Scripture - Clearly Obscure?
The challenge and promise of biblical interpretation today
Prof. Gerald Bray
In conjunction with the Anglican Chaplain of the University of Ulster, Revd. Trevor Johnston, we are delighted to publish here the Inaugural Theological Lectures of the Anglican Chaplaincy to the University of Ulster. The first was Scripture - Mere Text?
In 1977 the German Lutheran scholar (and now bishop) Gerhard Maier published a little book whose English title is The end of the historical-critical method. Whether Herr Maier realised it or not, his words reflected a mood which has come to characterise that era and whose effects still reverberate today. However we evaluate the 1970s, it now seems clear that they marked a watershed in the history of modern biblical interpretation. Since then, not only has it become possible to criticise traditional approaches to reading the Bible but in many places it is now academically respectable to propose radical alternatives to them, even including a return to the biblical interpretation of the church fathers, whose efforts in the field had previously been generally ignored or discounted by modern scholarship.
The historical-critical method owes its origins to Erasmus and the humanist scholars of the renaissance and reformation eras. It was they who established the fundamental principles which still guide scholarly research and interpretation today. The importance of establishing the correct text in the original languages, the attempt to recover the author’s intention in writing and the desire to correlate the assertions of the documents being studied with evidence gleaned from elsewhere have all been essential ingredients of biblical commentary since the sixteenth century.
It was no accident that those who introduced these principles found themselves in conflict with the church and the academic establishment of the time, nor that the result was a reformation of the church – radical in its various Protestant guises, more subtle but no less-far-reaching in its Catholic one. By the late twentieth century it was universally accepted, even in Rome, that there could be no going back to the pre-critical period of biblical interpretation, even if the so-called ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ were far from having been settled beyond all possible dispute.
Within the historical-critical worldview there has long been a spectrum of opinions, ranging from those which can broadly be labelled ‘conservative’ at one end to those which are usually termed ‘liberal’ at the other. Generally speaking, the more trustworthy the literal sense of the Bible is considered to be, the more conservative will be its interpretation and vice versa, but it is important to remember that we are dealing with a spectrum of views and not with two clearly-defined camps.
There are some startling exceptions to the general rule, which make the results hard to categorise as one thing or the other. The late John Robinson’s Redating the New Testament, which came out in 1976 is an example of this. Robinson had a very conservative view of New Testament origins but combined this with a radically liberal theology, much to the consternation of both sides, who did not know whether to claim him or reject him. Another example is the work of Karl Barth, which is conservative in terms of systematic theology but much less so in its interpretation of Scripture. As in the case of John Robinson, neither conservatives nor liberals know quite what to do with Barth who has clear affinities with both of them without wholly belonging to either.
The success of historical criticism has been such that it is difficult to see what could possibly be wrong with it. Yet as with every method of interpretation, it has serious weaknesses that have surfaced in modern debate and helped to fuel the search for alternatives. First of all, although its insistence on historicity has produced a vast store of material data about the ancient world, most of this is of questionable relevance to our use of the Bible today. Educated people today usually know enough about life in ancient times to be able to understand the main thrust of the Bible, and what we do not know strikes us as secondary and of little real importance. For example, we know that Palestine was ruled by Rome in the time of Jesus and can imagine what that must have been like, even if we are less sure about the precise location of Roman military encampments there and know little about how soldiers and civilians interacted.
Background studies of such matters can and do fill in the picture to some extent, but do they really change the way anyone reads the New Testament? It is hard not to conclude that the Bible’s message is clear enough without such embellishments, whose volume and complexity are more likely to obscure the text’s meaning than to reveal it. But if that is the case, can historical criticism, with its information overload, really be as central to our interpretation of Scripture as its proponents have traditionally claimed?
Another problem with historical criticism is that it is impossible to recover a holistic view of the past. What we know about it is partial and can never be any more than that. It may be true, for example, that Corinth was a very immoral port city in the time of the Apostle Paul, but to what extent did that affect his mission or the life of the church? Cities of that kind are everywhere today, but we know how easy it is to live in one and hardly be aware of what is going on outside our immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. Was this not also true in antiquity, especially among the Jews who kept themselves separate precisely in order to avoid such things?
as works of literature and spirituality some biblical books have transcended the context in which they were composed to such an extent that that context has been effectively lost.
