I had a brief conversation a while ago with someone who thinks it’s more difficult to speak about the Bible in straightforward ways these days. It seems to no longer say what it says; if I say, “This passage means this,” there’s often someone who will say, “It looks like it says this, but what it actually means is this.” And I agree; it does seem to take more work to talk about the Bible these days.
While I imagine sometimes people do say “it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means” simply to try to find ways/excuses around passages they don’t like, and that’s not good, in many cases there are good reasons for the shift towards a different reading of the text. Some of them are pretty commonly known: questions of cultural differences, genre, dealing with an ancient text and related expectations, and so on. But there are other factors to consider as well.
1 – Sometimes seemingly new ways of reading scripture are actually correctives to relatively recent innovations in reading scripture. A “new” interpretation may actually reflect a more ancient understanding of a passage. What we’re used to or were brought up with may, quite naturally, seem like the normal understanding of the Bible, but may in fact be the new reading. Slightly different but related is the idea that previous generations and especially the ancient church—not to mention different branches of the church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—have read the Bible in very different ways than some modern ways of reading.
Example: dispensationalism and rapture theology (think Left Behind series), are relatively modern ideas (late 19th century). I don’t think the majority of prior generations of Christians would have read the Bible in this way, but today it seems to be the majority view of the conservative evangelical church in North America. And so correctives come along (e.g. N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope) which may seem new or novel, but actually reflect scripture and the history of the church’s interpretation more faithfully. How conservative evangelicals tend to read Genesis 1 is another example.
2 – New readings may also reflect the realization (or remembrance) that our experience and reason play a part in interpreting scripture. If the Bible says that rocks are soft, but I experience the hardness of a rock falling on my toe, then I have a conundrum. But the problem isn’t with my experience of the rock, nor is the problem actually with the Bible—the problem is in how I read and interpret the Bible, or perhaps what I understand the Bible to be. I may need to read it differently. Obviously the Bible doesn’t say rocks are soft! My point is simply that sometimes we impose things on the text that the text itself doesn’t allow or ask for, and so there are correctives made.
3 – New readings also reflect the realization that with some things that we call “biblical” we’ve tended to proof text. For example, Paul says in one passage that women should be silent in churches, and historically we’ve stopped there, end of story—the Bible says it, I believe it. But these days we may be more honest about the fact that Paul also talks about women prophesying in church and women apostles, for example. And so we’ve had to adjust our reading and interpretation of scripture to reflect the realities within scripture itself.
These three overlap as well. And I’m sure there are others. This is the reality of being honest about scripture and tradition. “New” readings aren’t always to be dismissed as “liberal” or “revisionist” readings. Sometimes they restore or reset our understanding to more ancient and biblical views (which, I suppose, is to say, the more “conservative” view).
I always find it refreshing when I see the Bible in a new way based on something the Bible itself says—when scripture has something to say about itself.