Musings on the Bible (3)

In a couple of previous musings on the Bible I’ve been a bit all over the shop. Here’s a more worked out version of what I’m trying to say:

1) Interpretative diversity of the Bible is a brute fact

And it remains one for Christians who believe in the inspiration, authority and truth of the Bible.

2) You can’t simply explain away interpretative diversity (on disputed issues) it by saying there is ‘one’ reading in there but ‘the problem is us’

This seems to assumes that, if in some ideal situation we had all the right facts and research, the definitive ‘plain reading’ of the text(s) pops out.  While this may well apply in plenty of instances, there are simply far too many issues of difference within a broad evangelicalism, let alone outside it, to reduce interpretative diversity to a simple cause.

3) Interpretative diversity is not about the precise interpretation of a few texts here and there but about a multitude of factors which shape the way we approach Scripture.

However, having said (2) above, the primary ‘variable’ behind interpretative diversity is ‘us’. And by ‘us’, I want to include things like personality; culture; when in history we happen to live; age; gender; experience; prior theological assumptions; language; church tradition to which we belong; education; where in the world we live; socio-economic status; and so on. And we are naive if we assume ‘our’ way is normal. There is no normal. Or, to put it another way, whose normal are we talking about?

One example here is a fascinating book I blogged through a while back, Philip Jenkins’, New Faces of Christianity: Reading the Bible in the Global South. Jenkins’ descriptions of how Christians in Africa (for example) read texts relating to famine, warfare, poverty and prayer compared to believers in the West are a compelling reminder of both the reality of, and factors behind, interpretative diversity. The Bible ‘comes alive’ to African Christians in ways that are not seen or felt by Westerners. The same texts are being read in dramatically different ways.

4) This is not to disbelieve the truth, inspiration or authority of Scripture. It is to say that the Bible itself is a source of interpretative diversity.

Christian Smith (and he’s hardly the first to say such things) has unpacked the reality of ‘pervasive interpretative pluralism’ at length. He talks about the failure of what he calls ‘biblicism’ – where some evangelicals claim that the Bible is definitively clear on all sorts levels and on all sorts of issues. If true, then pervasive interpretative pluralism ought not occur, but it manifestly does. Therefore, such ‘biblicist’ claims are rather optimistic to say the least. Or to put it in Smith’s terms, ‘impossible’. They may well reflect a modernist over-confidence in our methodology, properly applied, delivering the right results.

I’m not blogging about Smith’s arguments per se – many have done that over a year ago in lots of detail. He casts the ‘biblicist’ net pretty wide at times to include, it seems to me, practically all Protestants, let alone evangelicals. Interpretative pluralism is an issue far beyond evangelicalism; it’s as old as church history. But he does have a point when he says

“on important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. This is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality.’ (25)

In other words, the Bible itself is itself another contributing factor to interpretative diversity. Smith talks about it being ‘multivocal’ – it can and does speak to different audiences in different ways. It is therefore ‘polysemic’ (multiple meanings) – just listen to bunch of preachers on the same text.

This is not to retreat into some sort of postmodern morass of relativity where the meaning of any text is determined by the reader. It is to point out a fact of life. The Bible is deeper and richer and more powerful than any individual or group can tie down.

5) The Bible is a big complex book and we need a large dose of humility as we develop theologies from it.

Christians desperately need to listen and learn from each other and from the Spirit as they read and interpret Scripture. In other words, we need lots of humility.

This was one of John Stott’s final pleas to fellow evangelicals. The gospel itself should lead Christians to humility since it is gracious gift of God. And evangelical fragmentation should lead evangelicals to humility since a lot of it represents a failure to be Christlike. This grieved Stott deeply.

Humility in regard to the Bible is not the same as uncertainty and lack of conviction. It is a self-awareness of the provisionality of our own interpretations and a conscious determination to listen, learn, develop and grow in understanding as we engage with others.

