Stacey, David. “Interpreting the Bible.”
New York: Seabury Press, 1979.
Reviewed by Adrian Peetoom
There is no doubt about at least this much: The Bible has been a source of comfort, knowledge, peace and joy for almost 2000 years (even longer for that part of it we sometimes call “Hebrew Scriptures”). For some the Psalms, for others the stories of Old Testament “heroes” and the New Testament Jesus. For still others individual verses. Of the latter I have a deeply moving personal example.
My mother was born in 1906 as fifth child in an eventual 11-child family. Her dad (my Opa) never provided more than a meager living for his wife and children. Moreover, the family was dysfunctional in some ways, with especially my Oma incapable of showing and passing on love. She was one stern ruler. My Dad and Mom married in 1932, and for Mom marriage was an escape from her family. However, my Dad also never managed to make much money. But Mom became a splendid mother (of four) who worked household wonders with few resources. She never became a really happy person, alas. She never had any real personal friends, and while she faithfully went to church until her age put a stop to that she rarely expressed any faith conviction. But on a visit a few years before her death at age 95, I got to know a side of her that surprised me. She told me over breakfast that her favourite psalm was 139, and her favourite verse number 14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.” She told me, “I sometimes look at my hand, my fingers, my nails, and marvel at their beauty, and what they can do!” My mouth fell open, for this was so unexpected, this glimpse of her inner life in which Scripture revelation played an important part, an inner life seemingly at odds with her basic outer unhappiness, and with her low self-image. Scripture can do that, attaching an anchor for a seemingly drifting life. And it isn’t the Bible text that provides the anchor, but the source to which the text points, namely Yahweh our covenant God.
But this truth does not invalidate a seemingly contradictory notion, namely that Scripture is one tough read. Believers need help to understand it. That should not dismay us. For life is complex. Only charlatans want us to believe that human life only needs a few slogans (or products), and all problems will disappear. Not so. So any earnest focus on the meaning of human life is bound to be complex, paradoxical perhaps, and full of mystery. All that complexity is caught in Scripture.
Christians have two major sources that assist us in discovering how Scripture tells us about God and human life lived in relationship with God (or not). The first is the Church, which over now almost 2000 years has read and interpreted Scripture. And while each generation learns yet more new aspects of it, there is also a body of interpretation which may not be ignored. And the second source is the assembly of contemporary writers who both exegete (tell us what the original words may have meant), and interpret (suggest what these old words may mean for us today).
Here are some of the problems.
1. As the 16th century Reformers maintained in reaction to what had been standard understanding: the Bible is for everyone, and not just a book for experts. However, since then the Bible has come to be interpreted in many different ways, even within certain orthodox understandings. For instance, Baptists do not baptize infants, but other Christians do, and both groups find their authority in Scripture.
2. “…the Bible belongs to a culture to which we are strangers.” (5) There is a wide gap between the age of, say, Abraham, and our age.
3. The Bible is full of literary forms that may not always be understood rightly, myth for instance.
4. We may not always be able to come clear on the original intent of a Scripture author.
In this book David Stacey tackles these and other problems, in clear and believable prose. It makes for a splendid source book to help ordinary people better understand the Bible. It lays bare problems of language, factuality, the place of miracles, the relationship between Old and New Testament, the concepts of inspiration and the canon, and the nature of Authority (the Church, the Word and the Text).
And here is his conclusion.
“The believer knows that the Bible is able to meet him[i] at every point of his experience, whether he is consciously interpreting or not. This is its glory and the ground of its uniqueness. No method and no system must be allowed to impede that process. No book on interpretation succeeds if it encourages readers to set limits to the Bible and to try to bring it under their control. For the believer knows that, in the last resort, the Bible is only a medium. On the one side stands the God who speaks, on the other the man of faith who hears and believes and acts. It is not given to any book, simple or profound, to furnish the full script of that dialogue.” (116)