No One Reads the Bible Objectively
No one–absolutely no one–is able to approach the Bible without bias or preconceived notions.
Every one of us brings countless conscious or unconscious assumptions, values, and ideals to our reading of the Scriptures.
That means that anyone who claims, “I don’t follow ‘the Traditions of Men’, I just believe the Bible!” (a claim I have heard countless times over the years,) are simply blind to the biases and influences which shape and form their understanding of what they read in the Bible.
When I hear this claim, I immediately want to issue this challenge: Give me 10 minutes with you while you tell me what you believe, and I will tell you which “Traditions of Men” you are in fact following perhaps without even realizing it.
The fact is that we all follow “the Traditions of Men”. The only questions are which traditions of which men, and are we even aware of the fact that we have such influences?
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, taught that there were four “pillars” of the Christian faith: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.
Scripture is paramount. It is the ultimate source and authority for Christian belief and practice.
Tradition is the faith we have inherited from others. There are “small t” traditions, which are our personal and individual influences, ideas, values, and assumptions that we were raised with. And there are “capital T” Traditions, which are the historical doctrines and teachings of Christianity that have been passed down through the ages from the beginning.
Reason is our own contribution to the process. By our own minds and reason, we can evaluate the traditions “small t” that we have inherited and decide if they are useful or if they need to be altered, amended, or discarded. It is by this process that we begin to internalize our faith and make it our own, not merely the faith we have inherited. We can compare our own personal “traditions” to the historic Christian Traditions, and decide if they accurately reflect the full intent of the Biblical Christian Faith. But this requires effort on our part…and knowledge. It requires that we become aware of what our influences and traditions are, and how they shape and affect our understanding of our faith. It requires that we become aware of what the Traditions of Christianity are, and how Christianity was taught and believed in the very earliest times of our faith down through today.
Experience is the proving ground of our faith, and the ultimate expression of our faith. It is through experience that we begin to test and see the truth or falsehood of what we believe. Our faith was in the end not merely meant to be an intellectual exercise, merely something to be thought about and talked about, but it was intended to be an experiential faith. It is here that the “rubber meets the road” in our reading of the Bible. How does it work in real life? Do we actually live our faith, or just talk about it? If our faith and our understanding of the Bible is true, then it will work in real life, and we will live it out in our daily lives. Otherwise…what’s the point?
We do not read the Bible in a vacuum. There has been 2,000 years of Christian history and Christian thought that have intervened between the writing of the Bible and our reading it. And we have had however many years (our whole lives) in which we have been exposed to innumerable ideas, beliefs, interpretations, values, philosophies, and experiences which form the lenses through which we read the Bible, and the matrix by which we interpret it.
These lenses: Tradition, Reason, and Experience, shape how each of us understands the Bible.
We are all children of our times. It is unavoidable. None of us is able to extract ourselves from the stream of history and stand on the banks of time and view it objectively. Only God alone has that kind of objectivity. We cannot even wade upon the shores of time. We are all living within the stream of history, swept along by the currents of thought, values, ideologies, philosophies, technologies, and theologies which came before us and which surround us and form the world we live in today.
We have all inherited certain ideas and values and unspoken, even unconscious assumptions, invisible “givens” that are so fundamental to our world view that we not only do not question them, but we are completely unaware that we have them.
Most Christians have grown up with at least some exposure to religion, and we were raised with ideas and values regarding faith from our parents and other influential persons in our early lives. If we were raised in church, we have our early experiences, both positive and negative, with religion. And we live in a world and a culture where we are exposed to a variety of ideas, attitudes, and values regarding religion, faith, and the Bible, which influence our thinking as well. Everything, politics, religion, philosophy, technology, language, art, literature, history…it all goes into the mix. These inherited ideas and values form a starting place for our understanding of the Bible.
All of these things color our own reading of the Scriptures. And most of the time, their influence on us is invisible and unconscious. Most people are unaware of how these inherited “lenses” affect how they read and understand the Bible. But they do. All of us are strongly affected by our inherited traditions.
Then there is the Christian religion itself, which has 2,000 years of developed thought and doctrine. The various traditions and denominations have each had their own influence on the wider culture of our world. Anyone who is a member of a church has been influenced by that church’s theological and denominational background and history.
Now, I say all of that to say this: it is absolutely impossible, given all of this, for anyone to pick up the Bible today, and think they can divine on their own, 2,000 years later, what the 1st Century Palestinian Jews, writing in Koine Greek to a mostly Greek speaking Jewish audience that lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, a world utterly alien to our modern world, really meant in their original context.
Now that I have thoroughly offended most of my fellow Protestants (I am a Protestant by the way, a Methodist), for whom the idea of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) is one of those “givens” , I want to explain that this does not mean we cannot read the Bible for ourselves. But what I mean is that we cannot read the Bible BY ourselves.
