Show Summary Details

p. 1349. Conclusionlocked

  • John Riches


The ‘Conclusion’ seeks to bring together some of the richness of the ways in which the Bible has been read and appropriated. It underlines how it has inspired great monuments of human thought, literature, and art. Whilst also fuelling some equally self-centred and misguided interpretations that have resulted in tragedy. The Bible continues to engage its readers and inspire them to new thinking — all the more remarkable in the light of how ancient are the biblical texts.

I hope this brief survey of the Bible and its uses has shown something of the richness of the ways in which it has been read and appropriated. It has inspired some of the great monuments of human thought, literature, and art; it has equally fuelled some of the worst excesses of human savagery, self-interest, and narrow-mindedness. It has inspired men and women to acts of great service and courage, to fight for liberation and human development; and it has provided the ideological fuel for societies which have enslaved their fellow human beings and reduced them to abject poverty. It has been at the root of the great revivals of Christianity, most recently in its remarkable growth in Africa and Asia. It has, perhaps above all, provided a source of religious and moral norms which have enabled communities to hold together, to care for, and to protect one another; yet precisely this strong sense of belonging has in turn fuelled ethnic, racial, and international tension and conflict.

It has, that is to say, been the source of great truth, goodness, and beauty at the same time as it has inspired lies, wickedness, and ugliness. What it has not produced is a uniform manner of its reading and interpretation. The reason for this is simple: texts have no control over the way they are read. ‘Texts’, wrote Robert Morgan, ‘like dead men, have no rights’ (Morgan, p. 7). It is the reader or communities of readers who produce the readings. And the diversity of readings produced is in proportion to the diversity of reading communities.

p. 135Such diversity should not, however, be attributed solely to the diversity of readers. The sheer richness of material in the Bible, the complexity of the processes whereby its books came to be written, the profusion of metaphor, of poetry, of narrative and discourse, would hardly lead us to expect that this collection of books would receive a single uncontroversial reading. At all times and in all places its many readers have had plenty to choose from, every opportunity to emphasize different aspects.

This diversity of material within the Bible has of course been a source of concern for leaders of religious communities, who have seen in their sacred writings a source of religious and moral norms, of revealed truth. The very process of canonization, of establishing an agreed list of books which are recognized as authoritative and excluding others which are not, is part of an attempt to limit diversity and deviance of belief within the community. Within Christianity, the creation of a second canon of New Testament scripture represents a further attempt to determine and limit the ways in which scripture is read: the Old is to be read through the lens of the New; but equally the New will receive a particular set of meanings from being linked with the Old.

Furthermore, once the boundaries of the canon are set, the books within it can never be read in quite the same way again, at least within those communities which accept them as canonical. For they have now become part of an authoritative corpus: they have been declared to be the word of God and there must then be limits to the diversity of viewpoint which can be tolerated among them. Once texts are canonized, the believers’ expectations of them soar. Readers have to read them according to a ‘principle of charity’ whereby they are read not only in such a way as to make sense (even though parts of them may appear obscure and incomprehensible), but also in such a way as to explain apparent or real contradictions and to rework the meaning of passages that may otherwise seem to contradict the teachings of the authorizing body.

p. 136But the fact is that canonization of sacred writings is a very rough tool for dealing with religious deviance. The sheer diversity of Protestant churches, all of which recognize the same canon, is ample proof of this. If there is to be a measure of consistency in scriptural interpretation within a given community and hence a measure of stability within that community, further strategies will be needed. This may be achieved in different ways. In the first place, access to the sacred books may be restricted. Only readers who have the required skills and qualifications for interpreting them in ways which will ensure uniformity and continuity of interpretation will be admitted. Within Judaism, this role falls to the scholar/rabbi. Within Christianity, it falls to the clergy, acting under the authority of the bishops or other kinds of church leaders.

The task of these interpreters is partly to lay down the rules of interpretation, partly to construe the texts in such a way that they do indeed offer a reading which is self-consistent and consistent with the norms of the community. With a collection of sacred texts as diverse as those contained in the Bible this will entail not only devising strategies for accommodating passages whose most evident sense is in flagrant contradiction to the central beliefs of the community; it will also entail setting emphases – highlighting certain texts and relegating others to relative insignificance. Crucially, it will entail devising techniques, such as allegory, whereby meanings can be imparted to texts whose literal sense is either unedifying or simply in conflict with the rule of faith of the community. The history of interpretation of the Bible provides rich pickings for those who look for examples of interpretative dexterity and imagination.

