Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Jesus and Understanding the Bible

A post by Tim N on Young Anabaptist Radicals:

A few weeks ago, in a discussion thread over here, folknotions asked the question (seconded by Tim Baer): “What do radical anabaptists believe about the Bible?”. I’ve been pondering this question for a few weeks and I haven’t come up with anything definitive, but I do have a few thoughts to share. It just so happens that DenverS posted a piece two weeks ago that very much speaks to this question as well. I’d love to hear what others of you (especially women) think as well. We’ve already got a quite active The Bible so if you add your piece to that category, we could even have ourselves a “YAR on the Bible” series.

My awareness of how I read the bible has been strongly shaped by my experience of British Anabaptism through working Anabaptist Network. The second of the Anabaptist Network’s seven core convictions is:

Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation. We are committed to a Jesus-centred approach to the Bible, and to the community of faith as the primary context in which we read the Bible and discern and apply its implications for discipleship.(read more from the AN)

Naming an Anabaptist value as a "Jesus-centred approach to the bible" helped me to understand some distinctive of my own Mennonite tradition that I had always taken for granted. I gradually came to understand that many traditions claim to read the bible in a flat way with all passages seen with the same weight. This is not the case for me. The core of Jesus message is a vision for shalom liberation for all of us. Some parts of the bible communicate, at least on the surface, a contradictory vision. For example,
when I read the story of Ehud I see the story of an exciting adventure story told ’round the camp fire down through the generations by the Jewish people. It comes out of the life of a people struggling for justice and liberation. But its a way of living out that struggle that is very from the vision of Jesus of loving your enemy and radical, cheek-turning nonviolence.

The community of faith as the primary context for reading the bible is also a central part of how I approach the Bible. I don’t find it useful to sit in the corner and open the bible at random and read it. I’m much more drawn to reading the Bible in a group or discussing it on a blog (like YAR) or reading a theologian who unpacks the social and historical context of the text.

And finally, the gospel of Jesus as a source for discipleship in our lives. The bible is not primarily a source for doctrine or a set of beliefs for us to ascribe to. Its a story in which we are all actors, not passive recipients. Jesus lays out a way of being in and relating to all of creation rooted in redemption, not just of our souls, but of our lives, our communities and our empires. The Bible is the story of God coming along side humanity in that struggle. It is a story that we are all invited to join.

My response:
I fully agree with the Jesus interpretation of the Bible, as an Anabaptist. I fully agree that the Bible is only to be understood through Jesus– the Jesus of the gospels, not the Jesus of theology.

The Anabaptist ideal I have issue with in this subject is the idea of community interpretation. Of course, we interpret nothing except through the eyeglasses we obtain through experience, one of the great parts of which is society. But what I’ve seen is that community interpretation often leads to the idea that everyone in the community has an equal voice as to the truth of Scripture, and the other problem I see is that the truth of Scripture is best found by the agreement of the selected community.

If truth is found in each individual, then everyone’s silly interpretation is possible, and we have no real truth in Scripture. If that’s the case, then Jesus is a bunch of contradictory concepts. I think that Jesus is unified and that the Bible is unified in Jesus. That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements– certainly different equally valid interpretations exist. But there are a number of interpretations that are not possible to support through a clear reading, and I don’t think we should give those “interpretations” equal voice.

Secondly, to say that the true interpretation is found in the agreement of the community is equally false. Communities are formed by a common worldview, even when there is dissent, and the interpretation of all things are formed by that worldview. And this worldview is unlikely to be identical with that of Jesus, or even the first century Jewish world. So, in reading the Bible in community, we tend to interpret through our own glasses, not the glasses of Jesus.

Somehow, through the grace of God, we need to get past our own ideas of what Scripture “should” say, and accept what it does say, in Jesus. And then, understanding that, we need to take on another Anabaptist principle: The purpose of Scripture is not to understand it, but to do it.