Approaches to the Bible

The Bible
Questioning Church
Image of an open bible
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.


It is not fashionable these days to cite C S Lewis (though his writings appear more popular in the United States than here, despite Alister McGrath’s biography and commentary on his writings1. However, he does provide a suitably pithy starting point for this discussion:

‘It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God’. Jesus, the Eternal Word, as a more normal starting point has all sorts of advantages2.

But this has not always been the way Christians have sought to find the meaning of the Bible – nor is it now.

From the time of the early church right up to the late middle ages, five approaches characterised the church’s way of reading scripture. Most obvious, though open to vastly different readings, was literal interpretation: the bible is to be interpreted according to the plain meaning of its grammatical construction and context. A second approach was to look for a moral interpretation, seeking to find ethical principles and lessons, even from unpromising texts. Then there was allegorical interpretation, which looked beyond the actual event to find the allegorical meaning; Augustine of Hippo’s sermon on the Good Samaritan is a classic example of this3. Allied to the allegorical approach was the typological, seeing key figures and events in the Hebrew Scriptures as types or foreshadowings of people, events or objects in the New Testament (eg Noah’s ark as precursor of the church, with all that implies). Finally, there was the anagogical, or mystical, interpretation, which sought to explain biblical events as they might relate to or prefigure the life to come.

One can still hear echoes of these approaches in the handling of scripture today in sermon, script and discussion, though of course the first, the literal meaning (the one God intended), is the one most cherished – even if most contested – by large sections of Christianity.

However, it is the contention of this article that the Bible is not some direct transcript of the dictation of God, but the human response to God, the creation of the believing community, which, because of its witness to Jesus is also the touchstone and yardstick for that community and in some sense it stands over against it.

Liberal, open, questioning (and questing) Christians take scripture very seriously (despite what our critics so often say). But we do so in critical and reflective struggle with scripture and its witness rather than in submitting uncritically to it. So, for instance, when a prophet says ‘thus says the Lord’ (anthropomorphising God) what is actually being said is this is what the prophet envisioned the Lord saying to him. What we read is a writer’s report, a prophet’s envisioning of what God wants; not the ipsissima verba Dei.

In this critical and reflective struggle with multivocal texts, many have come to recognise the importance of something called second naiveté. It works like this:

A sacred text can be listened to at three different levels. The first is naïve listening. But sooner or later a day comes along when we tend to make one of two choices: either to turn our backs on these naïve hearings, or to barricade ourselves behind those hearings. Then we must undertake listening on a second level through critical listening—listening that doesn’t trash the stories, but probes them to discern the criteria by which they can be more deeply heard, scrutinizing, interpreting, reflecting, reconstructing. This can be disorienting and sometimes disruptive. There is, however, as much danger of getting stuck in critical hearings of sacred stories as there is of getting trapped in naïve hearings of them. We can, however, take our cue from Paul Ricoeur, and listen to the stories in a third way, that is with what he calls second naiveté. This is not a regression to uncritical childish acceptance, but a re-entry into sacred stories with an interplay of adult critical attention and childlike awe4.

Similarly, Marcus Borg talks of three stages: pre-critical naïveté, critical thinking and post-critical conviction and affirmation.  

Alongside second naiveté, of great importance is a ‘canonical reading’ of scripture and the significance of ‘reader response’.

Canonical criticism looks at how texts are integrated into Scripture as a finished whole, and emphasises the community context in which the text was created. Canonical criticism does not so much ask about the origins of the text but seeks to reclaim the wholeness of Bible texts for contemporary believers.

Reader response, on the other hand, puts less weight on what is in the text and more on what the reader brings to the text. It says that any text must necessarily be ‘read’ subjectively. This recognises that the reader becomes actively involved in the process of reading, and that the gathered information, including the reader’s own awareness of her/his own norms and values, helps the reader him/herself to ‘make meaning’. Personal subjectivity is limited however by what the reader’s community considers to be inferred; thus the interpretative community, which sets the parameters of meaning, but which is also challenged by the meaning to explore further meaning, is some counterbalance to unbridled individualism. 

At the time of the Reformation, some important insights were gained, despite the later rise in protestant evangelicalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of a literalist fundamentalism. Martin Luther, for instance, despite his watchword of sola scriptura, also affirmed evident reason as an authority.

Official Roman Catholic Teaching also avers the notion of biblical inerrancy: Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu used an incarnational analogy to compare the unrestricted inerrancy of sacred scripture with the absolute sinlessness of Jesus: “For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error"5.

