Sometimes I wish the Bible had never been written.
I don’t mean I wish God had never spoken to us or that the gospel was never proclaimed or that we didn’t have any of those amazing stories or important teachings. I just wish there was some way they could have remained what they originally were – an oral tradition, stories passed down from generation to generation that carried just as much weight and meaning as they do today – if not more – because they had to actually be learned and understood or else they would lost.
Stories are just better heard than read.
And they’re even better lived out.
When stories get written down lines are drawn, walls are erected, boundaries are laid down. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but a lot of times what happens is a vibrant, life-giving story is transformed into a stale, lifeless idol to hold over the heads of others. The words that were meant to give life instead become an instrument of death in the hands of those who are more concerned with having all the answers than they are extending grace and incarnating love.
Now, lest you think I’m just a crazy, rambling heretic, allow me to point you towards at least one somewhat reputable church figure who stands in my corner: Martin Luther. In his essay A Brief Instruction On What To Look For And Expect In The Gospels he wrote,
And the gospel should really not be something written, but a spoken word which brought forth the Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles have done. This is why Christ himself did not write anything but only spoke. He called his teaching not Scripture, but gospel, meaning good news or a proclamation that is spread not by pen but by word of mouth. So we go on and make the gospel into a law book, a teaching of commandments, changing Christ into a Moses, the One who would help us into simply an instructor.
Luther understood that when it is bound by the written word the gospel meant to liberate and give life can instead become a new law to oppress and imprison. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but when the gospel gets codified into little more than a new set of doctrines to believe and behaviors to avoid, Christ is too often transformed into a dictator eager to destroy dissidents and his followers into a self-appointed secret police force myopically focused on ensuring that everyone conforms to their particular interpretation of what it means to be a Christian.
When the Word of God is reduced to words on a page, when the revelation of God is chopped up into chapters and verses ripe for the picking, words that were meant to give life too often and too easily become nothing more than ammunition for condemning the behavior and opinions of others, particularly those in the minority, who don’t look exactly like us, who don’t talk exactly like us, who don’t think about God and the Christian faith exactly the way we do.
I know there’s no going back.
But we can and we must do better.
If the written story of our faith is going to be the source of Life and Liberation we claim it is, then we have do a better job not just of telling that story, but a better job – a much better job – of actually living that story out.
Of course, how that story is supposed to be lived out comes back to how we read the written words Bible and how we read the Bible is profoundly dependent upon our particular context and tradition. And it’s that context and tradition – the cultural bubbles we all live in – that leads to so much division and strife in the Church.
Convinced our reading of Scripture is the one and only true reading of Scripture, we refuse to listen to other readings and consider the possibility that we might be wrong, that the truth might not actually be as plainly obvious as we thought it was. And so we retrench into our theological camps and cling fast to our proof-texts, convinced that our right beliefs will save us.
Of course, this theological travesty can’t be entirely blamed on the fact that our story of faith has been bound by the written word. After all, there are centuries worth of Christian history in which the people of God were guided by scripture, not slaves to it.
But the since at least the late 19th century the Church has been plagued by fundamentalism and the biblical idolatry it espouses. We are the inheritors of generations worth of a catechism that has taught countless Christians that the Bible is the end, not the beginning of faith.
I don’t know how to completely reverse our enslavement to the written word or how to liberate the Spirit for the cultural vise we have her in, but I do think St. Augustine has some wisdom for reading scripture that if heeded, might put us on the path towards a healthier, more life giving reading of the Bible.
In his book De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), St. Augustine lays out how he thinks the Bible should be properly interpreted. For Augustine, the Greatest Commandment is the beginning and end of scriptural interpretation. In other words, “the fulfillment and the end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture” is love of God and love of neighbor. Therefore, he says, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
In other words, no matter what particular approach or angle or lens you read the Bible through, if the ultimate conclusion or interpretation you reach doesn’t lead you towards loving God and loving your neighbor, then no matter how you reached your conclusion, it’s wrong. On the other hand, “if a man fully understands that “the end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned,” and is bent upon making all his understanding of Scripture to bear upon these three graces, he may come to the interpretation of these books with an easy mind.”
Compared to so many of us in the church today Augustine certainly had radically different approach to scripture. He didn’t need it to be the divine answer book we need it to be. He was concerned about orthodoxy to be sure, but only as a means to keep people focused on loving God and neighbor, not as a means to control and exclude anyone and everyone who disagreed.
The catch to all of this is that the love Augustine (by way of Jesus) talks about has to actually be embodied. It can’t be merely an idea in our heads that we agree with, an emotion consigned to our hearts, or simply a claim that we make with our lips.
We can’t say in one breath “I love this person” and then use our next breath to live a life that condemns and excludes them from the people of God.
The Greatest Commandment has to be an incarnated way of life, not another doctrine to agree with.
Which means in a lot of ways St. Augustine’s rule for reading and interpreting scripture is infinitely more difficult than any biblical exegesis class I’ve ever taken.
On one hand, it means going back to the drawing board on some theological issues we’re convinced are settled matters. For no matter how plain we might think the truth on the biblical page might be, if our reading leads us towards anything other than loving God and neighbor, we must reevaluate our interpretation, no matter how steeped in tradition and exegesis that interpretation might be.
But that’s a good thing because doing so forces to be more invested in the story of our faith much like our ancestors of old were when that story existed as an oral tradition that had to be intentionally passed down to the next generation. That in turn can bring new life into and out of a Book that has become for almost all intents and purposes, a dead document.
But most importantly, St. Augustine’s rule for reading and interpreting the Bible means that loving others can’t just be something we talk about or agree with.
It has to be something we actually live out.
If that happens, then the gospel (and the Bible in general) stops being just words on a page and instead becomes what it was always meant to be.
A life to be lived.