05 January 2009

How to read scripture

One of the central elements of any form of Christian spirituality is the continual reading and rereading of the Christian scriptures. But how should we read these texts? As historical artefacts? As pieces of literature? As the very words of God? Should we try to reconstruct the author(s) intention(s) in writing the text? Or should we attend instead to our own response?

In Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (pp. 81–89), David Ford offers ten maxims for interpreting scripture:

Maxim 1. Read and reread scripture above all for God and God’s purposes; hear it as God the Creator, Judge and saviour crying out to humanity; respond to it in cries, worship, life and thought, with love for God and the world God loves.
Maxim 2. Read scripture guided by the wisdom of the church’s rule of faith, participating in its ongoing drama of God’s engagement with humanity.
Maxim 3. Read the Old and New Testaments together in the Spirit of the risen Jesus Christ; be alert to their mutual illumination and to the figural potential between and beyond them; be in dialogue especially with Jewish readings.
Maxim 4. Seek first the plain sense of scripture in all its literal and metaphorical richness and also be alert for other senses.
Maxim 5. Learn who Jesus Christ is for God and for us through following the testimony to his life, death and resurrection, in conversation with all four Gospels, with the diverse voices of the rest of the Bible, and with all truth and wisdom.
Maxim 6. Read scripture as part of the church (past, present and future) in worship and meditation, in study and conversation around the text, and alert to the realities and cries of the world.

Maxim 7. Become apprenticed to past and present wise readers of scripture who have lived their lives in response to its message.
Maxim 8. Let conversations around scripture be open to all people, religions, cultures, arts, disciplines, media and spheres of life.
Maxim 9. Read scripture in the Spirit, immersed in life, desiring God’s future, and open to continually fresh rereadings in new situations.
Maxim 10. Let us reread in love!
And to leave his readers in doubt about the meaning of these maxims, the next two chapters are devoted to the book of Job as a worked example, read in dialogue with post-Holocaust Jewish readings and Micheal O’Siadhail’s poetry cycle The Gossamer Wall.

I think this theocentric approach with its emphasis on love for the other is a very useful corrective, on the one hand, to self-serving liberal readings that merely use scripture to justify positions arrived at on other grounds (notably subjective experience) and, on the other hand, to self-righteous conservative readings that use scripture as a weapon to defend entrenched positions and attack those who think/believe differently.

2 comments:

Tim said...

They all seem very typical-evo, and rather fluffy, ways of saying `literally' to me. Notably, if it's an agenda you want to avoid, then the first maxim fails outright - `God the Creator, Judge and saviour' in as few words! What next, substitutionary atonement?

It seems to me that all those maxims lack the clarity of literary criticism, with its aim of a more precise understanding of historical context, author(')s(') agendas, fact and myth.

In any case, you would do well to read Karen Armstrong "The Bible: The Biography". This book sets out a handful of maxims of its own, as they have been used in the histories of Judaism and Christianity: most memorably, rabbis seeking a charitable reading (most compassionate interpretation) of the Torah and early Jewish-Christian pesher exegesis (seeking prophecies in the OT to apply to Jesus) .. and a couple of others I forget. It is instructive to see how much you agree with various strands of interpretation as time has gone by.

I'm not sure that I'd call these maxims, but I seek the following:
a) a cross-cultural understanding of the author's original meaning (fat chance, I know, but I can still seek);
b) as few theological problems as possible (eg "does this make God out to be a monster?") - your maxims are not alert to this;
c) a reading that empowers the individual over the organization, especially the organization of the Church (eg the RCC on divorce = I'll find another church that doesn't enslave me, TYVM);
d) a viable balance between Jesus of history and Christ of theology applied in subsequent centuries (ie Christological statements about Jesus should be justified - this is the subject of the book waiting about 3 down the bed-side pile at the moment);
e) the numinous in the sharing of study;
f) realism. Faith must be grounded in evidence, just like science, "for nature cannot be fooled".

self-serving liberal readings that merely use scripture to justify positions arrived at on other grounds

You have a very loaded and somewhat confused sentence there. Liberal readings are characterized by higher criticism and an awareness that the texts of the Bible are the products of people writing, in their times (BCE1000 to CE110ish) and cultures (middle-east, based on community and honour not individual and wealth). Indeed, the idea of such reading as "using scripture to justify positions arrived at on other grounds" exactly characterizes the worst of *non*-liberal readings over the centuries, from slavery and the Crusades to the model of pre-millenial-dispensationalism onwards.

Eamonn said...

1. Would it be helpful to make the distinction between reading Scripture as part of one's prayer life and spiritual development (which is the drift of Ford's maxims), and studying it critically with a view to understanding the context from which it came?

2. I'm not sure about 'self-serving liberal readings that merely use scripture to justify positions arrived at on other grounds'. 'Liberal' positions on, e.g., divorce, homosexuality or democracy are justified mainly on grounds of humanity's developing self-understanding rather than by direct appeal to scripture. The explicit upholding of fidelity in marriage in NT, indeed, would undermine any such liberal view of divorce. Scripture is relevant insofar as humanity's self-understanding is informed, not so much by explicit teaching in the Bible as by the spirit of gentleness which pervades the teaching and actions of Jesus, by which we may infer something about the nature of God.