Visions of Daniel
The Human Core of Spirituality


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Chapter Two
Interpreting the Bible

People differ passionately about what the Bible actually teaches. What's going on? Who is right?

Who is right? It depends on how you read the Bible!

What's going on? Different ways of reading the Bible!

How you read the Bible, the way you interpret the texts-this is the key issue. The question is not, "What are the Bible texts on homosexuality?" Anyone could list and quote them. The question is, "How do you interpret these texts?" "How do you determine what these texts really mean?"

Some will say we should take the Bible as it reads and not "interpret" it. But interpretation simply means getting the meaning out of a text. In this sense, there is no reading the Bible or anything else without interpreting. Without a reader, a text is only words-markings on a page. In themselves these markings mean nothing. To have meaning, they have to pass through someone's mind. Understanding the words, determining the meaning of the text, is interpretation. Any time people read anything, they are interpreting.

Words Don't Always Mean What They Say

It is important to pay attention to the different ways of reading a text, especially when dealing with ancient texts, like the Bible. The words might suggest one thing to us in the 21st Century but have meant something very different to the people who wrote them long ago.

Take an example from everyday life. In the United States we have an expression: to be out in left field. To understand this expression you have to know something about baseball. Areas of the baseball field are called center, right and left field, as viewed from the batter's position. Most batters are right-handed. They swing from right to left. So they tend to hit the ball more often and more deeply into left field. When they do hit a ball into right field, the ball is not likely to go as far. So the player covering left field needs to be positioned far back in the field, far from the other players. In many ways the left fielder is isolated and out of touch, off in his or her own world. So to say that someone is "out in left field" means he or she is disoriented, out of contact with reality, wrong, unconventional, loony.

Now, what if you spoke perfectly good English but knew nothing of baseball or American usage and you heard that expression for the first time? "You're wondering about Robert? He's out in left field." You might go out looking for Robert in a field somewhere off to the left! You understood the words, but you missed the point.

Of course, you could argue that the words mean what they say. You heard them, and you did understand them. They locate Robert in a field that is "left," and "left" is a direction opposite "right." After all, you do speak English! You could insist if you wanted, but everybody else would think you're out in left field.

Baseball was really the big thing in the '40s and '50s. Other concerns have since shared the scene. So to make the same point in the '60s and '70s, you might have said, "You're a real space cadet." Today you might say, "You just don't compute" or "You're 404" (from the World Wide Web error message, "404 Not Found": the requested document could not be located).

Those sayings have nothing to do with real fields, space travel or computers, and they all make the same point. But ignore the culture in which they belong and you'll miss the point despite understanding the words.

Jesus' Teaching about Simplicity

Take an example from the Bible. In three of the Gospels-Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25 and Luke 18:25-Jesus says, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God ." It sounds as if nobody who had lots of money could ever get into heaven, for certainly no camel could ever get through a needle's eye. At least that's what this saying suggests to us.

But some scholars have pointed out that in Jerusalem there was a very low and narrow gate through the city wall. When a caravan entered through that gate, the camels had to be unloaded, led through the gate crouching down, and then reloaded inside the city wall. That gate was supposedly called "the eye of the needle."

So what was Jesus saying? Understand something about his everyday world, and his meaning is obvious. Jesus was simply saying that it would be hard for the rich to get to heaven. They might first have to unload their material concerns. Jesus was again preaching his Sermon-on-the-Mount message about simplicity of life and single-heartedness.

What if similar considerations apply to the Bible texts on homosexuality? Maybe those texts do not mean what we have been taking them to mean.

Alternative Interpretations

Of course, the Gospels recount that the disciples objected to Jesus' teaching about the eye of the needle. "Then who could be saved?" they protested. And Jesus responded that nothing is impossible with God.

So you could take Jesus' teaching to apply to a real physical impossibility, to a real camel passing through the eye of a real needle. You could insist that God could work a miracle, if God wanted to. You could insist that this text is actually about trusting God to do what seems impossible. And your interpretation would, indeed, fit the text.

But now we have two very different interpretations. And we have two very different pictures-not only of the text in question but also different pictures of God, of Jesus and of religious faith.

