A Response to Bill Loader's Paper

Approaches to Scripture: Considering the Options

Suzanne Boorer

Senior Lecturer in Old Testament, Murdoch University


1.      Scripture  -  “These are the words of the Lord”
                to be believed and obeyed without question

Re Bill's comment that this stance is not really ever taken consistently but inevitably sets aside some instructions in Scripture:

- just to add to Bill's lists some of the instructions in Scripture that surely no-one would want now to hold:

    e.g.. Deut 21:18-21, a rebellious son who does not obey his parents (and is a glutton and a drunkard) will be stoned to death;

            Deut 22:28-29, if a young woman (who is not engaged or married) is raped she must marry her rapist and can never be divorced from him.

This raises the question that, given these are ancient texts that are time- and culture-bound, do any of the texts have relevance for today and if so how do we identify which ones? That is, how do we discern which texts, if any, are really "the words of the Lord"?


Re Bill's observation regarding the problem for this position because of the "differences among various writings of scripture, both between the testaments and within each", let me illustrate this with the contradictory theology of the book of Proverbs and the book of Job. For Proverbs (and indeed for most of the OT including the prophets and the Deuteronomistic History) one reaps the consequences of one's actions: the fool or the wicked gets his or her just deserts (usually in the form of their demise) and the wise or righteous prosper (usually in the form of material wealth, good health, long life etc.). After all we think the world should be fair and just don't we? In the book of Job, however, the most righteous and wise man on earth suffers, though innocent -indeed, the book of Job represents a deliberate and direct questioning of the book of Job (and the prophets). We could go on and put the beatitudes alongside these views here, again conflicting with the theology of Proverbs and so on. Yet all these contradictory theologies are in the canon, and left there side by side in a deliberate manner. This raises the question then of what really is the purpose and function of the canon for and within the faith community?


Finally, this stance, "These are the words of the Lord" has the underlying assumption that we are supposed to agree with Scripture. This assumption of having to agree with what is written in the bible is I think a widely held notion in all the churches. But does such an assumption do justice to Scripture and how it was and is intended to function for the faith community? I would think not - not only because of the contradictions in detail and theologies found in the canon but also because there are many texts in the OT that I am sure were never intended to be agreed with or seen as instructions for how we are to behave. Take, for example, the story of the Levite's concubine in Judges 19-20. The Levite cuts her up into 12 pieces (and the text is not clear as to whether she is dead or alive when he does this) and sends the pieces round to the 12 tribes as a call to war. I'd bet my bottom dollar this story is told here in order to shock -- this is what happens when society is in chaos - and is certainly not meant to function as instructions as to how we should live and treat other people. It seems to me that to take the biblical texts seriously does not mean agreeing with them necessarily but dialoguing with them in a serious and respectful manner to try to struggle with, and discern, how to live as the community of faith today -- and this may involve being shocked, and reacting against, what we see in the text in places as well as being inspired in a positive way by other texts.


This last comment also applies to the second approach outlined by Bill, "This is the word of the Lord", for it also assumes that scripture is there to be agreed with, only it wants to be selective with regard to which texts should take priority as more important in this process of agreement. So let's turn to that.

2.      Scripture  - “This is the word of the Lord”
                                to be weighed selectively

In this approach where some parts of scripture are weighed more heavily and other parts overridden when they contradict, the questions arise, as Bill points out, as to how to balance what is said in one part of scripture with values seen to be espoused at its heart, and who decides what is weighty or not.


Going back to my example of Proverbs vs Job and their contradictory theologies. Perhaps it could be argued that one overrides the other depending on the situation. We may observe in one instance, for example, that those who work hard, who faithfully follow the protestant work ethic, at least at times prosper and get on. That we are accountable for our actions often and bear the consequences of them -- that's life isn't it at least some of the time. And does not our sense of justice mean at times that we are tempted to think it right that brutal dictators like Hitler face their own demise. When perceiving things along these lines the book of Proverbs is at centre stage. But at other times and in relation to other situations, surely it would seem more appropriate and fruitful to see the theology of Job as overriding the thinking of Proverbs and the prophets -- when we see the innocent suffering of many on a daily basis -- those caught by chance in terrorist attacks, those struck with illness for no reason; (or when we see in the opposite way, those with no scruples getting on and doing very well for themselves). Surely in these cases it is more appropriate to struggle with the mystery of God and the universe than to interpret these situations in terms of act-consequence theology. So can we say that perhaps a criterion for what theology overrides another should be decided by context, i.e. situationally?


And yet, as Bill points out, often in the face of the same situation or issue people are divided, differing on which parts of scripture are to be weighed more heavily and which are to be overridden. So who should decide, and should the decisions vary over time in different contexts? Perhaps we could say, in broad terms, that the central perspective in the Bible that should override everything else is unconditional love, or compassion or the grace of God. But then what about justice (for central to the identity of the UCA is its focus on social justice)? What happens when the perspective of God's unconditional love seems to conflict with the social justice perspective? If we preach unconditional love for all, including those who perpetrate suffering on others, are we, who are not directly affected, sacrificing their victims?


