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Let the reader understand

05 December 2014

Peter Forster looks at a contribution to the hermeneutics debate

The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church can teach us
Michael Graves
Eerdmans £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT265 )

THESE days, it is customary to find in the United States books that offer scriptural advice on subjects such as dating, losing weight, and financial planning - subjects about which the Bible directly says little. Michael Graves believes that an over-emphasis on the literal truth of the Bible has produced a false perspective on the texts. The remedy is to examine how the Fathers of the Church handled the biblical texts in the early centuries of the Church.

Then the interpretation of Scripture was seen as guided by God. The authoritative text was a given, but interpretation needed to be inspired, too. This was particularly clear in relation to the OT, which was to be read spiritually rather than literally. Hence the apparent lack of interest in accuracy when NT writers quote the OT.

Guidance was supplied by divine grace, but also through the "rule of faith". The early understanding of the "rule of faith" as a credal framework grew by the time of St Augustine into a much wider concept, however, so that a particular theologian could assert that his interpretation was uniquely valid. Earlier writers, such as Origen, more readily accepted a range of possible interpretations of a given passage.

Professor Graves suggests that we need to read both to recover and to abandon certain aspects of the use of the Bible by the early Fathers. For example, using the fulfilment of prophecy as a key indicator of the inspiration of the Bible should be sidelined, but the acceptance of diversity and uncertainty in much biblical interpretation would liberate the Church from the straightjacket of modern conservative exegesis.

Translations of the Bible are liable to mislead us, by being smooth and easily understood. The common uncertainties in the original text, and its meaning, tend to be ironed out in the well-meaning efforts of modern translations. We have lost much of that ancient sense that reading a passage aloud was itself intrinsically an act of interpretation, too.

This is a beautifully written book, and a fresh contribution to a debate that can sometimes feel a little stale. For Graves, a measure of subjectivity in interpretation is only a problem if the goal of our understanding is to eliminate all subjectivity. For human beings this is a misleading and unrealistic goal.

The question that is left open is: who finally decides between interpretations that are true and false? The ultimate answer given here is the familiar American one, that it comes down to the individual believer's relationship with God. To this reviewer, somewhere, somehow, the Church's voice needs to be heard more clearly.

Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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