The Bible. Holy Scripture. The ‘word of God.’
Names given to a collection of writings, created and compiled over thousands of years to and by multiple people groups in several different cultures – people who understood God, creation, humanity, justice, and suffering differently, both from culture to culture and even person to person.
It includes writings about how (or perhaps why) the cosmos was created, how a nation began, laments about humanity’s suffering and feelings of god-forsakenness, songs and psalms of joy, cries for justice and mercy and a more beautiful world. It contains stories of a man from Nazareth by people – real people! – believed was the divine bound up in flesh, and letters about how those people came to cope with that understanding of the world after that divine man, that peasant-God, was no longer by their sides.
The difficulties regarding interpretation of this sacred, ancient text – assuming this kind of background – is blatant. Of course, it is the basic assumption of modern hermeneutical theory that context (both the context from which the stories and writings emerged and the context of the audience) is important in determining some kind of meaning within the text we’re discussing. In layman’s terms: we need to understand the ‘then and there’ of the Bible before we can discuss any kind of actual meaning attached to the words we’re reading.
But even before that, we have a problem: why this particular text in the first place? Why spend time trying to understand the meaning of the words in scripture in the first place? I am personally not an inerrantist in any sense of the word; I do not consider the writings of the Bible to be free-from-error or infallible or infused with some kind of completely objective truth about God. That does not mean I don’t consider the Bible inspired or that it doesn’t contain Truth in its words. In the words of Pete Rollins:
The idea of the ‘Word of God’ becomes pale and anemic when reduced to the idea of a factual description of historical events. The words of the Bible, wonderful as they often are, must not be allowed to stand in for God’s majestic Word, as if the words and phrases have been conferred with some sacred status and the phonetic patterns given divine power. Rather, the Word of God can be described as that dark core around which the words of the text find their orbit, the unspeakable Source within the text that cannot be reduced to the words themselves but that breathes life into them (The Fidelity of Betrayal, 56-57).
That being said, the question of interpretation still stands. Even if the Bible’s words aren’t, in themselves, ‘objective truth,’ for millennia Christians from all walks of life have found the stories and writings in scripture to be life-giving and a trove of wisdom beyond its ability to convey ‘objective’ facts about God or humanity or the world. So how then are we to go about gaining meaning from a text that, though ‘inspired’ in some sense, is often difficult and confusing and violent?
As Christians, I think we must find the answer in the crucified Christ. When we confess fidelity to Christ, we join Paul in saying “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Moltmann says, “There is an inner criterion of all theology, and of every church which claims to be Christian, and this criterion goes far beyond all political, ideological, and psychological criticism from outside. It is the crucified Christ himself” (The Crucified God, 2). Fidelity to the Event of the God who stooped to the depths of human existence and suffering must directly affect our reading and interpretation of the words we deem inspired.
Brian Zahnd says, “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like – but now we do” (http://brianzahnd.com/2011/08/god-is-like-jesus-2/). Before we ever discuss scripture, as Christians, these should be our foundational truths: Jesus is God, God’s character is revealed in Jesus’ life and actions, and the crucifixion is the ultimate culmination and display of Jesus’ love for the world. The meaning of that Event itself is, of course, too deep and mysterious for us to understand. When we put our faith in the God that does that, it is only then that we can faithfully interpret and gain meaning from the words in scripture that attest to God’s existence, character, love, mercy, grace, and justice. Within this paradigm, scripture is no longer some ‘objective’ list of facts about the universe and life and God. Scripture becomes our sparring partner, much like Jacob’s wrestling angel, a catalyst that spurs on further transformation and conversion towards the God attested to in the Event. Our faith is not in scripture itself, but in the God that inspired its writing.
NB: The ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ is not my own creation, but is part of the thesis in Greg Boyd’s forthcoming The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.