Bible Reading in Postmodern Times

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by Herold Weiss

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point to ponder

Today, basically, the problem is not that, lamentably, the Bible has been used to propagate fear and hatred and even violence, even if that is undoubtedly true and a problem for those who wish to give the Bible its due. The big problem these days is the reactionary and imperialistic claiming that the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of history and science.

Through the centuries millions of Christians have found strength, guidance and consolation in the pages of the Bible. Even to this day, every day Christians read their Bible to cement life in piety and service to others. The Bible has been used in very positive and effective ways for the betterment of the human family. The recognition of the blessed effects of Bible reading to the life of faith must be linked to the Bible’s witness to the faith of those who in ancient times saw themselves living in the world that Yahve had graciously made and given to them to prosper and be well. As the inheritors of their faith and the ways in which they gave their faith powerful expression, we benefit from their experiences of life with God and have models with which to give expression to our faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Father of Jesus Christ. This Christian reading of the Bible as a powerful agent for good is dependent on the basic Christian notion that the power at work in the reading is the power of the Holy Spirit. Ever since the Reformation of the sixteenth century Christians have recognized that it is only when the Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture inspires also the readers of the Scriptures that the words of the Bible become the Word of God. Read without the power of the Spirit active in the reader, the words of the Bible are the words of a book written with ink on paper.

The Bible itself gives ample evidence of how different generations of believers in Yahve used the Scriptures. Jesus, Paul and the author of the gospel According to John, for example, already contravened what some of their contemporaries were making of the Scriptures. Using the Law to condemn Jesus as a Sabbath-breaker (Lk. 6:2) or a blasphemer (Mt. 9:3) was declared by Jesus a misuse of the Scriptures. In the gospel According to John Jesus condemns the Pharisees for thinking that in the Scriptures they would find “life.” He tells them that instead they should come to him as the source of life (Jn. 5: 39). Paul allows that in the books of Moses it is said that salvation depends on the keeping of the commandments, the statues, and the ordinances, in other words, the Law. Then he charges his fellow Jews with having failed to keep the Law and not having realized that salvation has always been dependent of faith (Rom. 9:30-33). These examples within the Bible tell us that not all that is in the Bible must be absolutized or dogmatized.

Through the years the Bible has been used to justify the enforcement of genocide. It has been used to defend the institutionalization of slavery. It has given impetus to compulsive, murderous proselytizing, military crusades, and pogroms. It is still being used to defend chauvinism and male supremacy. It has been the foundation on which nature has been seen as a source of wealth to be plundered. The abuses that have been perpetrated by those who claim to derive their authority from the Bible to do such things are by now denounced for what they are. By in large we have come to recognize that holy wars, genocide, pogroms, compulsive conversions, sexual denigrations, and the enforcement of taboos are not to be part of the life of faith, no matter what the Bible may say about them. Today, basically, the problem is not that, lamentably, the Bible has been used to propagate fear and hatred and even violence, even if that is undoubtedly true and a problem for those who wish to give the Bible its due. The big problem these days is the reactionary and imperialistic claiming that the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of history and science.

As long as history was a tool for the teaching of morals, the narratives of the Bible could serve also this basic purpose. If the Bible was used to provide lessons for living in the present or to preserve the tradition with which to shape and control the future, it was being used as all history was; all history was written for what could be argued with it. In that environment the Bible fitted very well with the conservative elements of the cultures in which it was being used. The problem arose when history adopted a critical attitude toward the sources with which to construct lessons from the past or, even more radically, its aim became the reconstruction of the past as it actually had been. The pioneer of this new understanding of the purpose of history was Leopold von Ranke who in his first book, a history of the German peoples (1824), declared specifically that his aim was not to provide moral lessons or reasons for national pride but to show how things actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen). At first, the book from this young unknown did not receive wide support from people who expected from history moral and ethnic uplifting, or arguments against political enemies. Eventually, however, von Ranke became professor of history at the University of Berlin, the mentor of the next generation of historians and the father of academic history.

