One of the most important tasks we engage in as a Christian community is the task of interpreting and applying the Christian Scriptures to our personal and communal lives. But reading (understanding and interpreting) the Bible in ways that can be transformational can be challenging. One Bible passage says one thing, while another Bible passage seems to contradict it. How do we know what to take seriously as “God’s Word” to us and what should be taken with less seriousness, or perhaps even disregarded because of the flawed theology of the biblical writer? And how do we make the distinction?
The early Christ followers give us a key to reading and applying sacred Scripture. In Acts 2, Luke presents an account of early Christian preaching. Peter speaks to the Jewish community in
in light of the outpouring of God’s Spirit on Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost. Bible scholars point out that Luke tells the story Luke’s way, giving it his own theological twist and emphasis. But it is also generally conceded among New Testament scholars that Luke is passing on some of the core elements that constituted the earliest Christian proclamation. Jerusalem
One of the critical components in the early Christian proclamation of the gospel was the way they reread and reinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. In Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he offers a radical rereading of Psalm 16:8–11 and Psalm 110:1, applying these texts to the resurrection of Christ. These Psalms, of course, in their original contexts meant something entirely different.
The early disciples did not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah in light of the promises in their Scriptures. They concluded that Jesus was the Messiah based on their conviction that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead (Acts 2:36). Then, they worked their way backwards, radically reinterpreting the Old Testament to fit the paradigm of promise and fulfillment. They started with the conviction that Jesus brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan for
Israel and all humanity, then they read the story of in light of that conviction. This led them to read new meanings into Old Testament stories and texts that could not have possibly been intended by the original authors. Israel
The Apostle Paul does this same thing in his use of the Old Testament in his letters to his churches. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, as part of an extended argument on the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant community, Paul cites the promise given to Abraham and his offspring/seed in the book of Genesis. Then, he makes this huge, dramatic interpretative leap: “it does not say, ‘And to his offsprings,” as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is one person, who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). This, of course, is a radical rereading/reinterpreting of the promise in light of the Christ Event.
If we follow this same principle, we can reinterpret Scripture through our experience of and personal/communal encounter with the living Christ. For example, I read the many passages in the Bible that speak of retributive judgment/justice through the lens of Jesus’ life, message, teaching, death, and resurrection, as I have encountered Christ in the Gospels. What Jesus says about loving our enemies and the character of God (see Luke 6:27–36), and the way in which Jesus absorbed the hate and violence of his enemies in his death through non-retaliation and forgiveness (the passion story in the Gospels), trumps (takes priority over) all those passages in the Bible that sanction divine violence and seem to support retributive justice.
I read the Bible through the lens of God’s more complete disclosure of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, whom God stamped with approval when God raised him up. The central Christian message of the first disciples was that Jesus, who was crucified by the powers that be, God raised up/vindicated, showing him (or appointing him) to be Messiah/Christ and Lord (see also Rom 1:3–4).
Again and again, I apply this basic principle of biblical interpretation to contradictory and incompatible passages of Scripture. It’s a much better system than simply ignoring, denying, or trying to explain away clear and obvious contradictions in the Bible. It is a system of interpretation that has a precedent in the interpretative work of the first Christians.
And it is a much better and more humble approach than the one taken by a number of conservative Christians and preachers, that while ignoring the Bible passages that contradict their message, pronounce condemnation on those who question their (church’s, group’s, denomination’s) absolutist teaching/preaching and their rendition of, “The Bible says . . .”