“To read is to interpret”…
This goes without saying. Anyone who reads a symbol that represents a thought is “interpreting”. Anyone who reads this post right now is doing likewise.
Peter Gomes begins Chapter 2 in his book entitled The Good Book with the warning that “it is not just trendy theologians or liberal Christian bishops who get into trouble over its interpretation.” We all do.
This is at best a tricky process. When we read we have the text and of course we have the author. That author has a meaning that he or she is trying to communicate. It is our jobs as readers to “tease out” the meaning that is in the text, but we bring our backgrounds and our skills to the job. This relationship is what Gomes calls the “interpretive triangle,” between author, text and reader and it is what makes meaning differ from person to person. If you have attended a book club and have attempted to discuss an author’s intent, it quickly becomes obvious that any two people may not see the same thing in the symbols on the page.
How does this apply to “teasing” meaning from God’s word? As an English major, I am very aware of textual criticism of literary works, where expert critics comment on novels, theatre and poetry trying to help the reader understand authorial meaning on a much deeper level. Biblical criticism and interpretation have been applied to The Bible in a like manner*. This critical material about The Bible is readily available even though some refuse to consult this work, preferring to rely on their own personal interpretation. After all, the Bible comes from God through humans. Gomes writes “The commands of God are absolute, yet the historic context of the writings appears to relativize certain elements. The divine message must be clear, yet many passages seem ambiguous. We are dependent on the Spirit for instruction yet scholarship is surely necessary” .
Who then needs interpretation? Gomes says “We do.” In the Methodist Church tradition, John Wesley felt that understanding Scripture was a four-fold process which was dubbed the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” which pointed to Scripture as the core of understanding The Bible itself. But in addition, Wesley felt a person’s ability to think or reason had a place in the comprehension process. Everyone brings their life experience to The Text and Wesley admitted that. Finally, he felt that a tradition of study of The Bible was useful. He knew that for many years, scholars applied their skills to understanding the Biblical text and to ignore all of their work was folly. Yet “there are many devout and sincere Christians for whom the notion of interpretation in Scripture is anathema” . I have heard some of their claims that The Bible is clear and plain in its meaning. A common phrase these folks like to use is “The Bible says what it means and means what it says.” This simplistic view denies what symbols on the page mean and how meaning can vary from one person to another. This view denies the fact that ideas that were written in Old and New Testament times can be hard to understand today without some help with understanding Biblical context.
If a reader of the Bible will admit it, what happened to Jesus when He expounded on Old Testament Scripture? Some liked His interpretation but some did not. His meanings upset the “experts” of His day so much that they had to find a way to silence Him permanently. Gomes writes “today, the congregation would simply fire the preacher.”
I am doing a Sunday school series on the Parables of Jesus and as I move through the Parables, they are often deeper than merely surface meaning. Even the Disciples missed the meaning of some of Jesus’ teaching.
I find it interesting that Gomes points to the story of the eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.** Philip encounters the man on the side of the road as he was trying to understand a scroll of Isaiah. The man was at a loss, admitting “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me.” Phillip began interpreting the Scriptures and the man was so impressed that he asked to be baptized on the spot, which Phillip gladly did.
Gomes feels that interpretation is what drives understanding of The Bible. Whether one turns to other people for instruction, to works of interpretation or even decides to dig out the meaning on their own, interpretation is still at play. It is the nature of reading the symbol on the page.
For me there is a lot of trust in the process of reading. I call on God to help me understand His Word. I submit myself to Him and ask Him to speak personally as I read His word. I ask Him to open my eyes to what the text is saying. I ask for wisdom as I seek to interpret the text. I ask for the ability to apply His truth to areas of my life that need His touch. Gomes writes that he encourages his students to “Trust the text. Trust themselves. Trust the people. Trust the Spirit.”
I like his language when he continues on the idea of trust: “We can trust the Bible to be a window into the complexity of the human and the divine. These words are trustworthy and true not because they correspond to verifiable fact and scientific data, but because they speak with a perceptive, truthful accuracy of the hearts and minds of men and women very much like ourselves” [34-35].
In focusing on reading and interpretation, the tendency is to wonder what differences can occur between author, text and reader. But do we spend enough time thinking about good communication between the three elements in “the interpretative triangle.” Can accurate messages be passed along from Bible writers to humans today? I think they can. The Bible is full of timeless information that can communicate truth.
Gomes says it best, “because it comes from the truth which we call God.”
*This discipline is referred to as hermeneutics.
**Acts 8: 26-40.