An open antique book on a wooden table with a pair of reading glasses resting on top of it. In this post, S. Wyatt Young asks an important question: What is the Bible?

What Is the Bible, and How Should We Interpret It? Part Two of a Six-Part Series on Christianity and Feminism

Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to start a new series of blog posts the week before you’re gonna be up to your eyeballs in Sundance films. I’m sorry to leave you hanging for the last three weeks, but now that Sundance is through, the rest of this series should continue at a rate of at least one post per week.

The idea for this series on gender roles in Christianity spawned as part of my Christian Ethics class, in which I was flung head-first into an issue I thought I had pretty well figured out. I began my foray into this issue assuming an egalitarian position (and assuming that the Bible supported my position), but emerged from the trenches as a “limited complementarian.”

It all started with a conversation I had with one of my fellow classmates, who identified himself as a conservative complementarian and a student of John Piper (who is a very conservative complementarian). During our conversation, this student made it clear that he felt that men and women had very distinct roles in marriage, in society, and in the Church. Citing John Piper, this student said that anyone who disagreed with him (i.e., me) was doing “hermeneutical gymnastics” to arrive at their position.

For those of you who read that last sentence and are asking, “Hermen-a-who-what-now?,” hermeneutics is the term scholars use to refer to the art and the science of interpreting ancient texts. There are a number of different hermeneutical theories, particularly when it comes to the Bible, and we’ll talk about a few of them later in this post.

As part of our Christian Ethics class, my classmate and I read a number of different books with different perspectives on the ethical issues explored in the course, including gender roles. Authors ranged from the rather conservative Lewis Smedes to the very liberal Miguel De la Torre. When I dove into the issue of gender roles, one of the things that became clear almost immediately is that my disagreement with some of these authors and with my fellow classmates stemmed from two fundamental differences:

  1. First, from differences in our basic conviction about biblical authority (with respect to ecclesial authority); and
  2. Secondly, from differences in our hermeneutical principles, or how we interpret the Bible (which usually depends on your conviction about biblical authority).

I do not intend to persuade you of the Bible’s authority and trustworthiness in this post. That would likely take an entire series of posts to answer questions ranging from, “Can I trust the Bible?” to “Isn’t it all just a big conspiracy like what I read about in The Da Vinci Code?” In short, “Yes,” to the first, and “No,” to the second, although I suspect those answers don’t quite satisfy you. I will probably post such a series on these and other questions about the Bible’s authority later this year, and will post links to that series here when I do.

For now, I’m going to assume that you come to this conversation from one of three positions. First, you may be someone who’s not a Christian, and does not believe that the Bible (or the Church) have any authority at all. Very well. I still hope that this post will be informational in helping you understand where and why Christians disagree on gender roles and other issues.

Second, you may be someone who nominally identifies as a Christian but who considers the Bible to be an ancient text that’s out of touch with Western values and sensibilities (i.e., someone who assigns a very low authority to the Bible). If that’s you, you will probably disagree with what I have to say, and this is where our disagreement ultimately lies.

The third position is where I suspect most of you fall: You are a Christian, and you believe that the Bible has at least as much authority as the Church. If you’re coming to this conversation from a Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican tradition, you probably believe that the authority of the Bible is more or less on par with that of the Church. On the other hand, if you’re coming to the conversation from a Protestant tradition, you probably believe that the authority of the Bible trumps that of the Church to some degree, with those from an Evangelical tradition believing that the Bible has ultimate authority and that the Church has almost none.

I am in this third “camp,” and would place myself somewhere between the Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican traditions. I believe that the Bible has ultimate authority on all matters to which it speaks, and from the Bible, we also learn that Jesus gives a whole lot of authority to the Church (see Matthew 16:13-20, especially v.19). But it’s also the authority of the Church that makes the Bible what it is, which brings me to my first point.

What Is the Bible?

The Bible is both one cohesive book, and a collection of at least sixty-six books. (Yes, it is both at the same time, for reasons I’ll get to.) Together, these books encompass a variety of genres, from legal texts to proverbs, narratives to poems, memoirs to prophecies. Even within the individual books that together form the Bible, you can have a mix of genres. The first five books of the Bible, for example, are a mixture of legal texts and narrative, and each genre has interpretive nuances. You don’t read the book of Leviticus (primarily legal texts) the same way you read one of the poems in the book of Psalms (entirely poems), for example.

But the Bible is not just divided up by the various books that comprise it. Those books are also divided into major and minor sections. The two major sections of the Bible are what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament is simply another word for covenant, and a covenant is a promise made between two or more people or groups of people. In other words, a covenant is a way of relating to another person or a group of persons. Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. It defines how they relate to each other. So, when Christians speak of the Old and New Testaments, we’re simply talking about God’s old way of relating to us, and God’s new way of relating to us.