Within such rules and interpretative practices, there is then room for a controlled diversity of reading. Interpreters can relate the texts to the experience of their readers and indeed, as we have seen, allow such experience to affect their retelling of the text. There is room for debate and controversy, and there is the stuff of real division. The mediaeval p. 137church managed to contain diversity of interpretation by a mixture of high-level control – theological and political – and permitted diversity of theologies, forms of life, and religious orders. It also relied on ruthless suppression or marginalization of those whom it deemed deviants, such as Jews, Cathars, and Hussites. It certainly produced its share of deviants, among them the Augustinian friar who would destroy its unity, Martin Luther.

Luther's attack on the sacramental order of the church, with its clerical monopoly on the dispensing of grace, was altogether an attack from within. It was based on his interpretation of the Pauline texts about justification by faith. It relied on a strictly grammatical reading of these texts, something which was entirely permissible under the existing rules and practices of interpretation in the late mediaeval church. Luther himself was an accredited teacher of the Bible. In normal circumstances such anomalous behaviour could have been dealt with internally too. A number of factors made his attack fatal, not the least of which was the invention of the printing press, which enabled his views to be rapidly and widely disseminated. At the same time his (and others’) translations of the Bible into the vernacular provided wide popular access to the texts which till then had been largely the preserve of the clergy. The clerical monopoly was broken; from now on every man and woman could be their own interpreter.

The subsequent explosion of new readings of the Bible, of new forms of religious devotion and ways of life, is hardly adequately described as a reformation. The Reformers may indeed have seen it in just those terms: returning to the true form of the church as revealed in scripture to those who would read and follow its plain, literal sense. In practice what happened was much more like the opening of Pandora's box: once the winds were out, there was no way of putting them back. Older readings of scripture would continue to have their place alongside a whole variety of new ones. New religious communities would spring up all over Europe and from there spread out all over the p. 138

The Protestant principle that everyone could be his or her own interpreter of Scripture (as opposed to the Catholic view that the tradition of the church as established in the church councils was the true interpreter of Scripture) was pilloried by a sixteenth-century Catholic scholar in the following terms:

‘This Biblicist is a single person. The fathers of the council can be any number. This Biblicist is a sheep … the fathers of the council are pastors and bishops. This Biblicist prays by himself. The fathers of the council pray for all who are present at the council, indeed for the whole Christian world … This Biblicist may be an uneducated woman. They … are the most learned men in the Christian world.

Valerianus Magni De acatholicorum credendi regular indicium (An assessment of the rule of believing of non-Catholics) in Scholder, p. 18

globe. It was a time of great renewal and life, which in turn provoked fierce conflict and recrimination. Nearly a third of the population of Europe died in the conflagration of the religious wars in the first half of the sixteenth century. Yet even beyond such conflict the Bible has continued to provide communities with a basis for living and has, as we have seen, taken root in communities all over the globe, even among peoples who have experienced abuse in its name. Diversity of readings, it seems, is here to stay.

Of course, there are still those who believe that such developments can be reversed. There are those who believe that their community still has the key to the proper interpretation of scripture, whether this be in the form of some infallible teaching office, of some theological rule or confession which can act as a test of true readings of the texts, or indeed of a historical method which can deliver the original, single meaning of the text.

p. 139The difficulty with theological keys is this: either they are so specific, so closely tied to one particular community, that they are of little use in resolving disputes between communities; or they are so general, framed so widely, that they fail to address points of specific difference. If, for example, a particular church wishes to uphold one of the Reformation confessions of faith as its ‘subordinate standard of faith’, this may indeed enable it to adjudicate in internal disputes about the proper interpretation of scripture: it will not, however, enable the resolution of interdenominational differences, where it is precisely the difference between the various confessions of faith which is at issue. If on the other hand, one were to propose some much more general principle of interpretation, say that all interpretations should be broadly Trinitarian in scope, this would generate only a relatively weak set of rules whereby to adjudicate between different Christian interpretations. It would of course also be too specifically Christian to be of use in cases of interfaith disagreement.

The alternative to such an approach is to try and find some apparently neutral method of interpretation to which all can appeal, regardless of cultural stance. Here the historical critical method has seemed to many to be a most promising candidate. Just as Luther asked ‘what the Apostle wanted’ as a way to resolve disputes over the meaning of a text in Romans, so one might seek to resolve other disputes by searching for the original meaning intended by the author. There are a number of problems with this proposal. In the first place, it is doubtful whether authorial intention will do the job that it is asked to. Are authors’ intentions as clear as all that? T. S. Eliot once replied when asked if an interpretation of his poetry corresponded to what he had meant: ‘What I meant is what I wrote.’ Secondly, and perhaps more problematically, historians are inevitably influenced by their own point of view. This is partly a matter of their place within a particular tradition of reading, with its own body of knowledge, cultural beliefs, and standpoints, and partly a matter of their own tastes, preferences, p. 140and prejudices, formed in a broader cultural context. All of this will shape their judgements, with the result that historians will inevitably produce a plurality of readings. One would have to be blind as a historian to the diversity of historical readings (produced by eminent scholars) not to realize the truth of this. It does not mean that appeal to historical arguments may never be of use; nor does it mean that we learn nothing about the texts from such enquiries. It does mean that we will be most unlikely to resolve many disputes by recourse to such a line of argument.

