Interpreting the bible can be hard; dealing with difficulties (Tilling)

Reading is not a simple act of recognizing codes and cues inked onto parchment or engraved in stone.  Apprehension of human communication through written texts, especially across time and across cultural boundaries, can be so complex as to defy description.

–Carolyn J. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Indiana University Press, 2009) 10. (Thanks: Awilum)

For those of you that haven’t already seen it, or read it carefully, Chris Tilling has a brilliant post on dealing with tension in the Bible. He writes:

. . . One popular strategy for dealing with biblical tensions is to slot them away in the ‘mystery’ box, hoping they won’t come out to haunt you at night. While there is some half-grown wisdom here, you’ll end up cramming quite a lot of the bible into that box before long…

Another strategy is to claim that the bible is a secure stash of stable proposition. ‘Jesus is Lord’, for example. Safe and secure; truth to stand on. This approach is often coupled with the assertion that all tensions in the bible are ultimately reconcilable; that none really exists when you study them properly. Certainly this is often true and many supposed ‘contradictions’ do indeed vanish on closer inspection. But . . .

So another approach is to pretend the bible is unconcerned with revealing truth in propositions, that it merely witnesses to God’s saving actions or true religious experience and is not itself a channel of God’s revelation. Scripture is just human, nothing special about it except that to which it points. But why bother reading and preaching from the bible if that is the case? Does it really encourage us to handle it with care, as text itself fully inspired by God?

Here are some things to bear in mind, . . . [at this point I’d better send you to his post because I’m tempted to quote the whole whole thing. . . how truth is eschatological and  relational, . . . what  Hays, Barth, and Enns, say, . . . how we are messed up, etc. ]

. . . With these points in mind we can turn to tensions in the bible.

  • If we struggle with tensions in the bible, we may need to examine our expectations in light of the eschatological nature of truth. We may need to reframe our concerns according to the relational nature of truth. Put this way, we can perhaps avoid the scissors approach to the bible, one which early church heretic Marcion attempted, as he sought to exorcise all Jewish elements from the bible (talk about a doomed project!)
  • If truth is a complex beast, one not easily pinned down, we may need to move beyond a simple treatment and comparison of ‘biblical propositions’ to an appreciation of the living complexity of truth.
  • Perhaps our struggles with biblical tensions can help us to reformulate our thinking about the nature of the bible, one that takes more seriously our commitment to the practice of bible reading.
  • The longing for the bible to make sense, for tensions to be explained away, is entirely legitimate, perhaps reflecting something of our longing for the coming of the Lord when we will ‘know fully’. Yet we must guard against an over-realised eschatology, one which thinks the things that will happen at Christ’s return have already happened. Acceptance of an over-realised eschatology will tend to end in discouragement, and Paul had therefore to combat it occasionally (2 Thessalonians).
  • Thinking of the inspiration of scripture in light of the secretaries letter may help us to embrace a fully human and occasionally contradicting text while at the same time fully embracing the text as written under the authority of God.

A prayer

With all such questions that cause us problems and disquiet our faith, the best place to go is to God in prayer, to unload our concerns, pray for wisdom, protection and deepening of our faith. Our struggles can be an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. Here is a prayer you may like to pray with me:

“Father, there is so much that we do not understand, so much that confuses us in the Bible. We surely only know in part. So we pray for wisdom, for a closer walk with you, for deeper maturity in our faith, that we would be passionate lovers of truth. Protect, strengthen and develop our faith, that it may bear fruit in our lives, that we truly play our part in the evangelisation of the nations and the transformation of society, remembering always that it is you who carries us; you are our foundation, not we ourselves, not our understanding of biblical tensions nor the strength of our often failing faith. We give you glory for hearing our prayer for the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen”


Chris Tilling: Negotiating Tensions in the Bible (has a brief list of helpful resources too.)

2 thoughts on “Interpreting the bible can be hard; dealing with difficulties (Tilling)

  1. This is an incredible post! Thanks for sharing it with us. Truth is eschatological!

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