Thirdly, not everything in the Bible is strictly ‘historical’. For example, does it matter who Job was, or whether he ever existed? Is anything to be gained from trying to work out the original context of the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes or many of the Psalms? Whatever lies behind them, it is clear that as works of literature and spirituality they have transcended the context in which they were composed to such an extent that that context has been effectively lost. Whatever we say about their historical background is hypothetical and based on allusions in the text which are often far from clear. The theories which result from attempts to recover it may be very interesting and even correct, but we can never know that for sure and interpretations based on such reconstructions are therefore weak and uncertain.
But are we to conclude that the texts have no power to speak to us because we can never really know what they originally meant? Most people would say no to that suggestion, but it is hard to see how historical criticism can help us hear what they are saying to us.
To sum up, the historical critical method of interpretation is strong on textual analysis and valid to the extent that its principles can be tested objectively. In the days when people doubted whether Nineveh or Babylon had ever existed, such objectivity was very useful and it still acts as a check on theories which ignore or go against the limits of what was historically possible. But as a comprehensive tool for interpreting the Bible, historical criticism is inadequate because its analytical bent makes it incapable of offering a viable synthesis of the evidence.
For example, explaining the characteristics of J, E, D and P and where each of them supposedly came from is all very well, but it does not tell us why the Pentateuch is what it is now – and indeed, what it has always been in what we can recover of its historical transmission. For all the importance which has been attached to them, P (and Q!) remain theoretical constructs in a way that the four Gospels are not. In the end, we have to interpret the evidence we have, not the theoretical constructs which may or may not lie behind it, and it is at this point that historical criticism has revealed its greatest shortcomings.
That the main challenge to historical criticism has come from various forms of literary analysis is perhaps inevitable, because whatever else the biblical books are, they are works of literature that often show signs of careful composition. Literary criticism does not need objective historical evidence to support it because it is based on criteria derived from the texts themselves. This does not rule out historical evidence completely, but puts it in a different perspective.
For example, we know how the ancients wrote letters and when we read the New Testament epistles we can compare them with similar things elsewhere and evaluate them accordingly. This has recently been done to great effect by E. Randolph Richards, whose book Paul and first-century letter writing has demonstrated the affinities between the apostle’s letter-writing and that of people like Cicero. In this kind of analysis the content of the letters is almost irrelevant; what matter are the cultural conventions that ensured that letters were written and circulated in a certain way.
The method is not foolproof of course, and it can be hard to know how to classify some kinds of writing, especially if they are not attested elsewhere. The four Gospels are a notorious case in point. Are they history, biography, expositions of doctrine, propaganda or what? The problem for literary critics is that they contain elements of all these things and more, in a mixture which is unique enough to force most scholars to classify ‘gospel’ as a literary genre in its own right. Of course, that merely shifts the problem to another level, because there is no objective standard by which the content of any one of them can be measured to see how far it matches the criteria needed to constitute the literary genre we know as ‘gospel’.
But if literary criticism does not solve every problem, it can at least offer a synthesis of the data that permits a comprehensive interpretation of the texts and their meaning. This method reaches its apogee in canonical criticism, a concept often associated with the name of Brevard Childs. Canonical criticism tries to explain the literary shape of individual books of the Bible within the overarching framework of the canon as a whole. The obvious weakness of this approach is its chicken-and-egg element. Did the individual books shape the canon or did the canon shape the individual books? The first option may seem to be the more obvious, at least as far as the earliest texts are concerned, but we have to be very careful about this. For example, it is quite possible and even probable that whoever compiled the Pentateuch shaped their material to fit what they saw as its overall theme, and it would appear that some such editorial work is built in to the documentary hypothesis from the start.
