The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture:
What the Early Church can teach us
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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
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
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
Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.