Where People Get Scripture Wrong
By N.T. Wright
April 10, 2012
Taken as a whole, the Church clearly can’t live without the Bible—but it doesn’t seem to have much idea how to live with it, either.
It's not surprising that all kinds of misreadings of Scripture have grown up, both among those who count themselves as Bible-believers and among those who distance themselves from that label while claiming some continuity at least with the biblical tradition. Many of these misreadings are now so common they are taken for granted in large segments of the Church.
At the risk of sustaining a polarization I regard as misleading, we might instance them in two blocks. What follows is a short list; many more examples could be found. (I here summarize wildly for reasons of space, and at the obvious risk of caricature. Each of the categories could of course be explained and exemplified at much greater length.)
Misreadings of the “Right”
To begin with, I offer the many positions regularly thought of as “right wing” which are based on, or involve, a serious misreading of Scripture:
A. The openly dualistic “rapture” reading of 1 Thessalonians 4 (as in the hugely popular and blatantly right-wing American Left Behind series), which ironically lives in close symbiosis with (B) below.
B. The explicitly materialist “prosperity gospel” understanding of biblical promises.
C. The support of slavery. (Scripture always struggled to humanize an institution it could not expect to eradicate; by privileging the Exodus narrative, it constantly appealed to a controlling story of the God who set slaves free; at some points, e.g., Philemon, it set a time-bomb beside the whole system.)
D. The endemic racism of much of Western culture. (Neoapartheid groups still try to base racial ideologies on Scripture.)
E. Undifferentiated reading of the Old and New Testaments, which of course exists in symbiosis with (F) below.
F. Unacknowledged and arbitrary pick-and-mix selection of an implicit canon-within-the-canon. (Few Christians have offered animal sacrifice or rejected pork, shellfish, etc., but few know why; some churches are tough on sexual offenses but not on anger and violence, and others are the other way around; few today even notice the regular biblical prohibitions against usury.)
G. The application of “new Israel” ideas (e.g., a reading of Deuteronomy) to various Enlightenment projects. (The United States is the obvious example, but interestingly the same ideology can be found, transposed into a French Roman Catholic key, in Quebec.)
H. Support for the death penalty (opposed by many of the early Church fathers).
I. Discovery of “religious” meanings and exclusion of “political” ones, thus often tacitly supporting the social status quo; this happily coexists in some cultures with (A) above.
J. Readings of Paul in general and Romans in particular which screen out the entire Jewish dimension through which alone that letter makes sense; this often exists in
symbiosis with (K) below.
K. Attempted “biblical” support for the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy.
L. An overall failure to pay attention to context and hermeneutics.
Much of this, alas, characterizes so-called “conservative” Christianity. Much “liberal” Christianity, seeing this, and rightly associating it with a subculture with which it has other quarrels as well, defines itself explicitly in opposition (“freeing the Bible from fundamentalism,” and so forth).
Misreadings of the “Left”
The preceding list is balanced by the equally routine misreading by what is thought of as the “left wing”:
A. The claim to “objectivity” or to a “neutral” reading of the text (the classic modernist position).
B. The claim that modern history or science has either “disproved the Bible” or made some of its central claims redundant, undesirable or unbelievable.
C. The “cultural relativity” argument: “The Bible is an old book from a different culture, so we can’t take it seriously in the modern world.”
D. Rationalist rewritings of history, which assume as a fixed starting-point what the Enlightenment wanted to prove (that, say, some aspects of the story of Jesus “couldn’t have happened”) but has not been able to.
E. The attempt to relativize specific and often-repeated biblical teachings by appealing to a generalized “principle” which looks suspiciously Enlightenment-generated (e.g., “tolerance” or “inclusivity”); note that, when Jesus went to lunch with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), people were shocked but Zacchaeus was changed; and that, having “included” the woman taken in adultery and shown up her self-righteous accusers (John 8:1-11), Jesus told her not to sin again.
F. Caricaturing biblical teaching on some topics in order to be able to set aside its teaching on other topics: despite repeated assertions, the New Testament does allow divorce in certain circumstances; it does envisage women as apostles and deacons, and as leading in worship; it does (see above) do its best to humanize, and then to challenge, slavery.
G. Discovery of “political” meanings to the exclusion of “religious” ones, often without noticing that, unless there is some power unleashed by these readings, this results merely in sloganeering which provides false comfort to the faithful through a sense of their own moral insight and superiority (“I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like those non-political pietists”), but without effecting actual change in the world.
H. The proposal that the New Testament used the Old Testament in a fairly arbitrary or unwarranted fashion; sometimes, as we saw, the conclusion is drawn that we can and should use the New Testament in the same way. Standard examples include Matthew’s use of Hosea (2:15) and Paul’s use of the “seed” motif (Galatians 3:16). Both, in fact, depend on a nexus between Jesus and Israel which remained opaque to many Protestant scholars in the modernist period, but which is now fairly common coin within the scholarship that has paid attention to the New Testament’s use of Old Testament themes and narratives.
I. The claim that the New Testament writers did not think they were writing “Scripture,” so that our appeal to them as such already does them violence.
J. Pointing out that the church took a while to settle on the precise canon (and that the relevant debates included some non-theological factors, e.g., political ones), and using this as an argument for discrediting the canon and privileging other books (e.g., “Thomas”) which articulate a different worldview, sometimes ironically projecting this preference back into a neo-positivistic claim for an early date for the non-canonical material.
K. A skin-deep-only appeal to “contextual readings,” as though by murmuring the magic word “context” one is allowed to hold the meaning and relevance of the text at arm’s length.
L. The attempt to reduce “truth” to “scientific” statements on the one hand, or to deconstruct it altogether on the other.
Much of this, alas, characterizes much so-called “liberal” reading of Scripture. Mainline churches and seminaries in the West have routinely assumed, and taught, that all this is assured as the result of modern scholarship and that any attempt to challenge it at any point represents a return to an anti-intellectual premodernity—which would put in jeopardy the status, the credibility and quite possibly the salary of the challenger. The result has been remarkable ignorance of what Scripture is and teaches; an inability to use it in serious, mature and indeed Christian ways; and, of course, a reaction by “conservative” Christians, who, seeing this, and rightly associating it with other cultural and social factors with which they also have quarrels, define themselves explicitly in opposition.
The need for fresh, kingdom-oriented, historically rooted exegesis
It is from this root—the culturally conditioned “Bible wars” of Western culture, not least in North America—that the polarization of current debates has emerged. It is in that context, again, that one hears it said frequently that all reading of Scripture is a matter of interpretation, with the implication that one person’s interpretation is as good as another’s.
This is demonstrably flawed. We must hear the questions and work through them to answers, refusing either to lapse back into reassertions, as though the questions did not exist, or to capitulate before their challenge. Genuine historical scholarship is still the appropriate tool with which to work at discovering more fully what precisely the biblical authors intended to say. We really do have access to the past; granted, we see it through our own eyes, and our eyes are culturally conditioned to notice some things and not others. But they really do notice things, and provided we keep open the conversation with other people who look from other perspectives, we have a real, and not illusory, chance of finding out more or less what really happened. Real history is possible; real historians do it all the time. Real, fresh, historical readings of the Bible, measured rigorously by the canons of real historical work, can and do yield fresh insight.
From Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Copyright © 2011 by N.T. Wright. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.