Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

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The fog of biblical interpretation

You are lost in thick fog in open country. You don’t have a compass. You have a map but you have no idea where you are on the map and you can see none of the landmarks—a hilltop, a church spire, a radio mast—that would allow you to get your bearings, triangulate your position, move forward in the right direction. You can see the details of your immediate environment clearly enough—the muddy path, the gate in the fence, the cows watching you with bovine amusement from the other side of the fence. But none of this immediate, localized “clarity” is of much use if your intention is to get home in time for dinner.

This is the problem—one of the problems—that the modern church has with reading the Bible. Very often what we mean when we affirm the clarity or perspicuity of scripture is that we can see the immediate details, we can understand the isolated verse or paragraph. The human mind is extremely adept at making apparent sense of what is put in front of it. We are skilled at assimilating texts into our worldview or theological system, and texts taken in isolation are usually powerless to stop us. They seem clear enough, but we have only a very poor, disoriented sense of how they relate to the whole—and more seriously, we have no idea in which direction to go.

I have just read an article by Andrew Wilson published in Christianity magazine in the UK, in which he suggests that the biggest theological debate in the next twenty years will be over “how we read, understand and apply the Bible”. What looks like a condensed version of the article can be found on the Theology Matters blog. Wilson may well be right, but I have the impression from what he has to say about the “clarity of scripture” that he has not seen the wood for the trees. He starts with this confident affirmation:

I believe in the perfect clarity of scripture, but I don’t believe in the perfect clarity of human thinking.

This makes sense only if a) we assume that the composition of scripture did not involve “human thinking”, and b) we posit the existence of an ideal text that exists apart from any actual muddle-headed reader—perhaps a “mother of the book”, kept in heaven, which we will be able to read with perfect understanding after we die. Both of these are thoroughly sub-Christian notions. What we have is a motley collection of historical documents written within a narrow cultural tradition by ordinary humans inspired by the Spirit of God. But that is not the point that I intended to make here. Wilson continues:

In fact, when you look at the way Jesus handled theological disagreements, he doesn’t seem to have identified the clarity of scripture as the problem—he was comfortable simply saying ‘it is written’. But he and the apostles did say that misunderstandings, confusion and disagreement could result from human beings’ ignorance, foolishness and slowness of heart, established human tradition being put above God’s word, immaturity and lack of discernment, carnality, hypocrisy, legalism and false teaching.

Now it is certainly true that a good deal of misunderstanding can be attributed to the frailty and fallibility of the interpreter. But the simple distinction between the clarity of scripture and the obtuseness of the interpreter is hard to maintain and even harder to apply.

First, what do we do with the fact that Jesus was a pre-critical interpreter of the scriptures while we are post-critical interpreters of the scriptures? I’m not suggesting that we understand the Old Testament better than Jesus, but we certainly cannot read the Old Testament in the same way that Jesus did. Jesus read the scriptures as a first century Jewish prophet. To some extent we can enter imaginatively into his world and look at things from his perspective, but as soon as we pretend that the distance between us and Jesus can be collapsed, we reverse the process: we no longer enter his world but drag him into ours.

Secondly, we have to consider to what extent Jesus as a prophet to Israel was a creative, innovative or subversive interpreter of scripture. What a prophet does with scripture in bending tradition in a new direction is not necessarily the same as what your average modern lay person, pastor or scholar does with scripture. Wilson’s article rather suggests—though he may not have intended this—that the real purpose of theology is to resolve our long-running disputes over “hell, penal substitution, the roles of men and women, sexuality”, etc. Jesus never let theological disputes get in the way of his eschatological purpose.

Thirdly, Jesus was not lost in a fog. He knew exactly where the landmarks were because he lived and breathed the story of Israel, as it reached back to Abraham and forward to the eschatological crisis of the end of the age. He certainly had to deal with details—the controversies that were thrown at him by an increasingly frustrated Jewish leadership, the particular challenges of forming a renewal movement, and so on. But the details presuppose the overarching story and are no more useful to the interpreter apart from that story than the path and the fence and the cows are to the person lost in the fog.