Saturday, February 21, 2015

How do Lutherans read the Bible?

Perhaps all differences between denominations and religious movements in Christianity boil down to differences in how we read Scripture. So the issue of hermeneutics, which appears esoteric, is actually core to everything, from doctrine to ethics to the shape of the church.

In fact, I might argue that although Christians appear to differ on all kinds of things, ultimately all these differences arise at their basic point from differences in approaches to reading the Bible (hermeneutics).

So let's say we wanted to spell out the particular way Lutherans read the Bible over against other traditions. Is there a peculiar Lutheran hermeneutic?

If I were to answer this question, I think I would first respond by saying Lutherans read the Bible as promise, over against many traditions that read it more legalistically. In other words, the Bible is first of all a word of promissory address (God is favorably disposed towards you and all creation) rather than a handbook for living (do this or die).

I prefer this center for a Lutheran hermeneutic because, as Gregory Walter argues in Being Promised, promise is a "weak power that gives possibility directed toward the neighbor. It is open to public criticism and evaluation. Promise occupies no place and gives the place to the neighbor, requiring a radical kind of hospitality."

Scripture then if it is promise is first of all God's promise, God's way of being a weak power (the cross) in the world that is directed toward neighbor love. It does not need to enforce its power, in a fundamentalist posture, because instead Scripture as promise is a space of radical hospitality. Scripture is, in this sense, open to challenge, questions, comparison with other religious texts, doubt, discussion, internal and external critique, and more.

Which is of course the second way Lutherans read the Bible, as one witness to God's economic activity in the world, but not the sole or exclusive or authoritarian one. Lutherans, like many other Christians, also read the Bible in conversation with the wider "quadrilaterals" of religious authority--Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (the Wesleyan version), or Scripture, creeds, sacraments, episcopate (the Chicago-Lambeth version).

Although some Lutherans probably think they rely solely on the Word of God (sola scriptura), even the most ardent Word-aloner still actually relies on things like reason, experience, the liturgy, and the creeds, or the confessions themselves, in interplay with Scripture. Lutherans acknowledge the dynamic and developmental nature of all reading of Scripture, which is a third way Lutherans read Scripture. Lutherans notice that even Scripture has doctrinal development occurring as it is composed and collected, and are not afraid of this fact, because they learn from Scripture itself the extent to which Scripture is a counter-testimony at times to Scripture itself.

This is the fourth way Lutherans tend to read Scripture, the classic Latin being Scriptura sui ipsuis interpres, Scripture interprets Scripture. Sometimes this phrase is taken up again in a rather fundamentalist posture, but it needn't be. All it really means is that some of our best tools for understanding more difficult passages in Scripture are in other passages of Scripture. And our measure for weighing the relative value of specific passages in Scripture is the wider arc of Scripture's narrative itself.

One example. Scripture never directly condemns slavery. But Christian readers over the centuries have noticed the general disposition of Scripture taking up the inherent value of all people, so most readers of Scripture today believe they learn from Scripture that slavery is inherently sinful, a betrayal of the image of God in all of humanity.

This leads us to the fifth way Lutherans tend to read Scripture. We read it with Christ at the center. Scripture does not replace Christ in our faith. It is not our savior. It is not the living, bodily presence of God's Word in the world. That is Christ himself. In this sense, if we were to compare Christian doctrine to Islam, for example, the parallel for Scripture in Islam is not the Qur'an, but Mohammad, because Mohammad dictates the Qur'an, he is the vehicle through which readers met the Word of God, but he is not to be confused with the Qur'an itself.

Quite a lot of the way the Bible is read in Christianity today Lutherans are troubled by, because it assumes that the Bible is the Word of God itself, rather than the cradle in which Christ lies, the space in which Christ is met. This brings us to a sixth way Lutherans read the Bible--against idolatry, including and especially against the idolatry of Scripture itself. Lutherans know that fundamental to almost every thing in Scripture is the temptation to place other things above God, especially when we encounter God in Christ.

In point of fact, when Christ is encountered as recorded in the gospels, idolatry is so strong the only thing to do upon encountering the real God is to kill him.

Lutherans tend to also read the Bible in the plain sense. Rather than looking for special hidden meanings, or allegorical interpretations, or numerological insights, Lutherans read the Bible as the original readers would have understood it. One of the best examples of this is the way Lutherans read Revelation. Whereas a popular reading of Revelation today is to assume it tells us how to interpret contemporary news, as if it were a prophecy of the end times happening right now, Lutherans will read Revelation for what it was and is--a set of letters offering consolation to seven small churches in seven cities across the Mediterranean.

If this was the plain sense for the original readers, the next job of a Lutheran hermeneutic is to ask, "What can we hear God speak to us through this text, given what it spoke to the original recipients of the letters, and to John as the one who first received the vision?"

This is what we mean by inspiration. This is a word that was received by the original communities as an inspired word from God in which they encountered God's promises in Christ. It has now been passed on to us, and we believe the Spirit is up to something when we read it faithfully in this way.

Finally, it must be said that one way Lutherans tend to read Scripture is "not often enough." Many traditions who hold radically different hermeneutics may be guilty of theological errors, but one thing they get right. They try to read the Bible enough that the stories of the Bible inhabit them and their lives, and shape them in substantive ways.

Lutherans have the opportunity to, if they wish, not simply read Scripture, but to be read by it. And that is an excellent Lutheran hermeneutic.

For a couple of resources on the "how to" of reading the Bible, visit:

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