Regardless of which Christian tradition we call our own, the sacred texts of the Bible are always central to that tradition. While we may affirm different canons of scripture, all families within the Christian faith have great reverence for the scriptures and view them as having a vital place of authority in shaping Christian belief and practice. Yet, we must realize that the texts of scripture never stand on their own. The Bible does not interpret itself, but must be interpreted by those who read the text; those situated in various times and places who seek to grasp what these texts say about God.
There are many reasons people may read the Bible, e.g., historical or literary, but the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity. Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity. In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world.
But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era. These stories extend beyond their own frame of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.
So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live? Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God? Answering these questions fully would take more space than allotted here, but I want to offer at least a rudimentary approach to reading the scriptures theologically.
One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation. In other words, we can extend our critical approach to the Bible past simply asking questions about the history of the Bible, to asking questions about what the Bible says. A critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.
A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations. Reading the Bible critically means not only giving close attention to the literary nature of the text, and to the genre of a specific text, but also to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours. They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently. Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.
Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture to this end, we must also recognize our own presuppositions. Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us. We approach the biblical text with these ideologies, which often leads to our reading our presuppositions into the texts of scripture without realizing it. Our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our socio-economic class, and even the various events we have experienced and continue to experience all contribute to the assumptions we have about what the Bible says and means. Moreover, we often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and not doing so can cause us to cling consciously or unconsciously to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.
Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside altogether. They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything. To be sure, we would be uncomfortable and untrusting of what we read without them. But, if we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology and practice, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.
Of course, we could read the Bible critically in isolation, but that may only lead us back to our presuppositions. A more fruitful practice of reading would be to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings. A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture. Certainly we can be helped by those trained to read these ancient texts; those committed to the study of their original languages, settings, and purpose, but we need not all be biblical scholars to read, appreciate, and live out the meanings of the biblical texts.
Each of us approaches the texts with different experiences and thus each of us has different presuppositions. When shared in a community of textual readers, however, such experiences can enrich one’s faith and lead one to be more faithful in his or her discipleship. The richness of the biblical texts cannot be limited to authorial intent or authoritative interpretation. Rather, the Bible contains a multiplicity of valid interpretations, and reading in community can help us see other meanings and other ways of assessing the Bible.
Yet, while we can read the scriptures in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions. Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations. There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, and reading in likeminded community is an exercise in biblical and theological interpretation that can shape our discipleship. But, reading the text with people from other races, other cultures, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different. And such a practice may help us to see God differently by offering the Spirit a way of leading us to fresh interpretations that shape our theological thinking.