Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

Bible text: Various

When the Protestant Reformers looked at the medieval Church, they saw an institution full of corrupt practices and doctrines. Defenders of those practices and doctrines regularly appealed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition.

The Reformers sought a platform where they could stand in criticizing these practices and doctrines. They believed they found it in appealing to the sole authority of Scripture—the reformation principle of sola Scriptura.

They also had confidence that responsible exegesis would illuminate the meaning of Scripture without any appeal to tradition. [Exegesis is the technical term Bible scholars use to describe the process of a close reading of the Biblical text to determine what the author intended to say, not what we want the text to say.]

I have come to believe they were wrong in their confidence. Ecclesiastical tradition profoundly influences the way we read and interpret the Bible, whether we realize it or not. We carry those traditions and a host of other cultural traditions into every act of exegesis, thus determining what we hear in the Bible. This is true for Protestant exegesis as much as it is true for Catholic and Orthodox exegesis. [Postmodern literary theory has also established that this is true for the reading of any literary text, religious or not.]

Let me offer some examples to make my point. Let’s begin with the Christmas story, which we have so recently read in our churches and celebrated in Christmas pageants. Our traditions about Christmas are heavily influenced by tradition, not by the Biblical texts.

The Gospel of Luke says that when Jesus was born, he was placed in a manger. It does not, however, say anything about animals present that night. We assume that because of the reference to the manger. So in our Christmas crèche scenes we include sheep, cows, and maybe a kneeling donkey. Tradition adds that, not the Biblical text.

Luke also says that when the Christmas angel announces Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, an angelic host praises God. But he does not say explicitly they sang their praises. He says they said them. The angelic choirs singing on the hillside comes from tradition, not the Biblical text.

When Matthew tells the story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus, we read that as a visit by three of them. Matthew does not say that explicitly. He just says wise men (number unspecified) made the visit. Church tradition determines our reading of three wise men (probably because there are three gifts).

Likewise Matthew does not say they are kings. He says they are magi, scholarly astrologers from the East. Church tradition has changed them into kings, most likely from conflating Matthew’s story with the prophecy in Isaiah 60:1-6, which talks of kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem.

And when we see the hundreds of images of the Annunciation story, we invariably see the announcement to Mary coming from the archangel Gabriel, who has a stunning pair of wings growing out of his back. The Bible has many references to angels, but it never says they have wings.

Yes, the prophet Isaiah has a vision (Isaiah 6) of seraphim with six wings. But in the ancient Near Eastern context in which Isaiah lived, seraphim were not envisioned as having a humanoid form. Seraphim were regarded as composite creatures, bearing maybe a human head, but the body of a lion or other beast. Wings, like the wings of an eagle, were a part of this composite understanding.

And yes, Revelation 14:6 has a reference to an angel flying in mid-heaven, but it never says that angel is flying by means of wings.

Yet church tradition, especially as expressed in Christian art, images angels as humanoid creatures with wings. And that is just as true of the art we find in Protestant churches as well as in Catholic and Orthodox churches. Our image of angels draws more from pagan Roman and Greek iconography than it does from the Bible.

Let me give a few more examples, outside the Christmas story. It is universally assumed that the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the garden was an apple. The Biblical text does not say that. Yet Protestants as well as Catholics joke about the apple the first sinners ate.

We assume that the creature that swallows the prophet Jonah alive is a whale. The text does not say that. It says it is a big fish. If you read Matthew 12:40 in the King James or the Revised Standard Version translations, you will hear Jesus call it a whale. But the Greek word those versions translate as whale is the word ketos. This word does not mean literally a whale, but a sea monster. Tradition has come to regard it as whale, and so most of us read the story in that way. Tradition has even influenced how we translate the Bible.

Finally, most people tend to read Revelation 21-22’s description of the new Jerusalem as a description of heaven. Our image of heaven having golden streets, for example, comes from this interpretation. But the text is not describing heaven. It is describing a city of great beauty that will descend from heaven in the new creation. It images the idea of that perfect indwelling of God with creation when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness at the end of the age. Our eternal home is not heaven, but this new transformed creation in which God fully dwells with us.

What I hope these examples suggest is how much our reading of the Bible is influenced by church tradition, and in some cases, cultural traditions outside the church. We simply cannot read and interpret a Bible nude of traditions, assumptions, and prejudices that we bring with us to our reading.

This is not to disparage the vital task of exegesis. As my examples try to do, we see how a close reading of the text can help us see how our traditions and assumptions are influencing what we are reading.

But exegesis can never be purely independent and objective. Every interpreter of the Bible has his or her blinds spots. This is why the Protestant assumption that every reader can interpret the Bible for himself or herself independently of anyone else has proved so destructive. It feeds the constant fragmentation of Protestant churches over conflicting readings of the Bible.

This places a huge premium on reading and interpreting the Bible within a climate of dialogue, among various theological traditions, social classes, races and ethnic backgrounds, and genders. What you see in the text may be something I am blind to, and vice versa. This never leads to any form of infallibility of interpretation, but it does help to sharpen our exegesis. Our eyes can be opened to see things we never saw before.

The examples I have offered in this posting have been relatively frivolous and unimportant. They will hardly damage anyone’s faith or religious practice. But tradition can also influence the way we read important Biblical texts that lie at the heart of critical doctrines or practices in our churches. In so doing, it can lead to distortions that do indeed cause great harm in the spiritual lives of ordinary people.

I want to tackle one such example in the traditions for interpreting John 3:1-16, a gospel passage that lies at the heart of much Christian evangelism. I will do so in my next blog posting. See you then.

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5 thoughts on “Can We Read the Bible Nude of Church Tradition?

    • Last Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, we attended both a Catholic service and a Methodist service. Not surprising, was that similar bible readings were used. However, it was intriguing that exegesis was indirectly referred to in both sermons. Both sermons pointed out that we only assume there were three wise men because there were three gifts. As an aside, it was also mentioned in each sermon that is it is not unusual to find that what we consider a bible “fact” is not a fact at all but an assumption. Perhaps the pastors were reading “thebibleisinmyblood” as preparation for their sermons?

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  1. Nice introduction to the concept, Gordon. I look forward to reading and hearing more on this and would be interested in seeing examples of how interpreters from vastly different traditions have translated or modified scripture to fit with their histories.

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