The Bible is also divided into minor sections. The Old Testament, for example, is broken down into four minor sections: the books of the law, the history books, the wisdom books, and the prophetic books (in that order). The New Testament, which is much shorter than the Old Testament, is comprised of three sections: accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry (called “the Gospels”), letters written by the early Church leaders (called “epistles”), and Revelation, which is a book of visions and prophecies.

Finally, the Bible is divided into chapter and verse (the part before the colon and the part after the colon). Important note: the original manuscripts are not divided into chapter and verse. That is something that we impose on the text, and it started with a man named William Tyndale, legend has it while he was riding on horseback. (And every exegete around the world said, “Yup. Definitely on horseback.”)

Theories vary widely about how the Old Testament came to be. Tradition holds that it was Moses who wrote the first five books of the Bible, but modern critical theories like the documentary hypothesis assert that at least the first four books of the Bible were mostly oral traditions that were retold by the people of ancient Israel and, in the wake of Israel’s return from Babylon, were put to paper by at least two different sources. That’s just one example. What we do know is that by about the fourth or fifth century B.C., the books that the Jewish people considered to have the authority of scripture were pretty well fixed.

Every book in the New Testament was written within the first century A.D., but the Church didn’t officially declare what books comprised the New Testament until the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D. As biblical scholar F.F. Bruce notes, “When at last a Church Council—the Synod of Hippo in AD 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.” In other words, all the Synod of Hippo did was officially declare what had already been true for the Church since the time the letters, stories, and poems that now comprise the New Testament were first written. (Important for all you Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists.) Notice, though, that it is the Church‘s authority, through the Synod of Hippo, that made (and makes) the Bible what it is.

In this graphic, S. Wyatt Young compares the Hebrew Tanakh with the Old Testament, in order to help us answer the question, What is the Bible?

What’s interesting, though, is that as the New Testament was formed (and the process was quite organic), the early Church did something peculiar. In the Hebrew Tanakh, which is the Jewish equivalent to the Christian Bible, the order of the books now included as part of the Christian Bible is as follows: the books of the law, the history books, the prophetic books, and finally, the wisdom literature. Notice what’s different: in the Christian Bible, the prophetic books are placed at the very end of the Hebrew scriptures, instead of between the history books and the wisdom literature. This is important, because it gives us a clue about how to interpret the Bible.

How Do We Interpret the Bible?

Why would the early Church fathers rearrange the Hebrew Bible to put the prophets at the end? The most plausible explanation is that they did so to tell a story, to ready our hearts as we read the Bible for the One whom God had promised before much of the story had gotten underway.

See, embedded in the prophets are hundreds of prophecies, all of which Jesus fulfilled. So it’s fitting that in the early Church, the prophetic texts became a precursor to the stories of Jesus’s life and ministry (the “Gospels”). In fact, that’s how the Apostles (early Church leaders) interpreted the Old Testament as they were writing the documents that would eventually become the New Testament: through the lens of the story, through the lens of what God had already done to redeem his chosen people.

Now, I suspect that most pastors and scholars are probably with me up to this point. They’re okay with the way in which the early Church interpreted the Bible. (It’s commonly referred to as Second Temple Hermeneutics, for those who are interested.) But they’re not okay using that same method of interpretation today.

The modern hermeneutical theory that still seems to hold the day is the theory known as historical-grammatical criticism. Simply put, historical-grammatical criticism looks at both the historical context in which the text was first written and the grammatical structure of the text to arrive at what the words likely would’ve meant to the original listener. Based on that, they then apply the text to today’s environment.

That all sounds well and good, but there are several problems with it. First and foremost, it leaves so much room for us to throw the baby out with the bathwater if we choose. I’ve watched pastors use historical-grammatical criticism to toss out and dismiss as “culture back then” those parts of the Bible with which they (or, more likely, their congregants) are uncomfortable. Conservative pastors are happy to apply the biblical texts that speak of the freedom we have in Christ to today’s culture when it comes to issues like guns, while leaving out the texts suggest that our attitude ought to be the same as Christ, who did not consider his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but gave up his rights in the name of love. Liberal pastors are happy to apply the texts that speak to welcoming the poor and the stranger (i.e., the immigrant) to today’s culture, but leave out the biblical texts that speak to wisdom, personal responsibility, and a God who lovingly corrects and disciplines. Historical-grammatical criticism falls short because it offers its adherents no comprehensive means of determining what parts of the Bible were part of “culture back then,” and what parts are still relevant today.

As much as the modern Church pretends to employ historical-grammatical criticism as a means of arriving at the “correct” or “objective” interpretation, we’re simply using it as a pretense to toss out what we’re uncomfortable with and hang onto the rest, precisely because historical-grammatical criticism, focusing only on one particular passage in one particular book of the Bible, allows us to do so.

