Beyond a literal reading of the Bible

There are other, more historically legitimate ways of reading the Bible.

Yme Woensdregt

I have been writing in the last few weeks about how it is possible to read the Bible in different kinds of ways. In the news, we only get reports about those who read the Bible literally. But there are other, more historically legitimate ways of reading the Bible.

Ever since the time of the very earliest church, people have understood that when to read the Bible is to interpret it. It is simply not possible to read anything without also interpreting it. For example, a standard history of Canada would be read and interpreted quite differently by an aboriginal person than by a Caucasian person.

The same is true of Scripture. Every time we read it, we are interpreting it. It cannot be read simply literally.

An early Christian theologian named Origen (c 185–254) described four levels of interpretation. He lived in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the earliest centres of Christian scholarship, and insisted that when we read and interpret Scripture, we are moving through four phases.

He called the first (and least important) phase the “literal phase”. This is the level of the plain sense of the text. What does the text say? What do the words in this passage mean? What form is this reading? Is it a poem? A letter? A sermon? A parable? A historical account? A parable means something in a different way than a genealogy does, for example. This is the first and very basic step.

He called the second phase the “ethical phase”. What does the text tell us we should or should not do? Does it contain explicit instructions for us? Is there a moral code we are expected to adopt?

Next was the “allegorical phase”. What meanings can we derive from the passage? What do the parables mean, for example? Or the Psalms when they announce that “the hills clap their hands before the Lord?”

For Origen, the most important level was the fourth phase, which he called the “anagogic phase”. How does this text move us? How does it inspire us to grow? Where do we find inspiration in it?

That word “inspiration” is important. It comes from the same root as the word “spirit”; the word spirit derives from “breath”. To breathe is to inhale spirit. What makes this even more interesting is that in both Hebrew and Greek (the languages of the Old and New Testaments), the word for spirit can also mean both “breath” and “wind”.

The highest level of interpretation asks about how the inspiration of the text. How does scripture inspire us as we read it? How does it point us to God. How can it draw out of us our highest and best selves?

This level of interpretation changes with each new generation. For us, the discoveries of the last 500 years change the way in which we interpret the Bible. Scientific discoveries of all kinds have changed the way we look at the world. Telescopes let us see further than we ever could before. Microscopes allow us to see what was hidden in the smallest elements of life. Geology and psychology, biology and astronomy, evolution, physics and all the other sciences have increased our knowledge of the mystery and wonder of the earth, the nucleus of an atom, and the furthest stars.

In the light of that burgeoning knowledge, we see pre–scientific Biblical texts with new eyes and hear them with new ears—and it also changes how we interpret the Bible.

In Origen’s way of understanding how interpretation works, if we stop with the literal meaning, we will not do that text full justice. We are failing the text if we stop there. Interpreters have known this throughout the history of Christianity. Literalism simply cannot do full justice to the magnitude of God’s ways with humanity.

It has only been in the last 100 years or so that fundamentalist Christians have insisted on a literal reading of the Scriptures. The doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture only arose at the beginning of the 20th century.

This literalistic approach goes against the whole history of how the church has read its holy scriptures. Such an approach distorts what the scriptures really mean, and what they have to tell us about what is truly important in life.

The emergent Christian movement is once more recovering a more holistic sense of how we might read scripture for our profit. While the literal sense is important, it is only the first step in a much longer journey.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook