Most Christians look to the Bible, especially the New Testament, as a major source for determining what is relevant for a life of faith. Many Christians on the right make it their only source and turn the Bible into an idol. Some Christians on the left can be quite dismissive towards the sacred text, if not in name, certainly in actual practice. We inevitably bring our presuppositions, beliefs, ideas, and biases to the subject. Our interpretations of the intended meanings of the biblical writers/communities and our applications (if any) of these texts to our contemporary lives are always shaped by our worldview, that is, the theological, social, political, and other cultural perspectives with which we approach the text. Hopefully we are open, honest, and humble enough to acknowledge this and allow two thousand years of Christian tradition, advances in science, psychology, and other branches of knowledge, insights from other religious traditions, as well as reason and good common sense to guide us in our interaction with Scripture.
Interpreting the Bible as a means of discerning God’s redemptive will is an extremely subjective process. Beware of any preacher who introduces his or her interpretation of the text with an absolute: “God says . . .” I certainly believe that God speaks and communicates through the Scriptures, but determining what God is saying involves a highly tentative and imperfect process of spiritual discernment. On a number of issues of theological, social, and practical relevance the Bible argues with itself, even within the same biblical books. This, of course, makes the Bible easily adaptable as a tool of oppression used to legitimate unhealthy, even destructive and deadly, religious, political, and social practices such as slavery, racism, the subordination of women, homophobia, capital punishment, etc., which explains how easy it is for those on the left to develop a rather negative attitude toward the Bible. On the other hand, there are passages in the Bible that bear witness to the very best of humanity, empowering people of faith to stand up against injustice, to practice peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation, to stand in solidarity with the suffering world, and to give themselves selflessly and sacrificially for the good of others.
A story within the biblical text itself illustrates these two very different uses of the Bible. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus, after his baptism by John, is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested by the Devil. (Whether one interprets the Devil as a mythological/ symbolical/representational figure or as an actual, non-human, personal power or somewhere in-between depends largely on beliefs and presuppositions one brings to the text—the point I make above.) Matthew and Luke mention three specific temptations. In response to each one Jesus quotes Scripture, but the Devil also appeals to Scripture.
The Devil does not tempt Jesus with evil, but with the good. If Jesus were to turn stones into bread he could eliminate hunger. If Jesus were to dazzle the world with his showmanship and exercise power over the kingdoms of the world then think of all the good he could do. The issue here concerns the means by which a good end is attained. The main issue being: How will Jesus go about God’s business? Scripture can be employed in ways that both clarify and confuse the issue.
When evangelical preachers claim that they preach nothing but the Word of God, they do not realize how subjective and biased their own approach is. Quite often those who make such claims are the very ones who proclaim and argue for interpretations and positions that make God look small, narrow, mean, and sometimes just plain silly.
At the risk of being deemed “simple minded” let me offer a simple, common sense rule of thumb. We can hardly go wrong by seeking the most gracious, redemptive, healing, and compassionate understanding/application of the text. (Well, our interpretation may be wrong, but at least it will not be destructive. One might ask: Is any interpretation that grows the soul, inspires love, and seeks what is good for the other wrong?) Sometimes this will mean rejecting the text or demythologizing the text or contemporizing the text. Other times it will mean accepting the text as it reads.
Just because the Bible has been hurtfully employed to validate oppressive policies and practices that control, subjugate, exclude and condemn “the other,” is no reason for tossing this great book (or library of books) aside. Our sacred Scriptures, when interpreted wisely and compassionately offer rich resources for personal, communal, and even global transformation.
I have discovered that the more I wrestle with the Scriptures (I am thinking here of the way Jacob wrestled with God in the biblical story) the more I come to appreciate them as a means of transformation. I would readily admit that the content of the sacred Scriptures varies in degrees of authority and inspiration; some parts might not be inspired at all, but all of it yields insights about the human condition and our quest to know, relate to, and participate with the creative, redemptive work of God.
Coming from an evangelical tradition, the Bible has always been a vital part of my Christian experience. But I am glad to report that currently in my “progressive” stage of growth, I am even more passionate and excited about the study and teaching of Scripture than I was in my conservative days.