Most Christians look to the Bible, especially the New Testament, as their major source for determining what is relevant for a life of faith. This process of discovering God’s will from the Scriptures is not simply a matter of understanding what the biblical writers were saying. We inevitably bring our presuppositions, beliefs, ideas, and biases to the text. Always. Our interpretations of the intended meanings of the biblical writers/communities and our applications 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, modern science, psychology, and other branches of knowledge, 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, gay bashing, capital punishment, etc.. On the other hand, there are passages in the Bible that give 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 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. The Devil also quotes Scripture in support of his appeal.
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?
When 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 loving understanding 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 wrong?) Sometimes this will mean rejecting the text or demythologizing the text or contemporizing the text.
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 aside. Our sacred Scriptures, when interpreted wisely and compassionately offer rich resources for personal, communal, and even global transformation.