How to read the Bible

Anglican bishops may have provided a breakthrough approach

The Bible may say one thing in a particular text, but the Anglican bishops in Aotearoa New Zealand have put out a unanimously agreed statement that God actually requires us to disregard this. This carefully thought-out statement may help the church move forward in other current heated disputes on how the Bible is to be used in this church.

Parts of the Bible may clearly indicate a particular action is required. But these parts of the Bible may not be binding on Christians today. In fact, the very opposite of what those passages say may be what God is requiring of us. This remarkable teaching is the unanimous agreement of the Anglican bishops in Aotearoa New Zealand. Their bold teaching comes at a time when the Anglican Church is in turmoil about interpretation of the scriptures and may prove a new baseline for future discussion.

The Anglican bishops in Aotearoa, New Zealand have unanimously agreed to a theological principal of how to put a particular verse from the Bible into practice. Their undivided agreement is that the text is not to be applied today and to do so would be against Christ’s life and teaching. The teaching of the bishops makes explicit the way that most Christians relate to the Bible in a number of areas but comes at a time when in one area, for which there are few specific biblical texts, there is hot controversy and disunity.

Sue Bradford has a Bill before the New Zealand Parliament to repeal section 59 of the 1961 Crimes Act. Currently Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 states that every parent of a child and every person (teachers excepted) in the place of the parent of a child is justified in using force by way of correction towards the child, if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances. Sue Brdaford’s bill has normally been referred to as the “anti-smacking” Bill.

On 1 May, 2007, the bishops together released a statement supporting the removal of section 59. This statement included:

“There is some debate among Christians about the use of corporal punishment and the repeal of section 59. As Christians, our primary role model is Jesus Christ. As fallible humans, we struggle with issues of power and authority, and with their use or misuse. In the face of the abuse of power, Christ brings freedom, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and ultimately self-sacrifice. The way of Jesus was one of non-violence. He declined to sanction violent punishment against offenders, preferring instead to look to the root causes of ill behaviour and to offer people a new start. This is how we must relate to our children.

“As Christians, our reading of the Bible must always be done through the lens of Christ’s teaching and life.  There has been a lot of talk about ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’, an attitude that can be sanctioned by scriptural proof-texts such as Proverbs 13 : 24 — ‘Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them’ (NRSV).

“However, it is inappropriate to take such texts out of their ancient cultural context, and out of the broader context of Scripture, so as to justify modes of behaviour in a modern situation very different from that for which they were given. Such texts need to be read in the light of the way Christ responded to children, placing them in the middle of the group with respect and care, as in Mark 9: 37: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me’."

Many Christians talk about the scriptures as if all the material is equally and similarly inspired – what I would term a “flat” theory of inspiration. This approach may accept that we use the sophisticated techniques that have been developed to determine the original text of a passage, its cultural and historical context, and the intent of the original author. But once we are sure about what the scripture text plainly teaches then, following this approach, we would be required to accept and obey it.

In practice, of course, even people who argue this way may not treat all scriptures as having equal status and opt for their own personally chosen “canon within the canon”. For example, they might ignore the Bible and choose to eat mussels, prawns, oysters, and shrimps (forbidden in Lev 11:9-11), or braid hair (forbidden in 1 Pet 3:3), or even wear pearls (forbidden 1 Tim 2:9).

The bishops have now clearly and unanimously declared that approaching every Biblical verse as if it has equal weight just will not do. In effect, they have provided a theological justification for eating prawns, braiding hair, and wearing pearls. They have abandoned what I have above termed a “flat” understanding of scriptural inspiration, and instead see the Bible in three dimensions as having peaks and valleys and plains and troughs. And, the bishops teach us, we perceive this three-dimensional landscape when we put on the lenses of Christ, and view the Bible through his eyes. Then texts like “spare the rod and spoil the child” not only, in the bishops’ teaching, are no longer binding today – but more than that: to follow this text would actually be wrong.

This is a remarkable teaching to come unanimously from our bench of bishops at a time when the Anglican Communion worldwide is in the midst of a debate about some other scriptural texts. A debate that is currently so draining, distracting, and destructive of our life, mission, and ministry.

The full statement from the bishops
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