Although a knowledge of history, ancient languages, and the culture and society of ancient Israel and the Roman Empire are helpful for biblical interpretation, ordinary readers, without any of these scholarly tools, sometimes get to the heart of the meaning of biblical passages far more quickly and acutely than experts.
The academic expertise necessary to study the Bible professionally—knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, archaeology, textual criticism and rabbinic Judaism—takes years to accumulate and can lead to profound insights into the Bible and the biblical world. So what holds expert readers of the Bible from understanding the Bible?
Bernard Lonergan, S.J., said that what was necessary for both professional and everyday readers to truly understand the Bible was conversion, by which he meant intellectual, moral and religious conversion. Religious conversion for readers of the Bible is, however, essential, for it is “the transition from the horizon of this-worldly commitments to the primacy in one’s life of the love of God” (Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament, pg. 69). Unless an interpreter is “in tune” with the world of the text and in love with God, the tools of the expert do not always bear fruit.
Why does such an esoteric discussion matter? It matters because it is not truly an esoteric discussion. The Bible is not primarily a playground for professionals or experts but for disciples who want to guide their life according to its teachings, and it matters that every Christian reads the Bible “in tune” with God’s spirit.
Reading the Bible is the means by which we come to witness God’s activities among the Israelites and read of God’s Spirit working among them. We learn that Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” We learn, that is, that God’s spirit is not intended for a few members of the elite but for each woman, man and child.
We learn also of the false Gospel of current prosperity preachers from our encounter with James, who says: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.” It challenges us not because the interpretation of the passage is difficult but because so many of us are rich and want to find a way to soften the clear message directed at us. True interpreters ask not to change the Bible to our liking, but to be transformed by God’s spirit challenging our ways.
God does not desire the proper academic curriculum vitae, but saving behavior, since “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” We find in the Gospel that God wants us to care for the weak, to sustain the “little ones who believe in me,” to offer justice. God asks us to live our faith, to nurture the vulnerable, not just talk about the faith or interpret it.
And God promises, we learn in the Bible, that there are consequences for our behavior, a promise of judgment, where we will be called to give an account for our behavior, perhaps now or in the future, in a place called Gehenna, or as it is often translated into English, Hell.
For all of these reasons, biblical interpretation is too important to leave to the experts, though experts have much of value to say, because understanding the Bible concerns our eternity. Our ability to understand the truth of the Bible depends on our willingness to hear all of the Bible’s message, especially the passages that trouble and challenge us, because that is where conversion is often most necessary. Conversion turns us from being hearers of the Bible to doers, and from experts in interpretation to experts in hearing the voice of God in our daily lives.