With the invention of the telescope, Galileo’s math began to reshape the long held church-state understanding that the earth was the center of the universe. Instead of embracing the unfolding scientific truth, the church clung to a literal interpretation of scripture, citing passages like Psalm 104:5 “God set the earth on its foundations; so that it can never be moved.” The church-state named Galileo a heretic and arrested him. When the Biblical poet spoke of earth’s foundations, it sure did seem like the earth did not move. It boggles our minds to imagine our earth traveling about 16 miles in a minute or or a 1,000 miles per hour. Scientists tell us the earth moves while spinning around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, while the whole universe flies at 490,000 miles per hour. How do we not all get car-sick? Why do we at times confuse poems and science? The Bible is not really a science, history, or legal book. The Bible is the story of God and Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Israel, Ruth, Ester, Moses, Mathew, Mark, Magdalene, Luke, Lydia, John, Cornelius, Zacchaeus, Romans, Corinthians… Paul reminds us that we know in part. (1 Corinthians 13) John tells us none of us have ever seen God. (John 1 & 1John 4) Life’s deepest truths- beauty, peace, joy, faith, hope and Love resist scientific domination.
We can miss God’s Holy Mystery if we read every Bible chapter and verse with a one wooden interpretive lense. Poems and science speak God’s truth with different tongues. I wept at a concert this week as Tyler Childers and Chris Stapleton sang “I will follow you to Virgie”. I could feel my mom through the pines saying “boys, be good.” What movies, songs, or stories have helped you grow more true, whole or holy? Matthew and Mark tell us “With many such parables Jesus continued to give them the word… Jesus spoke to the crowds only in parables.” Parables like Jonah, the Lost Child, the Good Shepherd, or Good Samaritan bring to life God’s commandments to love in ways that reams of legal codes never do!
So what tools or lenses can we employ to apply scripture to our lives? John Wesley laid out eight steps to help us use the Bible to grow in faith and practise.
- Set a daily time to search the scriptures.
- Read whole chapters (this avoids verse by verse prooftexts)
- Read with a resolution to find and live into God’s will
- “Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith… those grand fundamental doctrines.”
- Pray constantly, because “scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.”
- Frequently pause and examine both your heart and life.
- Close with prayer so that the reading might be written on your heart.
- “And whatever light you receive, use it to the utmost and immediately,”
Wesley gives us a thoughtful, spiritual, experiential and personal method of reading Scripture using our common sense and collective wisdom to look for analogies, big ideas, and places to apply the found truths to our lives.
We, Methodists, name three tools or lenses to help us interpret the Scriptures. Reason, Experience and Tradition.
In SECTION 102.1 —OUR DOCTRINAL HERITAGE
While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.
I think our Methodist Biblical Interpretation tool box needs two more tools. So I would add Community and the Holy Spirit to the official three: Tradition, Reason and Experience.
We see these 5 tools working in the Book of Acts as the disciples sought to follow the now Risen Christ after Easter. The church began with a shared experience. On the day of Pentecost, the faith community asked what does God’s Spirit reaching out to every culture through all these languages mean? How do we reasonably interpret this Holy experience? The church looked to tradition and opened the Bible, but did not reach back to Genesis’ Tower of Babel but to passages like Joel 2 and Jeremiah 31. In doing so, they made a choice- they reasoned and prayed trusting the Spirit, community, and their minds. There is an interpretive debate throughout Acts- especially over issues like inclusion- with some citing more traditional readings of the law and others trusting the Spirit to lead them in new directions. (Acts 9-15) The church decided to go with an expansive view quoting Joel, Isaiah and Jeremiah’s vision, not that of Joshua or Leviticus. Jeremiah calls out “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors… No, this is the covenant that I will make, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” Hebrews 8 chose to quote church traditions encoded in Jeremiah 31 and Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 3 “God has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The early church unpacked a new experience and new theology using trusted tools to build something new: Scripture, community, tradition, experience, reason, and God’s ever present Holy Spirit.
