CHRISTIANS HAVE LONG claimed the Bible as a central source of authority for faith and life. Yet church members are often at a loss as to how to interpret the scriptures. While academic biblical scholarship has flourished since the 17th century, there is a troubling disconnect between seminaries and congregations, between what hermeneutics specialist Hans de Wit calls “professional readers” and “ordinary readers” of scripture.
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So, for example, master of divinity students at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where I work, gain skills in literary criticism, socio-historical analysis, Hebrew and Greek language, source criticism, and canonical criticism, among others, with the expectation that they will become leaders who are “grounded in and continuously formed by the Bible,” according to the program’s stated goals. But at the same time, today’s North American Mennonite church members often exhibit a widespread lack of familiarity with biblical interpretive tools and in many cases a lack of regular engagement with the Bible.
AMBS professor Alan Kreider wrote, “The estrangement of many North American Mennonite Christians from the Bible, their sense that they know the book, that it’s overfamiliar or irrelevant, and their captivity to American ills of individualism, consumerism, and over-busyness—all of these make it hard to indwell the ancient text and make it life-giving today.”
The chasm between academic biblical scholarship and the use of the Bible in the church is found across denominations. Christine Eaton Blair, a pastor, Christian educator, and practical theologian, sums up the issue:
For most of this century, the majority of ministers and Christian educators have received training in the use of historical-critical tools. For the most part, however, the laity in our congregations have not been taught even the simplest of these tools. ... This lack of lay training has undermined the foundational tenet of the Protestant Reformation, which insists on the right and duty of every Christian to read and interpret the Bible.
Blair notes that pastors often lack guidance in how to translate the technical tools they learned in seminary into something usable to the laity and typically shy away from teaching them at all. “In my experience, teachers worry that using historical-critical tools will, at best, bore their adult students, and at worst, shake their faith,” she writes.
How is it helpful to expose people in the pew to literary construction, ancient geography, nuances of source languages, the relative reliability of manuscripts, or the editorial processes involved in putting the Bible together? Some may argue that only a few churchgoers are interested in such seeming minutiae—that these matters are best left in the hands of experts so that pastors are free to carry out the “real work” of attending to people’s spiritual needs.
Experience, however, tells a different story. Without access to scholarly tools, many Christians are prone to misuse the Bible or to give up reading it entirely. In the past century alone, misreadings of scripture have made the Bible a weapon in the hands of despots, a tool of perversion by church-going perpetrators of abuse, and a metaphorical club in the so-called culture wars. As Lisa Miller writes in a recent issue of Newsweek, “A person alone on her couch with scripture can ... come to some dangerous conclusions: The Bible has, at certain times in history, been read to support slavery, wife-beating, kidnapping, child abuse, racism, and polygamy.”
Radio preacher Harold Camping’s recent use of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation to predict a specific “end times” date illustrates the point. More alarming than his errant preaching, however, was the fact that so many of his listeners lacked the interpretive tools necessary to discern between a solid reading of scripture and a shaky one.
Biblical misreadings of this sort might be entertaining if they were not so tragic. Lives are profoundly shaped by the religious convictions of public leaders. And too often, when scholarly tools for biblical interpretation are ignored, it is the most vulnerable who end up on the losing side of the interpretative equation.
BELIEVERS on both ends of the theological spectrum shy away from evaluating their methods of biblical interpretation. Conservative-leaning Christians sometimes resist the idea that one needs advanced education or sophisticated analytical techniques to understand scripture. They observe that academic study of the Bible can lead to objectifying it and to a failure to grasp and communicate its simple message and spiritual power for everyday life. They remind us that Jesus’ followers were poor and uneducated, and that the religious leaders of the day were often targets of Jesus’ anger and rebuke.
Of course, Bible study should not be reserved for the highly educated. Bible scholars and church leaders across the theological spectrum have come to believe that extraordinary wisdom can emerge from study circles, youth groups, home fellowships, and a variety of settings where participants with a range of educational backgrounds share insights. Because so-called ordinary readers often bring a deep hunger to their Bible study, as de Wit points out, they are full of expectation and hope, and their capacity to learn from scripture is profound.
Furthermore, academic tools are no substitute for spiritually formative practices such as prayer and worship. Ancient practices such as lectio divina and Ignatian spiritual exercises, as well as biblical storytelling, intercultural Bible reading, and the use of the arts in Bible study are other ways to study scripture that deepen understanding and aid spiritual growth. New Testament scholar Dale B. Martin’s recently published The Pedagogy of the Bible rightly calls for seminaries to expand beyond historical-critical methods to include a variety of these pre-modern approaches.
