The Bible, overall, doesn’t adopt those values in the way it uses language. It tends to use a more risky strategy. Jesus says, ‘If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.’ Or the Gospel records Jesus telling a rich young ruler ‘sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me’—and doesn’t try to include an explanatory note with it to avoid the multitude of misunderstandings such a bald statement can (and has) witnessed. Even someone who can seem as straightforward and expository as Paul can still leave many of his key concepts sufficiently unexplained so as to leave room for multiple disagreements about all kinds of aspects of Pauline theology.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Bible is a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction each reader likes. I think the Bible has a fixed meaning and is able to be understood on its own terms. But it is also the case that most English speaking thinkers of the last two centuries don’t generate the kind of interpretative debates as to what they meant that the Bible does. The Bible does not spell itself out at every point and guide the reader by the hand past every possible area of difficulty, the way we tend to think a speaker or writer should. It does not aim for clarity (in our sense) at the expense of every other resource that language offers. Often it uses strategies that run the risk of misunderstanding, but have a huge pay-off in terms of their effect upon the reader, like our Lord’s hyperbole. The Bible is written throughout in a way that makes it hard for the reader to hold themselves at arm’s length from what is being said. It makes demands, it speaks in a way that is not the detached, clear, precise academic giving a lecture, but the cutting words of a soldier’s blade or a surgeon’s scalpel, whose work is messy and lacks detachment.
The principle of reading literally unless one can’t, which I think is implicit in the way a lot of creationism attacks other ways of reading Genesis 1, just isn’t faithful to this aspect of Scripture’s nature. I suggest that it mistakes the idea of Scripture’s clarity with an idea of Scripture’s transparency. The latter idea is what I think most people tend to think is meant by Scripture’s clarity. And it’s usually something like, “The Bible should be fairly easily understood at almost all points when it is picked up by an average reader.” While popular, that’s never really what ‘clarity of Scripture’ was ever intended to mean.
The clarity of Scripture means something more like, “The Bible can be understood sufficiently to give people all they need for faith in Christ and to live for him”. This idea rejects the position that the Bible is so obscure as a whole that it needs an authoritative interpreter to stand between it and the reader (like the Church Magisterium as in Roman Catholicism). It holds that the Bible has a central message, a central concern, and this can be reliably ascertained by an average reader. Hence people can read the Bible for themselves, come to faith, and begin to live a life of discipleship.
However, the clarity of Scripture also includes a degree of realism about the nature of Scripture. It contains both the idea that some parts of the Bible will remain obscure—like Paul’s mention of the practice of baptising for the dead—as well as the idea that understanding the Bible properly at some points will need a lot of work and a lot of ability. This is why Evangelicalism has traditionally, going back to the Reformers, been committed to an educated clergy who were capable in the original languages. (I’d suggest that the exchange of the idea of the clarity of Scripture for the idea of the transparency of Scripture has often been behind moves to eliminate language learning for clergy among Evangelicals). In other words, the idea of the clarity of Scripture has the idea that not all the Bible is equally clear, which means both that there is a place for teachers, and a place for sustained hard work by everyone.
And it is the last point that I would suggest is the real pay-off from the Bible’s communication strategy. Precisely the fact that parts of the Bible need work to understand, or have more to offer if you go back over them, is part of what gives the Bible that unique capability it has to never be exhausted. Christians find that it always has more to offer, and that as their life experience changes it often sheds light in new and unexpected ways. In that sense, the whole Bible has the character of a parable or proverb. It’s not easy to unlock its meaning, and so it invites the reader to come back and chew on it some more, always generating the nagging feeling that “I haven’t quite gotten it yet.” That is, it is precisely because the Bible isn’t safe it is inexhaustible. The two go together.
But that wildness or lack of safe domesticity to the Bible is a problem for human beings. We like to be in control. We like to have rules to appeal to that govern those who have authority over us. If we must have monarchies we want them to be constitutional. Yet the word of God is a monarchy in the Church, it is the means by which Christ rules his people. And so it is a recurring feature in the Church that people try to form abstract rules that determine how we are to interpret the Bible. The Pharisees’ traditions that sought to place a hedge around the law have been repeated often throughout the millennia, as people sought to place interpretative hedges around the word of God.
And so, in the present, it is not uncommon for Evangelicals to try and create rules that govern how we can read the Bible and so regulate the different debates we find ourselves embroiled in. When I was in my teens, for example, it was common for evangelicals to argue that Pentecostals were wrong because history books in the Bible (like Acts) must be interpreted in light of the Epistles. But Acts isn’t just a modern style history that relates events without any sense of a message, a theology, that it is seeking to teach. There is a genuine sense in which Acts is just as self-interpreting as Romans or 1 Peter. Evangelicalism, like much of the modern Christian world in the West, is almost paralysed by its concern to get its rules right, as though the problems and disagreements have arisen just because we haven’t perfected the right methodology for reading the Bible.
