While on a recent vacation I stayed for several nights in a room at a hotel owned by a major hotel chain. In the drawer of the nightstand near the bed in that hotel room was a copy of the Bible that had been placed there by The Gideons International, an organization known throughout the world for its distribution of free Bibles to hotels, hospitals, servicemen, school students, and others. While there is undoubtedly much that is commendable about their mission to provide a copy of the Scriptures free of charge to all people, this practice should, on close and thoughtful observation, evoke some apprehension as well. As apparently praiseworthy as the idea may be, the practice of freely distributing Bibles reflects an approach to the Scriptures that is too simplistic and does not take into account the nature of either Scripture or of the human mind.
Scripture is notoriously difficult to interpret and even says as much of itself in the famous exchange between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch recorded in Acts 8. When Philip sees the eunuch reading the Bible, he asks him, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” (Acts 8:30, King James Version). The eunuch responds, “How can I, except some man should guide me?” (Acts 8:31). The clear message of these verses is that a new reader needs an experienced interpreter to guide him in order to open up the Scriptures to his understanding.
Another example of the early Church’s understanding of Scripture and its interpretation emerges in its yearly liturgical cycle. An intriguing pattern in the lectionaries used in various locations in the early Church is that the Gospel of John was read during the Paschal season, beginning with the opening verses being read at the service which began on the Saturday night preceding Easter.1 Interestingly, in the early Church, “baptism except in cases of emergency was normally [performed] at Easter.”2 The reason that these newly-baptized Christians would only now be exposed to the Gospel of John is evident when the words of the Church Fathers concerning the nature of that Gospel are taken into account. St. Clement of Alexandria, for example, wrote that after seeing that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had written about the “plain” facts of the life of Jesus in their gospels, St. John decided to write his own “spiritual Gospel.”3 Clement’s student Origen went even further and asserted that there are things in John which are not literally true at all, but that “the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in the material falsehood.”4 It is evident, then, that this Gospel was considered suitable only for those who had already been catechized and entered the Faith through baptism.
That so many of the Fathers, including Origen, saw fit to write extensive commentaries on the books of the Bible is also evidence of their recognition that these books are often difficult to interpret. Fathers like St. Augustine of Hippo and St. John Chrysostom wrote volumes of commentaries, often commenting verse-by-verse, on books of the Bible. Augustine even wrote his On Christian Teaching largely as a guide for biblical interpretation. In that work, he recommends especially “experience strengthened by the exercise of piety” as the key element in correct biblical interpretation.5
A look at modern handlings of biblical interpretation presents a similar picture. There is a popular legend that Bibles were chained to pulpits in medieval churches to prevent non-clergy from taking and reading them. Martin Luther, so the legend goes, fought to change this and to make the Bible available to all people. Although this legend is, ultimately, just a legend, there is something to be said for the work of Martin Luther and other early Protestant Reformers in popularizing the Scriptures and making them more accessible to the masses. Arguably, Luther and his ilk did almost as much to Christianize Europe as did the early medieval missionaries like Ss. Patrick of Ireland and Augustine of Canterbury.
They also, however, created a situation in which it was more difficult than ever to interpret the Bible. As Roger Lundin explains,
By taking the question of interpretation out of the framework of ecclesiastical authority and locating it in the transaction of the reader and the text, Protestantism increased the need for principles to guide interpretation. In the absence of institutional authority, there arose a clear need for rules [of interpretation].6
This is precisely the point at which we find the Bible placed by the Gideons. In a hotel room late at night, a bored guest opens the nightstand drawer, pulls out the Bible that has been placed there, and begins to read. All that is present is “the reader and the text.” Not only is there no “institutional authority” but there are also no “rules” for this uninformed reader. Imagine a reader, and there are a growing number of them even in our own midst, who is entirely unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Christianity and with the various approaches to biblical interpretation; could this reader possibly reach conclusions consonant with an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith?
While the Gideons have taken upon themselves a mission that seems appealing to a Christian at first sight, the consequences of their actions may be a cause for concern. These randomly placed or given Bibles are equally as likely, and perhaps more likely, to produce a new brand of heresy or unbelief as a result of reading by an untrained, unguided individual as they are to produce real, salvific faith. A reevaluation of the Gideons’ tactics in the light of these considerations is in order.
1 Bombaxo.com, http://www.bombaxo.com/lectionaries.html (accessed 8 October 2013).
2 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 785.
3 Euesbius Pamphilius, Church History, 6.14.7.
4 Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 10.4.
5 Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 3.24.
6 Roger Lundin, “Hermeneutics,” in Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken, Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 152-3.