Applying one's own method of interpretation ("hermeneutic") to the biblical texts will allow the interpreter to make the Bible say anything. Did the Bible predict the Chernobyl disaster and subsequent poisoning of rivers, seas and oceans? Some make Revelation 8:11 to be such a prediction when it reads:
A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter. (Revelation 8:11) [Note: Wormwood in Russian and Ukrainian is Chernobyl.]
Others use numerology to make the number 666 to be about the Pope, ironically using a title that has not been used by him. Still others read into the text any number of anachronisms - my point is, very often people read the Bible with a hermeneutic that suits them.
I have already begun the rather long task of writing my thoughts on the Bible, but it seems an important practical preliminary has been missed: what exactly am I going to write about? And the even more fundamental problem: how am I meant to read it?
The reading plan I have endeavoured to follow has a roughly linear approach, and so I shall try and write down the storyline, so to speak, of revelation in my Old Testament readings, at the same time reading the New Testament starting from the most Jewish text (gospel according to St Matthew) through the epistles of St Paul and going on to a later text with more marked gentile readers (gospel according to St John, although to some extent also St Luke's account), culminating, after reading the other epistles and gospels, with Revelation, for which I will need a solid grounding in Old Testament themes, imagery and metaphor. But I also want to rediscover Scripture, so it will not do to read the text as a Christian from the start: I want to understand the text as it sought to be understood. So historical and cultural considerations become very important.
"Understand the text as it sought to be understood", I wrote. Other ways of expressing this ideology of interpretation include "reading according to genre" and "historical-grammatical method." Trying to understand the text by asking what the author intended to convey is a very important starting point, but I think it falls short of the completeness of what the Bible says, and may even lead into serious errors. When Moses powerfully asserted the shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4), did he deny the trinity? Absolutely not. Did he mean to convey that God is unity and not trinity, or any other number? That is a reasonable reading of the text by the historical-grammatical method. The problem, then, is that this method seems to assume that the author has absolutely no misconceptions about what they are writing down - we say that all our theologies are probably wrong to some degree, but for the biblical authors we assert hidden inerrancy of belief, even.
It is possible that the New Testament authors have such inerrancy of belief, at least in the area they write on. After all, they have received the fullness of revelation, the Word made flesh. The Old Testament authors seem to harbour subtly erroneous theology, even if it only comes through in "how the text feels."
Note: additional to the previous comment, I would point out the odd way in which the Old Testament is used in the New - seemingly not by historical-grammatical methods. See "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away."
Reading of documents such as Dei Verbum and Divino Afflante Spiritu would be very helpful, but I have to carry on for a little longer without reading them. In the mean time, here are some useful guidelines I have given myself:
- Reading with eyes of faith: without faith, any reading of the Scripture has the danger of becoming too cerebral, too academic or too intellectual.
- Reading within the community of believers: without that community, one falls into the problem of "spiritual but not religious" as outlined by James Martin SJ here, my point concerning particularly: "Religion, said (Isaac) Hecker, helps you to
‘connect and correct.’ You are invited into a community to connect with
one another and with a tradition. At the same time, you are corrected
when you need to be."
- Reading within the tradition: closely linked to both the previous two, but this goes beyond them. Tradition has two meanings, which I think are useful to distinguish, within the church: one is "sacred tradition" and it refers to the revelation made manifest in Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, but not expressed in Sacred Scripture. Essentially, this is the collection of oral traditions and words preached to them by Jesus' disciples - of which we have ample references in the Bible. The other tradition that I have distinguished, although it is not really separate, is what I call "living tradition" - it is the build-up of insights and knowledge gained over centuries of Spirit-filled Christians, many of whom are now saints in the Church Triumphant.
- Reading within the cultural and historical context of the time: that is, reading the text trying to avoid reading into the text anachronisms.
- Reading within the age after the fullness of revelation in the Word made flesh: this point is why the previous one is not the only principle in interpreting the Bible. What I mean is, reading the text with a christological key, understanding the Scriptures as revealing Christ.
With this foundation I have sketched, I am now comfortable going on to further write up reflections.