By Keith Lee, Associate Pastor
On Jan 14, eight students and their parents visited the Museum of the Bible. The museum measures 430,000 square feet over eight stories with four major exhibits trying to convey the impact of the Bible on society and history. We planned to cover it in three hours but needless to say, we only saw a fraction of its contents. Hopefully, we can revisit and explore in-depth this $500 million project to promote the Bible’s importance in our society. During the trip, I could not help thinking, “Does the Bible have a similar influence today?” And the follow-up question is “If not, then how can it become relevant again?”
One of the main reasons why the Bible might have lost its importance in society (and in some cases in the church) is that the approach to interpreting it has changed dramatically. Ancient interpreters for the first 1,500 years held these four assumptions about the Bible:
- They assumed that the Bible was fundamentally a cryptic text: that is, when it said A, often it might have meant B. They didn’t read it literally, but tried to discern deeper spiritual interpretations.
- Interpreters also assumed that it was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. The book is not about the past, but an instruction book to tell us how to live today.
- They assumed that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes. It is perfectly harmonious to the interpreters’ own religious beliefs and practices.
- They believed that it is essentially a divinely given text in which God spoke directly to the authors and prophets.
These assumptions still hold true for some Christian traditions today!
However, due to enlightenment and academic approach to biblical interpretation another set of assumptions developed.
- Scripture is to be understood by Scripture alone. Absurd and allegorical interpretations that early church interpreters and rabbinic midrash madewere rejected.
- In order to understand Scripture, we must understand the original languages used.
- Even though the Scripture disagrees with our conceptions, it means what is written.
- Someone who wishes to inquire into Scripture’s meaning must likewise investigate how the books themselves were put together and the process of transmission.
- Finally, there are parts of the Bible that contradict each other.
These two sets of assumptions quoted from James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible.
The problem with modern interpretative assumptions is that they reduce the authority that earlier assumptions held about the Bible to its readers. However, as believers who also affirm modern scientific worldview, we cannot fully embrace assumptions of ancient interpreters. My suggestion is that as parents, teachers and models of faith to our children, we keep in mind these two sets of assumptions and live out the Bible so that they observe how relevant, reasonable and vibrant its teachings are in our lives.