Listening to the Bible

April 4, 2014 — 9 Comments


Christopher Bryan has produced an excellent book, published by Oxford University Press, called Listening to the Bible: The Art of Faithful Biblical Interpretation.

I have scanned numerous books on reading the Bible, but this one distills so much of what I have learned into easily chewable chapters.

The Division

Bryan begins with “the division.” The division, or the problem with biblical interpretation is the divorce between the academy and the church. The academy has adopted the historical critical model and if biblical scholarship has effected the preaching of the Word at all, “it seems chiefly to have been that is has engendered a reluctance to engage the great central tenets of the Christian faith.”

Although Bryan notes that are exceptions, the divorce between the academy and the church is clear, yet the the true setting in life of the Bible has and should always be the community of faith.

How Did We Get Here?

Bryan then moves to answering the question of how we got to this divorce. He begins with Schleiermacher who said that the primary task of the interpreter was to avoid misunderstanding and to discover the author’s intent. Benjamin Jowett then in 1860 said that the first principle of interpretation is

that Scripture has but one meaning –the meaning which it had to the mind of the Prophet of Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it. We need to abandon the attempt to adapt truths of Scripture to the doctrines of creeds and the adaptation to the precepts and maxims of Scripture to the language of our own age.

Pay attention to this paragraph, for in essence, the entire book is an overturning it.

This in turn led to readers not being so much concerned with what the texts had to say to us, but rather a tool for dissecting them for some hypothetical source or situation or information that might lie behind them. Historical criticism had high hopes. Precise questions were to be asked, and then followed through with scientific precision so as to deliver clear answers.

Why Jowett’s Project Was Impossible

However Jowett’s project was impossible, because he thought he was carving a way to objectively look at a text, “but in a century and a half after Jowett the situation had not changed, for historical critical method was no more able to protect its practitioners from writing under the influence of their own prejudices and interests than were the methods that preceded it.” As Marilynne Robinson puts it, “that mysterious presence, the Observer, can never wholly stand apart from the object of inquiry.”

A second problem was that the hermeneutical process as Schleiermacher and others had conceived it was vastly oversimplified and underestimated what is actually involved in any act of communication between past and present.

The whole thing is too big, too complex, and too swiftly changing for any group of precise questions to be devised that could look for precise answers. This is not to despair of interpreting ancient texts: it is simply to concede that every language act has a temporal determinant, that that the range of possibilities that might actually be explored –semantic, cultural, historical, personal–in order to assure full comprehension of almost any statement by anyone at all approaches infinity. Biblical interpretation like all other interpretation, will be aided by research–by asking many precise questions as possible: but it must in the end be a matter of art and imagination, not science (19).

This hermeneutical viewpoint led to the hermeneutic of suspicion, where everything was looked at and deconstructed.

So What Do We Do?

Bryan begins answering the question of ‘what do we do’ in chapters five through nine.He suggests we start with the fact that the Bible is a thing written. It is literature.

What then are we supposed to do with literature? This is where Schleiermacher and Jowett were right. Any critique or discussion of a written text that is not concerned with listening to the text for what it is trying to say is beside the point. Therefore we need to listen to the authors individually.

But second we need to listen to the “Bible” and its voices considered together.

There is surely a third thing we need to do. If there is in this body of material a “matter,” a shared concern, what does that “matter” have to do with us? We need to ask what the individual voices, and the whole of Scripture relates to the continuing life and witness of the Church up to and including our own day.

In short, Jowett and Schleiermacher got off on the right foot, but did not go far enough.

Listening to the Individual Voices

Jowett’s first principle was that Scripture has but one meaning-the meaning which it has to the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist. There are elements of this assertion which prove valid, and elements which are mistaken. What is valid about this statement is that it acknowledges that ancients are not simply the same was we are, and that we will understand them better if we try to hear them in the context of their own times and assumptions.

But where Jowett is mistaken is that Jowett and the rest of us cannot possibly know that the “meanings” intended by the prophets and evangelists and the “meanings” understood by those who heard them were always the same. From the way in which Paul himself argues with his converts it is perfectly clear that sometimes they were not. Words in fact do not have a single meaning, and still less their meaning is not limited to authorial intent.

This does not mean texts can mean anything, for whatever meaning we attribute to the text we must be able to point to a rationale for it within the text itself. Authorial intent is not the only element in what a text means, but it certainly is an element.

Relating the Parts to the Whole

The second task of a biblical scholar is to consider the individual voices in relation to the whole of Scripture. The task of biblical scholarship according to Jowett was to interpret the biblical text without reference to creeds and controversies that were “of other times.”

However this is where Jowett is again mistaken. For the gospel, the narrative, and the creeds have always stood together. They evolved together. Historical questions are important, but the eye of faith is always more than just the “facts.”

The fundamentalist reader of the Bible is scandalized by this, and insists that faith’s reality must have been clear and identical with what could be seen and measured. The well-informed skeptic smiles in superiority of a fuller knowledge and since what could be seen and measured was evidently so much more ordinary than what is claimed by faith, dismisses faith’s claims as fantasy. Fundamentalist and skeptic alike are making the same mistake. The creature is not merely what it is made of. The creature is indeed dust, but beloved dust.