This means that today one may read the Bible in basically two ways. One may read it under the power of the Holy Spirit as a document written by those who under inspiration wished to give expression to their faith for the benefit of those who wished to energize their faith in God and also give it expression. As such it is a powerful agent for the maintaining of the life of faith and the shelter of all the witnesses to faith in God. It may also be read under the guidance of the scientific evaluation of documents from the past in order to reconstruct, as far as possible, how things actually were. Read this way readers gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances and the concerns that motivated the writers and, on the basis of this, they may explain and evaluate the message the writers were delivering to their respective audiences. These two ways of reading the Bible are not in opposition; they are complementary. Learning what was actually happening at the writing of the Bible and seeing how the different authors expressed their faith in the terms available to them at the time tell us that we must also under the power of the Holy Spirit find the way in which to give living expression to our faith in the terms given to us by our times. This means that a historical understanding of the contents of the Bible may legitimately inform the way in which we live and express our faith.

The Bible is to be read not only to expand one’s spiritual horizon. It must be read also to explore the various intellectual horizons within which its different authors lived. This allows us to see that one of the central insights of postmodernity is already at work in the Bible. When I was a Seminary student in the world of modernity, back in 1956-59, it was taken for granted that there was only one correct interpretation of a biblical text. The task confronting the Bible student was to come up with the one true meaning of the text. Once the correct meaning had been attained one could confidently dismiss all other interpretations as erroneous. In this way one was quite sure of the superiority of a modern interpretation of a text. This was particularly the case when compared with the medieval view that meanings could be extracted from a text by applying different methods. Today semiotics has shown that texts that are worth reading are worth re-reading because they are “open.” More than one way of reading them are quite proper. While recognizing that some interpretations are better than others, thereby rejecting a relativism that gives to all readings equal value, it is possible to claim that a text may legitimately have several levels of meaning; therefore, sectarian claims to exclusivism and elitism are disallowed. This insight into the nature of the biblical text has been a major factor in the enlightening dialogue prevalent among different denominations, and is a most welcome development within Christianity. It could become a reality, however, only when the postmodern horizon made it possible .

There is ample evidence that the Bible has been used to assert contradictory doctrines. Christian believers have used the Bible to teach that God is a god of vengeance, and a God of love. They have said that it teaches the immortality of the soul that Plato introduced into Western thought from its origins in Eastern religions, that it teaches that death is analogous to sleep, and that when a person dies it is like the pouring of water on the ground bringing about its dissolution. They have taught that God is unmovable and unchangeable, and that he is easily persuaded to change his mind. They have taught that he is One, and that the Godhead consists of three Gods. They have taught that God the Son is a created being, and that he is co-eternal with God the Father. They have taught that Jesus is a human being like all others, that he is the incarnation of a divine being, and that he is the incarnation of God the Son. They have taught that at his incarnation the Son took the human nature of Adam before the Fall, that he took the human nature of Adam after the Fall, and that he took the human nature of his mother which had the inherited propensities to sin accumulated during “four thousand” years of human sinning. They have taught that human beings are endowed by God with free will, and that God has absolute control of everything that happens on earth. The have taught that God is omnipotent, and that the human world is no longer under God’s direct control; it is under the dominion of Satan, “the god of this world.” They have taught that humans are totally depraved, rotten beings incapable of doing the good, and that they are quite capable of being held accountable for their behavior since they do have a good, reasonable mind.

The reason for these contradictory teachings is that they may be supported by biblical texts. This means that the problem with reading the Bible is not only with the interpretations of the Bible, even if they also have a great deal to do with the problem faced by anyone wishing to take the Bible seriously. In antiquity Christians already realized that readers of the Bible confronted texts that were problematic. Thinking that what the Bible said was important, they devised ways by which to extract meaning from it. The text could be read for its plain meaning; it could be read typologically as the more explicit expression of something that had occurred in the past, and, therefore, the past had anticipate; it could be read symbolically, pointing to another reality; it could be read allegorically as providing the key for philosophical teachings, or it could be read anagogically, opening up the imagination to visions of what is the case in the heavenly realm.

