Category Archives: Hermeneutics
I think we all recognize now that who we are shapes how we read the Bible. A white, middle-class American evangelical (me) necessarily reads the text differently than a 15-year old Arab Christian living in Syria (not me). But what exactly does this mean? How does ethnic and cultural context affect our reading? How much should it? And how much hermeneutical diversity are we willing to accept along the way?
Those are some of the questions that Daniel Carroll explored in his paper, “Reading the Bible through Other Lenses: New Perspectives and Challenging Vistas.” And, as a Hispanic scholar, he specifically looked at the question what it looks like to read the Bible from a Hispanic diaspora perspective.
1. The Need for Multiethnic Readings of the Bible
Unsurprisingly Carroll began the paper with a brief argument of the necessity of multiethnic approaches. He pointed out that the church does not have a good track record for appreciating the value of diverse ethnic perspectives, tending instead to identify one approach as the normative one to which all others must conform.
But we live in a different world. At the very least, the rapidly changing demographics of the western world are pressing us to take ethnic perspectives more seriously. It’s one thing to view my reading of scripture as normative when everyone around me is just like me. But when I finally notice that the room is full of people very different from me, it’s harder to think that mine is the only appropriate way to do things. (Indeed, the room has always been full of people different from me, but in the past it was easier to ignore these “marginal” voices.)
And Carroll took the time to make a few comments about how this should affect ministry training. Although he doesn’t think that seminaries need to reshape the entire curriculum such that multi-ethnicity becomes the lens through which we see everything, he does think that seminaries in general need to do a far better job of training students to understand their own cultural biases and to appreciate other ethnic perspectives.
2. Methodological Suggestions for a HIspanic Diaspora Reading
In the second section, Carroll argued that a “diaspora hermeneutic” needs to read the text in ways that are “sensitive to the diaspora experience.” So a diaspora hermeneutic will look for “diaspora texts” in the Bible, those that appreciate the particular needs of dislocated peoples.
And he specifically identified five essential features of that experience and how they shape Hispanic diaspora hermeneutics:
- Marginality: Identify characters on the “margins” of the biblical texts.
- Poverty: Be aware of poverty/economic issues in the text and society.
- Mestizaje: Recognize the ethnically “mixed” nature of biblical characters and societies.
- Exile and alien: Understand how central these two themes are to the overall biblical narrative and particular stories.
- Solidarity: Focus on things like family and community and the shared life of the global church as the extended family of God.
He concluded this section with an appeal for “hermeneutical charity.” Diaspora readings like this will necessarily produce readings of scripture different form those commonly accepted by dominant cultural interpretations. And he specifically warns against two faulty responses to such new interpretations: exclusion and inclusion. The first is obviously problematic in that it rejects other perspectives entirely. But the latter is equally problematic (possibly even worse) in that it simply incorporates the “minority” interpretation into the already existing paradigm of the dominant culture. Rather than letting this new interpretation speak with its own voice, such an “inclusive” approach actually silences these other perspectives even while ostensibly giving them a place at the table. Neither approach is adequate. Instead, we must respond to new voices with “hospitality and engagement.”
3. Readings of the OT from the Hispanic Perspective
This final section would take far too long to summarize. Here Carroll offered specific examples of a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic at work, focusing on OT stories like Abram and Sarai, Joseph, Ruth, Nehemiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
Here are two of the more interesting thoughts he shared in this section:
- In the story of Abram and Sarai, he pointed out that Abram’s deceit was “the kind of ruse employed by the powerless.” It’s easy to criticize him from our comfortable and secure position, but Carroll argued, “If this is what you need to do to feed your family, then this is what you do. Hunger makes too much at stake for easy moral discourse, and women have the most at stake.” So he suggested that a diaspora Hispanic hermeneutic helps us see that the line between “truth and trickery” is more nuanced than we often appreciate.
- Similarly, he read the store of Ruth through the lens of immigration and cultural assimilation. He pointed out that many aspects of the Ruth narrative have to do with a person who comes from one culture to another and has to navigate the (often unfriendly) institutions and relational networks of the new culture. And he noted that the closing genealogy, far from being merely a device for connecting Ruth to the later story of David, serves as a way of demonstrating the diaspora readers that they are part of a larger narrative.
