Doing justice to the text

One thing I struggle with–a thing I think I’ll always struggle with–is how to do justice to scripture. More to the point, how am I getting in the way? Am I imposing my own biases on it? Is my worldview filtering something out that should be left in or vice versa?

This is where the sort of casual interpretation of scripture I see so much of can do real damage, real violence to what the text is trying to convey. There’s a reason a lot of deep study goes into reading and (one hopes) preaching. A plain-text reading of scripture, asking “what does it mean?” by looking at the words and gleaning from that, isn’t enough.

On the other hand, there’s a violence that can be done to the text by over-interpretation. I understand that scripture interprets scripture, as any hermeneutics student worth his or her salt can tell you, but there’s a great danger in reducing the revealed word of God to a bunch of propositional statements (especially the ones you’re already inclined to agree with) and then filtering the text through those statements. Anyone who’s ever even casually glanced at systematics should notice this: Both Calvinist and Arminian scholars do exactly the same thing with different verses. You minimise when necessary to the detriment of a holistic understanding. It’s not enough to, for instance, elevate passages that speak of predestination and use them as proof texts to filter out passages that speak (clearly and plainly) of free will and choice.

Usually around this point someone starts talking about balance. I’m going to leave that alone for now, but I hate talking about balance and moderation and pendulums and ditches one can fall into. Casual interpretation and systematics aren’t points on a spectrum. A person can’t place himself squarely in the middle of those two concepts and drift off to sleep.

In fact, I think the most pressing interpretive question is not simply “what does the text say” or “what does the text mean” but instead “what did the author intend” and “how would his listeners have taken that”.

As you can see, we’re going to need to become students of history and not just students of scripture as scripture in some Platonic, isolated, hermetically sealed sort of way. The Bible was written in a certain place at a certain time by people with a certain worldview.

And we think very differently from them. Even in something as foundational as cosmology, a first-century Jew (for instance) would have a very different concept of what the universe looks like from us today with computers and telescopes. Where we accept (with the notable exception of a few very loud crackpots on the internet) that the earth is round, that it goes around the sun, and that the universe is a very, very large place, a first-century Jew might have said that the sky was curved like a dome that rests on the pillars of the earth, all of which kept out the great seas upon which the world floated. Something like that.

When we ask modern questions about the science of a Great Flood, such as “where did all that water come from?”, we’re asking a question that brings into very fine resolution the differences between us and them. For the writer of Genesis, this is obvious. The water came from the great deep. The oceans beneath the world. For us, it’s an unsettling question as there’s simply not that much water on the earth. How we view the Great Flood and how Old Testament Jews might view it are two separate things. Where we might very easily conclude that the Great Flood is an event with little historical basis, they would have viewed is as a quite literal event.

Consider even directionality. The idea that heaven is up and hell is down is for the most part figurative speech for us today. We don’t actually think heaven is up in the sky, and we don’t think that hell is in the centre of the earth. When we talk about direction we’re using distinctly Jewish language without realising it but omitting the Jewish literal meaning. When the Hebrews talked about heaven being up and hell being down, they meant it literally. Heaven was in the sky, hell was in the depths of the earth.

This is the curse of language in the Bible: We use scriptural language, attach our own meaning to it, and forget what the original authors might have meant.

Worldview is like that. Sometimes I think that worldview is like looking through a stained glass window. It’s very easy to see the picture you’ve become accustomed to seeing instead of the real world beyond the glass.

Take for instance the now-infamous Love passage in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul sets up a bunch of ridiculous situations (no-one has ever spoken with the tongues of men and angels) and uses the hyperbole to make a point.

What we tend to see in that passage is Paul asking us to find a balance between love and other things, much like one might want to find a balance between work and life. Except of course that nowhere in the passage does Paul, the writer, ask us to find balance. He just says, “Have love”. Any reading, any exposition that tries to read balance into the passage does great violence to the text. It simple doesn’t say that. Our brains, steeped in Platonic concepts of the spiritual vs the physical, read that concept into the text.

In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a chapter, verse, or book in the Bible that asks for balance. I’m pretty sure a bunch of religious leaders thought Jesus was a little off-balance with his teachings. He doesn’t seem like a guy caught up with the idea of finding an acceptable ratio of riches to kingdom seeking, if you know what I mean.

There are so many things that we do this to. Faith and works becomes faith vs works. Truth and love becomes truth vs love. We flatten the scripture out. We make the Bible two-dimensional. We read a pendulum swing into the text. But of course we can’t do that. You can’t position yourself directly between love and faith (wherever that might be) and figure you’ll be okay. You can’t speak a little bit of truth and a little bit of love and think you’ve done a good job. Truth must be infused with love, and love must be informed by truth. Faith and works don’t get separated. You have both or you have neither. The difference between saying both-and and either-or is quite a big one, and an important one.

It’s the difference between saying “I have a soul and I have a body”, which is really just a statement of account, or a schematic, and saying “I am a soul and a body”, which is a statement of identity and really a lot closer to the truth. You don’t get to separate your soul from your body. Even at the end of times, there will be a resurrection. God’s design always include physicality. Wherever Jesus is now, in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, you can feel his scars because he has a body. It’s a glorified body, but it’s a body. This is a radically different picture of heaven from our harps-and-wings version. And it’s an important difference. Ignoring the difference or talking about heaven as a place we go to when we die does, again, a great deal of violence to heaven as reality, earth as reality, and their eventual coming together as the culmination of Jesus’ work on the Cross and our work of kingdom building here on earth.

I don’t think I can say it better than CS Lewis did, though. When Eustace says that stars in our world are great balls of gas and fire, Ramandu tells him that yes, that’s what they’re made of, but that’s not what they are. You do violence to a star by considering it as the sum of its components, reading your own scientific-based worldview onto the existence of stars. They are, after all, more than you can see just by looking.

The same, I think, can be said of the scriptures. It’s why, after all these years, it’s such a fascinating book.

4 thoughts on “Doing justice to the text

  1. Yeah, “balance” doesn’t do it justice. “tension” is probably a better word.

    (Let me just say that I love this post. Love love love. And yeah, you should go on an N. T. Wright bender.)

    • Thanks! It’s great to get feedback 🙂

      I want a three dimensional understanding of what it looks like to, say, have works and faith. Instead of placing them on poles and gravitating to the middle, we work to flesh out the idea.

      I’d say tension works as a word, but not because there’s tension between works and faith, but because there’s tension in suppressing our natural desire to want one (usually works) without the other.

  2. Pingback: » Blog Archive » Shared Items – March 16, 2011

  3. Pingback: Doing violence to the text… with theology | Okay, Whatever.

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