One interpretation appeals to miracles. It portrays a God who intervenes to suspend the laws of the universe, and it sees Jesus as teaching faith in such a God. This interpretation presents a picture of people entering heaven because God stepped in to work a miracle in their lives.

The other interpretation appeals to Divine Providence. It portrays a God who works through the ordinary functioning of the universe, and it sees Jesus calling us to live responsibly in this world as it is. This other interpretation presents a picture of people entering heaven because they unloaded the false concerns that burden their lives.

Both pictures do allow that God is guiding our lives and our world. But when it comes to the crunch, the one expects a miracle from God, and it awaits a vision or a revelation to settle a question. The other approach, more down-to-earth, presumes that God is already and always working through things as they are and it is up to us to make the best of the circumstances God has allowed. The down-to-earth approach is not irreligious. It is brimming with trust in God. It embraces the world as God made it. It uses the intelligence God gave us. It resolves questions by honest appeal to the evidence. It makes decisions in loving concern for what is right and good. In sum, it accepts our God-given stewardship over the world and over our lives.

Is one approach better than the other? Well, the core Judeo- Christian beliefs support the down-to-earth approach. God created our world and saw that it was good. God's Son came down to earth and lived among us. Jesus did not expect God to save him from death, and God did not. Evidently, according to biblical teaching and apart from human misuse, the world that God created and redeemed is good enough for God. Should it not also be good enough or us? Should we not also be down-to-earth in our faith?

Of course, the Bible does portray God as working miracles. And to pray for a miracle is not wrong-unless there is no need for one. But when there is no need, Jesus' words to Satan apply to us: "Do not put the Lord your God to the test" (Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12 ). Besides, if we actually believed that God is working in our lives regardless of how things go, would we ever really feel the need to pray for a miracle?

Might we not be testing God by reading a miraculous interpretation into the text about the eye of the needle? A perfectly reasonable alternative interpretation is available. To insist, nonetheless, on a miraculous interpretation-isn't this acting on whim? Isn't this expecting God to do extraordinary things simply because we would prefer it so?

The Literal
Reading and the Historical-Critical Reading

This book will focus on two different approaches to interpreting the Bible: the "literal reading" and the "historical-critical" reading. These two are parallels to the miraculous and the down-to-earth approaches to religion.

The literal reading claims to take the text simply for what it says. This is the approach of Biblical Fundamentalism. It claims not to be interpreting the text but merely to be reading it as it stands. Clearly, however, even Biblical Fundamentalism follows a rule of interpretation, a simple and easy rule. The rule is that a text means whatever it means to somebody reading it today.

Compare the other approach, the historical-critical reading. The rule here is that a text means whatever it meant to the people who wrote it long ago. To say what a biblical text teaches us today, you first have to understand the text in its original situation and then apply the meaning to the present situation. Jesus' teaching about the eye of the needle, in the down-to-earth approach, is a good example.

Although on TV and radio we generally hear only the fundamentalist approach, all the mainline Christian churches support the historical-critical method. So the argument being presented here is not novel; on the contrary, it is absolutely standard and has almost two centuries of study behind it. In fact, it was on the scene before Biblical Fundamentalism, which arose partially in opposition to it.

Of course, some of the churches back off from the historical-critical method when it comes to the Bible texts on homosexuality and some other questions-like divorce, the place of women in society and church, Jesus' understanding of himself, the organization of the early church, or the origin of Christian rituals like Baptism and Eucharist. The churches are wary of the conclusions that their own approved method of interpretation suggests.

Historical-critical study of the Bible oftentimes reverses some long-standing interpretations and raises very serious questions about religion and society. No wonder the Christian churches are hesitant. They are sometimes left wondering what to teach. No wonder Biblical Fundamentalism has taken a harder line. The new historical input can leave the older understanding of religion dissolving before our eyes. It is important to appreciate the delicateness of this matter of biblical interpretation.

But it is also important not to hide from the facts as we now know them. To do so would be to violate a core value of the Judeo-Christian tradition. To do so would be to ignore a value for which Jesus lived and died-even as John 8:32 has Jesus say, "The truth will set you free."

