By Janine Warrington
Recently, I wrote an article arguing for the importance of responsible biblical interpretation in response to the 2019 special session of the United Methodist Church general conference. This, of course, raises several questions, the central one being: How does one read the Bible responsibly? The Bible and the practice of reading it are complex, multi-faceted, and highly disputed. I cannot single-handedly unpack the full history and nuance of the Bible, but I would like to offer some big ideas and practical suggestions that can help orient all of us who pick up this rich, complex, and influential text toward responsible reading, interpretation, and application. Over the next few weeks, I will ask
1. What is the Bible?
2. Should we read it?
3. What parts of the Bible should we read?
4. How can we understand what the Bible is saying? and
5. How can we apply the Bible to our lives today?
At the end of each article, I will assign practices for readers who wish to go deeper into their reading of Scripture.
Books and classes on biblical studies often begin with method, which is to say, they start by trying to answer the question, “How should I read the Bible?” This is a key question, but I would argue that we cannot start there. When one studies mechanics, they don’t immediately learn how to fix an engine, but rather what an engine is and how it words. One must be familiar with their object of study before they can truly engage with it, and this is true of biblical studies as well. So, to read the Bible responsibly, we must ask ourselves: What is the Bible?
This seems like a basic and perhaps obvious question, but it isn’t. There are countless notions of what the Bible is, how it came to be, how authoritative it is, and what our relationship is to it. The way we understand these aspects of the Bible influence how we understand it and apply that understanding to our lives.
There are many ways to approach this question. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association states that the Bible is God’s word to us, and that even though it was written by many people throughout time, “God was guiding them so that what they wrote wasn’t just their own words, but God’s Word.” Renowned Bible scholar Peter Enns describes the Bible as a record of ancient people’s experiences with God which “models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions, and despairs expressed by the biblical writers.” And the United Methodist Church recognizes the Bible as a library of many writings in many different genres which were canonized through a process of faithful testing, has been accepted as sacred and authoritative, and therefore provides for us a “guide to faith and life.”
Here is your assignment: Make time in your schedule to seriously reflect on your own beliefs about and relationship to the Bible (or whatever sacred text you find important/authoritative). Recognize that this will not be a quick exercise. I’ve spent several hours in multiple sittings journaling through this and I’m not finished yet. If you find yourself wondering how to start thinking about this massive question, you may find it helpful (as I did) to use Caroline Osiek’s five alternative approaches to the Bible as a starting place. Here is a very simplified list of these approaches, which you can read about in more detail in the link above:
- Rejectionist: Recognize problematic aspects of the Bible and reject it as not authoritative or useful.
- Loyalist: Accept the Bible as essentially good and authoritative, and if it seems problematic it’s because we’re reading it wrong.
- Revisionist: Recognize the Bible as a historical document and read between the lines to determine its theology and/or apply it to our lives.
- Sublimationist: Seek out the passages in Scripture that are helpful and encouraging as authoritative.
- Liberationist: Begin with an understanding of God’s mission as redemptive and liberating and orient your reading toward the central theme of salvation.
You may not find any of these approaches totally satisfying, and that’s okay – I didn’t either. But they can provide you with a place to start and something to measure yourself against. The important thing isn’t that you emerge from this practice with an unshakable confidence in your understanding of what the Bible is, but that you give it some serious thought and recognize that the way you understand what the Bible is will affect the way you read and apply it.