Last spring, on the website of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, I offered a study guide to understanding and interpreting Scripture – The King or a Fox: Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture. I used an image proposed by the great 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyon who argued that reading scripture is like configuring a mosaic of precious jewels. That mosaic can be configured in more ways than one.The trick is discerning faithful from unfaithful configurations while recognizing the fact that faithful interpreters of the Bible do not always come at it the same way or come to the same conclusions.
In that study, I briefly explore ways of understanding what it means for the Bible to be inspired and suggested a way of thinking about the purpose of scripture.
The main purpose of scripture is to show us who Jesus is, who God is in light of Jesus, and who we are and who we can be when we are properly aligned with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is about shaping our lives and imaginations. It places demands upon us, but it also opens up visions and possibilities for ourselves and our world that we could scarcely imagine otherwise.
I then proposed ten criteria for faithful interpretation/configuaration of the Bible. Here are those criteria with condensed explanations:
There is a basic outline that informs any faithful configuration of scripture. That is the story of God’s creating the world and declaring it good, the recognition that that goodness has been despoiled rather than lived into, God’s call of Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to the nations, the deliverance of God’s people in their exodus from evil, the establishing of the royal line of David, their return from exile, the growing expectation of God’s restoration of all things, Jesus Christ as the embodiment and fulfillment of that expectation, and the Church as the community called to bear witness to and live into that expectation.
Beyond that basic outline, what might be some criteria to help us configure scripture such that we are more likely to end up with a portrait of the King rather than a fox while recognizing the complex ways in which we all make interpretive choices and give some portions of scripture priority over others? How do we recognize the King in a configuration of scripture while still accounting for the reality that we do not always end in the same place and not all faithful portraits will look exactly the same? Can we identify some criteria or criteria by which we evaluate more faithful biblical configurations from less faithful or even faithless interpretations? Not all configurations are faithful. Not all faithful configurations are equally faithful. But there might be a range of recognizably, more or less, faithful configurations. The following criteria, based on how the canon of scripture came to be accepted and how the early church read the Bible, are suggested to assist in configuring the mosaic of scripture o we see a faithful portrait of the King.
1. The Criterion of Jesus Christ
While any faithful interpretation must take into account the whole witness of scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, Jesus Christ is the center and measure of all things including the rest of Scripture (Hebrews 1:1-2).
2. The Criterion of Love
Interpretations of scripture that cultivate mercy and charity are preferred.
Jesus asserts this in Matthew 22:40, “On these two commandments [love of God and neighbor] hang all the law and the prophets [all of scripture]. It is also implied in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath [symbolic of the law] was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.”
3. The Criterion of the Rule of Faith
One of the important criteria the early Church used in discerning which writings to recognize as canonical was whether they conformed to the Rule of Faith – the teaching passed down from the Apostles. That Rule of Faith finds its expression for us in the Creeds.
4. The Criterion of the Church’s Prayer
The rule of prayer is the rule of belief (Lex orandi, lex credendi). We believe what we pray. As with the Rule of Faith, there is a symbiotic relationship between the Church’s worship and its reading of scripture.
5. The Criterion of the Church's Tradition
We always read the Bible with the saints. The wisdom of the Communion of the Saints is a gift that shapes our ongoing configuration of scripture. For Anglicans, this has classically meant especially the catholic consensus that developed in the first five centuries.
6. The Criterion of Comprehensiveness
The scriptures contain multiple concerns, themes and images, many of which are in apparent tension with others. They are not given to neat systematization. Any comprehensive approach to the Bible ends up with some anomalies.
The fewer passages of scripture that are anomalous to a configuration the better. Even then, the remainder remains and must be acknowledged and reckoned with.
7. The Criterion of Dissimilarity
While it is incumbent upon Christians of every time and place to interpret scripture afresh in light of their context, any faithful reading of scripture must be dissimilar enough from the surrounding culture and the interpreter's social/intellectual milieu to maintain the edge of repentance and conversion.
8. The Criterion of the Book of Nature/Creation
Theologians of the early and Medieval Church frequently refer to creation as God’s other “book” of revelation. A faithful configuration of scripture will take into account what we know of creation as it is.
9. The Criterion of Community
The God revealed in the scriptures calls people into community and it is to the community that they are addressed with the intention of forming and sustaining a people of witness. Scripture is about the Church. It has its fullest meaning in the context of the Church and its worship. It describes the God who has called us and made us a people who were not a people and describes what kind of people we are to be in response.
10. The Criterion of Character
The scriptures are about the formation of holy communities and holy persons as members of such communities. There is a symbiotic relationship between the scriptures forming holiness and the necessity of a degree of holy living in order to understand the scriptures.
No one criterion is adequate and no set of criteria will assure agreement on particular questions of interpretation. And some of the above criteria will sometimes seem to be in tension with one another. They are not a formula to insure that we all find one supposed true interpretation – we will always be living under the mercy of God. But, an interplay of the above criteria would provide a broad measure of relative faithfulness as we seek together to configure an image of the King rather than a fox and to allow our lives to be shaped in his image.