This approach is called "historical" because it requires that you put the text back into its original historical and cultural context before you decide what it means. This approach is called "critical" because it requires careful thought and detailed analysis of the Bible. The word critical is not used here in the more familiar sense of "trying to find fault with something" but in the sense of the current phrase, critical thinking .

Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible

These two ways of reading the Bible are very different, but both agree that the Bible is God's word. Both agree that God inspired the Bible and that the Bible is "inerrant," that is, without error. So no one can dismiss the historical-critical approach by claiming that it does not respect the Bible as God's word. Of course, those two approaches explain inspiration and inerrancy differently.

Inspiration means that God moved the human authors to write what they wrote, so the Bible is God's word to us. The literal approach relies on miracles, so for it inspiration means that God's power overwhelmed the human authors. The words just flowed from them. Sometimes the human authors did not even understand what they were writing. Now we, centuries later, can recognize in the Bible a secret message that God miraculously hid there for our generation alone.

The historical-critical approach understands biblical inspiration differently. This approach will agree that what the human authors wrote may well have further meaning of which they themselves were not aware. But for the historical-critical approach, the mentality is down-to-earth. People often say things that mean more than they know, especially when they speak eternal truths of the heart-like "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" or "I will love you as long as I live" or "Trust in God, and all will be well." So as history unfolds, the Bible texts will naturally suggest new and deeper meanings. The most obvious example is how the early Christians saw references to Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Moreover, according to the historical-critical approach, the biblical writers were not entranced secretaries, taking dictation like robots or channeling messages as in a seance. Rather, the biblical authors were well aware of what they were writing. They were intelligent, free, creative, culture-bound human beings. And God respected all that. God used all that, their humanity and their culture, to express divine wisdom in a particular human form. Thus, what they wrote is not only their word but also the word of God. Accordingly, if you wanted to understand what God intended to say, the first step would be to understand what those human authors intended to say. For precisely that is what God inspired.

Granted that the Bible is the word of God, the Bible must be free from error. Thus, the question of biblical inerrancy enters the discussion. Again, the literal and the historical-critical approaches both accept inerrancy, but they understand it differently.

The literal approach would take words to mean exactly what they say. Hearing that Robert is a real space cadet, this approach would assume that he is truly a NASA astronaut. Similarly, reading in the first chapter of Genesis that God created the world in seven days, the literal approach would insist that the universe was formed in one week. For if creation did not happen that way, the Bible is mistaken.

In contrast, the historical-critical approach first asks, What is the point of the Genesis story of creation? What was the author intending to say? Well, the Bible intended to give a religion lesson, not a science lesson. The seven-day story of creation is just a way of making the point: God created the universe with wisdom, care and order. If science determines that the universe actually evolved over millions and millions of years, there is no conflict with the Bible. Through science we are simply coming to understand how God chose to create the world. Science helps us to grasp some bit of the order and wisdom that God built into the universe. But the fact that God created the universe remains as true as ever. There is no error in that teaching of Genesis.

Both the literal approach and the historical-critical approach hold that the Bible is God's word, inspired and inerrant. There is no disagreement here. But these two approaches do disagree on what is exactly God's word in the Bible. For God's word is not the markings on the page nor even the string of words in the sentences. Rather, God's word is the meaning of the words and sentences formed by the markings on the page. Disagreeing on how to determine what the Bible means, the two approaches disagree on what God's inspired and inerrant word is. They disagree about what the Bible teaches because they interpret the Bible differently.

Pluses and Minuses of the Literal Approach

These two approaches to interpreting the Bible have their advantages and disadvantages. Consider first the literal approach. It is easy. It has no elaborate guidelines. It appeals to common sense and requires no detailed study. All this is clearly an advantage-at least in the short run-because it makes religion simple.

But the literal reading also has disadvantages. Since this approach has no elaborate guidelines, different people can arrive at different meanings for any text they consider. All can claim that the text means what it means to them.