Into such a context Martin Luther’s little statement seems almost wilfully obtuse (and didn’t you just know that Luther was going to make a showing again…):
Moreover, I cannot bear with laws for the interpretation of the word of God, since the word of God, which teaches liberty in all other things, ought not to be bound.These words appear in the open letter to Pope Leo X that prefaces Luther’s short, but amazing, work On the Freedom of the Christian. Luther is stating his willingness to let the debate over justification abate in the interest of peace in the church. He offers only two conditions on his offer of not continuing to publish on the matter. The first is that he won’t retract what he’s said—his silence is in the interests of peace, it’s not a backdown.
The other condition is what I’ve just quoted.
In other words, for Luther, this statement about no fixed rules for the interpretation of God’s word is on a par with the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone. (No surprise there, Christ’s role as the sole Saviour who saves through the gospel, and his role as the sole Lord of the Church who rules through Scripture are intertwined). And like so many of Luther’s quotable quotes, it uses the risky approach to language. It’s easy to misconstrue, or even abuse, what he’s saying here. (I came across an internet article by an American Lutheran that indicated that Liberals within Lutheranism appealed to this statement by Luther in the 70s to justify their fundamentally unbelieving stance against Scripture).
Nonetheless, precisely because of that risky strategy in communicating, Luther makes his point powerfully. Coming up with a priori laws that govern the interpretation of the word of God cannot be squared with the word of God’s own fundamental nature. The word of God is the very essence of freedom, for it liberates us from our bondage and, ‘teaches liberty in all other things’. You can’t bind something like that.
What you can offer are principles or guidelines that work by and large, like the grammatico-historico method, or the fundamentally christo-centric nature of the OT (and the New…). But these can only be after the fact (a posteori), and they can only be rules of thumb, not laws. We learn to interpret the Bible by listening to it first and foremost, and paying attention to what it says. It’s not a matter of ironing out an ironclad methodology that we then apply to it.
At this point, I’m probably trying to restate things I think I said far more clearly (and with less words!) back in the post Scriptural Interpretation. Nonetheless, I’ll play it again Sam.
It seems to me that when the Bible speaks explicitly to the issue of how to interpret it and how not to interpret it, we get statements like the following:
2 Peter 3:15-18 …and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
James 1:21-25 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
The problem of wresting Scripture, or of not receiving the implanted word, has been with us since the Apostolic era. And the apostles do not give us a technique that, if followed, would guarantee an end to such interpretative cul de sacs. What they suggest is that the issue is found at a deeper level than methodology. It is an issue of the heart.
Hearing the word of God, correctly understanding the hard to understand things in Paul and the rest of Scripture, is fundamentally a moral and spiritual issue. The word of God will provide its own path for us to understand it. It is the light that lightens our darkness. It doesn’t need rules to shed the light upon it. The issue of biblical interpretation is fundamentally whether we are prepared to hear and obey the word of God. And that’s it. No silver bullet. No magic answer that, if followed, means we’ll never put a foot wrong interpretatively. We just have to trust the word of God itself to lead us into all truth. We are shut up to the Word of God alone. We have no other resource when it comes to the knowledge of God.
And, so we’re under no illusions, we can be fairly sure that God won’t give us exhaustive knowledge of everything the Bible teaches. We’ll get it wrong. Because every teacher that God has given the Church has disagreed with another teacher at some point. Which means that, at a minimum, all but one was wrong somewhere. So the idea that God is offering us an encyclopaedic knowledge of his ways, that often seems entailed by the transparency view of Scripture, is just ridiculous. We are the darkness that the Word shines its light upon.
So, if we have ‘demythologised’ the early chapters of Genesis (which is not the wording I’d choose, but I’ll pick up the words Michael’s offered), what keeps us from it becoming the thin edge of the wedge? What stops us from demythologising more broadly? Absolutely nothing. And absolutely everything. The word of God itself will teach us how to hear it, just as it has already begun to teach us in the way it brought us to faith in Christ. We are to read each part of Scripture in the way that it itself invites us to read it. ‘Literally’ when we think that is obedient, ‘non-literally’ when we think that is faithful hearing. It’s not a matter of consistency within our abstract systems of thought first and foremost (although I’ll acknowledge that that’s not an irrelevant consideration). First and foremost we need to grasp that the word of God is self-interpreting. Because it is the sole instrument whereby Christ rules us. The words disclose the reality they speak of. It's not technique that prevents unbelief, it's the power of the word of God itself that creates faith.