He offered similar examples from the other stories, each time showing how diaspora Hispanic interests draw insights and observations from the text that are often quite different from what we’re used to.
This was a fascinating paper. The first section was pretty standard fare for anyone accustomed to such appeals for multicultural readings. But I appreciated that Carroll took the time to lay out the specific hermeneutical methodology that would guide his particular approach. That is something that is not always articulated as clearly. And it raises the question of whether those of us from “dominant” cultures need to be equally clear about the cultural presuppositions driving our own exegesis – instead of simply assuming that ours is the standard and theirs is the “ethnic” perspective. And the concluding section where he actually put the methodology into practice was very helpful.
I was frustrated, though, that he said nothing about the giant in the room: How do we determine if a particular reading is or isn’t legitimate? Once we’ve acknowledged that different cultures read the text through different lenses and generate different interpretations, are we simply left with one big mass of difference? We are still reading the same text, so shouldn’t there be some way of navigating the difference? The German Christians of the mid-twentieth century also had a particular way of reading scripture. And I’m sure we’d all way to say “Nein!” to that cultural reading. But how do we do that without “exclusion” or “inclusion”? Unfortunately, Carroll’s paper didn’t touch on this question even briefly. (Of course, it was late on Friday night. So it’s entirely possible that I just missed it.)
I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.
Aren’t you dead?
Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.
Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.
The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mt. 27:52-53)
There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?
Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.
But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.
Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?
But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?
Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.
But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.
So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.
I like those optical illusions that are really two pictures in one. Some people see a saxophone player, others a woman’s face. But, the truth is that the picture contains both. It has semantic “depth,” containing multiple legitimate meanings at the same time.
Words function much the same way. Rarely does any particular term support only a single meaning. Instead, words are “polyvalent,” rich with multiple possible meanings, simply waiting for an author to select one of those many meanings in any particular act of communication.
But, that depth of meaning also contributes to significant ambiguity if it’s unclear which of these several meanings the author intends. And, at times, the difficulty of choosing between multiple possible meanings leaves the reader wondering if the author may actually be playing with more than one meaning at once. Is it possible, that rather than choosing between A, B, and C, I’m supposed to see all three in the same text? If so, how would I know?
These are the questions that James DeYoung addressed in the paper that he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Origen’s “Beautiful Captive Woman,” Polyvalence, and the Meaning of the “Righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17“. (Dr. DeYoung is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.)
The specific focus of the paper is the paper that Frank Thielman presented at last year’s national ETS conference. Thus, DeYoung begins his paper by summarizing Thielman’s two key arguments and the main lines of evidence used to support them. First, Thielman contended that “righteousness of God” in Romans is polyvalent, including at least three basic ideas: (1) the saving activity of God, (2) the gift of acquittal, and (3) an attribute of God. All three of these are in play throughout Romans, so we shouldn’t try to limit Paul’s meaning to any one of them. Second, Thielman argued that analysis of both biblical and extrabiblical information suggests that the specific attribute in view is God’s fairness and equity in how he distributes salvation.
What follows this summary is really a series of thoughts sparked by this way of understanding Paul. DeYoung is particularly concerned about the implications of finding such polyvalence in the text. Although he affirms that texts may have a surprising depth of meaning, and he’s cautious about identifying the meaning of the text directly with any particular interpretation of that meaning, he rejects the idea that an author (in normal discourse) intends more than one meaning at the same time. And, he suggests that such moves toward polyvalence are implicitly attempts to move away from authorial intent as a guiding hermeneutical objective.
DeYoung is also troubled by the emphasis that Thielman places on extrabiblical literature in the discussion. Although DeYoung recognizes the importance of such secondary literature, he thinks that the biblical context, particularly the OT background and worldview, of NT terms/phrases should have preeminence.
So when does the interpreter appeal to secular usage to interpret a biblical text? It should be done to confirm a biblical definition, or to explain a term that is a hapax legomenon (occurring only once in the literature), or when it adds meaning that the Bible would also support.