Then how do you settle the differences of opinion? In the end, the text will be taken to mean what any group of people come to agree on. Popularity decides what the Bible means. An influential preacher could even impose a personal view on a whole congregation.

But the fact that many people believe something does not necessarily make it right. The long history of slavery is a clear case in point. So the serious disadvantage here is that people may well end up believing, not what God requires, but simply what makes them comfortable and secure.

Another disadvantage is selective use of the Bible. That is, this approach tends to emphasize one text and overlook another. Preachers condemn lesbians and gays because the Bible mentions same-sex acts in passing. But the same preachers do not advocate slavery even though the whole epistle to Philemon and many other long passages support it (Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22 -4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18 ). They do not encourage people to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hands even though Jesus' literal words suggest that remedy for temptation (Matthew 5:22 -29). Those preachers often allow divorce even though Jesus' teaching taken literally condemns it (Matthew 5:32 ; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18 ). They allow women to teach in Sunday school or to speak in church or to represent their church in public gatherings even though 1 Timothy 2:11-14 clearly forbids that. They allow women to come to church in expensive clothes or gold jewelry or pearls or to come to church without hats even though long passages oppose such things (I Timothy 2:9-10; 1 Corinthians 11:1-16). They use banks and profit from loans and investments even though the Bible forbids the taking of interest (Exodus 22:25 ; Psalm 15:5; Proverbs 28:8; Ezekial 18:13 , 117, 22:12 ). They do not believe in a flat earth as the Bible does (Genesis 1:1-17; Psalm 24:1-2, 104:2-13). The literal approach is almost forced to pick and choose as it applies the Bible. Otherwise some very unacceptable situations would arise.

Finally, the literal approach is hard pressed to address new issues-nuclear energy, surrogate motherhood, environmental pollution, the use of outer space, genetic engineering, organ transplants, regulation of the Internet. The Bible never imagined these things, so it never really addressed them.

Of course, some will insist that God did speak of these things in hidden and symbolic ways. Some will claim that certain obscure Bible texts were really speaking about issues of our day. But if this is so, in some cases a symbolic interpretation is allowed, and the rule of literal interpretation is abandoned. Then what is the rule for knowing when to interpret literally and when to interpret symbolically? Without changing rules in the middle of the game, the literal approach cannot use the Bible to answer pressing questions of our day.

Pluses and Minuses of the Historical-Critical Approach

The historical-critical method also has its advantages and its disadvantages. On the positive side, this approach can determine the meaning of a text objectively, following clear guidelines. All who accept this method can agree on the interpretation.

Because of this approach, there are now no important differences between Catholic and Protestant Bible scholars. All are in general agreement about the meaning of Bible texts. When differences do occur, they do not depend on one's Protestant or Catholic affiliation. The differences depend on the historical evidence scholars cite and on the arguments they propose.

The line that divides the churches no longer falls between Catholics and Protestants. The line of division falls between those who follow a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and those who follow a historical-critical reading, and this line often cuts right through the middle of a single church or denomination.

That God really is working in human history, not somehow floating above it, is a core aspect of Judeo-Christian faith. So another advantage of the historical-critical method is that it takes history and God's working in history seriously. As history progresses, God guides the process and things really do change. There is development and novelty. According to this understanding, religion is not locked into its first-century form.

However, the historical-critical method has a serious disadvantage. It is not easy. It requires long and difficult study. Only specialists can apply it. This method makes Bible interpretation a technical science. Archeology, history, ancient languages, anthropology, minute analysis of words and texts are all required for proper interpretation.

And some texts will be left forever unexplained. If all memory of baseball were suddenly lost, no one might ever understand what being "out in left field" means. Likewise, if the historical information around some Bible text is lacking, we may never be able to determine what the text meant to say. The discussion about two texts in Chapter Seven, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10 , offers a good example. The historical evidence on these texts remains very, very scanty. Historical argument can become very tenuous-simply because we may not have the historical information to determine what a crucial word or phrase was supposed to mean.

