26 April 2024

A challenging work, but one that risks another form of fundamentalism

A woman and two men were studying and reading the Bible. That is Christian love. Picture: iStock

Peter Adam

23 August 2023

Robyn J. Whitaker, Even the Devil Quotes Scripture: Reading the Bible on Its Own Terms, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 

Robyn Whitaker is associate professor of New Testament at the University of Divinity, Melbourne. In this book she tells us about the Bible, and how we read and interpret it. She also gives an account of how she moved from a fundamentalist and literalist understanding of the Bible to understanding it in the light of academic study, resulting in a more nuanced interpretation. As she writes in the Introduction: “We are meant to take the Bible seriously, not literally”. 

The book has many good features. It shows respect for the Bible, and works to uncover its coherence. It recognises that the Bible is not a tight system, but contains different perspectives in different places, and that we must finally understand the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament. And yes, when we read the Bible seriously and attentively, we are continually finding ourselves challenged in life, thought, and actions. We also need to recognise that the Bible does not conform to modern scientific or historical practices, or to contemporary literary styles. It is an ancient book. 

Read more: Bible translation turns a new leaf for 21st century

Whitaker follows the process of the re-interpretation which goes on throughout the Bible, most notably with Jesus’ significant interpretation of the Old Testament, which of course contradicted many assumptions of his contemporaries. 

However, this is where I differ from her ideas. She writes, “our goal is not to immediately apply Jesus’ interpretation to our own context in a literalistic way, but rather to interpret like he did, to mimic his approach rather than to treat his conclusions as prescriptions for every context” (page 122). 

As disciples of Christ, we must commit to his conclusions, lest our interpretations contradict his words! For he said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words … the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” in Mark 8:38, and “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” in Mark 13:31. If we take these words seriously, we will commit to his words, his teaching! 

In reality, there are more than the two options Whitaker gives. For we can “apply Jesus’ interpretation to our own context” in a non-literalistic way. Jesus said, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees” in Mark 8:15. We certainly need to think carefully about how to apply that instruction: but we must apply it and obey it. 

Read more: St Paul’s to host Bible translation symposium

The book sets aside the intended meaning of the authors of the books of the Bible, in favour of contemporary reinterpretation (page 129). But setting aside “authorial intent” when reading the gospels also means setting aside Jesus’ intent. When reading the gospels, as St Augustine wrote, “to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the Gospel”. This can lead to yet another form of fundamentalism, in which the spirit of our age rules supreme. 

Whitaker rightly features the theme of love in the Bible, our responsibility to love others. However it is dangerous to extract a single simple principle from the Bible. The principle then determines our reading of the Bible, ignores nuanced or contrary evidence, and determines the message we will find. The book’s title is unfortunate, as it seems to imply that other interpretations of the Bible are Satanic. 

I enjoyed reading this stirring and challenging book! 

Canon Dr Peter Adam is Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s Carlton, and former Principal of Ridley College. 

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