The process of biblical interpretation
Review: Even the Devil Quotes Scripture, Robyn Whitaker, Eerdmans
When readers disagree over the meaning of a particular passage in the Bible, deciding who is right is difficult. A typical response might be to just read the ‘plain’ meaning. But it‘s not so simple. Robyn Whitaker’s excellent book, while looking at the complexities of understanding, looks to the Bible itself for clues as to how to read it.
The issue of women’s ordination is particularly relevant for Whitaker, being an ordained woman, but her caution is relevant for other issues, obviously, including sexuality, but also, say, politics or poverty.
Funnily enough, we can look to the Bible for warnings against simplistic readings. The writer of 2 Peter states that Paul’s letters are ‘hard to understand’ and that ‘ignorant’ readers misinterpret them. A particularly ‘dangerous’ approach, according to Whitaker, is to take a particular meaning from the Bible that is supposedly ‘plain’, perhaps because it is what the reader has always been taught, and wrongly apply the term ‘inerrant’ to it. This is the danger of fundamentalism – mistaking defence of one’s own interpretation for defence of the Bible itself.
When it comes to Paul’s teaching about women teaching, Whitaker argues that it is a matter of interpretation and taking into account the culture of Paul’s day. I have a friend, a biblical scholar, who says simply but somewhat facetiously, ‘Paul was wrong’. This is his way of saying that Paul was a product of his time. But this creates difficulties too – what in the Bible is of its time, and what is universal? Suggesting that it is all equally universal is not really an answer, as there are contradictory passages, as Whitaker notes, and different emphases, and even the most conservative Christian reader will, say, ignore the purity laws in Leviticus because they think they are no longer relevant.
This is part of the challenge of reading the Bible. Whitaker writes that reading the Bible is comparable to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel – struggling for the blessing of understanding requires some pain and change. But it’s worth it.
Knowing the context that the text exists in helps with understanding. This includes the culture of writers and the culture of readers, and the differences between the two. In an individualistic culture, a reader may emphasise individual salvation over the collective efforts of the church community. If a reader sees Christianity as completely counter-cultural, that may influence interpretation also.
Whitaker points out that the process of interpretation happens even within the biblical narratives. Nehemiah describes the Scriptures being read in public and then interpreted for the audience, and Jesus interprets the Scriptures as referring to himself. (He nearly gets thrown off a cliff for his trouble.)
As each reading of the Bible is an act of interpretation, we need guiding principles. For Whitaker, the lens through which we should read Scripture is love of God and love of neighbour. The latter, of course, was a key identifying feature of the early church, to the amazement of their contemporaries. As a central biblical perspective, this is more than an instruction, providing us with a means of sifting through the ‘chaff’ for ‘core theological truths’.
Inevitably, there will be disagreements over what are considered core theological truths. Robert Jenson, the Lutheran scholar, boils it down to rescue and resurrection. John 3:16 says nothing about loving neighbour, and, read in isolation, this verse seems to confirm the tendency in some Protestant circles to downplay this life in favour of reward in the afterlife. Tom Wright argues, contrarily, that the creeds give us a particular distillation of Scripture, but they do so in response to the context of later doctrinal debates, and in doing so, omit other teachings, such as those contained in the Beatitudes.
Noting Tom Wright’s concern brings us close to Whitaker’s insistence that the lens of love can help us move through contemporary controversies. Whitaker’s way of interpreting tricky texts, of keeping the neighbour in mind, certainly turns us towards conciliatory and generous readings. Of course, this is not going to solve every argument. Some readers think that loving means denouncing sin – a kind of ‘tough love’. But a (gentler) more loving approach might be to wonder how it feels to be the other person. Prioritising mercy, compassion and inclusion certainly follows Jesus’ example, and that of the early church, and may prevent us from simplistic readings that confirm existing prejudices.
This approach should also promote humility about our interpretations, and openness to the perspective of others, which is necessary as we negotiate church community life. After-all, disagreements over the meaning of the Bible aren’t going to go away any time soon.