Eight Things to Know about Reading the Bible

Reading the Bible means interpreting the Bible.

This is the fourth post in the series “Getting Our Bearings.” Want to check out the previous posts? No problem. Just click one of the following links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Years ago while I was serving a parish in St. Louis, a local funeral home director contacted me about doing a burial service. A man advanced in years had died. As a younger person he had attended the Episcopal Church in his home far away, but he had not been a member of one of the local Episcopal congregations and none of his surviving family attended an Episcopal church.
On the morning of the funeral, I greeted people as they arrived. A couple of days prior to the service I had met with a few family members to plan the service, but as people gathered to give their final respects I found myself meeting sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces, siblings and nephews, old colleagues and caretakers for the first time.
Mikhail Nesterov’s “Portrait of Natasha Nesterova (On a Garden Bench)”
Just before we began, a woman in her late forties appeared. She thought to push her way around me without acknowledging me.
Seeing that the aisle we both occupied was too narrow to avoid my greeting, she tilted her head back, pointed her chin at me, looked down the bridge of her nose, and snapped, “I am a Charismatic Episcopalian. We believe in the Bible.”

Without another word, she whipped her head around to the front of the room and marched to an open pew. I had the vague feeling that I needed to wipe spittle from my face. But time was pressing, so I quickly recovered and led the gathered mourners in worship.
Reflecting on the exchange later that afternoon, I realized that the woman was a member of the Charismatic Episcopal Church. While this denomination does not trace its origins to a split with the Episcopal Church, it has become home for some former Episcopalians who took issue with various progressive positions taken by General Convention.
When she said, “We believe in the Bible,” she implied that I do not. In her view, the progressive posture of our church could only be justified by ignoring and even blatantly disregarding Holy Scripture. In other words, she accused me of rejecting the authority of Scripture.
Contrary to my hasty critic’s assumption, I do believe in the Bible. Just like the rest of the Episcopal Church. But my critic and I apparently mean vastly different things when we say that.
Horace Pippin’s “John Brown Reading His Bible”
So, let me turn to a few observations about how Episcopalians believe the Bible. Whole books are written on this subject, so what I say here is not meant to be exhaustive or systematic, only suggestive. In that spirit, please consider the following points:
  1. Some people assume that accepting the authority of Scripture requires a literal reading of the text. In other words, sometimes people confuse attachment to reading the Bible in a certain way (or, more technically, commitment to a certain hermeneutic) with acknowledging the authority of Scripture.
  2. Reading the Bible means interpreting the Bible. Some passages are clearly more difficult to interpret than others, but whenever we read we are interpreting.
  3. Interpretation is not up to each individual. It is not merely subjective or always relative to each reader. And yet interpretation is an art and not a science. Equally faithful people can arrive at differing interpretations.
  4. Passages of the Bible are laden with what Paul Ricoeur called surplus meaning. There is always more than what any one of us happen to find at any particular time, so we need to hear from each other.
  5. The Word of God is Jesus. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God. We encounter Jesus through the words of the Bible, but this is an interpretive process. Whatever we read in the Bible should be read through the lens of Jesus.
  6. Acknowledging the authority of Scripture is not a simple matter of reading a manual and following the instructions contained in it. Instead, we acknowledge the authority of Scripture by submitting to what we hear God telling us through it.
  7. Biblical texts are historically distant texts written in ancient languages. In addition to facing the challenges of translation, interpretation requires an imaginative leap into a historical, cultural, and social context not our own. We must first see what a passage could have meant to the original readers before we discern together what God is saying to us with that passage in our very different context.
  8. Meaning arises from context. We do violence to the Biblical text—and most likely to other people—when we use passages ripped from their context for our own argumentative, polemical, or ideological purposes. The definitive context is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


  1. I agree with her totally. In fact, your own comments do, save one. Your first point implies we should not accept the Word of God literally. If we do not, you and I and everyone else can bend it to their own will Just as you and your ilk have. See 2Peter 2. We will be here, as we have for two thousand years, when you come back to the faithful.


  2. Thank you for your response. We clearly disagree about the nature of interpretation. It would be interesting to hear what you mean by “literal.” Is it what the Church Fathers understood by the term? That is to say, do you mean understanding the meaning of the words? For instance, St. Augustine, among others, readily admitted that we must all begin by understanding what the words mean. However, he insisted that this is but the most rudimentary beginning of interpretation. My guess is that you mean something else, but I will only know if you explain.


  3. There is no literal interpretation of any text including the bible. Go through the bible and read a verse. Then look up the important words and you will find that the definition you used was rarely the first one you found in the dictionary.


  4. The word “literal” is used in various ways by those who champion literalist readings. It would be helpful to hear someone who advocate literal reading to explain precisely what they mean by it. Ancient Church figures like Augustine and Origen used the term for a preliminary understanding of the text. What do the words mean? What are the elements in the story? Today, I suspect some mean simply to defend the truth of the Bible. Discussions about the nature of truth and the kind of truth one encounters in Scripture and in Science can be fruitful in such cases. It can also be received as a dodge or one more misstep by some readers. I address this in the post Horizons in this series. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  5. I followed the link to this from the ‘False News’ post. These two phrases leave me with questions: “Interpretation is not up to each individual. It is not merely subjective or always relative to each reader. ” and “we acknowledge the authority of Scripture by submitting to what we hear God telling us through it.” It would seem I have to interpret what I read to hear what God is telling me through it, and that will be relative to me. If I am not a bible scholar how do I come to what I would call and ‘informed’ but not subjective interpretation? And do folks who read the bible but their only ‘study’ of it is by listening to sermons not hear what God is telling them? I am not trying to nitpick. I have had questions about how to approach folks at a different stage of bible knowledge than I have and if I can justify thinking my understanding is ‘better’ or ‘more in line with what the bible actually means’ than theirs. I had a difficult time during my spiritual directors training when I ran across the different stages of ‘Christian Maturity’ in a hierarchical format going from ‘baby Christians’ to ‘mature Christians’. It seemed to indicate that mature was better than baby, yet it seems to me that all ways of accepting Christ are good in and of themselves. Help! LOL


    1. What thoughtful questions and holy struggles! I’ll start by saying that I agree utterly that reading is always interpretation. Next, I approach reading/interpreting scripture as a communal activity. Even when I’m reading in a room alone I’m entering into a history of interpreting the texts and into a community that is still interpreting them. And while some have more experience than this (and skills such as knowledge of ancient languages and cultures), nevertheless all should enter the conversation with humility. As for the role of sermons, I know many good preachers. The best among them expect to engage an active community and to encourage their continued wrestling with the text. We don’t aim to give final answers and shut down discourse. The Word of God is living, after all. I hope this is at least a little helpful.


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