Tuesday, January 7, 2014
The Responsibility of Biblical Interpretation
Few things are more rewarding and few things are more dangerous than interpreting divine Scripture. The Scripture itself informs us that those who misinterpret it do so to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16) Paul commanded Timothy to be diligent to present himself approved to God, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15) The idea is that responsible biblical interpretation begins with an eagerness to present oneself approved to God. Hence, the driving force behind biblical interpretation is an eagerness for and a pursuit of biblical sanctification. Additionally, the single greatest failure in the general ranks of the Church is a lack of interpretive method. The lack of methodology in biblical interpretation leads to a profound lack of discipline and focus and serves as one of the greatest contributors to interpretive failure. This post offers what I believe is an excellent method for how every interpreter should approach the text of Scripture. Much of the content can be found in the book, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation.
The art and science of biblical interpretation is not without challenges. The interpreter brings four realities to the task of interpretation that represent serious peril. The interpreter has a sin nature that at every turn is inclined to rebel against divine truth. Any interpreter would be foolish not to recall the words of Jeremiah the prophet, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9) There is nothing more deceitful than the human heart! My heart is the most deceitful of all deceiving things! I cannot listen to my heart because my heart is not trustworthy. Second, the interpreter must deal with the reality of salvation history. God has revealed himself to humanity in real space and time. Failure to recognize the distinctive characteristics of that revelation tends to lead to illegitimate forms of criticism that impede the work of the Spirit in our hearts through the text itself. In such circumstances, Scripture becomes little more than an intellectual fascination. Additionally, the interpreter must deal with the literary aspects of Scripture. Divine revelation comes to us via the written text. This text contains foreign and ancient languages, genres, and devices with which the interpreted must become familiar. Finally, the interpreter must deal with the theological reality of the revelation that is divine Scripture. God is communicating divine truth with eternal consequences and there is nothing I can think of that is more significant than that. The interpreter, to show themselves approved to God, must responsibly deal with these four realities: sin, history, literature, and theology.
The reality of sin
The psalmist David said, "Your word I have treasured in my heart so that I might not sin against you. (Ps. 119:11) Sin has a profoundly blinding effect on the would be interpreter. It is ever present and the interpreter must maintain the attitude that the possibility of perversion is a constant threat, especially in handling divine truth. A serious threat to responsible interpretation is the interpreter's personal presuppositions. In many ways, sin is responsible for numerous presuppositions. If the interpreter neglects to deal with their heart biblically, and to take sin seriously, the presuppositions they carry to the interpretive process will only make matters worse. The process for biblical change begins with the confrontation of the Spirit and the Word. The Scripture first threatens us, and specifically, threatens the sin we so dearly long to keep. Hence, there is a built-in incentive for the interpreter to interpret irresponsibly. This incentive is inescapably part of the sin nature. In summary then, there is no shortcut in the preparation process for biblical interpretation. The scholar has as much work to do here as the Sunday school teacher. There is no difference. Responsible biblical interpretation begins with the interpreter's process for dealing with their heart, for recognizing the sin that is there, and proceeding with great caution and with great anticipation for what God is speaking in the text.
The reality of salvation history
The historical dimension of divine revelation is one that has been over-emphasized by some interpreters while others have managed to hardly give it a wink and a nod. Interpreters that focus all their time on the historical aspects of Scripture to the neglect of its literary or theological aspects often end up with little more than a shell. Modern interpreters, ignoring their sinful presuppositions, focusing on the historical aspects of Scripture and treating it like any other book tend to purge it of its supernatural aspects. This approach diminishes the idea of divine revelation, inspiration, and authority. In addition, it has the regrettable effect of undermining the credibility and trustworthiness of the biblical account.
The literary reality of Scripture
The literary reality of Scripture is one of its most demanding aspects in terms of intellectual skill. Literary analysis is an art and a skill that requires a high degree of focus and energy. However, literary acumen also presents a threat to the message and purpose of Scripture not to mention its nature. A mere literary approach to Scripture has led many to ignore the historical dimensions of the text, and as such, has resulted in Scripture being treated like any other book. Kevin Vanhoozer labels it "aesthetic theology." This results is more knowledge about the text rather than knowledge of what the text is about. The responsible interpreter seeks both, knowledge about the text, and knowledge of what the text is about. The text is divine communicative action with perlocutionary intent. It is not enough to acquire literary knowledge about the text. One must also know what the text is about. This moves us in the direction of authorial intent. God moved to the author but He also moved the author with the intention of producing change in the audience. An overly literary approach to Scripture has led many to Derrida's deconstructionism and the reader-response approach to interpretation. The goal of finding the author's meaning, divine or human, is replaced with the reader's own subjective idea of what the text means to and for them. Adjudication of theological ideas and interpretive methods dissolves, sinking into a sea of relativism.
The theological reality of Scripture
"Thinking biblically is a matter of reading Scripture along the grain of the text. It is less a matter of "drawing out" discrete theological propositions than of "drawing together" scriptural material from across the canon." [Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 189 quoting Reno, Biblical Theology & Theological Exegesis, 404] Hence, the theological reality of the case is that divine revelation takes place in real space and time, and is captured in real human language. The interpreters failure to account for the historical and literary realities of Scripture is no less damaging to the text than the aforementioned errors. When theology ignores the historical reality of revelation, the resurrection can easily be reduced to myth and regeneration can be "recast as the result of an existential encounter with God occasioned by the reading of Scripture. [Kostenberger/Patterson, Invitation To Biblical Interpretation, 78]
"The rank and importance of Biblical Hermeneutics among the various studies embraced in Theological Encyclopedia and Methodology is apparent from the fundamental relation which it sustains to them all. For the Scripture revelation is itself essentially the centre and substance of all theological science. It contains the clearest and fullest exhibition of the person and character of God, and of the spiritual needs and possibilities of man." [Terry, Milton. Biblical Hermeneutics, 21]
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16)
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