That is exactly what I caught my classmate doing when we had a conversation about gender roles. He was claiming that the Bible’s passages about gender roles for women in marriage, in church, and in society should be lifted verbatim from the page and applied in today’s context. But the minute I asked about whether slavery was okay, he got a bit squeamish. The Bible never condemns slavery, and in fact, slaves are told to obey their masters (even the cruel ones) like they obey Christ, just as a wife is told to submit to her husband like she submits to Jesus. So why was my classmate insisting that some parts of the Bible be treated differently than others? He couldn’t give me an answer. And that’s my point: We need something better.

So, for the most part, I reject historical-grammatical criticism. It’s true that in the translation process (getting the Bible from its original languages into the tongues of today), historical-grammatical criticism is necessary. And historical context may be helpful to understand or add meaning to a particular passage. But when it comes to forming a comprehensive theology that remains faithful to the text as a whole, historical-grammatical criticism falls short.

If, on the other hand, we understand the Bible not just as a collection of at least sixty-six independent books, but also as one comprehensive story, we have a lot more room in which to work. See, the story has a gap in it. That gap is between the end of the book of Acts and the new heavens and new earth described in Revelation 21, and that gap allows for each generation of the Church to read the story anew, in the tradition of the faith, and, having been transformed by it, to collectively ask how we might take our place in God’s redemption of our world. For that is what the Bible is: a story of redemption.

Practically speaking, this hermeneutic (which I call the Biblical Narrative Hermeneutic) is rather simple. When we read the story, starting in Genesis 1 and making our way through Revelation 22, then look around at the world today, we ask ourselves, in what ways do we see God redeeming our world, continuing the story of the Bible, and in what ways do we see God remaining firm with the yes’s and no’s he gives us in the biblical text?

William J. Webb, a New Testament professor at Heritage Seminary, does a great job articulating what this might look like through what he calls a Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic in his book, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. One of the things I most appreciate about Webb’s book is that it makes room for the story of the Bible. Webb insists that the way in which we step into God’s active work in redeeming our world is to look for redemption first in the canon of scripture (the list of books that make up the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation), and if we discover a redemptive movement, to extrapolate that movement out and arrive at God’s ultimate redemptive goal.

While I agree with what Webb has to say and like Webb’s general idea, I find his reliance on historical context problematic, because we have so little historical evidence available to us, and the discovery of new historical evidence can quite radically alter interpretations. (David C. Steinmetz, a Christian historian, makes note of the problems of using historical evidence for interpretation in his essay that’s included in the book, The Art of Reading Scripture.) The question becomes, can we make due without historical context? I think so.

Take, for example, two instructions we find at different points in the biblical story: the first, which we find very early in the story, that a woman should marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29); and the second, which we find relatively late in the story, that singleness is preferable to marriage for both men and women (1 Corinthians 7). There is a pretty clear contradiction, here. One insists that a woman should marry; the other insists that singleness is better, for both men and women.

Webb would insist that in order to identify how I might step into God’s redemption in our world, I must look at the cultural context of both instructions, in order to determine whether there is any redemptive movement. But I don’t think that understanding the cultural context is necessary. By giving us two very contradictory instructions, the Bible invites us to believe that there is movement, irrespective of the cultural context of either instruction.

Then comes the step of reflection. As I think about these conflicting instructions, as well as other statements made in the Bible (like Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that there is no distinction between men and women in Christ), and as I take a long, hard look at what’s going on in the world’s cultures today and how we got to where we are, I might come to see that a part of God’s redemption of our world is a woman gaining standing in society—an identity in Christ—that is apart and distinct from her marriage to a man. And that gives us, as the Church, a whole lot of room in which to embrace what God is doing in the world. But look at me, getting ahead of myself.

For those of you who are still teetering on whether to embrace a biblical narrative hermeneutic, I could go on to try and convince you that the Bible is a story, but I thought I would simply leave it to Professor Johnston, whose book I read as part of a class I’m taking on engaging independent film. It’s actually the reason I was so caught up in Sundance and wasn’t able to write this post sooner, so it’s fitting that I leave you with these words. (His book is called Reel Spirituality, for those who are interested.) Enjoy.

Biblical truth has a definite narrative shape. Jesus used parables, not treatises. Nathan spoke to David in stories. The Israelites used narrative to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and to recount the mighty acts of God in shaping their history. The sermons of Peter and Stephen, which are recalled in the opening chapters of the book of Acts, recite these same stories of Israel and recall the Christ event. Even Paul’s more systematic theology is far removed from the abstract reasoning that goes by that term today. His is a missional theology. His argument is never separated from the passion narrative, from his own life story, or from the particular context and stories of those he addresses. … Christianity is, at core, not an abstract philosophy, but a story; not pure factual reportage, but a recounting of one life in order that other lives might be transformed. Christian theology is rooted in the testimony of what has been both seen and lived—what is both real in its own right and redemptive in those who experience the story and respond to it.

—Robert Johnston, Ph.D.