There are plenty of amusing stories about creative misinterpretations of the Bible. I know a Houston pastor who occasionally talks about a strange conversation he had over email. A stranger contacted him, asserting that the Bible was clearly telling him to smoke weed. This person was sincerely convinced that several passages in scripture were thinly-veiled references to the benefits of marijuana use. After all, what else could the “burning bush” in Exodus 3 mean?
We also recall the account of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, where in Matthew 4:5-7 we see the devil deceptively using scripture. In verse 6 the devil is quoting from Psalm 91.
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
I was raised in a protestant tradition that strongly emphasized sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is the source of truth. I gladly accepted this as a central tenet of the Christian faith, but it didn’t take me long to come across problems with this idea. A lot of passages in the Bible were confusing and vague, and I found that different people could have vastly different interpretations of the same passage of scripture. I was developing a strong interest in mathematics at the same time, and I could not help but notice the stark contrast between mathematical writing and scripture. The mathematical texts I read contained truths that were clear, precise and unambiguous, and I could not help but wonder why God instead chose to give us a Bible that was a mish-mash of poetry, allegory, history, rhetoric, and so on, so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted.
When I asked this question, the answer I was given was that I need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly. While this answer is true, it is also unsatisfying. I have met devout Christians who interpret the Bible in ways that are completely different, even though they both felt their interpretation was guided by the Holy Spirit. The reason that most protestant denominations exist is because different groups of people interpret the Bible in contradictory ways, although each group believed they were guided by the Holy Spirit. I have in the past interpreted the Bible in ways that I now know to be incorrect, even though I believed I was guided by the Holy Spirit at that time.
As an aspiring scientist, I was also drawn toward “scholarly” approaches to interpreting the Bible. Perhaps the correct way to read the Bible was to apply some of the techniques of textual analysis I learned in college. If we avoided presuppositions and arrived at a text as an objective observer, and made sure to understand the historical and textual context of a passage, maybe we could glean the real message that God intended to convey.
I was involved with a campus group called InterVarsity when I was in grad school that used a very rigorous method (called Inductive Bible Study) to systematically and carefully study the Bible. The composition of this group consisted of PhD and Masters students from an elite private university. It was also incredibly diverse in terms of denominational affiliation. Our membership was drawn from all over the protestant spectrum, plus the occasional Roman Catholic. It was an incredibly wonderful community to be a part of, and some of my closest friends are drawn from this group. But it did strike me that this group of incredibly devout, intelligent people, using sophisticated techniques in textual analysis to study the Bible, still disagreed on the correct interpretation of so many passages of scripture. As valuable as careful textual analysis is, it seemed pretty clear to me that you could not necessarily find the true interpretation of the Bible this way.
I wish I had encountered Mary Ford’s The Soul’s Longing (St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press) in this time of my life. The book is partly a historical overview of the use and misuse of the Bible over the past 2,000 years, and partly an argument for a traditional, orthodox understanding of how to interpret scripture.
Ford argues that the role of the church is indispensable for interpreting the Bible correctly. In other words, to understand a passage we have to take into account historically what the Christian church, especially the early Christian church believed about that scripture. We do this by, for example, reading the writings of the early Christian saints. Insisting on an individual, rather than a communal understanding of Biblical interpretation is a rather new development in the history of Christianity, and one that leads to a lot of error. The Holy Spirit works in the entire body of Christ, and not just in individual believers.
This book isn’t written as a scholarly work. It is a surprisingly light read given the subject matter, with casual language and frequent use of anecdotes. There are footnotes sprinkled through many pages, but it clearly isn’t intended to be an airtight historical argument. It is however an excellent introduction to different perspectives on Biblical interpretation, for someone who, like myself, was only familiar with protestant ideas on how to read the Bible.
The title- “The Soul’s Longing” comes from an urging in this book to view the Bible not simply as a list of theological ideas to be argued about, but rather as an instrument for fallen humanity to return to God, and receive the fulfillment that can only be found in God’s presence. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn a historical perspective on Biblical interpretation. May you find what your soul longs for.