Another area in which literary analysis seems to have an advantage over historical criticism is that it is able to accommodate not only many different types of literature but also many different readings of the same text of Scripture. Where the historian is always trying to tie texts down to their original setting and explain them in that context, the literary critic tends to think that a text has a living voice that can speak to a wide variety of people and situations, addressing them at their level and in their circumstances. Some might even go so far as to say that the wider the variety of potential recipients is, the greater the text must be, because it has shown its versatility – and therefore its usefulness – in a broad range of circumstances.
To take but one example, the stories of the crucifixion of Jesus may shock and offend some people, attract others and even propel a few into wanting to emulate his sacrifice. No one of these reactions can be called the ‘right interpretation’ to the exclusion of the others; each of them may be valid according to the situation of the readers concerned and to that extent each must be respected. By an extension of this principle, something like Jesus Christ Superstar may be regarded by some as blasphemous or a travesty of the life of Jesus, but by others as an interpretation of the Gospels which is important because it has brought them to life for a generation which knows all about rock and roll but has never been to Sunday school.
The main weakness of these literary approaches is that they compensate for the unworkable objectivity of historical criticism by going to the opposite extreme and maximising a purely subjective approach to the texts instead. It can even happen that the boldest reinterpretations are the ones most appreciated and favoured by some critics precisely because they stretch the limits of what was previously thought to be possible. We often see this phenomenon at work in the interpretation of Shakespeare, for example. Conservative people will portray Julius Caesar as an ancient Roman aristocrat and Hamlet as a medieval Danish prince but a bold director may dress them in modern clothes and transport them to a contemporary venue in order to impress on his audience the eternal verity of the underlying plot. The really bold ones may even create something essentially new, like West Side Story, which is a modern rendition of Romeo and Juliet on the streets of New York.
Interpreters of the Bible seldom go that far, but it is easy to see why they would be attracted by the promise of an approach that puts a high value on relevance and application. If the story is worth telling then it is worth transposing to a modern situation, because its message transcends the limitations of time and space. In a sense, this is what every preacher tries to do and what many Christians want to see – how the ancient text applies to me in my life today. Literary approaches can deliver this application with apparent integrity, which is one reason why they often appeal to many people whose interests are not primarily literary or poetic, but whether total transposition of the original message is possible may be doubted. Something is always lost in translation and the recipient is in no position to judge how important that something is.
The historical analyst can point out that Ruth or Esther knew nothing about American women of any kind and that to interpret them in that way can only lead to a gross distortion of the evidence.
Another problem with literary approaches to Scripture is that they are many and varied. Their number is constantly growing and expanding as new techniques and styles of reading come into play and new forms of cultural diversity are addressed. For example, we are familiar with feminist interpretations of the Bible which seek to address issues of male-female relations in our society, a task which often involves substantial reworking of the biblical material with its obviously ‘patriarchal’ bias. But feminist theology is held by some to be the preserve of white women, so African-Americans have developed their own ‘womanist’ theology to suit their needs. This in turn has led Hispanic women in the United States to work out what they call ‘Latina’ theology which tries to do the same thing for their community.
One form of contextualisation has led to others, precisely because it has been perceived to be inadequate and unsuited to the needs of closely related but subtly distinct groups. Whether this process of differentiated contextualisation has anything to do with the Bible or not is entirely a matter of opinion. The historical analyst can point out that Ruth or Esther knew nothing about American women of any kind and that to interpret them in that way can only lead to a gross distortion of the evidence. But if we believe that Ruth and Esther illustrate universal truths which can be extracted from their stories and reworked to fit the circumstances of modern women, why is it wrong to recontextualise them in that way?
Here we come up against a complex web of issues which have to be untangled before any convincing answer can be given. That Ruth and Esther were women is clear. That they lived in a man’s world is less obvious but is generally undisputed. That both women got what they wanted by working on the powerful men in their lives through the channels open to them is also agreed by most interpreters. Finally, the fact that both women have been honoured in Israelite tradition by having their stories incorporated into the canon of Scripture gives them an importance that goes well beyond their particular circumstances. It is when we try to decide what that importance is that disagreements begin to surface. What exactly is it that makes them significant for us?
