Are You Reading the Bible Wrong?

Guest blog by Daniel Attaway (Student at Dallas Theological Seminary)

“Bible, Bible, Bible. Everybody is reading the Bible.” This is how one of my seminary profs chose to begin one of his classes and it was slightly shocking because it was satirical. This statement is more or less true about Evangelicals because the Bible is our authority and the written revelation of God (no argument there). Have you ever encouraged someone to read their Bible? Have you ever told them that if they want to know God’s will for their life then they need to read the Bible? Have you ever even given the slightest thought as to what you were asking that person to do?

On a large scale we as Evangelicals claim that if Christians will interpret Scripture using a historical-grammatical method and good exegesis they will arrive at an orthodox interpretation. Is this true? No, and here is one reason why: interpretation never arises from a blank slate, which is what the historical-grammatical approach claims. This approach does not take into account that everyone comes to the text with presuppositions and a predisposition to interpret the text in a certain way. Currently, we find ourselves living in a post-enlightenment world, which states, “I am just concerned with the data.” So we look at the original language, the grammatical structure, and the cultural setting for our interpretation. This method is not all-together wrong or incorrect, but is it complete?

Here is how this scenario plays out… Suppose the head pastor of an evangelical church wants to do a sermon on David and Goliath. He spends the week leading up to Sunday studying the cultural background, geography, history of the Philistine/Israelite controversy, and the fight between David and Goliath. What will likely happen is after this information has been given, the pastor will say, “Here is how you slay the giants in your life,” and he goes off on that subject. Is that a poor application to make? Maybe not, but is the interpretation whole? Is that reading distinctively Christian? I submit that it is not because it is not informed by the Christ event, namely the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Stopping at the “facing your giants” interpretation seems to be what Dr. Christian Smith calls “Therapeutic-Moralistic Deism.” So what is the distinctively Christian reading? Tim Keller gave a good answer when he said, “Jesus is the true and better David whose victory becomes his people’s victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.”

So what is the alternative? A Christocentric, orthodox informed lens through which we read and interpret the Scriptures. The early church interpreted Scripture through the lens of what had been passed down to them, known as the “rule of faith.” A simple definition of the rule of faith is apostolic, orthodox teaching. Irenaeus was a mainstream defender of the Christian faith against heretical teaching and he wrote that the one standard of correct interpretation is the rule of faith, which has been preserved in the church in the apostolic succession. So what is the lens? What should inform our interpretation? Orthodoxy. What is distinctively Christian is our starting point and that informs our interpretation.

In conclusion, we should not seek to read Scripture as anyone other than a Christian. You should not want to read the Old Testament like a Jew. You are not Jewish! You are Christian. The call is that we no longer place ourselves at the center of the Scriptures and determine “what they have to say to me,” but to read the Scriptures through the lens of orthodoxy and what is distinctively Christian. Is the Bible about what we are to do, or about what God has done? I believe that we have taught our people to read the Bible. We have even taught them to read it correctly with a historical-grammatical approach. But have we taught them how to read it Christianly? Don’t get me wrong, the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation is beneficial, but I do not believe it is complete. My fear along with others is that we are encouraging people to go home and read their Bibles in isolation and we give them no lens through which to do so. Sadly, the average layperson does not view God as Trinitarian, nor do they read the Scriptures through a  Christocentric lens. This is raising up a multitude of people who view the Bible as their “roadmap to life,” and have little to no knowledge concerning historic Christian orthodoxy. This, among other things has lead many to predict an evangelical collapse. Do you agree or do you think orthodoxy as a starting point is ill conceived?

Posted on September 1, 2010, in Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, Historical Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Well Daniel you’ve absolutely nailed it, I couldn’t agree more, it’s as simple as that.

    Well done. Great piece.

    Superb!

    I would like to request permission to cross-post on my blog as this message needs to ring out loud and clear as widely as possible.

  2. Permission granted. Thanks Stuart.

  3. Daniel,

    Wow, awesome post! I love the way you point people to the Christocentric approach to Scripture. This is a very good word.

