Christian Essentials 101: The Bible -Interpretation

The Bible II

Understanding the Text

“Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Acts 8:30-31

The Historical Backdrop

The most important event of the 16th century is undoubtedly the Protestant Reformation. As the initial New Testament period -the period following Jesus’ ministry when the texts of the NT were written- drew to a close around the middle to end of the 2nd century A.D., there followed a long period of approximately 1400 years during which Christianity became largely a Tradition dominated affair. Remember, that by the word Tradition with a capital T we mean that view of what it means to be a Christian which is defined by what the clergy say it is. In Western Europe, the Middle Ages identify the period from about the 9th to the 14th centuries, as the time between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Renaissance literally means the revival. Revival here refers to the rediscovery of the learning of Classical Rome and Greece. What is significant about the Middle Ages is not the absence of learning, but the restriction of education and literacy to a very small class of men and women religious, i.e. monks, nuns, and priests. For the largely illiterate nobles, knights, and peasantry alike, the Christian faith was something taught second hand through Tradition.

The Renaissance expands education with increasing numbers of people among the growing urban mercantile classes now able to read and write. They begin to question Tradition as the only source for Christian Faith. The Protestant Reformation was fuelled by the rise of a literate middle class, now able to read the Bible in its own language. We noted in our history session that 1522 saw the first German Bible (Gutenberg Bible) and in 1526 the first Bible in English (Tyndale Bible) appears. Once again the actual text of Scripture becomes a primary source for faith.

The most significant event of the late 17th and early 18th centuries is known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is a period when rational thought and Reason, fuelled by Renaissance rediscoveries of classical thought combine with an increasing ability to observe the natural world. The scientific revolution is born; initiating a movement away from Scripture and Tradition towards the importance of Reason as a new basis for understanding not only the natural world, but also Christian Faith.

The 16th century Reformation led to Scripture becoming once again a primary source for faith. With advances in literacy, biblical translation, and the advent of the printing press greater numbers of people began to read the Bible for themselves. However, this posed a serious problem. People now have direct access to Scripture. With their ability to by-pass the quality control of Tradition the question arises: how will they understand what they read? 

The 17th century Enlightenment led to Christian Faith becoming increasingly subject to the rational analysis of Reason. In reaction some Christians retreated into a new approach to biblical interpretation, which we know as Christian Fundamentalism. The answer Fundamentalism gave to the question of how were people to understand Scripture was, everything a Christian reads in the Bible is to be understood literally. The paradox is that this sets up biblical narrative in opposition to scientific reason by treating biblical narrative language as if it too, is a language of factual, observational description. We are still living though the false conflict created by Fundamentalism’s reaction to Reason; most prominently in the debate between evolution and creationism; a sub-discussion of the religion verses science debate.

Anglican Tradition of Scriptural Interpretation

The Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church with its emphasis on the mutual relationship of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason – the three-legged stool from our history session –rejects the Christian Fundamentalist approach to the meaning of Scripture. We accept that:

  • Individual Christians have direct access to the text of Scripture, being free to hold personal views of interpretation.
  • Tradition – the common mind of the Church as a community of belief and practice, ultimately decides the meaning of the text and the authority to be given to it. 
  • Tradition is guided by the application of Reason as we take into account literary analysis of the functions of different forms of language.  For instance we recognize a difference between the way scientific language seeks to literally describe what can be observed, and biblical language, which is a language of narrative, creating meaning through the use of metaphor and allegory.
  • We recognize the way advances in the disciplines of historical analysis elucidate the influences of the social and political context in which texts were originally written or later edited. 

In 2002 the Episcopal Bishops of New York published: Let the Reader Understand; A statement of Interpretive Principles by which we understand The Holy Scriptures. 

This initiative was in response to the 1998 Lambeth Conference discussions between Anglican Bishops on the interpretation of Scripture. Their starting point was Acts 8:30-31 quoted above. Here the Apostle Philip comes across an Ethiopian reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Let the Reader Understand offers a series of canons for interpretation, sourced from the teachings of Scripture itself, and consistent with the creeds and documents of the Early Church, and The Book of Common Prayer. 

