Musings on the Bible (1) The first of three questions

Richard asked a great question the other day that I wanted to come back to in a couple of posts.

“For me the question is raised then is why is God ok with allowing us an authority (the bible) that is in some parts ambiguous?”

A pressing question for thinking Christians is what to make of the ‘brute fact’ of radically divergent readings of the Bible by other Christians who share a belief in its divinely inspired origin.

Whether radically diverse readings are between Roman Catholics and evangelicals (on transubstantiation, Papal authority, saints, Mary for example) or between various expressions within evangelicalism (on women in ministry, theistic evolution, baptism, pacifism, church government, the nature and duration of hell, the nature of divine predestination  and so on) does not matter to the point I am trying to make.

The point is that serious, scholarly, devoted, mature, worshipping believers come to all sorts of different conclusions over both what the Bible text is actually saying (exegesis) and then what it means today (hermeneutics).

This is what Christian Smith, in his 2012 book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. has called ‘pervasive interpretative pluralism”.

The literature on biblical interpretation is of course vast. One recent book being blogged through by RJS over at Jesus Creed is The Bible and the Believer: how to read the Bible Critically and Religiously.  I mention it just to note that, as the discussion over there shows, there are few more sensitive areas for evangelicals than the truth and authority of Scripture.

All sorts of issues can become test cases for determining someone’s orthodoxy (or lack of it).  Could  be belief in theistic evolution, or that women should teach and lead, or that particular events in the Bible (like the Flood or the parting of the Red Sea for example) are ‘theological story’ rather than ‘pure history’, or an annilhilationist view of hell or a belief that the Bible does not teach penal substitutionary atonement etc.

This post and a couple to follow are NOT about those sorts of details. And just to clarify, by mentioning them I am not uncritically endorsing or rejecting either of the two books or any of the theological positions listed! They are simply illustrations. These posts are simply some musings on the following three questions:

(1) What are the factors behind interpretative diversity?

(2) How should Christians respond to, and what can they learn from, the ‘brute fact’ of interpretative diversity?

(3) And (arriving back at Richard’s original question), assuming God is real and the Bible is his inspired Word, what does the reality of interpretative diversity say about God himself ?  How and why he has chosen to communicate through a complex series of texts written over hundreds of years by multiple authors in numerous genres? Unless you are convinced that you have a corner on truth and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong (good description of Ian Paisley in his pomp btw), why does God appear to leave room for ambiguity and difference in understanding among his people?

So without further ado, here are some suggested reasons forthe first question.

(1) Factors behind interpretative diversity.

Please feel welcome to add more – will be interesting to see what total we can arrive at. And these are not in any sort of order:

i. Cultural bias.

How we interpret is profoundly shaped by what seems ‘right’ to us. But that feeling of what is right or natural can be culturally conditioned. Just have some conversations with Christians from different cultures or read a bit of church history to see the truth of this. If you accept that evangelicalism has been deeply impacted by Western Enlightenment rationalism, then this explains the marginalisation of the obvious and central place of the life in the Spirit within the NT texts within much evangelical theology prior to the rise of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements.

ii. Personality.

I wonder about this – are some views more attractive to personality types? Are some Christians more able to embrace a level of ambiguity and mystery while others insist on a black and while approach? What about those who tend to be authoritarian versus those who are team players?

iii. Theological framework

This will likely have a profound effect on how we read and understand Scripture. Every reader comes to the text with his or her own theological grid, whether consciously acknowledged or not. Some theological grids are pretty rigid and are artificially imposed on the text, take dispensationalism for example. How Christians continue to hold to it baffles me – but then I don’t have a theological grid of course ;). Some have a covenantal framework, N T Wright has five act play, others see a redemptive narrative.

iv. Gender.

How might this impact interpretation?

v. Experience.

If you have experienced or witnessed healing (for example) this will likely shape your reading of how Christians today should pray for and expect God to heal.

vi. Growth in theological understanding.

I haven’t met anyone that has not developed and changed their understanding of what the Bible teaches in certain areas as they have grown in theological understanding. The Bible is a complex book with multiple strands which takes a lifetime to begin to unpack. Not to develop and change one’s view of what it teaches in certain areas is almost certainly a sign of rigid immaturity or an defensive unwillingness to engage with questions .

vi. The nature of the text itself

What is the text about? What was the author’s intention? Exegetical study believes that ‘there is a meaning in the text’. While humility is needed and while some texts are more difficult to interpret than others, the text does have meaning and relevant application. But frequently there is ambiguity, possibility and debate over not only the precise meaning but over its contemporary application. In other words, perhaps the text itself is not determinative.

vii. The relationship between reason and Scripture.

What is a proper relationship between the two? Elevating reason above Scripture can lead to classic liberalism where miracle and mystery and the supernatural are excised from the text. Reading Scripture against reason can lead to obscurantist fundamentalism and a wooden literalism that ironically misses the whole purpose of the text.

viii. Error.

Quite simply, some Christians develop interpretations that are at odds with what the Bible is actually saying (those premillennial dispensationalists again; not me or people I agree with of course). The reason they do this could be pride, prior assumptions, spiritual blindness and so on.

ix. The hermeneutical jump

Even when a text is understood, how it applies is a whole other story. Just take two preachers preaching on the same text who largely agree on what it is about. Their sermons and applications are almost certainly going to be very different. There is huge scope for application. Making the jump from the world of the 1st Century to the world of the 21st is not an obvious or easy thing to do.

Can’t think of a 10th. Any more come to mind or comments on the ones listed?

2 thoughts on “Musings on the Bible (1) The first of three questions

  1. On personality – I’ve found that being a ‘big picture’ person or a ‘details’ person strongly influences people’s interpretations, or at least what they emphasise in a passage/book (the nitty gritty or overall thrust of the Bible).

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