Ethos Education

Rev: How do Christians attempt to understand and interpret the Bible?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of different Christian beliefs about the authority, inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.
  • Understanding of the concept of God revealing himself through scripture.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect upon different perspectives on the correct way to do something (for example, the correct way to play football).
  • Analyse a fictional vicar’s summary of his approach to the Bible, evaluating whether or not real-life Christians would be likely to agree or disagree with his views.
  • Evaluate three different approaches to the Bible, identifying strengths and weaknesses for each.
  • Analyse three excerpts from published Bible commentaries, identifying which approach each represents.
  • Synthesise a discussion between three Christians, each defending a different approach to reading the Bible and critiquing the approaches of the other participants in the discussion.

STARTER:

Ask the students to think of areas of life where people can have radically different perspectives on the right way to do things. One possible example, if your students need you to provide one, is football. Some managers (a good example would be Arsene Wenger of Arsenal) believe that football should be played as a creative, passing game with an emphasis on flair, technique and elegance. Other managers (a good example might be Tony Pulis of Stoke City) take a more pragmatic approach, happily putting the emphasis on physical robustness and willingness to battle over and above the more aesthetic considerations. Similar fault-lines could be drawn between managers who favour defensive solidity and counter-attacking (Jose Mourinho or Roy Hodgson) and those who are always likely to send out teams with a pronounced attacking intent (Sir Alex Ferguson or Andre Villas-Boas). It is worth noting that all of the preceding generalisations are open to debate. If any of the football fans in your class take issue with any of our assessments, make the point that the managers in question have all been frequently characterised in this way in the past.

Draw out that football fans (or whatever other area of life you explored) do not all agree on ‘the right way’ to play football. Perhaps the most they would agree on is that the aim of the game is to score more goals than the other team. Explain that in today’s lesson you are going to be thinking about some of the different Christian understandings of what the Bible is and ‘the right way’ to read it.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Introduce the clip from the first series of the television show Rev (BBC DVD, 2011, certificate 15). Click here to buy the DVD online. The clip comes from Rev: Series One, Episode 5.

Explain that Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) is the vicar of a Church of England Church in London. He is preparing for a wedding and has agreed to the bride’s request for the wedding to follow a different form of worship to Adam’s usual practice. She wants a high church service, with a Sung Eucharist and burning incense, a form of worship more commonly associated with Roman Catholic churches or Anglican churches who are more sympathetic to Catholic doctrine and liturgy (often called Anglo-Catholic). News of Adam’s plans prompts a visit from the Archdeacon (Simon McBurney). Ask the students to put aside the discussion about whether or not Adam is planning on defecting from the Church of England to the Roman Catholics and instead to focus on what he says about his understanding of the Bible.

  • Start time:       0.11.48 (in chapter 2 of the DVD)
  • End time:        0.13.37
  • Clip length:     1 minute and 49 seconds

The clip starts with Adam, exhausted, returning to the church after a jog. The first line is the Archdeacon saying, ‘Wotcha’. The last line is the Archdeacon saying, ‘…rather like the flaps of raw fish I’m about to enjoy.’ Please note that this clip includes one instance of swearing (the Archdeacon asks Adam if he’s about to ‘bugger off to Rome’) and one instance of a word (‘masticate’) which sounds very similar to a word that could be distracting to some students. If either of these are likely to be unsuitable for your class, it is better to stop the clip sharply at 0.13.15 as the Archdeacon interrupts Adam’s account of what he stands for. If you are trying to avoid the swearing, it comes up a few seconds after the Archdeacon says, ‘Yes, yes, thank you. I’ve been baptised, not lobotomised.’ The line about masticating comes towards the end of the longer version of the clip.

