Worshipping the Text of the Bible

In recent posts on St. John Studies it seems I have analyzed the reading process a lot.  It is important to have a working knowledge of what happens when we read.  Most of us take reading for granted.  It is not a simple process, even though many people that I know feel it is so.  It is almost like they want reading to seem as normal as the blinking of an eye or the breathing of a breath, but that is very naïve.  Reading is much, much more.

In Peter GomesThe Good Book he points to three “temptations” that Bible readers need to avoid as they read God’s word.  I have commented on worship of the Bible itself in “Can We Idolize the Bible” [March 25, 2023] and now we are ready to tackle literalism [the second temptation].

Before we begin, let me admit that extensive thinking against literalism could result in wholesale doubt about God’s word.  Since Gomes is a pastor, I doubt that he would advocate that.  I also do not think that wholesale doubt is an option for me.  

However, I don’t believe that words are as “literal” as some think they are.  I know that many factors can come into play as a person reads a page.  Let’s refer to just two of those.

The first factor is context.  Context is the location and timeframe of the writer.  A good example could be Genesis (written, scholars think, around 1060 BC).  Genesis describes activity in a middle-eastern world over three thousand years ago.  As a Bible reader I try to imagine this world as much as I can, but try as I might, I am a 21st century American living in the Midwest.  I have never been to the Holy Land and even if I went, this part of the world has changed so much in three thousand years that it is hardly like it was even in the time of Jesus.  In short, I don’t understand much about the context [location or timeframe].

Another concern is authorial intent.  Now many readers of the Bible call upon The Holy Spirit to help with their understanding of the Bible and as one who also does that, I feel I do get help from time to time.  I need help because I am not a theologian who has been trained in exegesis [critical interpretation of Scripture].  I am an ordinary person who wants to understand God’s word as much as I can.  I know I need help to begin to understand the authors of the Bible and I am not above consulting scholars who have studied the Bible for their opinions.  Sometimes I just don’t know what the human authors or God [as Author] means to communicate on the page.  Is the meaning of all scripture literal?  I wish it was but my common sense tells me it is not.  I know that two people can read the same verse and come to two different conclusions.

We could go beyond concern for context and authorial intent but you get the point.  The Bible is not an easy read. 

In the history of Protestantism, a major reason for the movement revolved around the right of the average untutored believer to interpret the Bible as he/she saw fit [again see “Can We Idolize” 3/25/23].  Gomes writes “to place the Bible in the hands of the people was to place the people in charge of the Bible, or so they thought.  True, the Holy Spirit was to mediate meaning to the individual reader, but authority was now removed from the community of the church to the conscience and mind of the reader.  Since experts were no longer needed, every reader became an expert.”  It is not much of a leap to see that some began to take their newfound “ability” too far.  There came about a belief in the authority of the literal text (“a sovereignty of words now replaced the sovereignty of the church’s interpretation of Scripture”) [Gomes, 42].   I find it extremely fascinating that many literal readers of the Bible feel they are saving The Bible from “ruination.”  They feel that they can recognize the original intent of the authors if they are left alone to decipher text. 

I find that attitude a bit laughable due to the fact that literal readers can do more damage to the meaning of the Bible than good.   Do they really feel like they can understand Biblical context or authorial intent with a common sense approach to God’s word?  Maybe they can but I personally doubt it.  I know there is a strong vein of anti-intellectualism in the United States and I wonder if this is fuel for this attitude. 

Gomes summarizes the damage of literalism.  First of all, the “fanciful” notion of natural intelligence applied to Scripture can elevate interpretation to God’s will [“what the reader thinks is there becomes not merely the reader’s opinion, but the will of God, with all the moral consequences and authority that implies” Gomes, 45].  Secondly, literalism can free the meaning of the Biblical text from earlier interpretation.  I am teaching from Jesus’ parables right now in my Sunday school class and the parables are full of symbolism, metaphors, allegory etc.  I don’t look at exegesis of The Parables as corruption; the scholarly interpretation is quite helpful in my understanding.  “Literalism does not want the text held hostage to these devices” but literalism itself is held hostage to the notion that words are fixed and understandable with reason and common sense.  In my reading, I have not found that to be the case.

In a perfect world, I would hope to see readers open their Bibles and the meanings from God through man would be clear, but we do not live in a perfect world.  Words on a page are but a medium.  As I strike the keys of my laptop I seek to take thoughts from my brain to the words on the page.  Those words are there to represent my thought and it is my hope that the thought is clear.  It may be sometimes, but sometimes it is not.  Maybe my thought processes are flawed, my words are not as good as they should be or maybe the reader brings a very different perspective to my words (maybe the readers can be confused and the words are confusing).

Whatever the problems, challenges occur as I try to communicate via the medium of symbols on a page.  I am not a God-inspired writer of a holy document so if confusion occurs, it is of little import.  Challenges will occur no matter the writer; that is the nature of transferring meaning from one human to another via words on the page.  I don’t advocate wholesale doubt of God’s word because it is difficult to communicate via the printed page, but to say it is simple and clear is to ignore the problems that always exist with reading.  It is not a simple process, even though many literalists feel it is so.

Let’s not be naïve.  Reading scripture is not as simple as the blinking of an eye or the breathing of a breath.

To believe so is to be naïve.

Reading God’s word is much, much more.

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