Several of DeYoung’s arguments relate to the fact that he remains ultimately unconvinced by Thielman’s argument for “equity” as the attribute under consideration. DeYoung thinks that Thielman mishandles some of the evidence and overemphasizes others.
So, to conclude, DeYoung offers his own understand of the phrase in question.
So what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17? It seems best to define it as follows. In the gospel, proclaiming the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is revealing his nature as upright. He is upright or just because the gospel is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes it. Or, because the gospel (proclaiming the atoning, substitutionary death of Christ and his resurrection) is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes (v. 17b), God reveals that he himself is just or upright regarding the need to punish sin by what he has done right in the work of Christ at the cross and in the resurrection. He vindicates himself as just by what he did at the cross and by how he can accept the guilty.
(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)
For the last couple of days we’ve been discussing Jacques Derrida and his significance for biblical interpretation and Christian theology. And, I wanted to make sure you were aware of a series of posts that Brian LePort has been doing on the same subject. Make sure you check them out:
- Is Deconstruction Merely Parasitic?
- Derrida “Defining” Deconstruction
- Interpreting Derrida: “There Is No Outside the Text”
And, he’s also posted a short review of James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmondernsim.
One of the papers I attended yesterday was Gregg Allison’s “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Promises and Pitfalls for Evangelical Appropriation.” In the paper, Allison did an excellent job with his three main goals:
- Define theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS).
- Identify some benefits of TIS.
- Explain some potential weaknesses of TIS for evangelicals.
Allison begins his discussion of TIS in the same place that most people do, by noting that there is no commonly agreed on definition of TIS. He begins by summarizing Vanhoozer’s description of what TIS is not:
- It is not the imposition of a theological system on the biblical texts.
- It is not the imposition of a general theory of interpretation onto the biblical texts.
- It is not a merely historical, literary, or sociological approach to the text.
Allison then goes on to offer his own definition of TIS:
“TIS is a family of interpretive approaches that privileges theological readings of the Bible in due recognition of the theological nature of scripture, its ultimate theological message, and/or the theological interest of its readers.”
TIS, then, is a broad label for a number of different approaches to Scripture that share a number of important family resemblances. Allison notes three key elements that are all thematized differently by TIS proponents.
- The Text of Scripture (textual TIS): From this perspective, a proper interpretation of scripture must be guided by a correct understanding of Scripture as informed by a doctrine of Scripture.
- The Message of Scripture (message TIS): On this view, a proper interpretation must be guided by the “theological locution of Scripture” – i.e. the core theological message of Scripture that drives and orients everything in the text.
- The Reading of Scripture (interest TIS): This element emphasizes the theological concerns that the interpreter and his/her interpretive community bring to the text.
These elements are not exclusive and many will incorporate several in their approach to TIS. The differences among various TIS proponents, then, stem from the different ways in which they unpack each of these aspects (e.g. different doctrines of Scripture, different ways of understand Scripture’s core theological message, etc.) and the different combinations in which these three can be found.
In addition to these three key elements, Allison identified a number of other key characteristics of TIS.
- It is often advocated as over-against or as an advance beyond historical approaches.
- It is often advocated as rescuing the Bible from the academny.
- It is commonly oriented to a rule of faith.
- It is commonly slanted to recovering the past by imitating certain elements of pre-critical interpretation (e.g., unity of Scripture, typology, analogy of faith, etc.), but without espousing a simple return to pre-critical interpretation.
Having explained what he thinks TIS is, Allison goes on to offer several benefits of TIS.
- It clearly presents Scripture as the Word of God.
- It makes explicit what we do unconsciously anyway (i.e. read the Bible theologically).
- It may help bridge the gap between interpretation and theology , especially in academic settings.
- It clearly emphasizes the explicit telos of Scripture (i.e. the ultimate purpose for reading Scripture).
Then, Allison concludes with what he sees as the key weaknesses of TIS, particularly for evangelicals.
- The lack of a clear definition. It’s a new movement, so lack of definitional clarity is not surprising. Nonetheless, Allison argues that we need greater consensus if the approach is going to move forward.
