This post has been prompted by a couple of things I’ve come across lately. First, I’m part of a Facebook group for clergy women, and a friend of mine (we’ve never met, but when you’re in the trenches together as we are, you become friends) was requested by a nearby church not to fill pulpit supply in a church that needed it because of her gender. My heart hurts for her. Then, I watched this video here where Matt Chandler espoused the virtues of Calvinism, Biblical literalism, and of course, by extension, “biblical womanhood”. Finally, I just finished teaching an adult Kerygma® Bible study in the church I serve, and the topic of exactly how to interpret the Bible came up several times.
How do we know we’re reading the Bible correctly? How do we whether or not we’re being inordinately influenced by the culture around us? On the other hand, because no religion exists in a cultural vacuum (Christianity during the time of Jesus and today included!) how can our faith not be influenced by the times and places in which we live? What does it mean when I say that my relationship with Jesus—and thus my theology—is different from yours because my experiences and my walk with God has not been identical to yours?
I also had a Skype conversation with a mentor/friend of mine this past weekend, where the question of what needs to be taken literally and what is symbolic in Scripture came up in several different ways. Is the creation story literally true? What about passages that seem to contradict each other? If I don’t believe this particular stance of this particular theologian on this particular topic, but agree with what they say over here about that, what does that say about me? What does that say about how I approach the Bible? My friend wondered, “Because you [Jill] have given me permission to interpret this theologian piecemeal (and I did), does that mean I approach Biblical interpretation piecemeal too?”
I had to confess to her, rather reluctantly, that yes, what she was doing with this particular theologian probably extended to how she read the Bible too. A beloved seminary professor referred to this phenomenon as “smorgasbord” interpretation. But, I said. I do it too. There are parts of the Bible I take more literally and/or seriously, parts I interpret culturally or symbolically instead of literally—when I just interpreted word-for-word over here!—and there are undoubtedly parts that I flat-out ignore, even without really meaning too.
I went on to explain to her that I take the whole of the Bible very seriously. It is the foundation of my faith, thus it is the foundation of my life. Added to this for me, is my spiritual heritage of being raised in a denomination that takes the Word of God very seriously, and the Bible is not something to be approached willy-nilly.
In the Reformed tradition, sola scriptura (scripture only) is a key piece of our distinctiveness, and has been so since the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin. These two leaders in the faith used the phrase to describe their elevation of Scripture and the primacy of it above the traditions of the Catholic Church at the time. But what does it mean for those of us in the Reformed tradition to claim sola Scriptura today, especially in light of all the questions I just raised? I confess to you that I’m not always sure what sola Scriptura “looks like”. One thing I did tell my Skype friend was this, “When you’re faced with a knotty question, ask yourself this question, ‘In the midst of this confusion/contradiction/not being sure which way to go, where do I see the character of God as outlined in Scripture?’” Whatever her answer is to that question, I said, will begin to point her in a direction that lines up with God’s Word.
I’m fully ready to admit that this may be a faulty method. There surely is something better out there. But, it’s the only thing that keeps me from blowing my top when I hear “biblical womanhood” being discussed, or curling up into the fetal position when one of my friends is simply trying to be obedient to God and has her call questioned yet again. Given what I know of the character of God, most of “biblical womanhood” gets thrown out the window. And I cheer my friend on in her fight to do the work God has called her to—when there should be no reason for her to fight at all. Because what I know of the character of God says that “in Christ, there is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28) and “So God created humans in his own image, in the image of God he created them; in male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). What I know of the character of God tells me that God values all people equally, and does not exclude an entire group from one particular profession simply because of their gender. What I know of the character of God tells me that he sides with the outcast, orphan, and the widow, even when even the church would like to exclude them or deny them certain rights based on their interpretation of Scripture. What I know of the character of God tells me I serve a God who is infinitely patient when I mess up, yet continually calls me to be more of the person he has created me to be.
Does my litmus test make everything about the Bible make sense and agree with each other? No. Am I willing to stake my life on this method of interpretation? No. The Holy Spirit is constantly teaching me new things and revealing new things to me. But for now, I consider this method a gift. A gift that allows me to live into sola Scriptura in the best way I know how.
What about you?
What do you do when confronted with knotty Biblical problems or people who interpret Scripture differently than you?
What does it “look like” to live according to sola Scriptura in the 21st century?
How can we as Christian leaders be sure we are not leading those who learn from us astray?
What method(s) of interpretation do you find useful?
 Further exposition of these questions can be explored using the phoenix triangle. Perhaps in a future blog post.