I have been thinking further about the criteria for assessing the interpretation of any passage of Scripture. What are the parameters that might help guide a faithful reading of the biblical text?

Here are my guidelines for assessing the interpretation and application to our lives of any sacred text within a Christian context:

1. Any valid reading of a biblical text will always be guided by an awareness that the preeminent Christian vision of God is that

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (I John 4:16)

The Spirit will always guide us to a reading of the text that leads us to do no harm to the other. The perpetuation of violence, abuse and oppression have no place in any legitimate reading of a biblical text that affirms a vision of God as “love”.  Any interpretation that leads to violence or discrimination against any aspect of God’s creation is automatically disqualified.

2. A faithful use of the Bible will always lead us to share in the creative work of God who aims to bring fullness of life.

Jesus said,

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Any action that might tend to diminish a person’s access to abundant life is disqualified as a valid reading of the text. An abundant life is a life that fully engages with the whole of life. We live abundantly when we understand that Incarnation is at the centre of Christian faith. Our consciousness of God is enhanced as we grow in our ability to honour God in the flesh and blood of life.

A faithful encounter with the text will always lead us to greater openness. Any reading that diminishes any aspect of God’s creation should be viewed with suspicion.

3. No text should ever be interpreted in any way that might suggest that God is absent from any part of life.

Jesus said to his disciples,

remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

He was a student of the Psalms and would have been familiar with Psalm 139.

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
 even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

A reading of any text that assumes God’s absence is invalid. God is always present in every dimension of life.

4. Any legitimate reading of the text will always lead the reader to a greater manifestation of the qualities of

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 3:22,23)

5. The fundamental aim of all biblical texts is to bring all people to freedom.

Jesus promised,

you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)

And Paul said,

For freedom Christ has set us free. (Galatians 5:1)

God never intends to lead anyone to bondage. Any faithful reading of Scripture will always lead to liberation.

6. In any text in which I feel even slightly tempted to find a judgment aimed at another person I will always view it first as a mirror in which I am invited to examine my own life. Honest self-examination and the conduct of a fearless personal moral inventory are the starting point of any legitimate Christian biblical interpretation.

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The problem with the proposing of guidelines for interpretation of a biblical text is that it risks giving the wrong impression about the function of the scriptures. The primary purpose of the Bible is not to formulate intellectual interpretations, moral stands or theological formulations.The Bible is not intended to be a source book for dogma.

The purpose of the Bible is to facilitate an encounter with the living power that is the source of the text. The Bible invites us into a dynamic relationship with God. It intends to help our hearts open to the deep reality of the Mysterious Power of Love that lies at the heart of all being.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says,

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

This of course is not a direct reference to the Bible as we know it. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews did not have access to many of the 66 books we commonly think of as making up “The Bible” today. Some of the books of the New Testament had not yet been written when the author of Hebrews wrote his letter. But his poetic image of a “two-edged sword” that has the power to search the reader’s heart and expose the deepest intentions of our lives, is a powerful image for the work that the sacred texts of the Scripture were given to perform.

The Bible is intended to perform an active function in my life. We call the Bible a “sacred text” because it has the power to open my heart to an encunter with the divine reality that lies behind the text. As I live in relationship with the Spirit who lives behind the words of the Bible and who inspired the writers of this text, my world opens and my spirit deepens. I am drawn more deeply into the living encounter with the divine reality for whom my heart longs.

This will undoubtedly change my life. It will cause me to live in different ways. It will change the way I think about my life, other people, and the world. But, the important thing to keep in mind, is that the changes are not changes I bring about my force of my will in response to an external standard or code of conduct. They are brought about in my life through the power that is activated in my life through my encounter with the Spirit who breathes in the text.

My part in the divine transaction that is the reading of Scripture is to surrender to the Spirit behind the word, to allow that Spirit to shape and form my life in ways that are congruent with the force of love in whose image I was created.

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