Does the Bible Tell Me So?

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Margaret Nutting Ralph
  • London: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , October
     2019.
     144 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781538129609.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Margaret Nutting Ralph’s delightful new book, Does the Bible Tell Me So?, begins with the obvious truth that Christians disagree over what the Bible teaches and this disagreement traces back to different interpretative strategies. Some Christians, those Ralph calls fundamentalists, tend to engage in proof texting and ignore context when interpreting a text. A better approach, according to Ralph, is a contextualist one: the meaning of the text must be understood in light of its literary context, the author’s historical and cultural context, and the text’s place in the history of divine revelation. The problem with fundamentalism is that, in disregarding context, it tends to misrepresent what the Bible teaches and often results in abusive, problematic readings. Responsible biblical interpretation, in Ralph’s view, focuses on whether the biblical author is addressing the same topic as the one interpreting the text. One of her central insights is that, when read in context, the text is freed from abusive and discriminatory interpretations.

Ralph’s contextualism begins with considerations of literary form, genre, and literary and rhetorical style and technique. The second context to consider is the author’s doxastic context, what they and their audience believe regarding topics unrelated to what is being taught (e.g., cosmological and historical beliefs, as well as beliefs about how to apply core spiritual truths in particular circumstances). The final context to consider is the text’s place in the history of revelation. Drawing on a rather robust understanding of progressive revelation, Ralph suggests that earlier texts may represent partial truths that must be interpreted in light of later revelation. To ignore one or more of these contexts distorts biblical teaching on a given topic and, in the process, abuses divine revelation for the sake of supporting what one already believes.

In chapters 2 and 3, Ralph illustrates the contextual method by considering how the Bible has been used to support oppressive social structures, like chattel slavery in the Antebellum American South and minimizing or denying women an active life in public and parish life, specifically the denial of women’s suffrage. In the first place, the early chapters of Genesis were mistakenly read as historical narratives aimed at establishing an oppressive social order, and not as symbolically written folk narratives aimed at teaching spiritual truths regarding the origin of suffering and the promise of God’s salvation.

In the second place, pro-slavery and anti-suffrage readings of the Pauline household ethic and the Corinthian correspondence ignore the author’s doxastic context. They do this by taking the admonitions for slaves to obey their masters and for women to be silent in the assembly and to obey her husband as divine teaching for the contemporary world. In truth, such admonitions are the non-inspired, culturally conditioned applications of a spiritual truth to a particular social situation in which oppressive social hierarchies, hierarchies that the Pauline author neither challenges nor endorses, are a given. Lastly, using the holiness code in Leviticus to support the ongoing legitimacy of slavery fails to consider the way in which Leviticus 19 represents, at best, a partial truth of who counts as “neighbor” that must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ teaching regarding loving one’s neighbor in the parable of the good Samaritan.

In the remaining chapters, Ralph uses contextualism to show what the Bible does and does not teach on a series of topics ranging from divorce and remarriage to ecclesiastical hierarchies. I found the discussion in chapter 5 of whether the creation narratives of Genesis are compatible with evolutionary science to be particularly delightful. Ralph’s discussion of genre (they are symbolically written folk narratives, not scientific texts) and the fundamentalist’s illicit use of the author’s prescientific cosmological beliefs to oppose contemporary science nicely illustrates contextualism at work. Other highlights include the insightful and compelling literary analysis of signs and discourse in John’s Gospel to show how the Johannine author imagines Jesus’ continuing earthly presence among his people as being mediated by the physical elements of the Eucharist (ch 8). Chapter 12 also nicely explains apocalyptic literature and the importance of reading New Testament apocalyptic discourse in light of both genre conventions and the progressive way in which eschatological truths are revealed.

Does the Bible Tell Me So? exhibits a great many strengths, but there are some minor shortcomings. While I have some reservations about the support offered for a few of Ralph’s interpretations, I’m going to focus on a potentially more serious methodological concern. Ralph critiques fundamentalists for using a text to answer a question that the original author is not posing or for relying on the author’s culturally conditioned background beliefs or application of spiritual truths in a given social context. To do this, she seems to employ two restrictions. First, what a given biblical author is teaching is restricted to spiritual truths. Second, scriptural authority is restricted to what the author intends to teach regarding spiritual truths, while denying such status to the authors’ background beliefs on other topics and to how they apply these truths in a given context.

Whereas this approach fits very well with some views of the Bible (e.g., those developed by Vatican II), fundamentalists are likely to disagree on both counts. First, they are likely to hold that inspired biblical teaching encompasses both spiritual and non-spiritual claims and the reader should be given more guidance as to why biblical teaching should not include an author’s historical or cosmological beliefs or how spiritual truths should be applied. Second, fundamentalists are far more likely to be informed by something like the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy than Vatican II and will almost certainly insist that inspiration and authority extend to the whole of the text, including the culturally conditioned ways in which spiritual truths are expressed or applied. Given these two foundational disagreements, I suspect that fundamentalists will find some of the interpretations offered in this book less than compelling. 

While some may demur at Ralph’s interpretative conclusions, those who approach the book as opening a conversation, rather than as offering decisive interpretative conclusions, will find twelve thoughtful and engaging chapters that unfailingly point the reader to the core scriptural truth that “Jesus Christ revealed that God is love.” With this book as their guide, readers—whether in local parishes or university classrooms—will be able to uncover a message of love and inclusion in even in the most difficult and contentious of topics.      

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin W. Sharpe is professor of religious studies and philosophy and director of religious studies at St. Cloud State University.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret Nutting Ralph, PhD, served the Catholic Dioceses of Covington and Lexington for thirty years. She was secretary of educational ministries for sixteen years and spent twenty-nine years as director of the MPS (Masters in Pastoral Studies) program for Catholics at Lexington Theological Seminary. Dr. Ralph is the author of eighteen books on scripture, including the best-seller, And God Said What? and the series, Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian, and Korean.

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