More than once over the last few days I’ve been asked if I “believe the bible”. What they mean, I think, is whether I believe the bible is the true word of God. Of course my answer is yes, but yes is the tip of the iceberg. Taking the bible “literally” has become a mark of orthodoxy for many Christians who see problems in the church. By literal they mean hyper literal–taking words at face value. So, for example, when Genesis uses the word day, they insist it means a 24 hour time period. I understand why some find this appealing. Either you believe the bible is true in everything it says, or you don’t–the interpretation easy button. The problem with this approach is that no one actually takes the bible this literally on every issue. In I Corinthians 11 Paul says women who pray or prophesy in public must cover their heads. Some churches still do this, but not many. In I Timothy 2 Paul says that women shouldn’t braid their hair or wear gold jewelry. Some churches still hold to this, but not many. In Luke’s gospel a rich young ruler asks what he must do to be saved. Jesus tells him to sell everything and give to the poor. You want to upset a congregation in my neck of the woods? Criticize wealth and preach about caring for the poor. There are other examples, but the point is reading the bible hyper literally creates problems even for those who insist we read it this way.
This is because believing in the bible always involves interpretation. The meaning of words are determined by grammar, context, and the “world” of the author. Letters form words, words form sentences, sentences form paragraphs, paragraphs form books and letters–which all need to be interpreted. So how should we interpret? And more importantly, who’s interpretation is THE meaning of a text? The reformers are helpful in this area. While some might think Luther and Calvin were proponents of solo scriptura, they believed scripture needed to be interpreted within a community. Their break with the Roman Catholic Church of the time was in opposition to the use of Tradition instead of the bible on certain matters, but they retained an important place for tradition as an aid to reading the bible.
Luther and Calvin both had a high view of scripture; they also believed the bible to be the inspired, infallible, Word of God. At times, they even spoke of the bible being without “error”. What did they mean?