Monday, 27 August 2012

The most influential book in the world

How to interpret the Bible

Of fundamental importance to human life is whether or not certain events actually took place or not. If they did not they are consigned to irrelevance or at least sidelined as far as a general canon of literature is concerned. Non-historical literature, although important reading for a politician on holiday, would never be essential reading for him when he is at work, at say the foreign office. 

In this regard, whether the Bible is or is not a history (natural or human) is crucial. We often hear about the Bible being history, but we really need to examine what that means. First of all, the Bible cannot simply be a history, since so much of it is unmistakably prophecy.

The first part of the Old Testament is the Pentateuch or the law. This was probably written by a prophet, and if not certainly strongly features the prophets Abraham and Moses. The second part of the Bible is referred to as the historical books. They are about the prophetic establishment of the Kingship by Samuel and the maintenance of the Kingship through the prophetic word (2 Sam. 7 vs. 1-18). Although bright Messianic hopes are born during this time, in many respects these books are concluded with dismal failure and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. Next comes the wisdom literature, not much prophecy here, although wisdom is crucial for keeping prophecy in check. During the exile the prophetic books (major and minor) come to feature more strongly again and these overtake the former prophets (Zechariah 1 v.6).

Prophetic history is a far more accurate summary of the Bible than history alone. But history it is nonetheless.

However, according to the Bible all history, and this is crucial to understand the Bible, is founded on God's word. The heavens and earth were created by God's word, and empires rise and fall by God's word. The most fundamental description of the Bible is that it is God's word. But this is in some respects too fundamental, and may become fundamentalist if it is pressed too hard. If those things that are mentioned in God's word did not actually take place in human and natural history, and the word of God cannot be established through these subjects, it will inevitably be sidelined and (perhaps politely) ignored.

Whether or not the Bible is a science or an art is also an important question, but science changes a great deal and art, perhaps more. To keep to task we need to know that the Bible is God's word, that the prophets and their New testament counterparts spoke that word, and that those words became established as human history.  The first principle of interpretation of the Bible should be (and in fact is) the establishment of human event, rather than comparing the Bible to works of art or the current knowledge of the day. In this regard the book of Genesis should be treated as any other book, and we should ask ourselves what is God saying through it in this in terms of human and natural event.

In fact the established principles of interpretation of the Bible are fivefold- literal/historical, allegorical, tropological (moral) and eschatological. The difficulty with many readings of the Bible since the Reformation is that they have been popularised.  The tendency is to say that (although this was not encouraged by Calvin and the reformers, on the contrary!) is that the Bible is to be interpreted and accommodated to current trends in art, science or the humanities. It is not interpreted historically as a substantial, classically and dynamically unchanging piece of God's work. This might be because of the fifth principle of interpretation, which was introduced at that time- accommodation. This noted that God accommodated for the lack of knowledge of the biblical characters, using language that they could personally grasp. This is  a very important principle truth, but if it is not held in tension with the other principles of interpretation it may fail to recognise that the crucial matter is that God said it, rather than the particular context in which it was said. If God says something it always has abiding significance, although we will of course need to search out the contemporary relevance and meaning.

The Bible is not subject to science, to art or to the humanities and social sciences, although knowing about these subjects can of course help us to read it with more depth and understanding. Assessing the extent of knowledge of the society concerned in a situation in the Bible, and comparing it unfavourably with a more developed one misses the point entirely. The Bible is a classic work of history. It records the most substantial and vital truths about God and human nature, which do not change.  An unfavourable comparison of the Bible with  more modern sources of knowledge also neglects the fact that wisdom can be lost over time as well as gained.

Applying the Bible

The matters discussed must go some way to explain why the Bible is of abiding significance, and is still the best selling book in the world, but it does not mean that the Bible becomes automatically relevant to education. The Bible must be applied to education or the next generation will not realise that it is God's history (and future) and therefore the foundational text of societies. It is by studying it, meditating on it, trusting it and believing it that we find hope!

Real application means comparing and contrasting God's word to the situation and seeing how the light of God can be thrown on it. This will inevitably mean that God's word will be read as though it has answers i.e. it will need to be believed and depended on! And this is the essential challenge. As Jesus said, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent'. (John 6 v.29). What does John's gospel ask us to believe? That the Son of God stepped into human history, and now everything is to be read in the light of the the fact that the Word, who was and is God, became flesh.

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