Limits to Christian Bible reading

Once upon a time, roughly between the full flowering of the blooms of enlightenment some time in the 19th century and loss of confidence in the whole project induced in Westerners by two World Wars in the 20th, Western readers lost their trust in those who claim that ‘texts mean what they say, no more and no less’. This more open and creative attitude entered the church, ushered in enthusiastically by pious readers of the Bible who expect to find God’s message for them writ loud on every page, and Charismatic preachers who rejoice in finding meaning in all those details of the design of the temple that take up much of Exodus. Approaches that claim that like with Humpty Dumpty’s relationship to words (‘when I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean’)1 biblical texts mean what they the reader say they mean. Such a reading is not authenticated by the text but rather by direct revelation to the person who makes it. Others accept (or reject) the understanding  as they accept or reject the spiritual authority of that interpreter. Meaning in this postmodern world is personal. This free allocation of meaning to the reader is effectively the end of the Bible as an authoritative text — for the (human visible)  authority is not the Bible but the interpreter, or the interpreter’s community of support.

Understandably this approach has been resisted (rather piecemeal since it is highly attractive to ‘authoritative’ readers, such as pastors, or a fortiori televangelists)  by Fundamentalists and others conservative enough to wish to retain the Bible as genuine authority and not a mere mystifying symbol disguising human authority. Our/their response has been an appeal to authorial intent — an approach that is reasonable, but restrictive. After all surely, pace Humpty, a text’s meaning is related to what its author intended it to mean?! Yet all texts mean more than this. In one direction all human texts communicate messages the author did not (at least consciously) intend, think of the sexist and racist messages that even a text the speaker/writer believes quite innocuous can carry.2

Texts also often say more than their authors intend in more positive ways. Biblical texts, in particular, may be heard as being ‘fulfilled’ in Christ, as types of the coming gospel. Limiting meaning only to what the author may reasonably be supposed to have meant is therefore too restrictive.

[ In the next post I will propose an approach to limiting meaning that is less restrictive, and yet provides reasonable and theologically defensible limits to creative rereadings of Scripture. This post and the planned next one were stimulated by my friend Jonathan Robinson who has been reading Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009. Heard at second hand, filtered by Jonathan, this book seems to beg this question of limits on reading. The previous post where I distinguish two ways God communicates through Scripture may also be helpful. ]

  1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass: And What Alice Found There. London: Macmillan & Company, 1875, 124. []
  2. The recent kerfuffle over remarks by Mary Beard may be taken as an example, but my readers will need to pick their own, because in the nature of things we are each more or less sensitive to some sorts of ‘…ist’ remarks. []