What an interesting mingling of news items today: The 111th Congress began with the reading of The U.S. Constitution and the decision of a publisher to offer a new edition of Huckleberry Finn with the elimination of two particular words. As I listened to the news this morning I was struck by the similarities these discussions have with the conversation that happens around the interpretation of scripture.
It is easy to toss around accusations of who holds the truth when it comes to interpreting written words in whatever context we find them. As much as we’d like to say “The Bible says…” or “The Constitution says…” or even “Mark Twain meant” words must be interpreted and it depends on our perspective. Where are you standing and what do you see when you see this picture?
I know there are many who hold that the words speak for themselves but I honestly, and I hope, humbly, don’t know how that can be. I’m not a constitutional scholar (duh!) but there is a reason we have judges and courts to help us apply the words of the Constitution. I’m not an English major either, but the arguments around changing the language in Huck Finn have to do with the act of interpretation, right?
And whenever we read the Bible, we interpret. I’m reminded of the work of Shirley Guthrie, a wonderful theologian and dear mentor who died a few years. One of the many gifts he left was an explication of the rules of interpretation from his work Christian Doctrine. He would joke that he only intended this work to be an adult education curriculum. I don’t think it will help us with the Constitution or even Huck Finn, but for those of you who claim faith in Jesus Christ I offer these to you as a gift from Shirley. Oh, and go order his book, too.
- Scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own purpose. “We read the Bible rightly when we read it to learn who God is and how we may live faithfully in the presence of God.” Guthrie
- Scripture interprets itself. “This rule also means that we must listen to the total witness of scripture, not just to selected passages that support what we already think or want to hear.” Guthrie
- The Christological principle. “When we encounter apparent tensions and conflicts in what Scripture teaches us to believe and do, the final appeal must be to the authority of Christ.” Declaration of Faith
- The rule of faith. “We interpret scripture rightly when we do not try to interpret it by ourselves, as if we were the first ever to ask what it means.” Guthrie
- The rule of love. “All right interpretations reflect the love of God and the love of God’s people for all kinds of people everywhere, everyone included and no one excluded.” Guthrie
- The study of scripture in its historical and literary context. It is important to interpret scripture “from the nature and language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down.” Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 2
There is much more to be said and discussed but this is a beginning. I highly recommend reading Adam Copeland’s post over at A Wee Blether.