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The elephant in the room is Herman

02 May 2014

Michael Doe on the question how the scriptures are read

Listening to the Bible: The art of faithful biblical interpretation
Christopher Bryan
OUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10 (Use code CT343 )

The Bible in the Life of the Church
Clare Amos, editor
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT343 )

CONTRARY to the seminary joke, there was never a German theologian called Herman Neutic; but the question how we read and interpret first the Old, and then the New, Testament has dogged the Church from the beginning. Today it is there in the tensions within the Anglican Communion, and whether certain kinds of behaviour are, in the words of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, "incompatible with Scripture".

The recent Pilling report in the Church of England says that the "ongoing disagreement on questions of sexuality [turns] on the meaning and authority of Scripture".

At one level, we must ask whether this is true. The fact is that few conservatives in the so-called South, and even less their supporters and funders in the North, take seriously what the Bible says about wealth. Similarly, on other issues, such as the ministry of women and marriage after divorce, they manage to live with very different views, which are based more on their own cultural context than what scripture might or might not say.

Nevertheless, given what, it is claimed, the Bible says about human sexuality, and, more importantly, what Anglicans have always said about the primacy of scripture but also its relationship to tradition and reason, these two books make an important contribution to contemporary hermeneutics.

The Bible in the Life of the Church project was set up by the Anglican Consultative Council in 2009. It was decided, perhaps wisely, that those taking part around the Communion should focus not on human sexuality, but on one of the Five Marks of Mission, which addresses environmental matters. The book records how different regional groups approached and interpreted the biblical texts, how they took into account the context in which they were written, and how far their own context determined what they understood the text to be saying. Was scripture their point of departure or their destination? Were particular texts more important, and, if so, which ones, or scripture as a whole?

Given the current problems within the Communion, some voices are missing, particularly those who would claim, as the English Puritans did in the 17th century, that one can read scripture off the page "without interpretation" (as if that were possible). But those who did take part show the best side of Anglicanism: a respect for diversity where differences appear; the need to read the Bible together as a communal and thereby learning exercise; and the importance of rehearsing scripture within the shared activity of worship.

Such insights would surely encourage Christopher Bryan, who is concerned with the relationship between biblical scholarship and the faith and mission of the Church today. He is not afraid of what empirical analysis may reveal about a text, or the setting in which it may have been written, but asks whether that is the whole story. He uses the insights of literary criticism to show that there is more to a text than the words or the context from which it comes.

To understand a particular book or passage, we need to know its original setting-in-life in the community of faith, but it also needs to be read in a way that addresses the setting-in-life of our own community of faith today. Textual interpretation must have its scientific elements, but in the end it is an exercise in imagination, and, therefore, more an art than a science.

That point is reinforced by his inclusion of an appendix on "Speaking the Word", some very practical advice on how scripture should be read in church.

What both of these books do is to warn against the kind of reductionism that fits scripture into our own categories and to meet our own needs, whether that is the analytical approach of the historical-criticism school, or the way in which the liberal agenda of the Jesus Seminar tries to cut it down to size, or its "instrumental" use by the conservatives, including some around the Anglican Communion today.

If scripture is the result of the Holy Spirit at work, then we must be open to the same Spirit as we read and hear it. Or, to put it more crudely, we must stop using the Bible as a drunk uses a lamp-post: more for support than illumination.

The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray's Inn, in London.

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