Or perhaps what really happens sometimes in the interaction of seemingly different perspectives such as justice and unconditional love is that rather than one overriding the other they are both redefined such that loving unconditionally the perpetrators means challenging them to see and reap the consequences of their actions -- is this what love means for both oppressor and oppressed or not?


3.      Scripture -  “In this is the word of the Lord”
                                to be engaged openly, including critically

Bill's third approach that allows criticism and rejection of parts of Scripture in the process of accepting other (and sometimes contradictory) parts and interpreting the text in the light of contemporary understanding, has several advantages over the first two approaches. These are, as I see it:


a) It frees itself from the ill conceived view that the Bible is there to be agreed with, that one only takes the Bible seriously by agreeing to it. As we have seen it does not seem that the canon of scripture with its many contradictions was ever meant to be used in that way but is there as a respected dialogue partner in the ongoing struggle engaged in by the faith community to discern how to live in faith, a dialogue that involves both agreement and disagreement.


b) It is frees the community of faith or the interpreter in the present to see these texts for what they are as time- and culture- bound and therefore not obliged to follow the text in a vacuum but to discern which might still be appropriate for the present time and which are not. For example the Deuteronomic law that a virgin must marry her rapist can be simply rejected since we no longer adhere to the view of that time and culture (hopefully) that women are merely the property of men.


c) It frees us to see the texts of the bible in places naming things that human think and feel in a realistic way, so that it holds up to us a mirror of the things humans can do and think and feel, the bad as well as the good. In this approach it does not mean condoning necessarily the darker thoughts and actions articulated, but rather acknowledged that this is how we are sometimes, to articulate it and get it out of our system perhaps and then hopefully to move on. I'm thinking for example of the parts in the imprecatory psalms where the psalmist wishes vengeance on enemies (dash their little ones on the rocks etc.). Or the genocide of the book of Joshua which although in the text held up as the will of God, God's holy war, we can reject within the framework of this approach as not really reflecting, indeed out of kilter with the god we perceive from more noble parts of scripture and in which we believe now in the contemporary community of faith. That is it frees us to criticise some of the theology of the biblical texts as seems appropriate. But still the bible is being taken seriously as scripture in that it shows us what is real as well as what seems nearer to what it means to live in faith.


But, again, who decides which parts of scripture are to be rejected or accepted and how do we decide this? In this, too, we have to acknowledge that we ourselves are just as time- and culture-bound as the scriptural texts, even though we may not be aware of it and find it hard to gain perspective on since we are in the middle of it. We do not and cannot have an absolute perspective; it is part of being human and why scripture needs to be interpreted and reinterpreted in every era and culture continually.


There is yet another question that can be raised in relation to this approach, that chooses what it thinks is right and rejects what it thinks is wrong: does it really allow for the relativity of truth? That is, some parts of scripture can be seen to have an element of truth, as do other parts even ones that contradict each other. Indeed a danger can be seen to lie in absolutising one perspective and completely rejecting an opposing perspective. For example, surely Proverbs has an element of truth to it; we often reap the consequences of our actions. Often if we work hard we prosper. But surely at the same time Job has an element of truth to it also; someone may do everything right and work really hard and yet end up in poverty through no fault of their own, and the innocent do suffer every day.


Both ways of thinking have an element of truth to them. And perhaps it is more true to the wisdom of the canon that simply places these differing and contradictory views side by side to hold them together in tension such that neither view can be absolutised. I would argue that the truth of the canon is compromised if one is chosen and absolutised and the other rejected altogether. And doing this can be dangerous. For example, if Proverbs is absolutised and Job ignored this can lead to blaming the victim, to blaming those who are suffering because after all if you reap what you sow they must have done something wrong to be suffering like this. Or, again, if Proverbs is absolutised you end up believing that if you have enough faith you will prosper materially (this is the philosophy of Schuller's crystal cathedral in California) and everyone who is wealthy is above reproach. And we know that isn't true. On the other hand, if Job is absolutised and Proverbs and the prophets are ignored ie the theology of act and consequence is thrown out altogether, then accountability for our actions has been obliterated.


So to choose some parts of scripture and to reject others in an absolute way, in a black and white fashion that labels some parts right and others wrong, is quite dangerous. The canon of scripture needs to be respected as holding different theological perspectives in tension such that we must struggle to discern in the present and in every age the relative truth and appropriateness or each in our time- and culture-bound perspectives. To quote Paul Tournier, "The bible is...a mirror of the human heart, and the human heart is full of contradictions; it never grasps more than a part of the truth, and (the danger is if) that part it then generalises as if it were absolute." - A Doctor's Casebook in the light of the Bible (London: SCM 1954) 19.


