Saturday, June 26, 2010

reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis

I joked recently that C. S. Lewis is a poor example for us to follow in reading scripture. After all, he does not adhere to a concept of sola scriptura. If you didn't notice, that post said a lot more about my opinion of sola scriptura than of Lewis.
I actually find Lewis quite an able guide for the faithful reader of scripture. Why?

Lewis never directly addressed the question of proper biblical interpretation in his published writings. The most direct word on the subject he offers us comes from a letter he wrote in 1959:
Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts.

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between "not I but the Lord" (v. 10) and "I speak, not the Lord" (v. 12). [My translation. Lewis only supplied the Greek.]
2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt i and Luke iii; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt xxvii. 5 and Acts i. 18-19.
3. St. Luke's own account of how be obtained his matter (i. 1-4).
4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
6. John xi. 49-52 Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule our the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule our the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: e.g. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involve continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the read (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.

Not exactly a post-card from the Grand Canyon. But I like it.
I like it primarily because Lewis is trying so hard to let the Bible be what the Bible is. Where there are difficulties presented in the text, he doesn't approach them as problems to be solved, but rather factors to take into account. His aim isn't to conform the scripture to any model of inspiration that he holds, but to read the Bible and form a model of inspiration that reflects the realities of the text. I like this very much.

His last remark hints of many of the problems in modern thought on inspiration and biblical authority. People often, especially when thinking about historicity, bring modern ideas to the table of biblical interpretation--ideas which the authors of scripture didn't share, hadn't even conceived of. We tend to think that an account is only true if it faithfully narrates what happened at a particular moment in history, and we reason further that the Bible, since it's true, does this in every instance. So when, for example, the gospel of John says that Christ is crucified on the Day of Preparation (John 19:14, 31), the first day of Passover when the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and Mark and Luke have the Day of Preparation on Thursday, before Christ's arrest (Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7ff), many readers are SOL. If truth is nothing other than historical accuracy, then the Bible falls short.
We also tend to think of true and false as straightforward opposites. If something is true, then whatever contradicts it is false. Then we read, say, Proverbs 26:4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes." And we're in trouble again.
The biblical authors just aren't thinking in the same categories as we are, and we have to be OK with that.

Something similar happens with many of the ideas about inspiration that I've heard in church over the years. When the Bible uses descriptions like "God-breathed and useful..." (2 Tim 3:16), we somehow construe this to mean 'all scripture, that is every individual word, is inspired by God, totally without error in a modern, historical sense, without contradiction from within or without, and must be taken always only at face value.' Yikes. We try to incorporate all sorts of ideas in to the scripture, and we think this is a faithful reading of the word of God.

No. No, if we truly honor scripture, we need to let it speak for itself. We must not tell it what to say or how to say it. When we meet difficulties in the text, we need to make sure that our views can embrace them and proceed with whatever friction they produce. And, honestly, most of the teaching on biblical authority that I received growing up just couldn't do that. Doing this well won't be easy, but we have to give it the thought and effort. Doing this well also depends on our reading the Bible.

Which brings us back to C. S. Lewis.
Lewis's letter gives us a list of biblical curiosities that we have to take into account when undertaking a task like this. (The introduction to Scot McKnight's book Blue Parakeet offers a similar list of things he had to face while trying to figure out how to read the Bible.) Maybe we should begin here--we can, from here begin to search the scriptures for a clue to understanding them better, receiving gratefully everything we're given, refusing to ignore or downplay those problematic passages or words. That's the task.
And that's all Lewis hopes his reader will do. He doesn't set out a view for us to appropriate, but simply says, "whatever view we hold... must make room for the following facts." The task is still before us.

As we undertake it, I can only say, again, that I hope you will let the Bible to shape your hermeneutical commitments, and not the other way around. If we want to be people of the Word, if in faith we submit ourselves to scripture as indeed "God-breathed," then our obedience needs to be thorough. Our obedience has to begin with allowing the Bible to teach us how to read the Bible.


Jordan said...

Hey Nance,
About the verse in Proverbs 26 and true and false would that relate to the first law of logic - the law of noncontradiction? I don't know how to interpret that verse but I don't think the bible would violate the law of noncontradiction. If we allowed for that then everything would be meaningless - you couldnt make any truth claims because the opposite could be true at the same time(God exists, God does not exist)

Nance said...

Well that's a good question, Jordan, and I'm all for maintaining the law of noncontradiction. One critical distinction to keep in mind here is that the verses in question aren't making any kind of 'scientific' truth claim--they're offering an ethical imperative. Proverbs just doesn't offer a consistent ethic; the author's aware of the intricacies of situational life and offers appropriate direction. My main point in offering that example is to say that a straightforward, literal reading of scripture simply cannot be consistently undertaken with any kind of integrity.
The questions about contradiction in scripture would be more apt for historical issues: what day was Jesus crucified on? was the robe the soldiers wrapped him in red (Mt 27:28) or purple (Mk 15:17)? etc. With these questions also, though, I don't feel that there's some sort of great logical calamity that theologians need to work through. This I think is not an argument against the law of noncontradiction but an argument against inerrancy. I don't think the scriptures are going to force Christians to discount logical reasoning (some people might disagree when it comes to issues like the Trinity, though not strictly biblical, but I think that's a separate issue entirely...); instead they just have to be read well, which doesn't always entail a literal reading.

Jordan said...

Thanks yeah that makes sense in ethics with different situations. Because it's not saying "no matter what in every situation you ought to answer a fool according to his folly"