Edward W. H. Vick: Reading Scripture
by Dr. Edward W.H. Vick, retired professor and author of From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully, Creation: The Christian Doctrine, Philosophy for Believers, and more!
We have different purposes when we come to read Scripture. We may distinguish two approaches, by the individual and by the established community.
For many centuries the Bible was in languages the individual Christian could not understand. So what the Bible said was locked away from the majority. Greek, the language of the New Testament, Latin the language of the dominant church, and Hebrew the language of the Old Testament was available only for the few. So the church’s representatives who were able to communicate to the masses provided them with their favoured interpretations for acceptance by those who had no reference to the text of Scripture.
There were champions for the individual however. But not till very late in the Christian story. Tyndale and Luther were passionate in believing that given opportunity the individual, humble however he might be, could readily read and understand the Christian teachings if they had access to the text of Scripture. They struggled to provide translations that the ploughboy could read and understand. Two names, among others stand out: William Tyndale and Martin Luther.
It is no longer the case that the text of Scripture is inaccessible to the majority of Christians. We may and must distinguish between two approaches to Scripture.
The individual reads Scripture for the spiritual and moral uplift and understanding it provides. The church community seeks confirmation of its doctrine by reference to Scripture. Indeed some churches claim that their whole teaching is based on Scripture. The serious question then is this: How does one approach Scripture so as to arrive at doctrines that the church teaches as essential? That is the problem that is addressed by the question: Which is a correct and valid way of so interpreting Scripture that what results is faithful to Scripture. This is the activity we call hermeneutic.
We can therefore examine not only the actual teachings, the doctrines of a community, but make clear the method of interpreting Scripture that has led to the production of such doctrines. Such methods of interpreting Scripture are often reflections of particular situations, as indeed the coming into being of the diverse ‘writings’ of Scripture was. To understand in asking the question about hermeneutic, we must examine the historical context in which the hermeneutic emerged. This we must of course do also with reference to the emergence of the many various ‘writings’ included in the biblical canon that we are interpreting.
An interesting question arises. How might the devotional, individual reading of Scripture influence the development or acceptance of doctrinal positions? Individual believers as they give careful attention to what they are reading will relate what they understand Scripture to teach to the teachings of the church community of which they are members. Then they may make a decision. Do they correspond? If the reader discerns that they do not, he may resolve the conflict by rejecting the teachings of the church or by asking for consideration of alternatives. In this way the opportunity for the personal reading of Scripture poses a threat to a traditional church. Sometimes that produced determined opposition by the establishment to the translation of Scripture. The cruelty with which such opposition was exposed is well attested. Tyndale and his supporters provide an all too typical example. That is now in the past.
However, some churches have an orthodoxy they seek to maintain rigidly. The sad fact of the rejection of those who doubt and suggest alternatives is well attested. Sanctions of various kinds are applied to such people. A closed community then remains closed, enclosed by the insistence of holding rigidly to its traditions, sometimes defending its insistence by claiming that its doctrine is a direct and valid interpretation, i.e., rendering, of Scripture. Here there is conflict with the conviction of the individual reader. Sometimes it leads to reformation. Sometimes to emphatic insistence on maintaining the established teaching, to revival rather than to reformation.
“enclosed by the insistence of holding rigidly to its traditions” Nice phrase.
It can be dismaying for some to find that their cherished interpretation must change. What often happens is, instead of change, they erect a bulwark of explanation around the perceived problem. That way they can avoid the problem.
To ‘hold rigidly’ can also be seen as faithfulness. That alone can blind the reader to problematic readings. What is needed for the rigid is an earthquake. Then the rocks of their entrenched positions will fall about their heads. But still they may not see that it is their rigidity that is being challenged. They will say, I am not one who is a reed swaying in the wind.
The Bible is not the only source of potential rigidity. This can arise from political and scientific tradition as well. Even the best scientists can be stuck in their theory.
If on the one hand, I seek certainty of belief, or of governance, or of knowledge, on the other, hand, I must also question all three of these mandates of my humanity. Can I accept another who is different from me? If not, then I have a problem ‘loving my associate as myself’. Yet I know I do not accept some things and some people. How will I resolve the discrepancy in me? I can struggle with it, or I can sear my conscience and take what I like from others.
The good thing about the Bible is that if one really reads it, and translates it, and seeks its treasures, whether by reading multiple versions and the myriads of commentaries, or by struggling with the original tongues, there’s enough there even in just a few of its tweets to stop the nonsense we make ourselves think. Things like love your enemy, or the land is mine, says Yahweh (i.e. not yours and not mine, not even ours as if we had absolute control over it).