Biblical Interpretation - Who Gets to Decide?

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton Is the earth 6500 years old, as chronicled in scripture, created in six distinct twenty-four hour days?   Were Adam and Eve actually the first humans, created in the image of God on the sixth day of creation, the couple from which all humanity descended?  Was there literally a garden of Eden, a talking serpent, a fall with cosmic results? 

Everything depends on whether you believe the Bible is to be taken literally, as God’s infallible, verbally inspired, inerrant word.  Or is it to be understood as a symbolic, metaphorical story to aid us in our understanding of the divine-human drama being played out on the stage of history?  Tenured college and seminary professors have lost their jobs over this question.  Scientists have been blackballed for being too friendly with the “unscientific” biblical account.  It’s no small issue, this debate about scripture. Perhaps it’s time for me to weigh in, take a stand, declare my position.  Or not. 

My conservative evangelical roots provide me with an in-depth understanding of literalist thinking.  Compromise on the literal creation account, or the fall, or any of the details, and the whole house of doctrinal cards comes tumbling down.  I know all the arguments.  However, over several decades of serving alongside respected ministry leaders whose theological perspectives differ dramatically from my purist foundations, I have been exposed to more liberal understandings of scripture.  Some friends view scripture as a mixture of myth, history, tradition, poetry and personal perspectives of how God is involved with creation – an inspiring guidebook.  Others see it as divinely inspired but not to be taken as a science book – scientific evidence trumps scripture.  Still others hold to its infallibility in matters of doctrine and dogma but allow broad latitude for interpretation.  To my surprise, these divergent positions seem to have little impact on the way my colleagues live their lives.  Their handling of scripture seems to say more about their personalities than about their faith-walk.  Some folk have high need for closure.  Others ride more loosely in the saddle of logic.  But whether rigid or laid back, laissez-faire or controlling, structured or loose, their treatment of the sacred texts seems to make little difference in their faithfulness as followers of Christ.  

So does it make no difference which lens I view the Bible through?  Well, I wouldn’t go that far.  I still think my view is best.  Though it has been altered somewhat by the influences of scientific discovery and thinking friends.  But frankly, it does seem that we all do about the same thing when it comes to biblical interpretation – we pick and choose which verses to take literally and which to interpret as figurative. 

At breakfast this morning I asked my devout Catholic Peggy her take on this issue.  “Figurative,” she responded and quoted one of Jesus’ sayings about plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin.   “How about ‘This is my body, this is my blood’” I countered, aiming at the heart of an essential Catholic doctrine.  Peggy pondered for a moment, then smiled and admitted “I guess you have to pick and choose.”

Picking and choosing – is this what we’re left with?  No solid answers, no clear formulas?  Who then are we to trust?  Must we pick and choose our theologians, our preachers, our scientists as well?   Well, actually, I guess that is ultimately what we end up doing.  But I still think I’m right. :)

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