Here is a paraphrased summary of the main points:

  1. Scripture is the Word of God not because God dictated the text, but because God inspired human authors to write inspirited texts to be read within the sacramental worship life of the Church, in order to teach the faithful.
  2. Scripture provides the guiding principles for our common life with God through narrative, law, prophecy, poetry and other forms of expression. Jesus as the living Word of God uses the Scriptures to call the Church as a diverse community of belief and practice, through which he shares his divine word, wisdom, and life.
  3. Despite the huge variety of documents representing diverse authors, literary forms, and cultural contexts, the Church received and collected the Scriptures and interprets them in the light of what God has done in Jesus Christ.
  4. The Scriptures witness to the relationship between God and humanity. This relationship takes the form of an invitation and response – a covenant, respectful of human freedom and evolving within changing historical contexts, cultures, individual experience and need. Through the Scriptures the Church as a community of belief and practice seeks to respond more faithfully to God’s covenant renewed in Jesus Christ.
  5. The New Testament interprets and applies the Old Testament as announcing the coming of Christ. This is the lens through which the Church understands all the Scriptures.
  6. Individual texts must not be isolated and made to mean something at odds with the revelation and teaching of Jesus Christ.
  7. Not every text received by the Church is regarded as authoritative. The meaning of any text is never given, but always discerned within the lived experience of the community of faith.
  8. Because meaning is never given and always discerned no text can be used to condemn or approve anything simply on the basis that it is somewhere in Scripture condemned or approved.
  9. The first stage of faithful interpretation requires the Church to use the gifts of memory, reason, and skill to find the sense of the meaning through locating the text in its time and place (original context). The second stage is to seek the text’s present significance. Present significance is shaped in the light of Jesus’ commandment to love one another, and is consistent with the mystery of God as a relational community in whose image we have been created as relational beings.
  10. The Church’s interpretation of Scripture is our human response to the experience of being transformed and empowered by God’s love.
  11. The Church’s reading of Scripture is always subject to human fallibility and is an expression of a wayfaring community, which makes mistakes while discerning, conversing, and arguing to find its way.
  12. Correct interpretation does not rely on the Church’s infallibility as a teaching authority. Correct interpretation is tried and tested through our individual and communal living-out of the grace of baptism, which is embodied through the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.
  13. The Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation. The Scriptures operate within the sphere of human freedom. The sphere of human freedom places a limitation on tendencies towards justifying excessive demands in faith and practice by reference to scriptural texts. The Scriptures ultimate purpose and intent are to bring all people to the blessed liberty of the children of God, whose service is perfect freedom. 

Truth Claims

Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross.

But there are three contexts within which truth as history needs to be viewed. Context 1 is the historical context in which the event took place i.e. the events of Good Friday in 33AD. Context 2 is the way the event is remembered and recorded by the writer, writing many years after the event, i.e. what the cross and resurrection event means to the gospel writers and their communities. Context 3 involves the way history remembered impacts the mind of the community today.

It is possible to divide truth claims into two main categories: Truth as history remembered – the Bible records events that happened, e.g. Jesus did die on the cross. Truth as metaphor: (1) metaphorization of and event (Borg), e.g. Jesus walked the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. The spiritual significance of this event is not the physical journey but Jesus’ embracing his destiny as a metaphor for the road of discipleship.(2) purely metaphorical narrative (Borg) – no remembered event but story works   symbolically. A story that articulates a truth but has no origin in historical or factual event.

For a fuller discussion of this go to:

Biblical truth hardly ever responds to a black or white notion of true or false. In fact, biblical truth is not something to be passively believed in, but something to be actively engaged with.

Spiritual Practice

Over the coming week try, to spend some time each day reflecting on a passage of Scripture. I suggest the following example: Mark 4:26-28. If you don’t have a Bible go to: 

Find somewhere to sit quietly at home or elsewhere and bring your attention to the rising and falling of your breath. Imagine the breath as deep within your belly rather than in your chest and simply observe yourself breathing. Through observing our breath we come easily into the presence of God who is the breath that brings life. We also become aware of something we do all the yet, usually are not ware of doing it. Breathing offers an image of the presence of God, here all the time usually not noticed by us. 

1.     Then read the passage slowly three times. What is the word or phrase that stands out for you? Repeat it softly to yourself over the period of a minute or so.

2.     Then read it twice more and ask yourself how does this word or phrase connect with my experience at the moment, what are my associations to it, what does it remind me of or make me think about?

3.     Read it again letting it sound in your mind or out loud and ask yourself – is there an invitation from God in this passage that applies to my life over the next 5 – 7 days?

4.     Finish with prayerful reflection on gratitude and thankfulness for what God is revealing to you through this passage.

This exercise is known as Lectio Divina and is the most ancient methods for engaging with Holy Scripture.

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