One example here of this sort of evangelical ‘over-egging the pudding’ and claiming too much.  I was reading one evangelical organisation’s Statement of Faith recently. It has all sorts of absolute positions articulated within it – on gifts of the Spirit, theology of baptism, church government, eschatology, election, leadership, evolution etc. On an organisational level, it is perfectly fair and transparent for a group to articulate what it believes and to require that its ‘mission critical’ employees affirm it. But real difficulty comes when such organisational positions are not distinguished in any way from beliefs that are essential for evangelical Christian faith per se and find their way into a document that becomes the basis for working with other Christians. The secondary organisational distinctive then too easily become a ‘test of orthodoxy’. This blurring of boundaries leads to all sort of division and unhelpful judgements over who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. But more than this, it reflects a lack of critical self-awareness that ‘our’ positions on these disputed issues need to be held more loosely and more humbly than core essentials.

6) Scripture is best read as a narrative with Jesus at the centre

Smith is highly critical of an unrealistic ‘biblicism’ that fails to acknowledge the rather awkward reality that it does not lead to agreement and consensus on what the Bible teaches.

As an alternative, he proposes reading the Bible through a Christocentric lens (a la the great Swiss pipe-smoker Karl). He’s happy to admit that his proposals are just that – proposals. But’s he’s bullish that they are a more realistic and more authentically evangelical (evangel = gospel of Jesus Christ) way to read the Bible since they put Christ at the centre of the story.

I have huge sympathy with this approach because it how I see the authors of the NT doing things. I believe that it is best to read Scripture as an unfolding narrative which leads to Jesus the Jewish Christ who is risen Lord and saviour. Each part of the Bible needs to be read in light of that narrative.

Here’s a little diagram of mine that I use in class (I like diagrams) that tries to capture the Christocentric nature of Scripture.

Christ Bible Theology

The NT is quite simply all about Jesus. He is on every page. And the entire NT is being written as a theological reflection on the OT in light of the coming of the Messiah, his life, the kingdom announced, the death, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and ongoing reign of the risen Lord who will one day return and establish the new heavens and new earth. Theology itself can then be seen as ongoing reflection on Christ in light of all of Scripture, the gift of the Spirit, and done in the unfolding and ever-changing cultural context of Christians throughout history.

After two millennia, that’s a lot of history and culture and theological reflection. There is huge richness there, but also huge diversity and complexity. To best make sense of all of Scripture, it needs to be read through the narrative of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is around the gospel of Jesus Christ that unity is found – not in policing the borders of ‘my’ interpretation of a controversial issue. It is also in the gospel of Jesus that the true focus of Scripture is found – not in defining ourselves as ‘in’ or ‘out’ on whether we believe in a particular form of eschatology, or baptism, or theology of Spiritual gifts, or whether women should teach and lead, or whatever.

I think, by the way, that Smith overstates things at times in terms of an inherent evangelical disunity and fragmentation. He cites Packer and Oden’s One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus, written to solidify a sense of shared evangelical beliefs as only being able to make their case by ignoring the ‘many areas of evangelical dissensus’ (37).  He argues that ‘American evangelicalism … lacks a positive, shared, biblically grounded belief system and identity.’ (37). And he is not limiting this criticism to America but evangelicalism per se.

Sure, at its worst, evangelicalism is hopelessly divided, but that is precisely where and when it loses focus on its positive, shared, grounded belief system and identity.  At its best, that identity and belief system is focused on what Packer and Oden (and countless other evangelicals) have sought to maintain – on the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. It is, in other words, a deeply Christocentric focus. It was Stott who summarized evangelical belief and identity in terms of being ‘Bible people and Gospel people.’

My day to day experience where I work is of this positive shared belief system and identity being worked out in a vibrant atmosphere of joint learning, worship and community – yet with students and staff having many different perspectives on all sorts of issues.

7) Whatever way we read Scripture, I don’t think we are ever going to escape from or resolve (this side of New Creation) the issue of interpretative diversity. But facing up to it is a good thing to do.

But, as Robert Gundry pointed out in his critique of Smith, reading with a Christocentric lens still leaves you with all sorts of decisions, assumptions, biases and theological turns informed by a different sort of theological grid. However deeply Christian Barth was, there are plenty of loose ends and debatable interpretations within his vast work. In other words, no approach is going to eliminate ‘pervasive interpretative pluralism’.

Sure you can try a Magisterium instead (as presumably Smith now ascribes to since he converted to Catholicism). But I’m too much of an evangelical Protestant to be much persuaded that it solves much – especially when it sets it self up as an extra-biblical authority and teaches stuff that would make the biblical authors scratch their heads in bemusement.