Still, while Bible study is not only for academicians, expository tools do play a foundational role of in shedding light on the text. Discovering, for example, that “kingdom of heaven” in the gospel of Matthew is a parallel term for “kingdom of God” in Luke and Mark is interesting. Even more eye-opening is learning that Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience while Luke wrote for a Gentile one, and that “kingdom of heaven” is likely a euphemism used in deference to the Jewish practice of refraining from speaking God’s name. This knowledge, gleaned through scholarly tools, helps support a theology that values participating in God’s reign in this life as well as in the life to come. In contrast, many churchgoers assume that “kingdom of heaven” refers strictly to the afterlife and are surprised to discover its many earthly dimensions.
A friend who participated in a 12-week living history simulation of the book of Romans (as outlined in a book by New Testament scholar Reta Halteman Finger) gained a new appreciation for the people of the Roman house churches, for their conversations and debates, and perhaps most surprising of all, for Paul’s writing in Romans and beyond. This experience with scholarly tools of interpretation made accessible to lay people in a truly engaging way gave my friend renewed energy for Bible study.
I remember my own tears of joy and relief when, as a seminary student, I began to read biblical texts with the help of scholarly tools. A study of the phrase “eternal life” in all of its appearances in the gospel of John, for example, uncovered the fact that this phrase, too, has significant this-worldly dimensions. The much-quoted John 3:16, which by that time had become oppressive to me, took on new and exciting possibilities.
ON THE LIBERAL side of the theological spectrum, Christians sometimes believe that the only meaning to be found in scripture is that given by individual interpreters. Seeing the failures of literalism, they reject the Bible’s relevance for moral and ethical matters. Increasingly the Bible sits on the shelf, no longer invoked for fear of proof-texting. As one Mennonite pastor wrote recently, “Biblical authority is a big issue. I find myself having to defend scripture in Sunday school from adults who have been Christians their whole lives. ... Somehow there needs to be a way past the idea that a literalistic understanding of scripture is the only one.”
In fact, informed biblical interpretation is not simply a matter of personal opinion, social location, or even theological or denominational commitment. It often surprises churchgoers to learn that biblical scholars across the Christian church spectrum share much in their understandings of scripture. While academic tools certainly don’t guarantee full agreement about the meanings of various biblical passages, there is much broader consensus among biblical scholars than among preachers and lay people.
When either the liberal or conservative tendency to ignore academic tools is taken to its logical conclusion, the Bible is stripped of its authority and relativism reigns. Both approaches deny the Bible objective meaning and its role as a key source of guidance for the church. In my denomination, both approaches have caused many church members, conservative and liberal, to embrace theological perspectives sharply at odds with Mennonite teaching.
The idea that there are “better” and “worse” ways to read and interpret scripture, then, isn’t academic snobbery, but rather evidence of a strong commitment to scripture as the Christian’s guide for faith and life. Without this commitment, the Bible has the potential to become a weapon in an endless battle between ideologues or to remain on the shelf as a relic of the past, functionally absent in the lives of congregations.
At a conference I attended, a common set of questions emerged: “How do we read the Bible well, and to whom do we look to tell us that we’ve read it well? And who can take the authority to make it so?” While scholarly tools for biblical interpretation cannot take the place of other formational practices, I believe they can help us address these questions and claim the Bible’s authority in our lives.
Bridging the gap between seminary and congregation—between biblical scholars and ordinary people who care about the Bible—requires a change of mindset. All of us—church leaders, biblical scholars, and people in the pew—will need to believe and behave as if scholarly tools for biblical interpretation matter in the church. As James Smart, a professor of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, wrote in The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, we share responsibility for the gap:
The primary source of the Bible’s failure to maintain its place in the life of the church and in the lives of Christian people is a multiple breakdown in communication: between biblical scholars and those responsible for preaching and teaching, between preachers and people, and, not least, between the separate departments into which the faculty of a theological seminary is divided.
We must together, as seminary and church, reimagine the place of biblical scholarship in the life of the church. We must get out of our ecclesial and academic camps and into mutually beneficial relationships that honor the knowledge and expertise each of us brings to the interpretive task. We must learn best practices from churches where members are engaged with scripture and regularly use interpretive tools, and from seminaries where pastors are being prepared to equip lay people for responsible study of scripture. Churches and seminaries working in isolation in regard to Bible teaching has not served us well. A new direction, charted together, is needed.
Jewel Gingerich Longenecker is associate dean for leadership education at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and a Ph.D. candidate in leadership studies at Andrews University.
Resources for Better Bible Study
The Art of Teaching the Bible: A Practical Guide for Adults, by Christine Eaton Blair. Geneva Press, 2001.
Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups, by Reta Halteman Finger. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.
Teaching the Bible: Practical Strategies for Classroom Instruction, edited by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray. Society of Biblical Literature, 2005.
Teaching the Bible Through Popular Culture and the Arts, edited by Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray. Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
Effective Bible Teaching, by James C. Wilhoit and Leland Ryken. Baker Book House, 1988.
Transforming Bible Study, by Walter Wink. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009. —JGL