why do we read the Bible?

January 11, 2011

I spent 6 years at University, mainly finding an answer to one question: How do we read the Bible? They sent me through two years of studies in Greek and Hebrew, and I took a third year of elective Greek and Hebrew modules, as well as a few post-graduate modules in . Furthermore, a third of my theological training in the six years was spent in New and Old Testament studies, over all six years. Some of our lecturers have made the calculation on the percentage of the course that was spent on questions concerning the Bible: somewhere around 60%. 60% of six years at an internationally recognized university, focused on the question: How do we read the Bible. But the deeper question which I believe we need to focus on is: Why do we read the Bible. (you can read the story of where I first asked this question here).

With all that time spent teaching students to be able to read the Bible responsibly, you’d expect some excellent exegetes to emerge. And indeed, I think you’d find this to be true, up to a point… They can talk about “context” and “genre”, share some facts about ancient history and values (although I sometimes doubt the ability to put this into a coherent big picture), and are generally quite well versed in the ability to remind a congregation that they have some inside knowledge on the holy book which the congregants do not have. But ask the question “why do we read the Bible?“, and the problems emerge. Those considered the excellent theologians might have an answer ready, but the test comes when we face the diverse voices within Bible, and how we go about consistently interpreting the text.

Was part of Derridian Deconstruction not to notice the inconsistencies in a text? (not a very good Derridian, so do correct me here) And was our Biblical studies for many decades not built upon the search for the “seams” in the texts, the inconsistencies which would help us find the developmental history of a text? But what about the exegete? Should we not look for the inconsistencies within the exegete? And to complicate this even further, I’m not into Biblical studies (although I love reading the works of Biblical scientists), so in all honesty I can’t care less about the consistency of their exegetical methods (although this do seem to contradict the previous statement in parentheses, I find this not to be a contradiction at all), since I work with the assumption that the Bible originated from the community, and need to find meaning within the community. It is the (in)consistency of exegesis, whether by trained theologian or not, within the community which alerts me to the fact that there is something wrong, something not begin said, something behind the reading of the text (not the text itself in this case) which we need to take note of.

This I believe can be found with the question “Why do we read the Bible?“. I fear that many have learned the art of exegesis, but never integrated an answer to this question consistent with their answer to the how question. And then we get the classic example of the many preachers who either skip those parts of the texts which doesn’t support their view, or use these exact same methods pointed to above, but to de-exegize (yes, I just made that one up) that which does not support their view out of the Bible. This I believe is what is found behind the endless usage of the Bible to support this or that claim, most often in contradictory ways (and many times using the same texts on both sides). My idea, quite simply (maybe over-simplified, so do correct me), is that across the theological spectrum the Bible is still read within communities of faith because we answer the why question within something in the line of “the Bible has authority to give answers”.

I’m no psychoanalyst, although I believe they could be helpful in helping us through this, but my following question need to be asked: If I firmly believe that the Bible is the authority, or find myself completely indebted to a community which holds this believe, would I not, even on the level of the unconscious, find ways of getting this text to say exactly what I need it to say to confirm what I am saying myself? Do we not then create a power-relation which make it impossible to construct the Bible as a text which differ from either exegete or community, since our answer to why we read the Bible would then force us to recognize ourselves as unfaithful? (which obviously open up another question as to why this community find it of such utmost importance that I need to be part of the faithful and not the unfaithful, but that is a question for another day)

So my suggestion is that we need to be able to provide a consistent answer as to why we read the Bible, which would also allow a consistent answer as to how we read the Bible (taking into account genre, various books etc, consistent, not the same for every text), but also allow us to honestly and consistently formulate what it really is that we mean when we formulate an opinion. If the honest answer to what we believe imply that our attempt at consistently reading the text (how) bring us to a point that we have to recognize that we do not agree with the text, then we need to be able to answer why we continue reading the text.

Is this possible? I do believe so.

There have always been those in the church (indeed we might be able to argue that the church in its deepest being contain this mark) who reinterpret the text from the point of the Jesus-event. They read the text because this is what bring them to Jesus, and then re-interpret the text from the Jesus point (obviously as they interpreted it, and the above argument can then be made concerning those parts of the text which write about Jesus). Within this group we would then find some examples of quite conservative groups that will easily state that they don’t agree with this or that part of the text, since Jesus came to change it. In other groups, you’d find the argument that the early church changed what Jesus said, and they would therefore differ from some parts of the New Testament. The question of why we choose Jesus can be a theological one (or maybe just a deeply personal one), which I believe precede the question of why we read the Bible.

