by Alicia Johnston, 08/15/2017
It started in college, when I first started reading books about how to understand the Scriptures. Everyone began with the admonition that the most important part of understanding the Bible was reliance on the Holy Spirit. This, they would adamantly state, was the most important part of understanding Scripture. Never read your Bible alone. Always read it with the Spirit.
Then they would go on with their interpretive approach and never speak of the Spirit again.
Something was clearly missing, and I was frustrated. Why this separation between the Spirit and the intellect? Even back then, it seemed to me that if the Spirit is the most important part of understanding scripture, the Spirit should be involved in the entire process, not merely the introduction.
This is not only an academic problem, but a pervasive problem. It’s prevalant in popular preachers who go from text to text on a given topic surveying what they believe are the important scriptures on any given topic. I can’t help but thinking that if the Spirit were removed from the process, the conclusions wouldn’t change one bit.
We don’t know how to speak of the Spirit in the process of interpreting scripture. As a result, we’ve learned to read the Bible in such a way that we don’t need the Spirit at all. God doesn’t need to show up. We’ve got it figured out on our own.
Our approach to Scripture didn’t come from nowhere. It came from philosophy, science, and rationality. The desire to transform Scripture into an objective source of data is a powerful cultural influence on the church. It’s power comes from the fact that it makes the Bible easier to control. The Bible is a library that contains the suffering, glory, and wrestling of humanity with the divine over millennia. It’s not easy to manage. It’s not supposed to be. Understandably, such a text can be intimidating. It is the divine mystery and gift that we are given the Spirit to help us.
Such an understanding is not appealing to religious institutions and intellectual ideologies that value stability. In the west, we don’t want to chase after God: we want to arrive at the truth.
So Scripture is described as a manual. It’s the place to find instructions and answers. After listening to the way scripture is sometimes described, it’s such a relief to open the text and find poetry, narrative, prophecy, and letters written by a pastor to his congregation. I’m glad the Bible doesn’t read like an answer book or the manual for my Honda Civic.
Rather than a systematic theology, the Bible is an old friend. I sit and listen to her stories, heard a hundred times before, and get to know her a bit better with each reading. As I change we change. As I come to better understand God, to know more fully the love of my Savior and the redemption of the world, the meaning of the stories changes. We grow together. The notes in the margins of my Bible that once seemed profound are now misguided but sincere steps along the way to what I was becoming, by the Grace of God, by the leading of the Spirit.
Perhaps the most important lesson the Spirit has taught me about scriptures is that I should read them with eyes for the Love that is found in Jesus and the values of the Kingdom of God. We have all seen scripture used as a weapon to destroy people who try to do things differently. The worst thing about reducing the Bible to list list of bullet points or PowerPoint slides expressing a particular dogma is that that dogma can be used to destroy.
Does this mean we ignore intellectual interpretations? Absolutely not. It means that we will realize that properly understandings of scripture will be in harmony with the Kingdom of God, with compassion, with grace, and will make people more at peace. If scripture makes our lives more difficult because it challenge us to suffer for others, so be it. If scripture makes the lives of the vulnerable more difficult because it withholds from them those things that are sweetest and holiest about life in God’s good creation, we need to reconsider our interpretations.
This approach is consistent with the major themes of scripture itself. We aren’t meant to read the Bible as if it were flat. We are meant to read it with all the peaks and valleys that scripture itself points out. The 10 commandments in Exodus 20 are more important than the description of the priest’s garments in Exodus 28. Mercy is more important than sacrifice, the love of God better than burnt offerings. The two commandments to love God and love each other are more important than the 10 commandments which hang upon them. Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Torah in Matthew 5-7 which even negates and replaces some of the Old Testament laws he quotes is more important than those laws themselves. Jesus is more important than Paul, and Paul himself reinterprets Abraham and the Torah in light of the revelation of Jesus. The gospels are more important than anything. And these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Only the Spirit can help us not only discern, but be transformed by these themes of scripture. When we read the Bible as if it were flat, we are prone to find those interpretations that are most comfortable for us. We are all susceptible to reading the Bible in ways that are selfish and self-affirming. Our intellect is not so objective and dispassionate as we believe. It is malleable to our own desires, our own context, and can too easily serve our pride.
When we read the scriptures through the power of the Spirit, we may find God in the most unexpected places. Just like the poor, illegitimate Galilean was for the religious and pious of his day the most unlikely place to discover the image of God, perhaps we are not so different in our core nature.
Alicia Johnston was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, until she announced via a viral video that she is fully inclusive and affirming of LGBT sexuality and gender, and that she is a bisexual Christian. She now speaks and writes about her story, queer insights on faith, and the intersection of Christianity and sexuality. Alicia has a master of divinity from Andrews University and an master of arts in Clinical Psychology from Argosy University. She blogs at aliciajohnston.com.