There’s a theory in the philosophy of science that at first seems unduly skeptical. It says that scientific discovery is determined less by the truth about the physical world than it is by what we are looking for. In other words, we define what we expect to see, and by doing so we also place limits both on what we will find and how we will describe what we find. Could it also be that we face the same issue when we look at the Bible?
36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”
Jesus had some very interesting exchanges with the people the gospel writer simply refers to as “the Jews.” The particular Jews in view, of course, are the spokesmen for the religious life of the Hebrew people, including a significant number of the teachers of the Law–the biblical scholars of the day. One might reasonably assume that they were good at what they did–dissect the received writings to uncover every detail and nuance of the text that might provide clues for what it is that God requires. Over time this endeavor turned into a way of maintaining a grip on the people whose spiritual lives rested in following the conclusions at which they arrived. The text became the data out of which their science of law discovery would operate. They “saw” what they were looking for. Their expectations of the text were met and satisfied. And as success in this endeavor continued, the guarding and revering of this text continued apace.
In my more skeptical moments, I wonder how different some of our Christian approaches to the Bible really are from those of these soon-to-be miffed “Jews.” Is it possible that we, like they, are prone to see only what we want to see when reading the inspired Word? The difficulty of standing back from previous interpretations, previous purposes for which to study yet again, previous conclusions is a decidedly difficult task. Conservative believers are especially vulnerable to the danger of thinking that it is the text that gives life, proving a kinship with the Jews and a similar susceptibility to rebuff for missing the point the Bible really makes: Jesus, the Christ. If we argue our interpretations more than we value Him, we’re guilty.
During Lent Christians are encouraged by the Great Tradition to reflect on the sufferings of Christ, and to examine their own lives in light of those sufferings being born for us and necessitated by our sinfulness. We then are called to repent, to turn away from the particular sins we have contributed to his agony. As we do so, our thoughts must always be less on the descriptions than on the person of that Suffering Servant. The Bible points to Him, or it has no value at all. And it is on him that we should focus our meditations, him that we hide in our hearts, to use the phrase from the Psalmist, that we might not sin against Him. The written word cannot save us any more than it could save “the Jews”; the Living Word, crucified, risen, and ascended can and will do so.