The difficulty of sustaining this position (and though couched differently, it is very similar to the evangelical fundamentalist approach which privileges the written word above the Eternal Word which is Jesus, the Incarnate One) is illustrated by Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation issued by the Second Vatican Council. This taught that God is the author of Scripture, but the human authors also were true authors; both must be considered when interpreting Scripture. In considering human authorship, genre, language usage, history, and culture must all be considered in order to discover the author’s intention. With all of this the critical exegete would not disagree. However, to discover God’s intention, three criteria must be considered according to Dei Verbum: (1) the content and unity of the entirety of Scripture, (2) Sacred Tradition, and (3) the analogy of faith; this obscure phrase disguises the magisterium, the magisterial teaching of the Church. Dei Verbum also taught that divine pedagogy and condescension are means to clearing up apparent contradictions in Scripture, which is surely a get-out of the first order.

In Anglicanism, Richard Hooker set the whole tone of the subsequent approach to scripture with his emphasis on the threefold and equal importance of scripture, reason and tradition. When approached from this perspective, we come face to face with the reasonable conclusion, which is not without support even in the earliest tradition, that the Bible is a human product, coming from our ancestors in ancient Israel and the very early Christian communities, recording how they saw things. But this does not mean that this is how God saw things; and the voices of the Bible speak in different ways and through many different genres.

We must also recognise that our reading will be affected by who we are and what our personal and social circumstances are. A male reader will not read any given passage in the same way as a feminist theologian, or a favela dweller in South America, or a Christian in an area where persecution is a strong reality. Yet all of these people take the Bible seriously. So the key to sensing the adequacy or faithfulness of each reading is recognising that the norm by which the Bible is to be understood is not some self-referential kowtowing to two verses in 2 Timothy6 (which in any case, when it was written, was referring to the Hebrew Scriptures) but Jesus himself. Again, as Marcus Borg has observed, ‘affirming that the decisive revelation of God is not a book or a set of teachings is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Christianity.'7 There is no place for bibliolatry.

It helps if we ask appropriate questions when we discuss matters such as the authority and inspiration of the Bible. A questioning approach doesn’t ask ‘Does God reveal Godself in scripture?’ but rather ‘In what ways does God reveal Godself in scripture?’ Other similar liberal questions are ‘How did God inspire, or breathe into, the writers?’ ‘How does God breathe into the contemporary reader?’ ‘In what ways is the Bible authoritative?’ and, instead of the fatuous question ‘Is the Bible true?’, ‘What truth is expressed here?’ To say that something is not ‘literally true’ does not mean it cannot bear truth. For example, someone may say they are so hungry they could eat a horse – a hyperbolic metaphor if ever there was one – a truth, but not literally true. When thinking about what ‘true’ means in relation to something recorded in scripture, it is not so much a matter of knowing whether something happened in every exact detail as whether it is a true reflection of what the life of God is like, providing a metaphor, picture or parable to enhance our understanding.

So when reading the Bible we need to think about how language functions and how symbolic, metaphorical, analogical, poetic language and myth are used. The Bible is neither some sort of religious encyclopaedia nor a rule book; it is certainly not a book of systematic theology, and does not contain a set of propositions which must be believed. It is the narrative of humanity’s understanding of God’s relationship with God’s people at particular times involving many different modes, styles of expression and genres, read and interpreted in very different times and mind-sets.

Furthermore, we must add to Richard Hooker’s threefold strand a fourth – experience. Experience provides a foundational resource for Christians and Christian theology. Since experience is present and real, it needs to be taken seriously; not least because God chose to reveal Godself most fully in the real life of the world, experiencing with and for us the full nature of human existence.

Christian theology provides an interpretative framework within which human experience may be interpreted as God continues to make Godself known to us and our contemporaries. Our wisdom and common life are lived out in the presence of God, and the personal experience each person has contributes to our overall understanding of God and the Bible. Inevitably, our own perspective and situation colours our understanding of scripture and tradition; and while the church is imperfect and our reason may well be faulty, these – and the abiding norm of Jesus himself – are nevertheless the parameters within which we have to struggle with our foundational documents, our great heritage, guide and stay.


1. C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Hodder and Stoughton, 2013; Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice: How Reading C.S. Lewis Can Change Your Life, Hodder and Stoughton, 2014

4. Extracts from a sermon preached by the Revd Dr David Schlafer at the Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, Maryland at the Easter Vigil 2013

5. Divino Afflante Spiritu 37

6. 2 Timothy 3, 16-17: ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.’ Particular words of interest are ‘inspired’ (which simply means breathed into, in the way that Genesis describes creation itself being brought into being by a wind (or breath) from God; it almost certainly does not carry the load that has been laid on it by people who claim the bible to be inerrant and ‘infallible’ – a position that depends to some extent on the over-interpretation of this verse), and ‘useful’, which does not seem a terribly strong word given what the verses have been made to mean.

7. Marcus Borg, Convictions, p100


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