A few weeks ago, before church had started, I was approached by a woman in my congregation. She asked me a very important question, but one I had never been asked before.
“Preacher” (She likes to call me that!) “How did they teach you to read the Bible in Seminary?”
A good, honest question when you think about it- but alas one I have never been asked in 10+ years of ministry. Not one time, that I can recall, has someone asked me this question, and it is a very important question when you think of the nature of the inquiry.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to probe a little deeper to try and understand the particular reason she was asking the question.
“Well, it seems to me that going through the entire Bible verse by verse and learning what every verse means would take a lot longer than a few years…” She said trailing off.
My reply to her was in the moment simple but in the shape of ministry extremely important. “Well, when you arrive at seminary the faculty assumes that you know the story of the Bible and have spent a lot of time with it already. Instead of taking the Bible verse by verse and studying each one, seminary teaches students ways of reading the Bible- more like lenses to read through more than taking it one verse at a time.”
“That makes sense,” she said as she made her way to her normal seat. I am not sure if she was fully satisfied with my answer, but it was the best attempt I could make off the cuff with a lot of other things on my mind- like the worship service we were about to start!
The lenses that we view Scripture through are very important. In seminary, we call them hermeneutics. Hermeneutics can be defined as the way we interpret Scripture. There are many forms and kinds of hermeneutics that people use- conservative hermeneutics, progressive, feminist, fundamentalist…we could make a list a mile long. When we read the Bible we put on a particular set of lenses that skew and shape our reading of the Bible. Think of it as sunglasses. Sunglasses do not necessarily change what you see- but they change how you see it, by darkening the light. If we are driving down the road together and three of us are wearing sunglasses and one is not we will all see the cars around us, but the colors may look different to the people wearing sunglasses. In fact, even the different shades of sunglasses can affect our opinions of whether a car is orange, yellow, or red. Lenses matter.
The Bible is not a stand-alone text. No, when we read the Bible we do so as people informed by the world around us. Even if we say we read the Bible word for word, saying it is simple black and white- we do not. We have opinions and understandings of the words on the page and themes that form how we read the passages. Our hermeneutical lenses are formed by our culture, social location, education, church/denominational background, and other factors. That does not mean we are wrong, it means we have our own stories to read into Scripture.
For example, consider a text such as 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, when Paul speaks of women being silent during church. Depending on your gender, denominational understanding, and culture you can understand this passage in different ways. I read this passage as a male- so I probably read this passage with different emotion than my wife. I read this passage as someone who comes from a faith tradition that encourages women in leadership, so I read this different than some of my other friends who are pastors. I also read this as an American who believes in equal rights for men and women, probably a much different reading than someone in Yemen or another country where women do not have the same opportunities as women in the USA.
Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is living and active (4:12), and I believe a large part of that is from hermeneutics. It is not wrong to read the Bible with lenses on, but it is wrong to think that your understanding is the only understanding, and never stop to consider why you read certain passages the way that you read them. This also means that as we grow and learn our lenses will change. For example, anyone who has read the Bible as a parent with no kids and then became a parent probably noticed a significant shift in the way you understand the Bible because having children brings a new kind of understanding about love into our lives. All of a sudden the idea of God as a father make so much more sense!
Finally, I encourage you to read the Bible with grace. I will never have the opportunity to read the Bible as a female from Yemen, but I can try to expose myself to that hermeneutical lens to try and understand their perspective. Reading the Bible with grace means understanding that we are not the arbitrators of truth- God is. If we fully trust the Holy Spirit to be the one to reveal the truth of God’s Word, then we must trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those around us. It takes an extreme amount of courage to allow someone to read the Scriptures on their own and not merely try to project our ideology and experience onto their reading, but many times that is the best thing that we can do for them.
Hermeneutics matter-lenses matter-grace matters. When we read the Bible together we can begin to understand how this book lives. So, read with courage, read with grace, and sometimes read not just to know the answers, but to enter the mystery of the working of the Holy Spirit.
Photo by Joshua Forbes on Unsplash
Photo by Joshua Forbes on Unsplash