This brings me to Bill's final category:


4.       “Your word is a lamp for our feet, a light for our path” 
                        beyond right and wrong

*Given what I have just said this leaves Bill's last approach, that recognises that we cannot escape our fallibility, nor I would add our time- and culture boundedness and relative perspective. So we engage, as Bill says, in this task in a community of faith where the biblical stories are told and retold, being open to and trusting in the inspiration of the spirit in seeking to discern not so much what is right or wrong but what leads to life and nurture. It is an ongoing task that is open ended and never wrapped up but a struggle for discernment from moment to moment. I also see the task of interpreting scripture along this line.


And I'd like to illustrate this by talking about something of the dynamics of the process in which scriptural texts interact with the reader within the faith community. The way that they can act in the process of reading them or listening to them is like a mirror. The texts hold up a mirror to ourselves and actually read us (as much as we read them). They help us to see ourselves and where we really are instead of perhaps where we think we should be. For example, the outrage of Job that it is the wicked and not the righteous who are prospering may touch into, and throw light on our own sensibilities of outrage in the face of injustice. The wish for revenge against the enemies by the psalmist may bring to light thoughts and feelings within ourselves of violence towards others that we might have not wanted to acknowledge, because after all we aren't meant to think those things are we. We may not like what we see in ourselves when touched by these texts, but in being read by these texts and acknowledging what we really think and feel at times rather than fooling ourselves that we are what we think we ought to be can be a step towards moving on and being open to something more constructive. The biblical texts, then, in reading us can help us to be really truthful about ourselves. But the biblical texts can read us, help us to see what we really think and feel in more subtle ways than simple identification, and they can do this in ways that open up for us at the same time different possible perspectives that may help us to move forward.


I'll take once again my example from the OT wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job and this time also Ecclesiastes) where a range of theological perspectives - some contradictory - are presented. These texts - like most of the OT texts - are ambiguous and open to different interpretations. After all most of it is poetry and as such has layers of meaning. Different interpreters at different times therefore will interpret the same text in different ways. The way in which we actually interpret a text, then, tells us something about how we actually see life at the moment (rather than how we think we should see it) - our interpretation of the text is a mirror for us, another way in which the text reads us. And often our interpretation of the text shows us whether we are deep down approaching life in a life-giving and nurturing way or in a death-dealing way, and what our image of God really is (in comparison with what we think it should be).


For example, the speeches of God at the end of the book of Job can be interpreted in at least two ways, both of which are true to the Hebrew text. One way is to see God as, not only dismissing Job in not answering Job's anguished questions concerning his innocent suffering, but even bullying Job and beating Job into submission. If one gravitates towards this interpretation, then I think it says something about the reader's pessimistic view of life and who God is for that person. Another way of interpreting the God speeches at the end of the book of Job is to see that although Job's questions about innocent suffering are not answered the divine speeches free Job from his own unhelpful and ultimately despairing categories in which he is trying to make sense of things by opening up a glimpse of the universe that, though unable to be understood, brings Job into a sense of the mystery of God that is life-giving for him. If we gravitate towards this interpretation it shows us something about our stance towards life and how we perceive God.


So our interpretation of the text mirrors back to us something of how we see life lived in relation to God. But it also does more than that. In its very ambiguity, with the possibility of different interpretations it not only shows us where we stand but at the same time opens up for us alternative and different perspectives that may broaden our horizons and help us to shift to a more life-giving space. For example, if we're inclined towards the interpretation of seeing God as bullying Job and are frustrated that there is no answer to the problem of innocent suffering in our terms we may not only see ourselves in relation to where we really find ourselves (antagonistic to, and frustrated with, God) but also see the alternate interpretation that frees us from such categories and offers a more life-giving and nurturing perspective that, though shrouded in mystery, may free us from being stuck in an ultimately unhelpful perspective. On the other hand, if we have jumped too lightly to the positive interpretation, we may need to hear the other, darker interpretation in order to face fully the dilemma of the difficulty of life for those who suffer innocently to come to a more realistic and less simplistic faith that may have to move through the existential questioning of the goodness of God to come to a more profound understanding of the mystery of God. And so on.


To take one final example, this time from the book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity". The word translated "vanity", i.e. hebel, means fleeting, transitory. Whether then it is interpreted as negative (as in "vanity" or sometimes "futility") or positively or neutrally (such as fleeting, transitory) depends on how one sees life and God given that everything is transitory and death comes to all. Some will interpret Ecclesiastes and its message in the face of the hebel of life in the face of death in a gloomy fashion: since nothing lasts it is ultimately meaningless - life, joy and so on are all meaningless because they are here today and gone tomorrow -all is vanity/futility. Others, however, interpret Ecclesiastes in a positive way: an awareness of our mortality helps us to live in and appreciate the present moment more intensely, to value each moment as precious and therefore to enjoy the pleasures of life more while they last. Both interpretations are possible and again the text reads the reader, mirroring back to them through their interpretation their stance on life and opening up other possible interpretations in its ambiguity. Thus it allows us to be "real" with where we are but also opens up to us other perspectives that may be more life-giving and nurturing. This is how I see the interpretations of scripture operating dynamically within the community of faith - from moment to moment - in an open-ended process of dynamic discernment that is central to our lives.