The nature and task of theology is an important one for all Christians to engage in. Not just for academics, theology, in its simplest form, is “talk about God” (theos – God, logos – words, talk). With this simple definition any time any person is talking about God they are engaging in the task of theology. This is a helpful definition for it means that you don’t have to wait for certain qualifications, be it time, ability, intelligence or otherwise, to engage in this task. It is for every Christian. Indeed, it is a task for all people.
Having said that, there are a couple of things that we need to accept. Firstly, if God is to be God, then any “talk about God” will ultimately fall short of describing God fully. As a result no one person’s theology will be complete or without the need for refinement over time. Again, this is a good thing. Secondly, not all “talk about God” is helpful, useful or indeed correct, including our own. Sometimes we will disagree with another person’s theology, and that’s OK. It’s better to think of this as an ongoing conversation, rather than a series of independent statements. Thirdly, this task is not simply listing off a series of statements that we affirm or believe. It is true that we have such statements (such as the eleven doctrines of The Salvation Army, or the creeds of the church). Rather, it is better to think of this task as constructing an “intellectual spider’s web, with each element related to and supporting others.” As a result we discover very quickly that as soon as we begin discussing one element of theology that another one is impacted by what we discover. As a result, we may tend to revisit, and readjust, the talk that we had previously settled upon. Finally, the language we use to “talk about God” has to be sourced from somewhere. Generally, academic theologians recognise four distinct sources of theology: (1) Scripture, (2) Tradition, (3) Reason, and (4) Experience. Different theological traditions will emphasise the importance of these sources differently, however they are always impacting the way we “talk about God”. Our first question will cause us to wrestle with the first of these sources; Scripture.
The church of the 21st Century has been handed down a set of texts that have been grouped together in one book. We know this as the Bible. The reality is, though, that the Bible we have received did not fall “from the sky in the King James Authorised Version, bound in black leather and complete with maps.” Rather what we have is a collection of writings, written by a variety of authors, over a period of over 1500 years, for specific purposes, in two main but very different languages and with a variety of writing styles, now translated in English (and that with a variety of translation methods and intended audiences involved). If we were to consider a book with the writings of Shakespeare, Homer, J.K. Rowling, Isaac Newton and a variety of other authors from throughout history, all put together as one we come some way to realising the miracle that we find any sort of consistency in the Bible at all!
The Bible is read in a variety of settings; around the family table, in the classroom, in corporate worship, for personal study and indeed for historical research. In all of these settings there is the same text being read, but with a different set of assumptions and purposes involved. As a result, it is possible to conceive that though the same passage may be being read in each of these settings a different meaning may be received by the reader.
How can this be?
To help move us in some way towards an answer to that question we have to accept a fundamental rule of Biblical interpretation.
Even the familiar children’s song misleads at this point; Jesus loves me, this I know, not because the Bible “tells me so” but rather because Jesus himself tells me through the Bible. Whilst some people may feel uncomfortable critiquing such a well-loved song, it is important to make this distinction. The Bible isn’t a “living word” by virtue of its own life-force. It doesn’t have a heartbeat, or voice box, or cognitive ability by which to communicate. Rather, the “living” nature of the Scriptures comes because of the breath (from pneuma which is equally translated “Spirit” or “wind”) of God working through it. This is how we should interpret the passage from 2 Timothy 3:16
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Given this rule above, we return to our question for the day; “How do you read it?”
Firstly, we should seek to read any given text in its context first before attempting to bring it to our own. Our first question should be “How would the first recipients of this text have understood this?” No doubt this is a difficult task, given we are so far removed in time and culture from those first recipients, however this question helps us to attempt to put aside the assumptions we have and 21st Century glasses that we naturally bring to the text.
Secondly, we should seek to read any given text in the context of the rest of the Bible. Given we make the assumption that the God who spoke through the authors of these texts is the same God whose voice we listen for through these texts we can expect a certain level of consistency. As such our interpretation of one text should be consistent with other similar texts. Having said that, there are occasions when the Biblical authors disagree with one another. We shouldn’t seek to cover up these occasions or ignore them, but rather recognise that God has involved humans in the writing, editing, copying, reading, preaching, and listening process that brought these texts before us today. Such apparent inconsistencies reveal something about the graciousness of God in this regard rather than his apparent “mistakes” in communication.
Thirdly, we should expect God to speak through the Scriptures to us. Foundational to this is a belief that God is a God who reveals God’s self to creation and has done that through a variety of means, including the Scriptures, in the past. God will continue to do this now and into the future. If this is so, then we can expect God’s self-revelation to continue on to us today as we interpret the Scriptures. So, when we read we should pray “God speak through these words today.”
Finally, we should expect there will be times when our interpretation will need work or furthermore we will just get it plain wrong. That’s OK. This is where we should interpret the Scriptures in the context of the church. Bible study groups are great for this purpose, as are commentaries and other resources that can guide us to understand better what is meant by a particular text. There are always opportunities to grow in our understanding of God as it has been revealed through the Scriptures and so being wrong or having to adjust our theology as a result of new learning is not a sign of weakness, but rather a recognition that God is much bigger than we could ever hope to imagine. His love truly does surpass all knowledge (Eph 3:19).