To argue that they struck a blow for women’s rights in a male-dominated culture seems pretty implausible, given that Ruth abandoned her own country for that of her dead husband and Esther voluntarily entered a pagan king’s harem. Ruth seems to have wanted nothing more than the security of a good marriage and Esther was frightened into using her position to protect her people. In both cases, it was the future of Israel which was the primary concern of the story-teller – Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David and Esther saved the Jews from mass destruction. That was the main importance of these women in the Old Testament context, and in that respect they were little different from many of the men, standing out from them only because women were seldom prominent in public life. Those who make use of their stories for modern feminist purposes may believe that they are doing something justifiable and legitimate, but others can easily argue that they are hijacking the texts and not really interpreting them at all.
The church cannot prevent particular interest groups from using the Bible in this way but neither can it sanction such interpretations. Quite apart from the problem of their legitimacy, there is also the question of their catholicity. The Bible is a book for the whole people of God and however much it may speak to particular individuals or groups, its universality must be maintained. Making the text relevant for us today cannot be done at the cost of subordinating it to sectional interests. The Bible must speak to all Christians, not least because we now live in a globalised culture in which local and private differences count for less and less. If the Bible is the Word of God, it must be a message for all people. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the church today is to demonstrate that this is indeed the case, that the Christian faith has not retreated behind closed doors to become a cult practised by consenting adults and that the Gospel addresses the eternal and universal needs of the whole human race, including but also transcending the particularities of specific individuals and groups.
If it is to do this effectively, the church must develop its own hermeneutic and insist that whatever value there may be in other approaches, it is that interpretation which is the most faithful to the meaning and purpose of the biblical text. The problem is not a new one, of course. In the early church there were many who tried to use the Bible for their own purposes and who contextualised it in the culture of their time. Today these people are lumped together as ‘gnostics’ because what united them was a desire to show that the Christian Scriptures provided a key to obtaining a higher esoteric knowledge that set them apart from the rest of the church.
Today ancient gnostics have been replaced by modern academics, including sociologists and psychologists along with theologians and biblical scholars, but the fundamental approach is similar. Like the gnostics of old, today’s academics claim to have discovered an interpretive key which will open up knowledge and understanding not available to the ordinary reader. Possession of this key allows them to do whatever they like with the text because there is no-one to pass judgement on them or their conclusions. This does not mean that they all agree with each other – even in the ancient world, the gnostics were notorious for the wide range and incompatibility of their beliefs – but their disagreements are articulated within the parameters laid down by what is known nowadays as ‘peer review’, and on that basis any truly radical alternative is dismissed as ‘unscholarly’. Such alternatives may become the subject of academic research, as has happened with modern Pentecostalism for example, but normally they will not be adopted by the researchers themselves, and if they are, the researchers concerned will almost certainly leave the academy or be ejected from it.
This is a serious matter for the church because the evidence suggests that Christianity is healthiest precisely among those who have been marginalised by modern academia. It is possible to find biblical scholars of a conservative outlook in some university departments, but almost nowhere is there an equally distinguished presence of conservative theologians, not least because theology is often regarded with suspicion or indifference even by otherwise conservative people. This creates a real problem for the church, because its theology is its hermeneutic. Not only does Christian doctrine lose its meaning as soon as it is separated from the interpretation of the Scriptures but that activity is unfruitful for our spiritual life unless it is guided and governed by the church’s theological hermeneutic.
The church’s commitment to a theological reading of the Bible is symbolised liturgically by the positioning of the Nicene Creed either after the sermon (as in 1662) or between the lessons and the sermon, as in most modern rites. The modern position may be more logical and reflects the church’s hermeneutical process more clearly by putting listening to the Word first (exegesis), exposition of the Word (systematic theology) second, and application (the sermon) third, but things do not always work out that way in practice and the 1662 pattern, where exposition is an extension of the reading of the Word which is then followed by confession and commitment has much to commend it, particularly in the eucharistic context. What matters for our present purposes is that there are three stages which must be observed if a true and effective interpretation of the Bible is to prevail in the life of the church today.
