Monday, September 28, 2009

What is the Nature of Scripture?

I've already mentioned that I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. Today I would like to take some time to talk about what I mean by that. I want to talk about the nature of scripture and the role that God played in its creation. This is an important question to consider because how we believe divine inspiration works can have a big impact on how we interpret the Bible. Without a good understanding of what we mean by "divine inspiration" it's impossible to understand how a divinely inspired text aught to be read.

I think that most people, by default, hold a view that I like to call the stone tablet theory. The term comers from the book of Exodus, in which God gives Moses a stone tablet with the Law of God already written on it. The stone tablet theory is the assumption that the whole Bible was written this way. The idea is that the whole Bible is a message directly from God to humanity. It's truths are timeless and universal, and it's human authors are mere mouthpieces who faithfully pass the message, exactly as they heard it, to us.

I don't mean to say that the Bible isn't a message from God, or that we aren't meant to understand it. I simply want to say that the reality is somewhat more complicated. The Bible actually consists of several books written over a span of more than a thousand years. The books are written by many different authors using several different styles, and the books are written for different groups of people. Most importantly, none of the books in the Bible are written specifically for 21st century Americans.

All of these factors affect how we read and understand the books of the Bible in some way. When I say that I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired I mean that the original message and meaning of every Biblical text was given by God. The key to interpreting scripture is to understand what a text meant when it was originally written. Once we have determined the text's original meaning, to the best of our ability, we can then try to apply that meaning to our own lives. But if we skip that first step we risk missing the meaning of the text altogether.

Not only will we miss the original meaning, but our reading will be affected by all of our assumptions about what the text should mean. These assumptions will skew our reading of the text in subtle ways. In the end we will have the impression that we understood the text perfectly when, in fact, we may have completely misunderstood the text. This is a serious concern for those of us who consider the Bible a holy text. If we are committed to living our lives according to what the Bible says, then we should be just as committed to making sure that we understand it correctly.

This also means that we should be careful not to accept other people's interpretations of scripture at face value. If someone presents us with an interpretation of scripture we've never seen before, we should check their work. We should try to understand how they've arrived at their interpretation. At the very least we can screen out the more ridiculous interpretations this way.

I'll write more about how to interpret scripture in the future. For now I want to ask, what is the most obviously false interpretation of scripture you've heard?

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