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The Reception, uses and Interpretation of Scripture

 Uses of Scripture

Each faith tradition uses scripture in similar ways:

  1. Instruction and education
  2. Public worship and ritual
  3. Meditation and devotion
  4. An object of religious devotion: a clear example is the veneration of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sikh religion.
  5. In transactional and magical ways: to drive off evil, bibliomancy (use of a randomly selected passage for guidance).               


The Interpretation of Scripture

If scripture is to be used for instruction and education, it must be interpreted. There are a number of reasons that scripture must be interpreted:

  1.  Language and the meaning of words change over time. Interpreters must know the original meaning of a text.
  2. Culture and customs presupposed by sacred scriptures may be unfamiliar to modern men and women.
  3. Discrepancies and difficulties need to be explained.  Especially in scriptures that are compilations from many times and places (Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism)  sayings, laws and stories may seem to contradict each other.

Two examples will illustrate the complexity of interpreting scripture.

Buddhist Interpretation of Scripture

As noted throughout this chapter there are actually numerous canons of Buddhist scripture.  Moreover, each collection is a compilation of a diverse literary types. Consequently, Buddhists generally came to agree on an interpretive guide known as the Sutra on the Four Reliances.  This guide creates a hierarchical, ascending approach to interpretation of scripture.

  1. The dharma (teaching of the Buddha) is the primary rather than the man.  In other words, the person of the historical Buddha is secondary to his teachings.
  2. The meaning of the dharma is the refuge, not the letter. Put another way, the internal, spiritual meaning takes precedence over a literal reading of the text.
  3. Sutras (texts of the teaching of the Buddha) which are direct in meaning are primary, not those that are indirect.  Words that express the definitive meaning of the Buddha's dharma are the focus. Rely on those that capture the essence of the Buddha's teachings rather than those that only partially capture the spirit of the Buddha.
  4. Direct intuition or knowledge is the refuge, not discursive thought.  While logical, reasoned understanding is important, the real goal is the direct knowledge that comes with enlightenment. The scriptures themselves only point to the goal of direct, intuitive knowledge.  In some traditions, the scripture can be discarded by the person who has achieved this direct knowledge.


Christian Interpretation of Scripture

1. Through the middle ages  Fourfold Method of Biblical Interpretation was widely accepted.  According to this method each text has four layers of meaning:

  • Literal
  • Allegory - the hidden, symbolic meanin
  • Moral - the lesson or rule for daily living
  • Anagogical - disclosure of the future. 

2. During the Reformation, the ideal of sola scriptura (scripture alone) was advanced by Martin Luther. This approach largely rejected the fourfold method. According to Luther and the reformers one must approach the text with three guiding principles:

  • Priority must be given to the literal meaning of the text
  • The text may contain minor errors and contradictions, but the text  is like an envelope that merely contains the true meaning. God's  Word is found in the words of scripture.
  • The true meaning is revealed to the reader by the Spirit of God

3. Biblical Criticism:  Largely as a result of Luther's emphasis on the importance of scripture, scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to uncover the meaning of Biblical text through a variety of "criticisms" or analyses.  Texts would be analyzed by their form, the nature of the text itself, the source of the text, the process of editing and compilation, etc.

4. Reacting against Biblical criticism and science, fundamentalists held to a theory of  verbal inspiration and inerrancy.  In other words, the Bible is literally true and accurate and without error of any kind because the Spirit "dictated" each word to the original writers. In contrast to Luther who believed the scriptures contained the word of God, fundamentalists assert that the scripture are the word of God.

5.  Today a variety of interpretive approaches, including those listed above, are used by various groups within Christianity.  Livingston notes a growing recognition of how one's culture and presupposition influence how one reads scripture (reader-response criticism).