the person. A great step forward is made when we move beyond simply accepting what we have been told faith is about and what others tell us the bible says and begin instead to interact with the bible ourselves and to explore its meaning for our personal lives. It is as we wrestle with the questions and challenges that we begin to move from a second-hand faith to a personal faith. Our responses will engage with all the factors which make us who we are as people.
What we each bring to our bible reading is as unique as we are as individuals. We are rooted in a culture. That doesn’t just relate to a particular country, time period, and prevailing philosophies, but also to local influences which include regional customs, class, age and ethnicity. Our families exert a special influence in the way we see things. Our education will also have a significant impact. All aspects of our personal backgrounds interact to produce the influence on our approach.
As we mature, our experiences and relationships will shape us further. We acquire beliefs and values. These develop over time but our current views and attitudes profoundly affect the way we perceive and respond to the ideas and principles we take from the bible and how we interpret them. What we find in the bible will be determined also by why we are reading it and what we are looking for.
Our personalities, and our hopes and fears, our dreams and our prejudices all colour what we see in the bible. This is why Oscar Pfister, a Calvinist pastor and psychoanalyst, maintained: ‘Tell me what you find in your bible and I will tell you what sort of person you are.’ 2 Against this backdrop, the depth of our knowledge and understanding will determine the extent to which we see a passage in its context, how we evaluate its connections to other passages and derive meaning from it.
One of the reasons the bible is such a rich source of spiritual inspiration is that individuals can derive from it the meaning that they personally need at that moment, can be comforted, encouraged or challenged in their own particular situation and helped to understand the role to which Christ is calling them. Rather than expecting everyone to share our personal responses to the bible, it is important that we respect interpretations that differ from our own, always provided that those other responses are life-enhancing, inclusive and reflect Jesus’ message. As Hans Küng pointed out: ‘The question of whether and how far the bible is inspired word is far less important … than the question of how humans allow themselves to be inspired by its word.’ 3
1 Origen (230) – De Principiis IV 3.1
2 Pfister, O. (1948) – Christianity and Fear. [Allen and Unwin]
3 Küng H. (1974) – On Being a Christian. [Collins – Fount]