My last three posts (one, two, and three) on the Bible's authority have analyzed five different approaches to reading and understanding Scripture, showing why each is inadequate. This post presents a positive alternative that builds on the best of the other approaches while also emphasizing the importance of allowing God to move in new and life-giving ways.
Sixth and finally, one can read Scripture creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically, i.e., reading (or hearing) Scripture as experiencing God's light shining through a window. If the window is dirty, the light blurs. If the glass is imperfect, the light divides into a prism. The light shining through the window, which a person cannot hold or grasp, illuminates life, but only as far as one can see by dint of non-Scriptural knowledge, insights drawn from historical-critical study, self-awareness, and dialogue with the larger community.
The process of understanding Scripture creatively recognizes the inherently dynamic character of existence: nothing remains the same. Change is pervasive and endemic to existence. What God sought to communicate through Scripture yesterday may not be what God seeks to communicate through the same text today or tomorrow. Analogously, some texts may have no meaning in a given period but be vital in another era. Scriptures about slavery, women, and homosexuality exemplify this changing importance, as do many other passages.
Communally emphasizes the importance of engaging both the long tradition of Scriptural interpretation and the ongoing conversations among scholars about what the text means today. The consensus that emerged about the validity of women’s gifts for ministry and the affirmation of homosexuality as a God blessed form of sexual expression bear witness to the importance of communal rather than individual interpretation. Communal conversation ensures that the helpful insights of the historical-critical method ground the text in the reality of its human origin and transmission. Humans not God made the window’s glass.
We Christians need to broaden communal engagement in our “flat world” to include dialogue with other religious traditions. God is universal; God loves all people; God engages all people. Consequently, we reasonably expect to find wisdom in all of the world’s major religious traditions. Indeed, the knowledge that is most likely to aid us in walking the Jesus path is also part of these other traditions.
Global, communal reading encourages a cautious, minimalist approach to doctrine, which Jesus summarized as loving God and loving others. Guidance that is more specific is needed for daily living but also more tenuous, subject to greater error and more frequent revision. Christians do well to walk the Jesus path lightly, treasuring their Scriptures and tradition while engaging in constructive educational discourse with those who walk other paths.
Life is evolutionary. Scripture interpretation, therefore, reasonably progresses (evolves) over the centuries. For example, God is neither localized in a particular place nor murderous, both characteristics associated with God in some the oldest texts found in Scripture. Thankfully, spiritual and religious knowledge develop and expand, as do other fields of knowledge.
Consistent with pragmatism, the knowledge gained is held tentatively. Does living in accord with that knowledge lead to a more abundant, loving, life-filled path? Do others, Christians as well as people from the world’s other great religions, discern similar patterns as they gaze at the light through their windows?
Read Scripture creatively, communally, evolutionarily, and pragmatically; let the light shine in your life!