Moreover, according to the historical-critical method, the times really do change. We cannot expect to find simple answers to contemporary questions just by reading the Bible. To understand God's will for us, we have to apply the lessons of the past to the problems of today. So, besides knowing what the Bible meant, we have to study the current problem. Sensitive to God's Spirit, we have to rely on our own minds and hearts to decide what the Bible requires in the situations we now face. To do that, we have to be good people, genuine human beings-open, honest and loving or, in a word, authentic. All this is very demanding.

Finally, it is possible that this method of reading the Bible may overturn long-accepted interpretations. It may turn out that some Bible texts do not mean what we took them to mean for centuries. Then difficult debate about sensitive social issues arises. Homosexuality is an obvious case in point.

What about Homosexuality in the Bible?

This book summarizes recent Bible research on homosexuality following the historical-critical method. Based on our understanding of historical-critical method, what conclusion about homosexuality should we expect? Consider the facts.

The scientific study of sexuality is barely a century old. We now know that homosexuality is a core aspect of the personality, probably fixed by early childhood, biologically based, and affecting a significant proportion of the population in virtually every known culture. There is no convincing evidence that sexual orientation can be changed, and there is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is in any way pathological. Since the Second World War a worldwide gay community has been forming and gaining a voice. Within that community, and especially among gay and lesbian religious people, loving, adult homosexual relationships have become a major concern.

All those developments are recent. Some of them are absolutely new to human history. They are part of a situation that the biblical authors never imagined, so it is not to be expected that the Bible expresses an opinion about them. What is to be expected is this: when the Bible does talk about same-sex behavior, it refers to it as it was understood in those ancient times. The biblical teachings will apply today only insofar as the ancient understanding of same sex behavior is still valid.

Specifically, in the biblical world there was no elaborated under standing of homosexuality as a sexual orientation. The ancient Israelites did not even think about sex in these terms. There was only a general awareness of same-sex contacts or same-sex acts, what can be called homogenitality and homogenital acts . Our question today is about people and their relationships, not simply about sex acts. Our question is about homosexuality , a particular way of being human, not mere homogenitality, the engagement in same-sex acts. Our question is about spontaneous affection for people of the same sex and about the ethical possibility of expressing that affection in loving, sexual relationships. Because this was not a question in the minds of the biblical authors, we cannot expect the Bible to give an answer.

Why must that be so? If the Bible condemned a particular act for whatever reason, shouldn't that act still be avoided without any further discussion? If God's word says it is wrong, isn't it wrong, period?

A thing is wrong for a reason. If the reason no longer holds and no other reason is given, how can a thing still be judged wrong? Simply that "God said it is wrong" is not a good enough answer, for the point remains even in the case of God: God also says things are wrong for reasons. That is to say, there is good sense, there is wisdom, in the morality that God requires. If there were not, then all morality would be arbitrary, and God would be declaring things right or wrong merely on divine whim. Then all thought about ethics should stop, for there would simply be no rationale to morality; there would be no reasonableness in what God requires. But such a conclusion is absurd. It is absolutely ridiculous. There must be a reason why something is wrong, and it must be for that very reason that God forbids the thing.

Well, couldn't God have reasons that we cannot understand? Of course. But if that is the case, we could never know God's will-unless God revealed it to us. And where would God reveal it? One obvious answer is, "In the Bible, of course!"

That answer is perfectly valid. But it brings us right back to our starting point: how do we determine what God meant to say in the Bible? The options are still the same: the literal approach or the historical-critical approach.

This book deliberately follows the historical-critical approach to the Bible. The expectation is that God says something is wrong for a reason. The Creator built that reason into the structure of the universe. Human intelligence would be able to discern that reason. Accordingly, when there is no new reason for a thing's being wrong and a former reason no longer applies, there is no basis for saying the thing is wrong. The reason-God's own reason!-is simply not there. If the Bible's ancient reason for supposedly condemning same-sex acts no longer holds, then the condemnation no longer holds. There is no reason to condemn.

Does God's word in the Bible condemn what we know today as homosexuality? Consider all the biblical passages that refer to this topic. Understand them in their original historical context. Evaluate the evidence with an open and honest mind. The text-by-text analysis that follows will help you draw your own conclusion.


For another discussion of contemporary
biblical interpretation, click here.