The Awkward Avoidance of Biblical Interpretation

In contemporary biblical interpretation, much emphasis is placed upon such questions as: Which book or chapter was written first? Which stories have greater historical credibility? What other biblical stories or texts was this book’s author aware of? How far back did the oral tradition of this text go, and, consequently, how true are the words to the original?

In understanding the Bible in relation to Christendom, these are remarkably strange questions. They skip around the fact that, though these texts have long histories and stories surrounding their authorship, their significance for Christianity comes primarily from a selection of texts by a particular Christian community. That is, the relation of the texts to each other finds its significance more from the Christians compiling the Bible for a communal identity, than from the individual authors and histories of the texts themselves.

One possible reason for the avoidance of this focus for biblical interpretation is that it raises hard questions of Christian authority. If the bible’s interpretive focus should be more upon a community that compiled the texts, rather than the texts’ individual authors and histories, a magisterial-like focus comes to the forefront in biblical interpretation. Understanding the bible might come best in relation to a particular community, the community of compilers.

This also raises important questions about the role of Divine Inspiration in biblical texts. For, with pre-existing texts that are to be selected for a particular identity, Divine Inspiration matters just as much for those selecting texts as it does for those authoring them. Indeed, such Inspiration must be attributed to the community of compilers, as well as the community of authors.

For Catholic Christians, this community is understood as the magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority, comprised of the pope and bishops, supported (though not ruled) by the rest of the Christian community. For other Christians, the question of the bible has unique—though, as many argue, not insurmountable—difficulties. The Protestant Reformation presents, not an increased unity, as many expected and hoped for. Rather, it has led to an unprecedented and unforeseen division in biblical interpretation and understanding, and consequently, an increased hesitancy towards, diffusion of, and rejection of authoritative bodies in biblical interpretation and understanding, most acutely seen in the continued division of Protestant bodies as various factions elect to adopt or maintain particular understandings of Christian practice and identity.

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