Reflections on Biblical Interpretation

The proposed social statement on sexuality identifies that “within our church there are differing views on how to read and interpret the Bible”.  In the spirit of encouraging further dialogue on that statement I am posting an essay written by a fellow student and good friend of mine.

The essay is a personal reflection by Amber Kendel.  Amber is in the process of becoming an ordained pastor in the ELCIC.  The essay although academic in tone (hey cut her some slack she wrote it for a prof) is an open and honest expression of Amber’s approach to our sacred texts.  I want to publicly thank her for allowing me to share it here.

Reflections on My Personal Hermeneutical Approach to the Bible by Amber Kendel,  April 7, 2011

What is Biblical Hermeneutic

Hermeneutic is, simply put, a way to interpret texts, especially concerning those of the bible. Anything we read is interpreted into our own understanding and way of thinking. This is especially true of the biblical texts, as faith directs our reading. We have a rich history in the wider church of interpretation, and that history is full of different ways of thinking, various applications of ideas, and personal direction from the text into our lives.

As William Yarchin states in the preface to his collection of texts in The History of Biblical Interpretation, “A truly comprehensive survey of the history of biblical interpretation might include examples of simple devotional reflections on the text, sermons, political speeches, and many other examples of appropriation from the Bible into social and religious life.” (Yarchin, pp vii)

As a student on the path to ordained ministry, each of these examples is important. Throughout life as a pastor, I will be called upon to give my opinion on texts, be it through bible studies and personal reflections, sermons, speaking out on social justice issues, giving thoughtful biblical reflections in situations that require pastoral care, and through many other situations. Those opinions will of course be informed by my own interpretation of the texts.

Interpretation of the Word of God is an important task as a pastor, intersecting into every aspect of our work in the church, and therefore needs to be reflected on carefully and prayerfully. The texts we interpret and speak on, being the Word of God, bring the Gospel to the people of the church. As such, how we interpret those texts will affect not only our own lives, but the lives of those we are preaching and teaching with. Interpretation therefore becomes a responsibility, one we must uphold with the utmost care as we deliver the Word of God.

My Own Ideas on Biblical Interpretation

I read the bible to learn, to be uplifted, to know the history of God’s people, to hear of God’s revelation to the world, and to know the story of love, sacrifice and grace through God’s Son to us all.

When I am in need of comfort, I know I can find that comfort in the familiar texts of the Psalms, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in many other favourite thumbed pages of the text. When I am in need of encouragement, or looking for a way to help push myself to greater depths, I can find texts that challenge my worldview in the Beatitudes of Matthew and the history of the Kings.

Every time I open myself to a biblical text either in class, in preparation for sermon writing, or in personal devotions, I feel like there is something new to be learned from the texts. I appreciate the history and beauty of the narratives found in Genesis. I am in awe of the historical critical method when comparing the Synoptic Gospels. I shy away from the raw power of the words and images in the book of Revelation.

To each of these readings in the bible I bring my own interpretation, one informed by my own personal journey with the texts through my learning early in life in Sunday school and Confirmation, through my various classes in religion in my undergraduate degree, and into the present at the end of my Masters of Divinity degree. As I have grown and lived and loved in these texts, my own ideas and ways of interpreting said texts have stretched, changed and developed. I don’t think that I will ever stop reinterpreting and relearning these texts, I don’t think I should either. The biblical texts, while written centuries and millennia ago, are to me a living breathing text.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that specific passages in the bible are written not for its own time, but for my time and place here and now (as Tyconius believed in his typological biblical interpretations). However, I do believe that the biblical texts have a rich gift to give to people of all times and all places. A gift that we can learn from, bring into our own lives, and a gift we can share with others.

I don’t stick to simply allegorical readings of the biblical text, nor to simply historical readings. I believe that the whole church can benefit from a dual reading. We can hear the story of the creation of the world and know that it is an allegory for God’s loving care in creating each part of our world with thought and devotion to that creation without getting hung up on whether God actually managed to create the world in six actual days and rest on the seventh. We can read the words of Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians that inform our liturgy in the Lord’s Supper and benefit from the historical teaching of this likely being a liturgical hymn used in the early church as it connects us to that history, and to the church in all places and all times.

In my own interpretation, both the allegorical and the historical interpretations that have come to us through our own history have equal application in bringing us closer to the Word of God in our lives.

We have these texts today to inform us and to guide us along our paths of faith. The holding of our Bible as sacred scripture is perhaps the one thing that all denominations of Christianity hold in common. Of course, the division of the church has almost always come from a difference of opinion on how to properly interpret these beautiful biblical texts of ours.