Being honest about interpretative diversity is an important and good thing to do. It should shake us out of comfort zones and any complacency that we have things figured out, or worse, that we are in control of the text. It also should lead us to gracious engagement with others where we can learn together what the Spirit is saying through the Word.

In other words, interpretative diversity is not all a bad thing. It should force us towards humility, listening, learning, and talking all the while focusing on Christ at the centre. Who knows – to come back to Richard’s original question about God, the Bible and ambiguity – maybe this God’s purpose for his people as they wrestle with and try to understand his Word?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

9 thoughts on “Musings on the Bible (3)

  1. Hi Patrick I recommend you the book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership, God, Science and the search for meaning. Though not in total agreement in certain areas, Sacks explains beautifully the Bible as a book from another culture, and how we failed as westerns to understand it. His explanation on the difference between the languages and the way we process things in in our minds and how we learn is very helpful, especially for those trying to read the Bible without being aware if its Jewishness. By the way, the book is in the Library.

  2. I enjoyed reading this very much. I think a Christocentric (as long as you believe in the Trinity) interpretation is the best way to look at the entire narrative. It is the most comprehensive way to look at the Scriptures. One thing I would like to ask, though, is what came first–the Christian Church or the Bible? I only say that because you must have more trust for the Catholic Church than you might realize since they are the ones who decided to compile it, discerned the differences in the many gospels that were floating around in that time (300’s was it?), and kept creating copies for Christians to proclaim at all of the Masses.I think the wonderful St. Augustine only had fragments of the Christian library we call the Bible, at least at the time of his conversion. Thank you again for this post. God bless….

    • Thanks for your comment about the positive legacy of the early church. I agree. My remark about the Magisterium was more about later post-biblical teaching that was added over the centuries. So, while there may be much more centralised authority than some ‘free-for-all’ Protestantism, having centralised authority does not necessarily solve the problem of interpretative diversity.

      • That is an interesting issue, I agree. We were just talking about this in church today because we are celebrating the gift of Christian unity through our common baptism and are praying over the next week for an even closer connection; how far Christians have come in the past few decades as far as dialoguing with each other instead of fighting with each other because the Holy Spirit has reminded us about the call to love! Thank you for the wonderful discussion. I always find your posts very enlightening. God bless…

  3. The problem i have here Patrick is that i don’t see a way out of the slip into the “post modern morass of relativity” .. The catholic argument as i understand it is that the existence of the problems you have outlined necessitates that God must have provided a way out. Hence the magisterium. Many evangelicals of intellectual weight have in the recent past being convinced by this argument and have converted- I don’t blame them. I haven’t converted nor will I but where does one go when epistemology is shot to hell?!!!

    I’ve been told in other venues that Barth is the answer and that he provides a way for ontology to trump epistemology in a concrete and viable way but…I’m unsure and unconvinced.

    By way of example you say that the bible has Jesus on every page and that evangelicals can share an Identity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Right. But the second you try and delineate that one must ask on what basis have just said what you have said, how do you know that what you have said about Jesus or the Gospel is actually true? Furthermore in as much as there is a plurality of interpretations within Christianity there is also a plurality outside it. What right do you have to say to an Arian or Unitarian that they are wrong about their understanding of Jesus? What right do you have to any conviction at all about matters of faith!!

    My faith is sure. I hold sensus divinitas as binding; too many things have been proven by my faith in action (not to mention certain miraculous things which I’ve witnessed) that I can’t go back to atheism but this discussion has almost totally undermined my confidence in any doctrinal statement. Ironically (for protestants) when i see this stuff hit the man in the pew it results in one or two things- a lowest common denominator doctrinal Christianity that is only confident that Jesus is God and we should be good- or a Christianity that says Jesus existed and we should be good.
    All this from the man in seminary..i must be having a bad day. 😉

  4. Wondering if you would weigh in Richard! glad you did. I’m under pressure preparing something today so a quick reply.

    What basis Christian faith? Has to be this from 1 Cor 15:

    “15 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

    3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

    First importance – this is the core of things
    Christ – the Messiah who fulfils the whole story of Israel
    Died for our sins – atoning death in our place for our sins
    According to Scriptures (twice) – this is what the Scriptures are all about
    Buried – historical reality
    Resurrection – without which no Christian would have any basis for any faith
    – Witnessed – a living risen Lord in whom we have hope

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