The first stage, that of reading and understanding the text, is fundamental. No interpretation of Scripture can claim to be faithful to its message if it pays little attention to what the text actually says, and here the resources of historical criticism are essential. We do not have to accept every hypothesis, but we do have to situate the Scriptures in their original context and work out, as far as we can, what they originally meant. History is important because ours is a faith which works in the real lives of real people. Jesus of Nazareth was an authentic human being who lived at a particular historical time, being crucified ‘under Pontius Pilate’ as the creeds remind us. There can be no escape from this. The Jews are not the symbolic paradigm of any oppressed minority but a particular people, called and chosen by God for a clearly defined historical purpose. As Christians we have been grafted into this people and have become heirs to the promises made to them, whether we like it or not.
In the second century Marcion was so appalled by this that he did his utmost to de-Semitise the New Testament, and the Nazis tried something similar with their notion of the Aryan Christ. It did not work then and it cannot work now because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in a particular way, and it was in that way that we beheld his glory. Whatever problems there are with historical criticism as a method, the underlying principle of historicity must be preserved. We are not now and have never been a disembodied philosophical school of thought which can happily exist in any context or none.
The second stage, that of systematic exposition of our beliefs, is the aspect we have to concentrate on most at the present time, for the reasons I have already alluded to. No-one is more reviled in the church today than the so-called ‘fundamentalist’ and the recent tendency to lump conservative Christians with Islamic terrorists under this common label is an ominous warning that demonstrates how far some people will go to avoid having to deal with theological principles. Intellectuals may scoff at what they see as a simplistic ‘back to basics’ approach, but if we get away from the fundamentals we shall pay a high price, as the current crisis in the Anglican Communion demonstrates. The systematic theology represented by the great creeds is not an exercise in obscure wrangling over insoluble questions, which is how theology is so often caricatured, but a concise statement of fundamental principles which must always guide our thinking and preaching. I am not going to go over all of them right now but I want to highlight what I think are the crucial issues we have to face in the church today.
The first of these is the relationship between the Bible and science. There are many aspects to this, but the most important one is the way we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis. Few people now realise it, but these chapters were commented on more often than any other part of the Bible in the early church, for the simple reason that they lay down the basic beliefs which must be held if Christian faith is to mean anything at all. The most fundamental is that everything has been created by one and the same God and is good. Evil is not located in any material object or in the structures which govern the created universe. In the modern context this means that those structures cannot be transcended or ignored in pursuit of a higher good, because they are good in themselves and were meant to be what they are.
It seems to me that this is the issue at the heart of the same-sex debates currently raging in the church. What is human sexuality for? Why were two sexes created if one would do? The Bible is careful not to say that procreation is the only purpose of human sexuality, but it does not ignore that aspect in the way that so much modern discussion does. Human sexual relations must reflect the principle of procreation even when it is unlikely to be realised in practice. The Bible holds out hope for the barren woman and records God’s miraculous intervention in the case of those like Sarah or Elizabeth, who were past child-bearing but it knows nothing of sexual relationships which exclude this possibility from the start.
In defending the creation principle we are not obliged to be ‘creationists’ in the American sense. To a large extent, it is our failure to address the underlying issue that has allowed that kind of creationism to fill the vacuum. In some circles, things have now reached the point that responsible Christian scientists are being silenced and ignored because of a fear that their views will stir up controversy among people who have been unduly influenced by dogmatic ignorance posing as Evangelical faith. The challenge to us is to resist such obscurantism without sacrificing the creation principle which it seeks to defend and which is essential to our understanding of reality.
The second issue we have to face is the relationship between the Bible and history. Here the key question is not the degree to which biblical texts reflect historical events but the extent to which the new covenant in Christ reflects and replaces the old covenant made with Israel. Sympathy for the victims of the holocaust has contributed to a positive re-evaluation of Judaism in many Christian circles but although this is usually a good thing, it can be pushed too far. For all its merits, Judaism is not a message of salvation which can dispense with the person and work of Christ. A misguided desire to say just that is what lies behind the so-called ‘new perspective on Paul’, which subsumes the uniqueness of Christ within a theological framework that appears to be a welcome revision of the church’s historic antagonism to Jews but is really a denial of the Gospel. Christ did not come to offer us a new, improved form of the Jewish law but to fulfil and therefore abolish it because something better has taken its place.
