St. Bernard Manuscript IlluminationNot long ago I heard a sermon about “Scripture and Experience” that basically said that when we let our experience interpret Scripture we err. (Errrrrrrrr!) We can’t interpret Scripture based on our experience; instead, he said, we must interpret our experience using Scripture.

I still find myself somewhere in between completely disagreeing and agreeing in part, and only conditionally in what I do agree with. The Bible cannot be understood or even really read independently of our experience. The reason is because the various books of the Bible were all written in response to experiences of the writers and the communities that experienced them. The finished product took perhaps 1,000 years, several ancient Mediterranean languages, a number of genres, even more authors, and various excruciating and exhilerating experiences that the Biblical authors were moved to respond to. Elohim comes to us and speaks to us where we are (which is one reason why, today, so few claim to have heard God speak to them or to know him, ours being a generation that is increasingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time). The Gospels themselves are interpretations of the Hebrew Bible based on the life and experiences of Jesus of Nazareth and on the experiences of this Jesus that specific communities subsequently reinterpreted based on their own experiences. And so it continues.

So the Word only reaches us where we are. If we read a scripture that moves us, convicts us, stirs compunction in us, we need to look at what we are experiencing here and now in our world. Why did this word come to me now? Why not three years ago, or whatever? It’s because I am experientially at a place where I needed to hear this word. How we accept that word is an act of interpretation; a hermeneutics of experience.

I don’t think we can read and interpret the Bible without our experience. But I do think that when we respond to the word, in an act of interpretation, we can interpret our experience in light of Scripture. It is a constant dialectic, a conversation, and sometimes even a disputatio. The Bible doesn’t read itself. It never speaks to us in isolation. We have to engage it and grapple with it, just as we have to engage and grapple with Elohim himself, as Jacob found out and as the example of Israel demonstrates.

St. Bernard was on to something when he counseled that truly loving God meant reading and interpreting the book of our experience, our liber experientiae. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, then, “take and read; take and read!”