Interpreting the Bible: a commonsense approach
Last July, along with thousands of others, I attended the Fifty-sixth General Conference session in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was a great gathering of all kinds of expectant people. Few leave such meetings, however, with out significant pondering, replaying in their minds the satisfactions and dissatisfactions that are the natural residue of being together from literally every part of the planet.
Along with many others, my afterglow ponderings centered on the session's discussion of women's ordination. But I want to clarify here and now that my main concern in this editorial is not the question of women's ordination, but a crucial underlying issue that was dramatized in the ordination discussion at Utrecht.
Toward the beginning of the debate two respected scholars presented opposing biblical viewpoints regarding the permissibility of ordaining women to full-time ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In making their presentations, Raoul Dederen and Gerard Damsteegt unintentionally exposed this issue. Let me clarify.
These two men have a lot in common. Both have served or are serving the church as professors at the Theological Seminary at Andrews University. They are both longtime Seventh-day Adventist Christians. Each has been exposed to similar biblical perspectives and schools of textual interpretation. Both men come from neighboring European cultures and have each spent years under almost identical theological and cultural influences in the United States. Above all, they have the most crucial element in common: they both read the same Bible. Yet when asked to articulate their views on whether or not the Bible allows for the ordination of women to full-time ministry, it became clear that their views have little in common.
I am not, of course, taking issue with these men. If anything, at Utrecht they simply portrayed the demography of the church when it comes to our various ways of approaching Scripture, and our resulting facility for coming up with quite widely differing interpretations of the Bible.
The heart of our challenge
Last July we saw strikingly how the twentieth-century church is confronted with issues increasingly different from those faced during the centuries that cover the biblical time frame. We saw how for this reason our generation finds itself inescapably constrained to interpret and apply Scripture more skillfully and responsibly than ever before. The necessity of having to do this inevitably affects all Christians, regardless of their theological leanings. In this milieu it is not surprising that we tend to disagree among ourselves as to what is valid and what is not in our hermeneutical approach to the Bible, and thus to disagree over what the Bible is saying to us on important issues. All this often leads us to distrust and label one another, to divide and feel alienated.
The concern could be summarized this way: What is the best way of taking the biblical data and laying it upon the contemporary scene so that it becomes clear to us what course should be taken when dealing with particular aspects of truth or situation? And just as important, how may we do this while still maintaining the integrity and normative authority of the Bible?
Because the articles on hermeneutics in this issue of Ministry look at some of the more technical aspects of biblical interpretation, I am purposely taking a more "commonsense" approach. This is done not because I believe that a commonsense approach, without the benefit of careful scholarship, is the interpretive path to follow. Instead, I do it because I feel that the commonsense perspective is one that easily gets lost in the casuistic intricacies of trained scholarship, and needs to be resurrected.
Two divergent hermeneutical approaches
I want to look at just two of a number of hermeneutical approaches that are presently practiced within Adventist and other communities. The first school of thought tends to focus upon the specific biblical statements and scriptural cases that seem to relate to a given contemporary issue or question. These biblical cases or statements are then placed together and applied in such a way as to throw light on a given issue faced by today's church.
Proponents of the second hermeneutic tend to process the biblical data in such a way as to expose the general principles they find inherent in Scripture. They do this by looking at the Bible as a whole, concentrating upon its central events, trends, and issues. They also search out the historical and cultural dynamics that may have influenced the inspired Bible writer. Combining these findings, they attempt to apply them to any contemporary concern in question.
Those who follow the first hermeneutic tend to view the others as ignoring clear biblical data and rationalizing or compromising undeniable scriptural evidence and authority. Those who follow the second hermeneutic tend to see their counterparts as ignoring the central thrust of the combined biblical evidence while they adhere to positions the Bible never intended to be so dogmatically applied.
A suggested approach
As we interpret Scripture we must try to be eclectic, adopting what is helpful in both approaches. This suggestion is made not only because we need to come together hermeneutically, theologically, and ethically, but also because we are required by the craft of hermeneutics to weigh carefully and honestly all that is in the Bible relating to a given question.
With this in mind, five commonsense interpretive bases need to be covered:
- Search out the broad principles and movements of Scripture, applying and relating them to any question that we find sufficiently addressed in the Bible.
- Nevertheless, deal seriously and contextually with the statements and cases of Scripture that are relevant to the study we are doing.
- Hold the redemptive act of Christ and its implications as a thematic key to understanding the thrust and progression of the Bible.
- Allow the historical, cultural, and social context surrounding the times in which the Bible was written their due weight in clarifying the text and thus our contemporary situation.
- Adopt a comprehensive willing ness to yield to the findings of Scripture, allowing the full biblical text ultimate normative authority in deciding how particular questions of truth or behavior should be settled.
Although this hermeneutic does, for obvious reasons, necessarily appeal to a careful understanding of the historical and social dynamics surrounding the life and times of a given inspired Bible writer, it is definitely based in the biblical data itself and bows in love and respect to the constraints and authority found there. The truth is that every interpreter of the Bible, regardless of theological orientation, is undebatably forced by the sheer nature of things to address the historical and social dynamics behind the text in one way or another. The question is To what extent and how justly is such a background study done?
The hermeneutical role of faith
Another crucial and closely related aspect of hermeneutics that often gets lost in the more technical discussions of the subject is the supernatural core reality that comes to life when a person opens the Bible with faith, expectation, respect, and humility. It is clear from Scripture itself and from experience that this dynamic is foundational to making any kind of worthwhile progress in our struggle to understand the Bible. Speaking from a simply human viewpoint, this element may be described as the intuitive faculty of our nature.
A merely rational approach denies, among other things, this important subjective element we human beings naturally use when processing almost any stimulus that comes our way. Yet in many strongly established circles it is considered enlightened to purposely suppress our subjective perceptions in the interests of objectivity. In developing the scientific method, we have tended to become enamored with objectivity, even when studying the Bible. Instead we should have allowed reason, logic, and objectivity their very worthy place in the scheme of things, while doing the same with their natural counterparts our God-given, instinctive, subjective, devotional side. Truth and for that matter, life itself cannot be perceived accurately or completely without the function of this untaught part of our being.
Human beings cannot and therefore do not think in merely logical terms. We are made so that we perceive life and truth through a use of all our faculties. Thus we may say that hermeneutics is as much an art as it is a science, and that indeed it is much more than art and science put together, especially when the divine realities are present.
After all, what is a sunset, delicate fronds of grass blowing in a summer breeze, or your 1-year-old's delightful laughter without this elemental way of perceiving the full dimensions of such things? And what is truth, the Bible, and the magnificent person and work of Jesus without it?
Can we even know the basics of biblical meaning without a living, responsive, active faith that works from love and brings life back from mere existence? How can we, for example, plumb the depths of that magnificent phrase "God so loved the world" without this crucial element?
It is for us to reassert unapologetically and more consciously this radical faith principle into our struggle to under stand the Bible. Then under God we can justly blend it with our honest scholarly pursuits so that handling "the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV) will be done with unfeigned insight, integrity, and power.
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