What is the Bible? What does it Mean?
The first sentence of the first chapter of the first book I read for seminary was this: "Concepts are not what we think about; they are what we think with." - Kathleen Callow, Man and Message
I will remember this saying for the rest of my life. It's so true! It helps me process everything! How I think about life. How I think about my faith. What concepts are in play when I interprite the Bible? I For this post, it helps me process a basic question: What is it the Bible? What does it mean? This is a particularly important question, especially as I start seminary!
The following is a humble summary of my professors book, Scripture as Communication. I focus mostly on chapter 3.
Throughout the centuries scholars have tried to understand what the Bible means. As a result, the Bible has been thought of in three different ways: as a window, a painting and a mirror. During different time periods, Bible scholars have put different emphases on which way is correct. Spoiler alert: in current scholarship a balanced approach is taken, valuing all three. Here are three different ways of understanding the Bible.
The Bible as a Window
The Bible can be viewed as a window into the author's world.
It is very valuable to consider what the author's intention was when writing. It is also important to ask yourself, "What is the occasion that caused the author to write this letter, story or poem?" It is important to consider the language used. Because language and culture are linked, it is important to study the culture (or cultures) involved. What is the historical setting? What are the background events that everyone knew about in that time? This all leads to an important point made in another book I read this semester: The Bible can't mean something that the original author didn't mean it to.
We can't know everything about the author's world, and even if we could, sometimes this information is not useful. At best we are wasting our time finding out all these little details. At worst, we are filling in wrong details that potentially change the meaning of the Bible.
When this goes too far, we ask ourselves what was the author's psychological makeup when he wrote this? In the past, scholars have sought to understand the author better than he did himself; not only a window into the author's world, but a window into his mind. Some have joked, "I wonder what the writer had for breakfast when he wrote this?" This goes too far... It is just not possible to do this with any accuracy.
The Bible as a Painting
As a reaction to trying to understand the author too well, scholars shifted to thinking of the Bible as a painting: a beautiful piece of artwork that stands alone. The Bible does not need any outside considerations to be fully understood.
The Good: Reading the Bible does indeed contain all of the information we need to understand God's plan to save the world. With God's help, we understand how we need forgiveness. If we ask Jesus, he will forgive us. All of this is contained in the Bible. The Bible is God's complete message preserved for us.
The Bad: Taken to an extreme, when we try and figure out what the text means in depth, we do not consider the author or audience. The words alone tell us. No outside information is welcome.
As mentioned before, central elements concerning forgiveness, heaven and hell are all contained in the Bible. However, outside sources can help give a clearer and deeper meaning to many aspects of the Bible. Within reason, we should try our best to understand the historical setting and the audiences involved when reading the Bible.
The Bible as a Mirror
Finally, as a reaction to these rigid ways of interpreting the Bible, scholars shifted to thinking of the Bible as a mirror. The reader brings their own meaning to the Bible. They see themselves in the text, like looking into a mirror.
It is very good to be aware of our own prejudices and assumptions when we read the Bible. If these "pre-understandings" are not in line with what the original audience had, then we need to adjust our thoughts. The Bible wasn't written to us, but it was preserved for us. When God helps us truly understand the Bible, our hearts burn within us. We come alive. We understand who we really are. What is God communicating to me as I read this? What makes the Bible special is that it is scripture. God speaks to us!
It is very easy to take this idea to an extreme. When we do so, the Bible's meaning can be shifted to mean anything we want. In theory, there can be as many interpretations as there are readers! Obviously, this is not a good thing. As mentioned before, the Bible can't mean something it never meant to begin with.
What's the point of having a standard set of instructions to turn to if everyone can read them in a different way? When we use a cookbook, we have to follow the recipe. If we add our own meaning to the recipe, then the final product will not come out right. The Bible is like this in certain ways. We can't add or take away anything from God's plan to save humanity.
Understanding what the Bible means is a complex process. A balanced and nuanced approach is important. It is wise to make use of these good aspects, while being aware of the bad. We have to realize that we are reading the Bible thousands of years after it was written. Our culture and language are very different from the original audience's. In fact, the Bible addresses issues caused by numerous biblical cultures and languages interacting with each other. These interactions are then translated into our culture and language! Things gets really complicated really quickly!
Even though it's complicated, we have to try our best to understand what the original authors wanted to accomplish when they wrote the Bible. We have to try to reconstruct the historical background, to piece together was assumptions were made by the author, and to understand what the original readers would have understood. Most of all, we need to connect with God by reading his truth found in the Bible.
Cait and I try to create as much of the artwork as possible for this blog. When we have to use other's work, we are sure to note it. So here we go...
Note: The featured image for this post is a stock image from an artist with the username ArchiVIZ. It is combined with a painting hanging in our dining room and a photo of our living room window. The painting is by Leah's great grandmother Olive Craw. We are sure she still creating beautiful paintings. We are excited to see them someday.
Do you have any questions or feedback? We would love to hear from you!