- The lack of concrete results by which to evaluate the approach. The best way to evaluate any interpretive method is to analyze its results. And, since the movement is relatively new, such concrete results are limited.
- The generic theological orientation to which TIS may lead. Here Allison expressed concern with limiting the “rule” that guides interpretation merely to the early creeds and councils. As evangelicals, we are heirs to the Reformation and our own evangelical distinctives, which should also inform our reading of Scripture.
- The theological perspective of most TIS proponents. Allison recognizes that a major stumbling block for many evangelicals is the fact that most of the current TIS proponents hold views of Scripture that most evangelicals find inadequate. He doesn’t think this is necessary to TIS, but is something to be acknowledged.
Reflecting back on the paper, there were just a couple of things that I found less satisfying.
- I wish Allison had interacted directly with some of the “concrete results” that do exist. The Brazos and Two Horizons commentary series have been around for quite a while. And, many of the major books published on TIS include some examples of TIS at work. Yet, Allison only referenced was Vanhoozer’s Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. And, unsurprisingly, he found the short articles in that work to be unsatisfying. But, of course, that would be like assessing historical-grammatical interpretation by reading one of Zondervan’s Bible dictionaries. It seemed clear that Allison’s understanding of TIS is more theoretical than practical. A direct engagement with concrete results might have led to a more interesting set of benefits and weaknesses.
- I think I’d disagree that evangelicals need to bring a more robust theological framework to the task of TIS. I completely agree with his point that we all bring our entire theological framework with us when we read the text; this is unavoidable and should be done with as much full awareness as possible. But, the idea behind a “ruled” reading of Scripture (i.e. the Rule of Faith), is that you are saying this is the rule by which Scripture must be read if it is to be read properly. While I hold to my theological convictions sincerely and deeply, I would not want to say that my entire theological framework is a “rule” in this sense.
By Brian Johnson
[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.
It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.
This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”
Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?
In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).
Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.
Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)
With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.
He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.
Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.
Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.
What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?
A guest post by Jerome Wernow.
I wonder if the literal-grammatical-cultural-historical hermeneutic used in current Evangelical exegesis is but a modernist construct arising from the fundamentalist-theological liberalism debates of the late 19th century like that of Baconian inductivism. It seems to have gained traction and solidified in the early 20 century by particularly as advocated by in the Princeton Theological Seminary debates. Here the philosophy wherein the method is structured is predicated upon a logical positivism similar to the early ’s ordinary language philosophy. It is taken up by Bernard Ramm and later by Carl Henry’s propositional revelation notions.’s common sense realism and
My notion has been better clarified by my good friend R.T. Michener where he suggests that “fundamentalism and theological modernism are simply different sides of the same radical modernist coin. Both embrace the paradigms of Enlightenment empiricism andtoo seriously. The way I see it ( Hauerwas affirms this and I agree) is that theological liberalism tries to keep the faith by cutting out all the things that don’t fit into the empirical and/or rational modes, whereas fundamentalism tries to defend them using the tools of empiricism and rationalism to the nth degree. Both end up embracing rationalism and empiricism as the first order bases or “metaphysic” as such, upon which to build a worldview. This is what led the fundamentalist strain in evangelicalism, according to Hauerwas, to make “Sola Scriptura” equal to “Sola Text.” After pondering his clarification, I find myself in accord with his musings.
Further, I suggest mining the philosophical constructs of those who wrote grammar and hermeneutical textbooks used in Evangelical seminaries using ‘the method,’ as well as, the content of the books themselves. My counter to those who appeal to antiquity to demonstrate a golden braid free from modernity’s web is this. Could it be that the principles of the ‘the method’ found in antiquity are mere voicings of a Greco-philosophical rationalists’ strand of modernity that is critiqued by Heidegger and more properly Westphal, voicings that ‘became’ the univocity of modernity?
Now, one should not take my concord with the voices of Heidegger, Westphal, and R.T. ( he does not demean) as ultimately demeaning the method. For me, it is “one way of saying being” amidst many ways (William Desmond-Philosophy and Its Others). The method is useful and ready-in-hand as a tool to unlock one of the bolts in order to enter the ‘Doors of the Sacred ’ (to mine Moriah in Tolkien speak). It is not the only voicing needed to open that door, however. Exegesis emerges from a dynamic plurivocity where the Triune God conducts the voices from the middle (the metaxu to use William Desmond speak). He as Conductor leads to conscious emergence of exegetical significance and meaning.