Eventually, Catholic interpreters proposed that the Bible is to be read for its sensus plenior. Search for the “fuller sense” involves taking into account the whole of the context, even the whole of a book, in light of further developments in the understanding of revelation. Sometimes the Latin phrase is said to mean the “deeper sense.” This, however, opens the door for personal agendas to color the interpretation, and allows the disassociation of the text from its historical context all together. Some argue that the sensus plenior requires to have Jesus as the criterion by which to judge all biblical texts. Such a proposal leaves the matter at a totally subjective level since every individual has a very personal view of who Jesus was and how he would react to what Biblical texts say. For me, there is no shortcut to the message of the Bible for those who are actively engaged in the intellectual currents of the twenty first century. They must become aware of the intellectual horizons of the authors of the Bible.

Some argue that methods for the interpretation of texts are not applicable to the Bible because the Bible is the Word of God. This means that God is its author, and God must not be subjected to human ways of reading. Those who take this point of view, however, describe the authority and inspiration of the Bible with abstract concepts that are only tangentially related to the contents of the Bible. Besides, they cannot account for the whole Bible. They are forced to select a few texts here and there as authoritative within a vacuum. In a way, their claims are at the core of the problem faced by those who wish to be faithful to the whole Bible. Rather than to acknowledge that the Spirit that inspired the authors must also inspire the readers for the words of the Bible to be the Word of God, they assert that the Bible as printed is the Word of God. In their view, God is its author, period. The problem with this view of the matter is that the Bible itself does not support the notion that God is its author. Those who actually wrote words on leather or papyrus could not have been just taking dictation. The biblical text reveals the imprints of their styles, their vocabulary, their theological agendas and their cultures.

The authors of the Bible do not share a “biblical cosmology” which must be accepted as a divine piece of information. Which of the different cosmologies found in the Bible is the “divine” one? Genesis 1 describes a totally omnipotent God who remains without creation, and describes creation as composed of a firmament that holds water on top of it, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth. Genesis 2 has God coming to a desert land and making things with his hands by trial and error. Paul works with the cosmology of the chain of being, with different kinds of bodies and heavenly spheres stacked hierarchically. He claims to have ascended to the third heaven and been in Paradise, and to have passed a full day and night in “the depths.” The gospel According to John also describes the cosmos in terms of the realms above and the realms below, but absolutely rejects the notion that anyone ever ascended to the realms above except the One Who Descended from above, thus denying Paul’s claim. The author of the letter To the Hebrews argues that this world is a phenomenological manifestation of the hypostatic world. While this world is unstable and capable of being shaken to pieces, the hypostatic world is permanent, solid and unshakable. Eventually the unmovable world will replace the movable one. These cosmologies are all found in the Bible. They witness to the cultural dependence of their authors. A valid theory of biblical inspiration cannot be based on abstract concepts concocted for the purpose. It must take the evidence of the Bible into account. If I give credit and thank God for the healing of one of my loved relatives from cancer, I cannot ignore the fact that modern medicine had just developed a new form of chemotherapy and that a smart doctor who had been involved in the clinical trials of that therapy happens to be practicing in my town. While giving full credit to God for the power to give life, I must also take serious notice of the activity of the human agents who brought my loved one back to health.

The Bible contains many things that are disturbing. In it there is a prohibition barring homosexuals to enter the temple (Deut. 23; 17), and a commandment to put to death anyone engaging in homosexual activity (Lev. 20:10). Anyone found working on the Sabbath should also be put to death (Ex. 31:15). God expect parents to sacrifice on the altar their first born (Ex. 22:28). Well, maybe not, apparently the Lord changed his mind about this (Mic. 6:7). Besides, there is an alternative. Rather than offering their firstborn on the altar, parents could redeem their firstborn by paying the stipulated price at the temple (Ex. 34:20). This alternative, of course, only came into the picture once the people were no longer nomads in the land but urban dwellers with a temple in Jerusalem. Later, just before the Exile, Jeremiah insisted that God had never commanded such a law. In fact, such a thought had never even entered God’s heart (Jer. 19: 5-6). His contemporary, Ezekiel, acknowledged that such a law was in the books, but judged it to be one of God’s “bad statutes” (Ez. 20:25-26). Were all these different understandings of what to do with the first born written by God? The only way to understand them is by recognizing that at different times the will of God was understood differently by people who had faith in God and were inspired. The fact of the matter is that God did not and does not reveal information to those God inspires. God gives them life and lets them understand that God’s being is power to live.