Ask the students how much they can remember about Adam’s description of the Bible. Here is the transcript:

‘I take a literary and critical view of scripture as divinely inspired but not inerrant. I see the Bible as a metaphor. It’s a brilliant record of humankind coming to understand itself; it’s a really good attempt at some very big questions, but it wasn’t divine dictation. It was written over many hundred of years by…’

Your students may need help in unpacking some of the terminology used:

  • ‘divinely inspired’: From God, not entirely human in its origin.
  •  ‘but not inerrant’: Not 100% reliable, may contain mistakes and elements of Bible teaching may become irrelevant or wrong over time.
  • ‘a brilliant record of humankind coming to understand itself’: implies a gradual process and development of understanding, rather than a revelation of an unchanging constant.
  • ‘it wasn’t divine dictation’: God didn’t simply put words into the mouths/quills of human writers, so not entirely divine in its origin.

Ask the students to what extent they think a real-life Christian would agree or disagree with this perspective on the Bible from the mouth of a fictional vicar. Ask them what elements of Adam’s summary a Christian would be most happy or unhappy about.

Remind the students of the starter activity in this lesson. If necessary, point out that there is no such thing as ‘the’ Christian perspective on the Bible. Different types of Christian hold different views on how the Bible should be correctly understood.

Give out the Approaches to the Bible worksheet and go through the summaries of three different approaches to understanding the Bible with the students. It is worth pointing out that these summaries are very broad. While most Christians would probably lean towards one or another of them, there may well be areas of overlap between the different approaches. Ask the students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Encourage good note-taking during this stage of the lesson, as the strengths and weaknesses will provide an important element in the assessment activity later in the lesson. Possible answers might include the following:

Literal approach

Strengths:

  • Presents a clear basis for engaging with the Bible as a moral framework for living.
  • Not dependent on subjective personal interpretation.
  • Provides strong sense of security for those who adhere to it.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Potentially fragile – if one demonstrable inconsistency is found, confidence in the Bible as a whole may be shattered.
  • The approach is often applied inconsistently, for example, Christians who don’t follow certain Old Testament rules and practices.
  • Some critics say that a literalist approach misses the original intention of the Bible writers in some cases.

Evangelical approach

Strengths:

  • Recognises that the Bible needs understanding and interpretation.
  • Allows people to engage intellectually with the Bible as well as emotionally.
  • New scientific discoveries can be incorporated into a biblical understanding, rather than being rejected out of hand.
  • Emphasis on the Bible’s authority as the inspired word of God puts the life of the Christian under the scrutiny of the Bible’s teaching.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Can lead to differences in belief and practice among different Christians.
  • There are differences of opinion about which biblical instructions are universal (applying to everyone at every time, and to be followed in the same way by all people) and which are cultural (a specific instruction for a particular set of circumstances, offering a principle to be applied differently in other cultural contexts).

Liberal approach

Strengths:

  • Provides great freedom of interpretation to individuals.
  • Errors or inconsistencies are not problematic, as the liberal theologian can simply dismiss them as human error on the part of the writer.
  • No conflict between faith and reason in the case of Bible stories with a supernatural element that some find hard to believe really happened.
  • Disagreement over interpretation is less likely to lead to division within the liberal church.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • The Bible has no authority, meaning it ceases to be an effective instrument of teaching and discipline within the Christian community.
  • Encourages people to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they want, cherry-picking the easier instructions and ignoring the more challenging demands.
  • Readers are under no sense of obligation to change any part of their life which goes against biblical instruction.
  • Prone to eisegesis (the reader imposes his or her own ideas onto the text, rather than seeking to determine the original intended meaning of the writer).
  • Hugely subjective approach to the Bible.

Ask the students which of the three approaches seems to be the closest to that espoused by Adam Smallbone (the liberal approach). What do the students think of the three approaches? Do they regard one as being better than the others? Is one worse than the others? Which do they think would be most helpful for Christians? Which most prone to misuse?

Give out the Commentaries worksheets and ask the students to read the short excerpts of Bible commentary. For each commentary, the students should identify which of the three approaches is reflected in it. For your reference, excerpt A is an example of a literal approach, excerpt B of a liberal approach and excerpt C represents an evangelical approach.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to write a discussion between three Christians, one representing each of the three broad approaches to the Bible. The discussion should see the three discussing one another’s handling of the Bible, addressing what each one would see as the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s approach.

YOU WILL NEED:

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