Posted on Wednesday, January 11, 2017
In order to understand a passage of Scripture, one must determine the single meaning of the passage based on the original intent of the author.
That’s how I was taught to read Scripture, anyway. The upshot: Scripture has a single meaning—a literal one—and the task of the reader is to uncover what the author’s intent was at the time that he wrote it. This is an approach that is rife with problems, to put it mildly (since when does anything have a “single meaning”? is it true that the meaning of a text is necessarily fixed to its author? how do we gain access to an author’s inner psyche? what happens when historical-critical methods undermine our assumptions about authorship?).
These and other questions have been addressed extensively elsewhere, and my intent is not to explore them further here. On the contrary, I would like to lift up what I have found to be extraordinarily helpful guidelines for the faithful reading of Scripture. They are “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” developed by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays in their edited collection of essays, titled The Art of Reading Scripture (Davis and Hays are professors at Duke Divinity School). Each point is described and elaborated upon more fully in the book. Here they are in brief:
1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging, and saving the world.
2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.
3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.
4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.
5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.
6. Faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action – the church.
7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform Scripture.
8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.
9. We live in tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God; consequently, Scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh rereadings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.
I suspect that if we follow these guidelines in our reading of the Bible, they might keep us from falling into any number of interpretive pitfalls (like the one I mentioned above). If you would like to put them to good use, consider joining a Bible study or discussing them with a current Bible study group. And if you’re looking for a place where you can study Scripture while being attentive to these “nine theses,” then our own Men’s Bible Study and Women’s Bible Study groups are an excellent place to start.
Join our email list and receive updates and special announcements.