The third challenge which faces us is the need to determine what the right relationship between the Bible and various social and political theories ought to be. Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world, but the twentieth century was a time when secular, utopian ideologies claimed that it was and actually set about trying to build the kingdom of heaven, or at least Utopia, here on earth. Few were as crude as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, whose slogan was ‘Seek first the political kingdom’ but that is what they believed. There can be no doubt that developed countries have benefited from the welfare state in many ways, but it has become obvious that economic affluence and lifelong security have not produced a happy, law-abiding society. On the contrary, social problems have simply moved to other spheres and become more intractable than ever. This is not to deny the value of what has been achieved but to recognise that it can do nothing to improve the spiritual state of unregenerate people, which is the church’s primary concern.
At a time when we are constantly being exhorted to put our faith into practice by making poverty history, we need to remember that Jesus said the poor will always be with us. However much we try we shall never eliminate poverty here on earth because poverty is always relative to other people’s wealth and some people will invariably be better off than others whatever we do. Our primary task is the spiritual one of looking for the kingdom of heaven, after which our other needs will fall into place. This is the biblical perspective, which needs to be restated at a time when Christians concerned with social and political issues are liable to fall into some kind of biblical primitivism, suggesting the adoption of the principle of jubilee for example, or even proposing the reintroduction of slavery!
Our primary task is the spiritual one of looking for the kingdom of heaven, after which our other needs will fall into place.
The fourth area which concerns us is the relationship of the Bible to our moral and spiritual lives. Most of us accept that the legalistic taboos of an earlier generation are now obsolete and it is rare to find anyone who seriously advocates closing cinemas or banning Sunday trading. We have moved on from that, but unfortunately it is not clear where we have been heading. On the one hand, some people think that any form of moral constraint is legalistic and ought to be rejected. So powerful has this voice become that it is now only the bravest of souls who would tackle an issue like divorce, which has become tacitly accepted in most churches, even if it is still officially deplored. On the other hand, there is the superficial response encapsulated in the WWJD phenomenon – what would Jesus do? Those who think like that do not seem to have noticed that it is not what Jesus would do that matters, but what he would expect us to do. The WWJD approach sounds pious but it reduces Jesus to being the first Christian – an example for us to imitate as best we can, but not the Lord and Saviour who confronts us with the commands of God, the failure of the human race to meet them and the remedy which only his blood can provide.
Lastly, we are being challenged today to re-examine the relationship between the teaching of the Bible and that of other religions. Is Christianity unique? Is it exclusive in the claims that it makes for Jesus and the salvation of the world? Until recently few of us took this issue seriously, but it has now become a major theme of religious encounter and dialogue. Within the churches, Protestants are still trying to work out what their attitude towards Roman Catholics should be, and vice versa, but this discussion pales into insignificance when set beside the problem of integrating Islam into societies that claim to be secular and democratic, but which nevertheless remain broadly Christian.
The issue was neatly highlighted in a recent exhibit at the British Library called simply ‘Sacred’. This was a display of religious texts drawn from the three great monotheistic and scriptural religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the fact that it was sponsored by the king of Morocco and the Anglo-Moroccan Friendship Society suggests that its main inspiration was Islamic, and so it turned out to be. Visitors went away with the impression that the Qu’ran was the most important religious text in the world and the Christian Bible was presented as something old-fashioned and slightly esoteric. Judaism had a corner of its own, but it was the relative weight given to Islam as opposed to Christianity which left the greatest impression.
This theoretically neutral but practically pro-Islamic stance reflects the current religious scene only too well. Even if we pass over the fact that Muslims are more likely to use bombs to get their views across than Jews or Christians are, there is an inherent logic in their position which needs to be recognised. If we accept that the three so-called Abrahamic religions are fundamentally similar it is inevitable that Islam will come out on top in the end. Judaism may be older than the other two but it is too ethnically exclusive to serve as a universal creed. Christianity is also problematic because it complicates its monotheism with belief in such things as the divinity of Christ, which leads to endless theological wrangling and is even rejected by some people who are regarded as leading Christian theologians.