How we interpret the texts has held a divisive aura over our church from the ideas of Donatism in the early church, through the reformations of Erasmus, Calvin and Luther, and into today with divisions of interpretation between Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Baptist tradition, conservative non-mainline affiliated churches, and many others. Even within a single tradition, for example Lutheranism, there is no cohesive interpretation of the text. We all read and interpret differently, and we all colour the text with our own ideas of what the ‘correct’ way of interpretation might be.

I of course have my own interpretive ideas, and while I feel strongly about the lens through which I view the bible, and that lens is clearly clouded by the extra biblical texts and interpretations of my own denomination’s history, I will never know if I am ‘right’. But who can know if they are really ‘right’? I don’t think anyone can, no matter how hard we might all try. What we can know is a sense of hope, faith and love that we read in these texts.

When I open a text to my own personal interpretation, I always strive to find the gospel message, the good news, in that text. We, the people of God, have been given the grace of God. This love is given to us through the sacrifice of God’s Son in order that we might be saved, and we are justified in our faith through this graceful love.

I believe that even the most challenging of pericopes should point to the faith we share in God, the hope we have in God, and the love of God that shines into our lives.

I believe that the Word of God is for all people, and that the Word should encourage us to not only be tolerant of one another, but to love one another. The Golden Rule, the most important commandment that we read in Matthew 22, verses 37 – 40 is: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Bible, New International Version)

When I interpret texts in the bible, it is through this lens. It informs how I hope to show God’s love into the world. I try to shine that love into the world through acceptance of not only our commonalities, but also a celebration of our difference. I shine the light of the love of God through engaging those who we might see as outside of our own selves and being the light of Christ to them, whether or not they believe in the same God as I do. God’s love to me knows no bounds, no barriers. God’s love is there for all no matter their race, creed, religion, lifestyle, sexual orientation, social status, monetary wealth, or any of the other myriad of differences that the people of the world have between them.

Reading and interpreting the biblical texts always shows me that hope, faith and love that comes from God into our lives. As I share that interpretation with the world, I hope that others might come to the same reasoning, and that our love for God, the love God shows to us, and the love we share with our neighbour, can only grow.

My own ideas of interpretation here connect me to the interpretive ideas of St. Augustine as well.

Augustinian Interpretation

After hearing a presentation on the allegorical interpretation of scripture, Augustine realized that allegory provided a way to interpret scripture that could refute those who wished to get rid of the Old Testament. He was concerned with Holy living in a Neoplatonist context – the world we see is a manifestation of the true intelligible world.

Augustine took the symbol of words to be a sign of God’s doctrines of teaching through scripture. All understanding, he believed, were to increase Christian virtues: faith in god, hope in God, and love of God.

Applied to the study of scripture, Augustine believed that all interpretation should begin and end with the love of God and the love of neighbour. Within the interpretive framework of the church, Augustine believed that the entire bible would yield this knowledge, and the cultivation of love of God and neighbour, or the condemnation of the lack thereof.

So the purpose of scripture is to reveal this meaning, and the purpose of interpretation is to expose this meaning within the signs of the bible. In book two of his work On Christian Doctrine, Augustine looked at the problems of the texts where this meaning was obscure, and in book three, Augustine guided the reader in allegorical interpretation. He believed that the text bore an allegorical meaning even if the original author did not intend for an allegorical reading of the text.

The key to interpretation to Augustine was the effect of that interpretation: “within the horizon of the church’s basic teaching, if love of God and neighbour is built up, or if selfish desire is impugned, then the interpretation is a good one, regardless of the means – allegorical or literal – by which one arrives at it.” (Yarchin pp 63)

Bringing Biblical Interpretation to the People of God in a Pastoral Setting

With this thoughtful understanding of my own personal interpretation of biblical texts, it would be remiss to not include a section on how I would bring that interpretation to a Pastoral setting.

I hope to be entrusted into ordained ministry, and if so entrusted I will eventually make a vow before God and before the church to preach and teach the Gospel, and to faithfully administer the sacraments.

I hope that my own interpretive style will shine the love of God into the hearts of my congregation, and that I along with them will turn and shine that love that we have received from God into the lives of our neighbours.

In faithful consideration of the texts I hope to bring that Word of God alive through sermon delivery. In living that interpretation of the texts, I hope to bring the Word of God to those who need it, in visitation, in study, in reflection, in social justice, in outreach, in evangelism, in the celebration of life that we share in special occasions together, in birth, throughout life, and in death.

As I stated above, I believe that the Word of God is for all people in all times, no matter who they are, and my interpretation of the Bible will always reflect that hope, faith and love that we can all share in our lives.

References:

Yarchin, William. History of Biblical Interpretation. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004.

The Holy Bible, New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. Sourced from: http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/New-International-Version-NIV-Bible/ on April 4, 2011.

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