    Michael

  4. Hey Daniel, quick question. what does apostolic, orthodox teaching mean?

    • Good question John. In short, the creeds and confessions of the church that have been consistent throughout history, e.g. the Trinity, the humanity and deity of Christ. Consistency rules out heresies and even heresies that quite a following, such as Arianism. So in defining orthodoxy, I look to the Nicene Creed, Chalcedonian Creed, and even latter confessions such as the Westminster Confession.

  5. An interesting post, Daniel, thanks for sharing it.

    What are your thoughts about Keller’s “Christocentric” read of David and Goliath? How is that any different than the allegorical readings of the middle ages?

    • Hey Matt, I love what Keller is doing at Redeemer. I am on board with his Christocentric reading. I think some are hesitant because they feel like it’s eisegesis, which we have been taught is a big no no. In most cases it is. We should be careful about our presuppositions when we read Scripture. The fact that we have been raised in a democracy can really distort our view of God’s justice and wrath. That is why reading Scripture through the lens of historic orthodoxy is so important. We should seek to recognize what our presuppositions are and submit to orthodoxy to guide our interpretation.

      As far as reading this story as allegory, I don’t know much about the middle ages but take Origen for example, he essentially tried to allegorize everything. I don’t believe this is wise because while we should read David and Goliath Christianly, it is still historical. It actually happened and has meaning in its original context. I am simply trying to argue that interpretation should not cease at the historical reading because it is not Christian. The Christian reading is informed by the Christ event and orthodoxy.

  6. Daniel, good post. Thanks for sharing. One question I have, however, is whether are not you believe that one is unable to come to an orthodox reading of the text unless they are grounded in historical orthodoxy? Do you have to know church history in order to interpret properly?

    • If one is not grounded in historic orthodoxy they are in danger of misinterpreting the text. Every heretic in the history of Christianity read the same Bible that we read. Where they began to stray is when they no longer were in submission to the rest of the church and disregarded the rule of faith and the teachings of the apostles.

      Do you have to know church history in order to interpret properly? I believe so. A person reading Scripture void of tradition and community will likely not arrive at the conclusion that God is Triune. The reason why you and I see the Trinity in Scripture is because of our theological presupposition. However, I am not convinced that the majority of evangelicals see God as Triune. I believe this can lead to a Marcion view of God in the OT as being the grumpy God and in the NT being a grace fairy.

      Many evangelicals know just enough to get in trouble. Not that their interpretations are necessarily wrong, but incomplete and not distinctively Christian.

      • It was late when I made this comment (I know it says 9:05 but it was 11:05 my time) so I need to clarify my statement on the Trinity. Second paragraph, second and third sentence should read, “A person reading Scripture void of tradition and community is in danger of arriving at the conclusion that God is other than Triune. The reason why you and I see the Trinity in Scripture (specifically the OT) is because of our theological presupposition.”

  7. Daniel, thanks for a great post. I’m not going to add any questions right now, since it looks like there are some good ones the table already. But, I just wanted to say thanks for a very thoughtful reflection.

    • Thanks for letting me Dr. Cortez. Billy has told me a lot about you and Western Seminary sounds like a good place to be. Go easy on him even though he likes Twilight. I would not be where I am today were it not for him. Thanks again!

  8. Daniel, you said, “A person reading Scripture void of tradition and community will likely not arrive at the conclusion that God is Triune.”

    This sounds a lot like you’re saying that the doctrine of the Trinity is not actually found in Scripture, but that we only read the Bible trinitarianly because we’ve been trained to by tradition. So, if we approach the Bible without that grounding in Scripture, we’ll end up with a completely different (non-Trinitarian) view of God. Is that what you’re saying?

  9. I certainly did not intend to say that the Trinity is not found in Scripture. It absolutely is. However, having the theological presupposition of the Trinity gives us a framework by which we view God throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I will say that without this orthodox lens then you are in danger of arriving at a conclusion that does not view God as Triune.

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