If you have ever been involved in any kind of disagreement about how the Christian faith should be understood or expressed in the world, at some point you have probably come up against (or given) the response, “but it is in the Bible”. This is an easy response but rarely a particularly helpful one. The fact that something is in the Bible does not necessarily tell us whether that thing is right or wrong, and if we explore further, often even the binary of right or wrong is unhelpful as we see various examples in the Bible of things that seem to be right in certain situations, but wrong in others. If the Bible is to be a foundational text that we can draw from for our daily practices of faith, perhaps we first need to get a better grasp of what it is, and then begin to ask some deeper questions of it. We need to be asking questions that draw us into conversation with, and revelation of, not only God as God existed in the Biblical context, but also God in existence in the here and now, that engages with us in our particular space and time.
The Bible is a complex text. Throughout history, it has been used for various purposes, to push various agendas. Many of these agendas have been hugely oppressive. An example of this, with which we in South Africa are all too familiar, is that of the Apartheid system. The Bible was explicitly used to prop up this regime – and if we were honest I think we would admit that we have not yet completed the theological work of fully dismantling the foundations upon which this oppressive regime was built.
So if the Bible is not a neutral text and is interpreted differently depending on the interpreters and the context of interpretation, how do we go about engaging with it in ways that are faithful to this God that we seek to follow? The Kairos Document, a theological statement written collaboratively by mainly black South African theologians in 1985 commenting on South Africa’s political situation, provides a helpful framework in this regard. The document distinguishes between ‘State Theology’, ‘Church Theology’ and ‘Prophetic Theology’. According to the Kairos Document, State Theology warps scripture in order to uphold the oppressive status quo, Church Theology promotes scriptural concepts (such as reconciliation) but is devoid of social or political analysis, thus also acting to uphold the status quo, while Prophetic Theology roots itself in a deep social analysis of the present context and the biblical context and out of this, provides a strong call to repentance, conversion and change.
In distinguishing between these three ways of engaging with theology, the Kairos Document recognises that the Bible is a site of struggle, simultaneously containing discourses of liberation and oppression, and must be understood as such and wrestled with, in order to provide insight for us as Jesus followers to live more faithfully to our calling in the world.
Thus, if we wish to promote a Prophetic Theology, we have to recognise the importance of context in our interpretation of the Bible, as well as invite interpretation from a far broader and more diverse set of voices, which will give us more expansive biblical interpretation.
In addition, we must recognise that our own reading and interpretation of the Bible is not neutral. We read it with the lenses of the social positions that we find ourselves in. Walter Brueggeman expands on this, arguing that we read the Bible on three levels: through our vested interests, through our fears, and through our hurts. When we engage in biblical interpretation in conversation with each other as well as our contexts, we create space for critical dialogue where these lenses that we are bringing to our interpretation can be acknowledged, grappled with, and if necessary, dismantled, leading to a richer and fuller understanding for everyone.
I believe (and have seen) that the Bible is a rich and sacred text which can bring insight, revelation and liberation, and through which God can powerfully reveal Godself. However, it can also be a text which can be used to control, manipulate and push all kinds of agendas. Therefore, we must work to engage it with faithfulness and humility, and do the work of asking the deep questions – of the text, of both the biblical and contemporary contexts, and of ourselves, recognising that neither we, nor any other individual, carries the full revelation of God.