And history–what “really” happened–is always more than what scientific discipline would regard as “facts.” Of course Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That is a fact. But the meaning of the fact will only be apparent to prophetic and apostolic imagination and the eye of faith (75-76).

So What Now?

“How does the Bible relate to the life of the church up to and including today?” (88). Bryan asserts that looking back on Jowett’s project reveals that Jowett was right in what he affirmed and wrong in what he denied.

Jowett was right to suggest that we need to approach the Bible as any other book, and he was also right about the perils of looking for answers to our own questions that were written without any conception of such questions.

But Jowett was wrong because the meaning a text has for us is always effected by what we bring to it, by our personal inner “texts,” conscious or unconscious.

Since every person who comes to these texts is unique and has a particular history, there is always the possibility for new meaning. This is true of all great texts, and is therefore true of biblical texts. Some Christians seem to find this threatening, but it seems to me entirely appropriate that God’s revelation much always be capable of unfolding for us new meaning. For the fact that our knowledge of God is as yet incomplete does not mean that we have not knowledge, or that there is no God to be known, or that the effort to know more is not proper (89).

My “text” as an individual and our “texts” as a community do engage with the biblical writers’ “texts” at numerous points, both personally and theologically. As I have said, their “today” is by its very nature bound up with my own “today.” Our “texts” interweave (95).


Evangelicals may complain that the division between the academy and the church does not apply to us in the same force as it does to broader biblical scholarship. I would generally agree. We have been more apt to keep the wall from being built.

But maybe the division for us is something different, the division between principle and practice, the fragmentation of disciplines. Largely we teach the historical-critical method, but then stand up on Sunday morning and do something different. We explain this by saying something like “seminary teaches the ground work, then you need to just apply it to your people.

So we still, more or less, have co-opted Jowett’s thesis in our teaching, but not in our practice (while staying away from historical critical conclusions, and adding the cherry of application on top).

I still regularly hear people say, “all you need to do is read the text and wrestle with it yourself,” or “interpretation is all about figuring out what the author is saying to his hearers” or “to be a biblical scholar all you need to have is a lexicon in your right hand and the Bible in your left” or “I just teach the Bible.

But isn’t this just Jowett’s proposal? And do we find the early church arguing anything like this?

What I loved about Bryan’s book is that his proposal was eminently simple.

  1. Read the Bible, listening to the voice of individuals.
  2. Read the Bible, listening to the voices as a whole.
  3. Read the Bible, listening for a word for us today.

And although most would read those three points and agree with them, Bryan’s book provides a nuanced discussion of each point which shows that interpretation is more than Jowett imagined.



Table of Contents
I. The Division
II How Did We Get Here?
III. Why Jowett’s Project was Impossible
IV. The Hermeneutic of Suspicion
V. So What Do We Do?
VI. The First Task: Listening to the Individual Voices
VII. A Digression: “Great Literature?”
VI. The Second Task: Relating the Parts to the Whole
1. The Rule of Faith and the Question of History.
2. The Different Voices and Their Different Accounts of the History
VII. The Third Task: So What Now?
1. Why We Must Ask the Question
2. The Scriptures as Interpretative Narrative
3. The Exercise of Christian Imagination
VIII. The Drama of the Word
Appendix (by David Landon): Speaking the Word: A Guide to Liturgical Reading
Selected Bibliography


Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

9 responses to Listening to the Bible

  1. Patrick, thanks for bringing this to my awareness. I plan on giving it a read. I have a question about the above statement:

    “Authorial intent is not the only element in what a text means, but it certainly is an element.”

    It sounds like Bryan wants to broaden the locus of meaning to extend beyond authorial intent? Is that right? If so, what’s your take on this – do you agree?

    • Timothy

      I do agree, but it is all in how you define it. I think we have to recognize as the NT authors do that there is dual authorship to the Scripture, divine and human. Many times the human authors “spoke better than they knew” and therefore we cannot resort to authorial intent always. Authorial intent is a good place to start, but I think we see through church history there is more to interpretation than AI. This does not mean human authorial intent and divine authorial intent are at odds, but the divine intent can be “fuller” than the human authorial intent.

      • P.S. A paragraph probably won’t do to fully explain the issue, but that was my first shot at it.

      • Patrick,

        Thanks for your reply. I agree with you that this issue is bigger than can be fully unpacked here in a paragraph or two 🙂

        I concur as well that we must recognize dual authorship. Still, there is (as I am sure you are aware) no shortage of resistance within the evangelical quarter to the notion that divine and human AI can be bifurcated. But, as you say, definitions are key, and the matter is fairly complex. Certainly, this is an area in which to tread carefully, and precisely.

        Anyway, I am quite interested to take a peer into this book, and perhaps we’ll have a chance to engage more deeply on this topic when you are in PDX!


  2. As I read about church history and think more critically about how we read and understand the Scriptures, it is becoming more apparent to me how little I realize how much of myself I bring to the table when I read the Bible. It seems that this is both for the better and for the worse!

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