It is obvious that the authors of the Bible did not take dictation. They did not set on paper the view from the top. They were participants in a faith journey with the Lord, and they expressed their faith with the language, the mores and the cosmological horizon of their times. Later Bible writers, on the basis of their life of faith in their own cultures and also under inspiration, judged previous expressions of the will of God inadequate. Reading the Bible to reconstruct what happened according to the standards of our own culture and under the power of the Holy Spirit is just as legitimate as what authors of the Bible did when they evaluated the way in which previous authors had presented the will of God. Using the Bible to evaluate our own culture according to what the reading of faith under the power of the Holy Spirit tells us to be the will of God for today is also quite legitimate and most necessary. In fact, it is what the apostle Paul told his converts that they should do. He did not think that the will of God had been expressed for all time and was set on stone. He wrote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). This is one of the most extraordinary texts in the whole Bible. Here Paul gives to the human mind that has been transformed from above by the Holy Spirit to decide what is the will of God. The translation reads “be transformed by the renewal,” but it is well known that the Greek word here translated “again” (= “re” in renewal) also means “from above,” as used in Jesus’ pun in his conversation with Nicodemus (Jn. 3:3). Thus the making new of the mind is to be done “from above,” that is, by the Holy Spirit. Once this has taken place the believer is fully capacitated to “prove,” to evaluate, to asses, to determine the will of God. What is good before God, what is acceptable to God, what is considered perfect by God is not to be found written somewhere. It is to be determine by believers whose minds have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit in the context of their times. That is what Paul told his converts.

My argument today is that the two ways of reading the Bible I presented above are complementary and necessary. It is not at all the case that faithful Bible readers must disconnect themselves from the present world. Not at all. We read the Bible in postmodern times in order to be both informed citizens of a world in desperate need of guidance and faithful believers in the God who created the world and loves us in ways we cannot imagine. From the Bible we gain both understanding of the ways in which God and his people lived together in the past and of the ways in which we must be faithful witnesses of the will of God for our times. In the same way in which Ezekiel came to see that the command to sacrifice the first born was a “bad statute,” we may come to understand that to exclude the homosexual from the temple, or to abuse him physically is not considered “good” and “acceptable” by God, and that insisting that God created the universe and all that is in it in six days is not the “perfect” way to understand the matter. The mind that is inspired “from above” does not become irrational. The Holy Spirit does not veto the normal work of a reasonable mind. The Spirit enlightens and expands the mind to understand the will of God in postmodern times.

This does not mean that understanding God’s will in terms that are meaningful today requires becoming “conformed” by contemporary culture. That is actually what Paul warned against. There is plenty to “prove” wrong in contemporary culture. Its worship of money, celebrity and violence is clearly not according to God’s will, even though the Old Testament, particularly the Wisdom books, praises the wealthy and apocalypticism is a purveyor of violence. The god of the Psalmist who asked God to smash the children of his enemies on the rocks (Ps. 137:9) is not my God. Apparently this Psalmist thought his god would do that for him. I think that my God would not do that for anybody. Neither is my God the apocalyptic god of vengeance who burns people in a lake of fire. My mind made new by the Holy Spirit tells me that the wills of the gods of that Psalmist and John the Theologian are not “good and acceptable and perfect.” When we read the Bible faithfully in postmodern times we must read it with a mind made new that is alive to both the work of the Spirit and the experience of living. Then we will continue to receive a blessing by learning from the Bible what is good and acceptable and perfect. The truth of the Bible is confirmed by the manner of life it produces.