Part Three of a Series on interpreting ancient texts in modern times
I belong to a church that used to proclaim this mantra: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” This slogan was based on two assumptions: 1) that the various biblical writers were the scribes but that God was the real author of the entire book; and 2) therefore the Bible is internally consistent.
Another assumption was also important: that all thoughtful people who use reasonable principles of interpretation will come to mutually agreed understandings of what the Bible teaches.
These assumptions have fallen by the wayside both in my church and in other ecumenical Protestant churches. We have discovered that people of good will, serious intent, and careful study habits come to different conclusions about what the Bible actually means.
Furthermore, careful and devout study of the Bible leads to different conclusions about broad theological themes (such as the nature of God), matters affecting the life of the church (such as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper), and issues related to ethical relations and moral practices (such as the patterns of marriage, procreation, and divorce). It is difficult to show that the Bible is internally consistent, regardless of how much we want it to be.
Fortunately, Bible scholars in my own church and in other ecumenical Protestant churches can help us find meaning in the ancient text even though the assumptions mentioned above are no longer reliable. They know the Bible in its original languages, are well versed in the systems of thought and life in ancient times, and understand how they affected the ways that biblical writers understood God’s intentions for life. These scholars also understand the scientific and cultural developments of later generations, including our own, that impact how people of any faith must live their lives.
One of these scholars is Rick Lowery, Ph.D. (Yale), whose field of special study is currently described as Hebrew Bible. Although Lowery publishes technical essays and books in his field, he also writes on current topics in an easily accessible form.
During recent weeks, he has contributed three essays to huffingtonpost.com in which he discusses topics currently under debate: “The Bible and Marriage Equality,” “Jesus and Medicaid,” and “Abortion: What the Bible Says (And Doesn’t Say).”
Although I appreciate the conclusions and recommendations that Lowery presents in these short essays, I am referring to them only incidentally. My purpose in this review is to note the methods of interpretation that this mature Bible scholar uses.
First, Lowery pays attention to what the biblical text actually says. He examines the Bible in small pieces, verse by verse and paragraph by paragraph, and in larger units, such as the Mosaic code compared with later prophetic traditions. He is interested in determining as precisely as possible how these elements of the Bible were understood by people in the time when they were written and also how that understanding gradually developed or changed in succeeding generations.
Second, he calls attention to complicating factors. Some of the topics that interest us today—abortion is Lowery’s example—are not even mentioned in the Bible. The challenge to students of the Bible, therefore, is to gain insights from related topics that are discussed in the Bible and then to apply them to the topics on which the Bible is silent.
Another complicating factor is the fact that some of the instructions in the Bible are based on what was the common knowledge of the time which we now know is not correct. Lowery’s example is the mistaken understanding of the biology of human reproduction that is stated in certain biblical texts. Faced with awkward texts, people today are required to derive as best they can ethical and spiritual principles that were intended in ancient times and then apply them to current topics of concern.
Third, Lowery derives broad principles that can be seen in and through various scripture texts and uses them to evaluate questionable verses and paragraphs. He also uses these principles as a critique of ideas in our own time, especially those that are supported on what he believes to be insufficient principles of biblical study. A good example of how he proceeds is the following paragraph from his blog “Jesus and Medicaid.”
“When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he tells them to ask for the kingdom of God on the earth, for everyone to have enough to eat every day, for canceled debts and for rescue from trying times (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). Jesus expects his disciples to share his concern for the physical, mental and spiritual health and liberation of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.”
With this principle derived from ancient scripture, Lowery is able to speak a confident and prophetic word concerning the politics of health care in the United States. With the help of scholars like this, people in my church can reaffirm half of the old mantra.
We can speak where the Bible speaks, on some topics boldly proclaiming a mind-clearing, life-giving word of hope.
Disclosure: Richard H. Lowery, Ph.D., is an independent Bible scholar and semi-aggressive cyclist (and my son in law). His book The Reforming Kings was published by the Sheffield Academic Press in 1991.