From John Ray's shorter notes
April 15, 2011
Do the Scriptures need interpreting?
As an atheist I of course have no religious interest in the scriptures but I was for many years paid a lot of money by a leading Australian university to teach sociology so I hope I may be excused for taking a sociological interest in them.
My interest is very much motivated by the historic power of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. They have been enormously influentual and I like to look at why. And in looking at why it seems important to see exactly what they say. So for a while I ran a daily Scripture blog which pointed out what they actually say -- and observed that what they say is a long way from what Christians generally believe today.
It was the Christianity of the first century that gave the huge initial impetus to the worldwide spead of Chistianity in subsequent centuries so it would seem to be that version of Christianity which is of greatest interest -- rather that the watered-down and paganized version we encounter today. And it is first century Christianity that is recorded in the Bible.
And my Scripture blog gave chapter and verse (as it were) in showing exactly where current Christianity is paganized and watered down from the first century original. And the fact that Christianity still has great influence despite being paganized and watered down is surely further testimony to the great power of the original. Even a little bit of the original Gospel is still helpful to many people.
Something that I have so far neglected to do, however, is to look at the claim made by the Catholic Church and some orthodox Jews (such as the aggressive Mr Kelley) to the effect that the Bible is THEIR book and only they can interpret it correctly. The Protestant Reformation was of course built around rejection of that claim. Most of the early Protestants said that they could read the Bible for themselves perfectly adequately and rejected any need for authoritative or learned interpretation.
I am a product of fundamentalist Protestant culture so that basic Protestant idea seems instinctively right to me. I am however a little saddened when I note that most Protestants talk the talk but don't walk the walk. Most Protestants still accept, for instance the quite mad doctrine of the triune God, which has absolutely no basis in scripture but which revives the doctrines of ancient Egypt rather well. The first person of influence to advocate it was Athanasius, an Egyptian. So I like to see what we find when we do walk the walk.
And it is my contention that the Bible is in fact very straightforward most of the time and that it therefore CAN easily be read and understood by almost everyone -- without any need for guidance from special authorities. But my asserting that is of little consequence unless I can give evidence of it. And I thought that I might today make a small start in that direction by comparing two historic pieces of religious expression. The first:For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest
The second:Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God's Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God's promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
It is my submission that the first is as clear as crystal and the second is as clear as mud. So what are those passages? The first is from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9) and the second is from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England. The Bible beats theology any day.
But the Bible is TOO clear for most people. Ecclesiastes could hardly have expressed more plainly and emphatically that when you are dead you are dead: No mention of immortal souls flitting about. So that is when people start scrabbling for "interpretations". They say (for instance) that the Ecclesisstes passage is only talking about the body and that there is some mystical "soul" that lives on as well.
And if people need the comfort of that belief so be it. But the original teaching is clear. The Hebrews of Old Testament times were earth-oriented and the only aferlife they looked forward to was resurrection to life on earth at the time of the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus believed that too: "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done ON EARTH, as it is in heaven".
So it's not the Bible that needs interpretation; it is the reluctance of people to accept its teachings that gives rise to the need for interpretation.
And the passage above from the 39 articles is an example of that too. It is an attempt to reject the plain words of Ephesians chapter 1 while appearing to accept them. Ephesians says quite plainly that being one of God's chosen ones was "predestined" from "before the foundation of the world", which no doubt seems rather unfair. At the time the Calvinists (mostly Scottish Presbyterians) accepted that but the Anglicans didn't like it, presumably because it made their sacraments look rather superfluous.
And that applies equally well to Jews and Christians. The following command in the Torah (Leviticus 20:13) is crystal clear: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." But Rabbinical teachings have "interpreted" that out of existence too.
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