(I should note that this blog post was spurred by discussion on another blog post, here. I was asked there about why I believe that the creation account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, but the resurrection of Christ is. That’s not something susceptible to sound bite answers, so I am providing the beginning of a response here and inviting further discussion to develop).
One of the criticisms often levelled at Christians – particularly those of us not at the extremely conservative end of the church – is that we “pick and choose” what to believe. That we decide to take literally the bits of the Bible and Christian teaching that we like, and redefine or explain away those which are distasteful, challenging or incompatible with a well-informed contemporary world view.
It seems to me that this accusation rests on a couple of premises; first, that constructing a sense of the shape and content of Christian faith is an individual, rather than communal, exercise. And second, that the understanding of much of Scripture as conveying theological (but not necessarily scientific or historical) truth is a new thing, a retreat from the progress of science and a way of attempting to preserve some credibility for a discredited faith.
Neither of those premises is, to my way of thinking, sound. My aim in this post is to set out some explanation of how Christians go about building a way of understanding the Bible which is in keeping with a basic “rule of faith,” and some of the principles by which Christians decide how to read particular parts of Scripture literally, or to draw meaning out of the text in various other ways. I do not have the time to set forward a full introduction to hermeneutics (theory of text interpretation); Christian hermeneutics is a rich discipline in its own right, with roots both in classical philosophy and Jewish rabbinic scholarship. I intend to only put forward a few basic ideas and invite discussion on them.
So. First let me address the idea that Christian faith is an exercise in picking out the bits that I, personally, like and find easy to integrate into my world view and lifestyle. Undoubtedly, there are people who take this “lolly bar” approach, taking on board the chocolate-coated ideas about God and love and rejecting the aniseed-flavoured bits about genocide and death penalties, without a criterion much more robust than what tastes (or feels) “good.” Some of these people end up as syncretists, some as heretics, some muddle along basically orthodox but without realising it or giving it much thought. These, however, are not the people with whom I think my discussion is concerned, because these people are not really thinking about their faith claims (or the claims faith might make on them) in a very critical way.
For those of us, though, who do engage in critical thought about our faith, we very quickly encounter a basic reality; we do not do so alone. We belong to a community which has had since close to its beginning agreement about the essential content of our faith. Whatever else we have argued about (which is just about everything), the Apostles’ and (a bit later) the Nicene Creeds have been the litmus test of orthodoxy in the east and west, for Catholics and Protestants. Churches with a liturgical tradition have kept these creeds at the heart of baptism services and as an integral part of regular public worship, because they are a guard against the picking and choosing which we might otherwise be tempted to do. These creeds provide the “rule of faith” against which our own personal readings must be measured. They do not seek to define every doctrine or answer every question, but they seek to set forth the essential matters against which we can measure our own ideas and readings of Scripture to see if they are in accord with what Christians have affirmed in every time and place. This discipline – whatever other criticisms you might make of it – is the exact opposite of picking and choosing. Here are the non-negotiables, and whoever claims to know and turn to Christ must work to accept them (you will note that the resurrection and ascension feature in both of these creeds).
So much for the essentials. But there’s a great deal of Scripture beyond what defines the essentials, all of it (Christians believe) God-breathed and useful for teaching etc. But clearly, not all of it can be read directly as if it is dictated by God, to be understood literally and accepted unquestioningly. (And if you want to argue about that, have a look at Psalm 137:9 and its celebration of the violent death of infants; and get back to me about how you understand that). So how does one decide how to understand a given text? (Note: for this part of the discussion as well, the answer is always – partly – not alone; we are in a community of faith; we read, study, reflect, live and grow together and our understanding can never be idiosyncratic).
– Genre, genre, genre. What type of text is it? Is it a song, a poem, a letter, a historical record, a satire? What are the conventions for that genre of text? For example, the conventions for poetic expression are very different than for a military report. “The Bible” is in fact a collection of many works (many of them composites of older texts), written at different times, in different cultural settings and languages, and these works are in a large range of genres and conform to very different conventions of expression. Identifying the genre of a text and the conventions that pertain to that genre helps the reader to “decode” the meaning of the writer.
– Context, both of the writer and his/her concerns, and of the events recorded in the text (sometimes described as its Sitz im Leben). For example, the Sitz im Leben reflected in much of the book of Job is that of a legal dispute; the imagery and conventions of speech used place Job as the accuser in an ancient trial, in which he calls on God to answer as defendant. This presentation of the question of suffering as an ancient courtroom drama is an interpretive key for the reader.
– How does a particular text relate to the “big picture” of the essentials of Christian faith? If we take a verse about killing infants, do we give that higher interpretive priority than the verse that says that Jesus came that we might have life, and have it in abundance? All Scripture might be God-breathed, but each Scripture needs to find its place within a clear theological framework.
– Other relevant information. Are there textual variants, and if so, what do they suggest about how the text might be read? What do other literary or historical sources tell us about a text? Do they shed light on its sources, its composition, its dating? Do they confirm or challenge its account of various matters? How does all of this affect how we make sense of what the text has to say about God? (This is also where – for example – scientific considerations might come into play. The “two books” principle – that God authored two books, that of nature, and that of Scripture, and that, since God does not lie, if interpreted correctly they cannot disagree – is a useful starting point for reflection on these matters).
– Reception of the text. Why was this text included in the canon of sacred Scripture? What did the earliest Jewish and Christian communities value it for? How have scholars in various traditions understood the text? Has it been read universally as a literal account, or has it been read typologically, anagogically, tropologically or in other non-literal ways? What reasons have scholars given for their readings of it, and how do their readings accord with all of the above considerations?
And so on. That’s really just a very quick run down, off the top of my head, of some considerations in a very complex area. I hope that what it demonstrates is that a robust Christian faith is a disciplined intellectual endeavour. It takes hard thinking, it takes education, it takes dialogue, it takes costly integrity, it takes humility and the willingness to be wrong and the openness to being corrected. What it is not, is a sojourn at the spiritual lolly bar, picking and choosing on a whim.