Our first tool is community. The Bible was not written to read alone. No one could afford the handwritten leather scrolls so the Bible scrolls stayed in the churches and synagogues where they were read and discussed together. There was no google, just people you knew and trusted to help you explore, understand and apply the Scrolls. Searching the Scripture works best as a shared experience. Paul writes in Colossians “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, says hello. So do Mark, Luke, Barnabus and Demas. Tychicus and Onesimus, dearly beloved siblings will let you know about everything here and encourage your hearts. Say hello to Nympha and the church that meets in her house. After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the letter from Laodicea.” (Colossians 4) Paul writes to people, who in community shared Paul’s letter together. We need each other to really understand the Bible. .
Our second tool is experience. The Bible is a collection of people’s stories, experiences, and insights. A woman sits by a well talking to Jesus for hours, she gets up feeling her life coming back together and returns to her people saying come meet someone “who told me everything I have ever done”. I have shared frustration with Moses, felt as confused as Thomas, and been filled with wonder like Mary. In Acts 11, when the church was resisting the push of the Spirit to welcome everyone. Peter tells the story of baptizing a Roman Centurion Cornelius, and how the spirit filled the place. Luke tells us “Once the apostles heard this, they calmed down. They praised God and concluded, “So God has enabled Gentiles to change their hearts too!” Just as the Bible is a story of people experiencing God, God values and speaks through our experiences today.
Our third tool is tradition. Tradition arises from our collective experiences. Tradition grounds us, giving us a place to start from and a foundation on which to stand. In the times of deepest grief, trusted traditions and shared rituals hold us together. The Lord’s Prayer power is somehow more tangible when shared with others around a hospital bed. Even with a flat sermon, communion always draws me into the Holy to me. Tradition gives us a handrail along tricky terrain, maybe this is why people cling so fiercely to tradition when things seem to be slipping away. Maybe they fear that if they let go of that familiar standard God will not be there to catch them? Jesus was a critic of unexamined tradition. In Mark 7 Jesus warns us “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” Tradition can often lead to idolatry, treating something less than God as God. A church organist once threatened to quit saying “I can not play” upon seeing the bouquets of colorful “Christ has Risen” balloons tethered to exit pews as gifts for each child. I was happy to be the associate pastor that day. If we believe our traditions, ways and theologies are the only good ways to worship, reason, or serve, then what are we saying about other traditions, styles, and expressions? Tradition offers a path, a handrail, and a comfort, but Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul all warn “God is doing new things.”
Our fourth interpretive tool is reason. How can we read Scripture without human thought? Reading requires reason. We all do interpretive work. 2nd Timothy 2 tells us “Do your best to present yourself to God as an approved worker who has no need to be ashamed, but rightly explains the word of truth… be an apt, kind and gentle teacher!” Teaching is interpretation! Multiple times in Matthew Jesus asks, “What do you think?” In Philippians, Paul tells us God will work with us even if we disagree with his teaching. On Easter, Luke 24 tells “Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scripture ”. An unthinking or unquestioning faith may indicate a deep spiritual blindness- an unwillingness to risk faith in the present day presence of God!
Finally, the presence of the Spirit or the Risen Christ is essential to our interpretive work. On Christmas we celebrate Emmanuel, “God with us”, not that God was with us. If God spoke to the people in the Bible, why would God stop speaking to us today? And if you believe God is done speaking to the church, how can you know that, because God did not tell you that. John Wesley’s favorite verse was Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We Methodist believe God is still with us speaking through our faith community, reason, experience, traditions and Scripture. In Acts Ten, Peter pushes back hard citing his understanding of scriptures, tradition, and experience , saying “Lord, I have never done that”… but Luke goes on to simply quote Peter saying “the Spirit showed me that I should never call anything God made pure unclean!” How our spiritual experiences can overcome what we once held as foundational is a holy mystery that the lenses of scripture, reason, tradition, and community help us focus and clarify new insights. This may take some work, Christ is with us, God is not done with any of us and we do not need to settle for second hand experiences of the Holy.
So let us use these lenses so that the scriptures can become wonderful words of life for us!
Community- start searching the scriptures with others
Experiences- look for God all around you- serve your neighbor
Tradition- utilize biblical commentaries and worship each week
Reason- journal- read- read widely- regularly question what you think you know
And the Holy Spirit- be a person of faith, hope, love, grace and prayer
And using these tools we will be equipped for every good work! Amen