Picture the plurivocity of voices in the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:25-39). Whatever hermeneutic was involved in the Eunuch’s ordinary language understanding would be but univocal in had he sat in his chariot alone with his text-in-hand. Other voices that are ‘saying being’ co-participated in exegetical emergence when he sought dis-closure-of-truth-in-text. It included the current community narrative of Philip, the Eunuch’s emotional emergence of spiritual consciousness in community worship, the salvation history of church universal in process, spiritual illumination by the Holy Spirit’s voicing, the voice of the angel, and perhaps others as well i.e. Candace.
Well enough, I must return to my exegetical tasks of the day – constructing the sermon…take a look and uncover my hypocrisy http://www.gracepointfellowship.org/
[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]
I was happily finishing our week’s reading, relieved I was almost through, when I was taken aback by this quizzical statement:
A more recent philosophical development of theological interest, hermeneutics…
I stop the quote here not because there is not important information to follow but because this is where I dropped my book. Could it be!?! I asked myself, apparently aloud for my study partner raised his head. I gave him that snide look that says, That was not for you; get back into your reading, before continuing my reverie. Could it be!?! this time I asked in silence, has the purity of our biblical studies been tainted by this vile beast of philosophy at its very source. Subtle monster. Again, I must have spoken this last bit aloud for my study buddy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His eyes did not rise from his book.
I took a breath and continued. “…hermeneutics, actually has its source in a theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).” This statement on page 203 of Allen and Springsted’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology, Second Edition (creative citation) held my attention for some time as I sought several ways to dismiss it without serious thought. After feeling I had succeeded I continued on and finished the book certain I had escaped the shameful conclusion that our interpretations of Scripture are informed by, based on, or are in any way influenced by this insurrectional specter otherwise known as philosophy.
Alas, at night my thoughts held me captive and the name of a German theologian tormented my waking dreams: Schleiermacher.
Morning came. After discussing the origins of liberal theology with my wife over our morning tea, at her behest, (gosh, I need to learn to keep these inner thoughts to myself!) I waved goodbye, as she set off for work, and sat down to consider my day’s labor. How could I overcome my fears of this encroaching philosophy? Forgetfulness had failed; it must be faced head on. I decided to study the man himself.
Apart from his reputation bestowed by future generations as the Father of Modern Theology, Schleiermacher was a masterful translator, if not a mediocre philosopher. His translations of Plato’s works were highly influential for a century after his death and are still considered quite good.
Philosophically, Schleiermacher believed that there are deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people. He also believed that thought was bounded by (even identical to?) word usage. Taken together these two concepts declare that every individual has a vocabulary that, while heavily informed by their culture and time, is in fact unique to themselves – as unique as their own minds. This makes absolute (and sometimes basic) understanding between any two people challenging, and this challenge is only exacerbated by distance in time and culture. Consequently, the task of the interpreter is to get into the culture and ultimately into the mind of the writer, to learn the language the way it was used at that time and particularly the way it was used by that writer. Understanding is not a given, it is a challenge, and hermeneutics was developed to deal with that challenge. (For more about Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Schleiermacher: . Similar concepts are discussed from different vantage points concerning different individuals in Philosophy for Understanding Theology, p203 ff.)
After reading the principles of interpretation as described by Schleiermacher I was stunned… they seemed so similar to my own. And yet, his work was considered ground breaking for its time (even if he was only one of many at that time breaking ground). Could it be that my beloved historical-critical method was not lifted directly from the pages of Scripture but was actually birthed and laid at theology’s doorstep by that whore, philosophy? If so, it is already too late. I cannot disown her now; I love her too dearly. If I were to leave her on this account, who would take her place?
Whoa is me! What is the pure theologian to do?
[Correction: When this was first posted, I accidentally omitted the word “philosophical” from the opening quote. That has been corrected.]
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?