Sola Scriptura does not mean that we can pick up the Bible 2,000 years later and read it apart from any context whatsoever, and just figure out “what it means to us” and think we are properly understanding the Bible. “What it Means to Us” is not the first but the last step in reading and interpreting the Bible. Picking up the Bible, without any context whatsoever, and deciding that “what it means to me” is what it means is not Sola Scriptura. That is “Nuda Scriptura”, or the Scripture completely denuded of all historical and religious contexts. That is not how we properly read the Bible.
Understand this, for the first 1,500 years of Christian history, the idea of individual Christians owning their own Bible, much less reading it on their own, was simply impossible. It was the invention of the printing press in the 16th Century which made the mass reproduction of the Bible practical and economical.
That means that for the first 1,500 years of our faith, there were no “Bible Studies” meeting in people’s houses to read and discuss the Bible, and no private Bible reading by individuals for their morning devotions. Before the invention of the printing press, the Bible had to be copied by hand. Parchment was expensive, and good copyists were too. Even most very rich Christians did not own their own copy of the Scriptures. In fact, for most of that time, the average Christian could not even read and write!
That meant that the only place people could go to hear the Bible read was church. In most places, the Church was the only one that even had a Bible because of how expensive and difficult it was to create a new one. The Scriptures were read aloud to the people in the church, and in the liturgies of the worship services.
And it is in the church, the Body of Christ, the Christian community, that we are supposed to read and interpret the Bible. We should never read or interpret the Bible completely on our own. We should get input from the Christian community. We should always read and interpret the Bible in the context of a loving relationship with the Body of Christ, his church. The Scriptures were written BY the Christian community, TO the Christian community, and it was intended to be understood WITHIN the Christian community.
There is no such thing as a “lone wolf” Christian. We are all called to live in communion with the greater Body of Christ, his Church. We are to be in a learning, growing, interactive relationship with the Body of Christ, sharing our gifts with others and receiving from the gifts of others. It is in this context that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in and through his Word and through his people.
Each of us has the right and the privilege to read the Scriptures for ourselves, but we were never meant to do it by ourselves. We are supposed to do it in the context of the Christian Church.
But how do we know if we are interpreting the Bible correctly?
Bible Interpretation 101
- Read what it says. Read it in a few different translations. Read commentaries on what it says. All of this is available for free online. Also get input from your minister or pastor. Ask him/her questions about the Bible…they live for that stuff!
- Know the context in which it was written: Who wrote it? To whom? When? Where? Why? What was the primary purpose for the author to write the book? What was going on in their world at that time which affected them and their message? Again, all of this is available online. (But be sure you choose a reputable source…more on that in a future post)
- Ask what was the original author trying to say to the original audience in their context? How would the original audience have understood what was written?
- What are the major themes and principles that are universal and which can be applied to all ages?
- How has this passage or verse been understood throughout Christian history? How did the earliest Christians interpret it? (This is an important, and often missed step. Again, this can be found through various sources online for free.) After all, they lived in the same world as the Apostles, and spoke the same languages the Bible was written in. They would be far more likely to have an accurate understand of what the meaning of these passages were than anyone coming along 2,000 years later.
- How does this Scripture apply to life in our modern world?
- How does this Scripture apply to MY life today?
- What am I going do about it? How am I going to apply it to my life?
We cannot jump ahead to 7 and 8 without first going through steps 1-6.
The mistake so many people make is that they try to read the Bible subjectively. The only question they ask is, “what does this mean to ME?” The problem with that is that it puts your own personal opinion over the original intent of the author. Then you are no longer reading the Bible to learn from it. You are reading the Bible to impose your own ideas on it. That is not how we as Christians are supposed to approach the Scriptures. We are supposed to approach the Scriptures humbly and asking God to teach us and speak to us through the Bible. We cannot do that if we do not take seriously what the original intent of the author of the particular book of the Bible we are reading was trying to say. We put our ideas ahead of what God was trying to say through the author when we do that.
We are all human beings, fallible and biased (whether we know it or admit it or not). We need to become aware of what our biases are. Why do we believe as we believe? Did these ideas really come from the Bible? Or were there other influences that led us to think that way? Sure, we may have “proof texts” to back up whatever we believe, but that is hardly objective. A few verses out of thousands? Perhaps there is more to it than that. Perhaps we need to become more self aware and admit that we DO have personal biases and preconceived notions that we bring to the Scriptures every time we read them. We need to become aware of what those biases and preconceived notions are, and where they came from. Only then can we honestly evaluate them (here’s where Reason comes in) and decide if they are ideas worth holding onto.
Only in this way can we begin to take ownership of our own biases and influences. We can never be truly free of all bias and influence. But we can at least be aware of them and deliberate about what ideas and values we allow to influence us.
That is as close to “objective” as anyone can ever come.
See also: What is the Bible?