Another answer which might be providing some form of consistency is to state that we read the Bible because the Bible is the book of the church. Our reasons for connecting to the church and choosing to take the church seriously is again a theological question which I believe might precede the question concerning why we read the Bible. The church has made a choice, and the Bible it the book of the church, and therefore we reflect on the Bible as we continue within the tradition of the church. Working from the assumption that this is the text that we need to read and reflect on, however does not necessarily lead us to the point that we need to agree with everything that we find there because that is our final authority, what it does force us into is that the Bible is our primary interlocutor, discussion partner, if we are to continue within the tradition of the church.

Using one of these, or more probably combining them in some creative way, would provide us with a way of honestly stating what we believe, consistently reading and interpreting the Bible, and hearing the voice of the Bible, differing from it at times, and because we are allowed to differ from it we need not force it to say what we want to to say. However, if we lean towards the second (which I tend to do), and incorporate the first within this (which I’m also inclined to do), then I believe that as members of the church, our primary interlocutor, as well as Jesus, which is the event through which we read the Bible, force us into differing from the Bible text.

So in short: If we say that we read the Bible as book of the church which bring us to Jesus, then I think we can argue that we sometimes hear the voice of the Bible, and then state that we differ from it, and that we do this because the Bible and Jesus said that we should do this. Within this I think that we can say that the Bible says, but I say something else, and that this would be the position of the truly faithful, rather than stating that I always agree with the Bible, but forcing the Bible to way what I’d like to way (whether through selective quoting or inconsistent use of “context”), since I still read the Bible for reasons which don’t allow me to acknowledge when I differ from the Bible.

Well, it’s been nearly 2000 years since canonization, and still be read the Bible. Jews got the Old Testament finalized in the first century AD, and Christians somewhere round the 3rd century (as far as I remember only made official in the fourth). Still we read the Bible, but some things have changed…

I remember the tensions we had as theological students because we really loved exegesis. Faculty of Theology at TUKS (University of Pretoria) is famous in South Africa for its biblical sciences, we had some great lecturers, and we loved doing exegesis. Pastors a few years older than us would say that this is just because we are currently at facutly, and that this will stop when the reality of congregational life hit. They might be right… but I think they might be wrong…

In a recent article the development of our view on how the Bible is interpreted was put out in the following way:

  • Pre-modern: The preacher has absolute understanding of the Bible, and his interpretation is done with this in mind.
  • Modern: The Bible is studied critically, with teaching or analyzing as the goal.
  • Early postmodern: The Bible is studied pragmatically, with finding practical implications as the goal.
  • Late postmodern: The Bible is studied contextually, with finding better insight into the witness concerning God as the goal. A re appreciation of ancient discourse is important.

I think this might be correct. If I preach a number of pragmatic solutions to my friends, they’d kill me. As one of them once said: “if you preach a 5 point sermon I don’t come”. Early postmoderns might not appreciate exegesis, since there is much easier ways to find pragmatic solutions and quick-fixes from a Biblical text than exegesis. Late postmoders I believe will more and more find that we cannot do without exegesis. Combine this with the fact that “slow movements” would also resonate with this group, and you have pastors who prepare sermons slowly, who want a sermon to become part of them, who might just explain a text, without any application, and it would be fine.

Are they then any different from the moderns? Yes, it’s not about analysis and teaching. Where moderns (and this in large part was how we were trained) did exegesis to be able to teach a purer truth, a more correct interpretation, a perfect analysis that can withstand the rational scrutinizing of intellectual congregants, late postmoderns do exegesis simply to open the text up. I don’t care to teach the implications of the text, since I believe that those listenins can figure it out for there own context.

Last thing. It was common for all previous generations to say that exegesis is done at home, that you don’t take your homework onto the pulpit, that you chew the text on behalf of the congregation and give them the final product. Pre-moderns did this simply because the preacher had some magical insight, moderns said what you gave was not the exegesis, but the pure teaching that results from the exegesis, and early postmoderns that exegesis is not the thing, but the practical implication thereof. I believe that as much as possible of my exegesis can be given, since this help those listening to get insight into the text.

Maybe the place where we preached from also tell this story. Pre-moderns from the catholic side of the church, stressing the importance of the fact that God was here in some mystical way. Moderns (read Bosch to see that the Catholics didn’t initially make the shift towards modernism) from the pulpit, stressing the rational truch. Early postmoderns from the stage, where common practical guidelines came from. But late postmoderns prefer preaching from the pew, which put us on the same level as everyone else.

Still my Gen-X and Boomer congregants expect a “good sermon”…