Islam, by contrast, is pure monotheism, simple and universal. It also has no hierarchy or ecclesiastical structure to tell believers what they must think, say and do, a feature which appeals to those Westerners who naively think that ecclesiastical dogmatism has caused all our historic problems. Islam may bear the marks of Arabic culture, but if this becomes a problem, that culture can be jettisoned by reinterpreting the Qu’ran, a book which is so opaque that it is capable of bearing almost any meaning, especially where behavioural customs are concerned. The fact that Islam claims to stand in much the same relation to Christianity as Christianity does to Judaism reinforces its appeal still further, because it can reassure us that by adopting it we are moving on to higher things without abandoning the legacy of our past.
The traditional Christian view that Islam is a caricature of Christianity, an aberration like Mormonism, is not popular.
In sharp contrast to this, the traditional Christian view that Islam is a caricature of Christianity, an aberration rather like Mormonism, for example, is not popular in the modern church and is easily condemned as racist, insensitive and so on. Yet it is not a right-wing Christian position, but something which has been objectively demonstrated by scholars who have made a sympathetic study of Islam. Foremost among them we may cite the late Maxime Rodinson, a French atheist of Jewish extraction, who has not hesitated to point this out in his excellent study of Muhammad. For Christians, Jesus Christ is not merely a stage on the way to higher things but the final and perfect Word of God, the way, the truth and the life outside of whom no approach to the Father is possible. In this sense, biblical faith is exclusivist and cannot accommodate other religions that offer a different path to salvation.
It is true that Islam is also exclusivist, but it appears to be less so because of its ability to include Christianity in a way that is not possible in reverse. It may seem hard to believe right now, but the day may not be far off when our Western liberal democracies will be crying out for a spiritual foundation which can embrace all their citizens. If that happens, Islam will be a strong candidate for the role both because it appears to be more comprehensive than Christianity and because its chief spokesmen are more determined to insist on their point of view. We all know that a meeting between an Iranian ayatollah and an Anglican bishop would probably be a dialogue between a man of unshakable conviction and one of unbounded prevarication, but while our liberal instincts may incline us towards the latter, we must not be fooled into thinking that this will always be the case in society at large. Plain people want plain answers to their questions and if the ayatollah gives them what they want whilst the bishop merely mumbles about how complicated it all is, the ayatollah is likely to be the one who will win the argument in the minds of the majority.
The foregoing examples pinpoint particular areas in which the modern church is facing the challenge of how it should interpret the Bible and to what uses that interpretation should be put. It is not by any means an exhaustive list, but it shows that the questions raised in the current climate are broad-ranging and comprehensive enough to require a thorough reworking of our theology. This is not to suggest that the ancient creeds are now outdated, nor to imply that the confessions of the reformation era have lost their usefulness. Both of these addressed issues which were (and are) of central importance to our faith and to ignore them would be self-defeating. What we must do now though is build on them in order to tackle the issues which have surfaced in our own time.
Many years ago Jim Packer and the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones sponsored a revival of Puritan theology which appeared to be very successful in the 1950s and 1960s. In the end, as we know, there was division between Anglicans and non-conformists coupled with an admiration for the Puritans which often failed to connect with the realities of modern church life. Instead of a revival of Puritan spirituality what we have experienced is a widespread renewal which is strong on emotion – as the Puritans were – but weak on intellect – as the Puritans were not.
We have experienced a widespread renewal which is strong on emotion – as the Puritans were – but weak on intellect – as the Puritans were not.
It is this disjunction that we have to avoid, and which brings me to the third element in any workable hermeneutic – the principle of application. It is no accident that John Calvin is well known today for his biblical commentaries and for his Institutes but much less so for his sermons. Many of them remain untranslated, a good number are unpublished and several are known to have been lost. Why is this? The main reason must surely be that sermons are meant for a contemporary audience and seldom travel well. A preacher can deliver the same sermon to different congregations, but those congregations will almost certainly be more like each other than like a group of Christians in sixteenth-century Geneva. The displacement is one of space rather than time and so adaptation of the message is usually fairly straightforward.
