Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The Rules of Real Estate and Biblical Interpretation
When people come to me as Pastor to ask about specific passages in Scripture, the problem is almost always one of context. When we pull passages out of their context, what they mean may change and may change dramatically. When we say Scripture interprets itself, part of this means that a passage is made clear to us by its context, first of all, and then by other Scripture passages in the same book, and then finally by other passages from the whole of Scripture. Location, Location, Location.
Part of the problem with the way we read Scriptures is that we approach them with the same enthusiasm as reading the directions for putting together the pieces of furniture we bought at the home store. We dive in and start assembling until we run into a problem and then we run to the step that is causing us the problem, forgetting that each step before this lays the context for what we do in, say, step 12. So when we as Christians only know God's Word with a vague familiarity, we tend to rush to (or through the concordance seek out) specific passages that may be appropriate to our question or need. Often, after we read them we are left with more questions than answers. Why? Well, in part because we do not see the passage through the lens of its surroundings.
For those in the three year lectionary, this has particularly been true during Epiphany with its extended sojourns into the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel. If we pull out a passage here or there, we are left with a far different understanding of what it says than if it all hangs together. Which is why I have been quoting from previous weeks of sermons as we make our way through the end of this Epiphany season. Context, Context, Context.
Pres. Matt Harrison put it pointedly when it comes to prayer. Quoting Luther and applying the Word to our present day situation, he tells us the reason that we do not know how to pray is that we do not know God's Word and therefore do not know the promises contained in that Word and thus do not know what to say when we pray -- except an endless list of our self-identified wants and needs. Knowing the Word of God is not theoretical but practical -- it informs our prayer life and shapes our hearts for that life of prayer.
In that respect, I am not so much a fan of reading the whole Bible through. It is a good thing to do after you have spent time in specific places. By spending time, I mean reading a book over and over again until its words become familiar to you. It is then that you find how things fit together, how the message hangs together, and what the context is for the specific passages you have read. So I would never counsel someone to begin their journey through the Scriptures by starting at Genesis and then reading through to Revelation. I would instead suggest beginning with one of the Gospels and reading it through several times (Matthew, in particular).
Prooftexting is often the methodology of those who know the Scriptures least of all. Stringing together an endless litany of passages in order to prove your point is generally a case of using Scripture to say what you want to say and not necessarily letting Scripture speak for itself. It is by far better to know one whole book well than to know bits and pieces of it all, drawn out of context, cut and pasted together as if Scripture were source material for a paper you were doing.
For this reason being in the Word of God is not a mere matter of reading a snippet of Scripture, like a calendar with a passage a day. Being in the Word of God means being captive to that Word, reading, knowing, and inwardly digesting it (could not resist that old collect). I would suggest that we remember the rules of Biblical interpretation (Location, Location, Location) and become intimately familiar with specific sections (like the Gospel according to St. Matthew). This is the best start for those who want to know the Word. Of course, don't stop there but that is a great way to begin. Until, hopefully, the day comes when the Word read on Sunday mornings comes to you as the familiar voice that you have often heard and not the startling voice of a stranger whom you do not know...