So perhaps readers of the Bible will have to live with the fact that it has a rich potential for generating different meanings. Maybe, indeed, they should come to see this not simply as a problem with the Bible, but also as part of its very strength. This has serious consequences. It means firstly that the normative function of the Bible for any community is significantly weakened. If the Bible is recognized as essentially capable of many meanings, its use as a code of conduct or indeed as a rule of faith will be limited. But has this not always been the case? The fact that Jews will appeal to the Talmudim for rulings on matters of practice and belief and that Christians have appealed to some rule of faith or to the canons of the ecumenical councils to regulate their affairs suggests clearly enough that in practice it has always been accepted that the Bible was either too rich or too diverse or too vague to do the job of a Code Napoleon.

On the other hand, recognizing the Bible's potential for generating different meanings does not mean that its formative function is weakened in the same way. The whole point of our argument has been to show how powerful the influence of the Bible has been in the formation of a whole range of communities. Such power is not without its dangers. It has generated some deeply oppressive settler communities, just as it has produced reformers, liberationist politicians, and peace-makers.

p. 141What it certainly means is that we have to learn to read the Bible more critically. We have to become better attuned to the different voices within the biblical texts. Equally we also need to be aware of the different kinds of uses to which the Bible may be put and to learn to discriminate among them.

In these tasks the various approaches that we have considered all have their role to play. The historian of religion precisely by discerning different tendencies and influences in the texts may help us to be more aware of its complexity. Schüssler-Fiorenza's analysis of the patriarchal tendencies in Luke alerts us to the way that certain traditions have been marginalized in the Bible – and indeed in subsequent readings of the Bible – in ways which enable us to hear voices which we might otherwise have missed. Similarly, Mary Grey's imaginative use of wilderness motifs may serve to inspire people to live through the toils of a church emerging from patriarchy and to discover forms of communal living which are more integrative, more humane.

Again, readers will be guided by the rules and interpretative practices of the communities to which they belong. Those within Christian communities will be deeply influenced by the form(s) of the Christian canon. Its setting of the New Testament alongside the Old creates, as we saw in Desmond Tutu's reading of the Naboth story, a powerful theological framework within which to read the texts.

Even so, readers will have to judge for themselves between the different interpretations which any such approach makes possible. In this they will in a sense be thrown back on their own moral resources. But it is not simply a matter of individuals sitting in judgement over the biblical texts: the process of reading is more complex. In the first place, readers are rarely alone: they belong to communities which have been shaped by the text and which have in turn schooled their own moral senses. Thus the thoughtful reader is always engaged in a process of testing inherited moral senses against the texts and, as we have seen in p. 142so many cases, against his own experience. Will it stretch or will it break? Are there other senses among the readings which are possible from a particular perspective which will lead out of seeming impasses, which can bring renewal to traditions which are drying up or, worse, leading to oppression and self-deception?

Moreover, in this process readers are not simply dependent upon their own inherited values. As they learn to discriminate between the different voices in the texts, between different readings and constructions of the text, their moral and religious imagination and judgement is informed and sharpened. Where such discriminating and attentive reading occurs, communal traditions will be nourished and kept alive; where they are absent or marginalized, the tradition will wither. Even then, not all may be lost: from time to time there emerge moral and prophetic figures in whom the ideas and images of the texts have taken deep root, who may renew their inherited traditions or else generate new communities of their own.

One of the remarkable features of the Bible which we have noticed too little is its age. Its earliest material is some three thousand years old; most of it is two thousand years old and the New Testament only just slightly younger. From time to time people cast doubt on the ability of such ancient texts to speak to people so far removed in time. Certainly if the texts were limited only to the meaning which they carried (and were intended to carry) for their first hearers, we might well wonder whether they would have any future in an age so different as ours. But their history demonstrates that their stories, images, metaphors, and moral and religious concepts have shaped and continue to shape the experience and understanding of peoples of great diversity. Recent history in Africa and Asia suggests that there is no diminishing of this power. What are required are discriminating readers, alert to its life-giving potential, on their guard against its darker tones.