Reading a sermon from centuries ago is a different matter. We miss many of the allusions, we may be puzzled by some of the applications and we are denied access to the tone and gestures of the preacher which would tell us instantly what he wanted to emphasise and how. However much we learn from others, in the end we have to write and deliver our own sermons and direct them to the needs and expectations of our own congregations. The substance of the message may be virtually the same but the form will change according to the intended recipients. Not long ago I was at a church in Sydney where I heard the same text expounded three different times on the same Sunday by the same man. The sermons were obviously very similar to one another in their basic content, but they were nevertheless distinct in some ways because the congregations were different and the preacher was obliged to adapt his message accordingly.
This is what we have to learn to do as we address the church in the modern world and seek to convey what the meaning and message of the Bible is. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that Scripture contains one message for one group of people and quite a different one for others. The underlying content is substantially the same for everyone and has not changed since the texts were first written. Nevertheless, the presentation has to be nuanced in order to address current issues and connect with the mindset of contemporary hearers. If we fail to engage them they will not hear what we are saying and will turn away.
It is by no means unusual for modern worshippers to say that the sermon is the most boring part of the service for precisely this reason. Rather than resort to new techniques to keep them awake, we should do what we can to speak directly to their concerns and lead them from there to the importance – and relevance – of the message Scripture is conveying to us. This is neither easy nor automatic. It is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit that must be developed and honed into a finely-tuned instrument. As with acting, there are some people who can do this naturally, but they are few and are not to be regarded as models for everyone else. Most of us are obliged to work at it, and in working at it to discover for ourselves just how important the task is to which we have been called.
I have spent what may seem like an inordinate amount of time talking about the challenges facing the modern church and it remains only to look briefly at the other side of the coin – namely, the promise which a theological interpretation of the Bible holds out for us today. In the past three hundred years, biblical study and systematic theology have grown increasingly distant from each other even though both have flourished in their different ways. In the twentieth century the names of Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jüngel and Wolfhart Pannenberg stand out as major contributors to theological thought, but apart from Barth, who wrote a famous commentary on Romans, none of them can be said to have made much of a mark in biblical studies and even Barth’s work is more of a theological programme than anything else.
But although specialists are familiar with their work, they have made little impact on ordinary churchgoers because their writings have not been transposed into the sermonic idiom through which theological ideas are communicated to the laity. With rare exceptions, neither the men nor their views are known to the general public. Whether this is a bad thing or not will of course depend on what one thinks of the theology they espoused, but whatever that was, it made little impression, with the result that most people have come to think of theology as boring and irrelevant. Yet it is our theology that we preach, and if the church is ever to experience deep and long-lasting renewal, it is at this level that it must take place.
Never has there been a generation which has had easier access to the Scriptures, although general knowledge of their content is at a low ebb today. There are many reasons for this but one of the more important ones is that few people see how the different parts of the Bible are interconnected, and therefore see little reason to study the parts of it that are uncongenial to them. As a result large parts of the Old Testament go unread and much of the rest is treated only as ancient history and is no longer applied to the Christian life.
A theological interpretation of these texts that is grounded in the historic creeds and confessions of the church obliges us to transcend the limitations of the original contexts in which they were written and look for the underlying spiritual message which reveals the eternal plan of God to us. Our theology lifts us not only out of that time but out of our time as well, not in a way that denies the reality of our temporal framework but in a way which puts it into perspective. By making us engage with God and his works, theology focusses our attention on the eternal value of the biblical message, which in turn speaks to our eternal destiny.
Properly applied, the Word of God cuts through to the foundation of our lives, transforms us and builds us up in the new life that we have received in Christ. The promise of good biblical interpretation, based on a solid theological foundation, is therefore nothing less than the renewal of the church in the mind of Christ and its empowering in the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel and raise up new generations of believers who will love and serve him in eternity. As always, the fields are ripe for the harvest, but the labourers are few and ill-equipped. May God grant that in the days to come we may come to see again the importance of ‘rightly dividing the Word of truth’ so that that truth may become the light and life of the world which we are called to serve. Amen.