How I approach scripture
This post originated as part of a wider series on the Theology of Salvation or Soteriology. You can read that series here
UNDERSTANDING THE SCRIPTURES Nearly without fail when discussing a theological topic someone says "I just read scripture for what it is" or something to that effect. I have seen this with so many conversations whether around salvation, women and leadership, the gifts of the Spirit and far beyond. I won't hide behind it, I roll my eyes every time. The simple reality however, we all wear glasses, we all have lenses through which we see EVERYTHING including scripture.
These lenses include our culture, our personalities, our experiences, our insecurities, our gender, our socio-economic status, history, prior education and more. NO ONE simply reads scripture for 'what it is'. We all read through lenses, and as such it is important firstly important to acknowledge this and secondarily work through how we might better understand scripture in the way it was intended by the original writer.
CORRECTIVE LENSES The Wesleyan Quadrilateral plus
Important in my thinking are the principles found in the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is rooted in John Wesley’s basic approach to interpretation (and reflected in many Christian thinkers throughout the ages).
This idea sets forth that interpretation has four primary lenses, also known as sides, legs or ingredients. These being Scripture, tradition, reason, experience and I might add illumination.
These ‘sides’ are not equal, in that Scriptural exegesis stands first or is the hub around which everything else works. However, our understanding of Scripture is always influenced and as such acknowledging these influences intentionally and deliberately help in listening to Scripture. To give a practical example of how each of these work…
1. Scripture Scripture requires intentional interpretation, listening to the specific textual context, original language, and cultural context as well as the broad counsel of Scripture. Some try to argue they don’t need intentionality, they just ‘read it for what it is’ but such is not true nor possible. We all read ‘onto’ text if we are not intentional to try and read it as the original readers would have done so. Scripture is written for us but it is not written to us. That is not to say that simply reading the text of Scripture without (for instance) cultural context is not beneficial but rather we must still lean on other elements within the text to help us. Understanding the original language: I am in no way an expert in Biblical languages and though I have done some study in such, it is foolish to think I have more knowledge then Ph.D. linguists who translate the texts. I cringe when a seminary or Bible college trained pastor even with fairly significant time in Biblical languages proceeds to ‘correct’ a translation. It merely shows a blinkered approach to how the translation of any language actually works. It is like someone doing a single year of English as a second language in university then proceeding to try and correct a professional linguist’s work. It goes to show ignorance and a boisterous arrogance, not humility. I think it is another thing to humbly offer alternative translations that reflect a different methodology within translation theory.
In saying that, having a good understanding of translation theory and the limits of ‘word studies’ ensures an approach to the text that recognises the intent of the author’s in communicating the text of Scripture as they do. Can I encourage you to use good linguistic, contextual commentaries and tools? Leaning on gifted, experienced, experts in the different areas of Biblical study is as necessary as a doctor or nurse referring to experts in their fields. A word of wisdom from Karl Barth…
"We should not try to master the text. The Bible will become more and more mysterious to real exegetes. They will see all the depths and distances. They will constantly run up against the minute mystery before which theology is trying to drain the ocean with a spoon. The true exegete will face the text like an astonished child in a wonderful garden, not like an advocate of God who has seen all his files." -- K. Barth, "Homiletics" (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1991, 128).
My point in saying such is studying the Scriptures should never lead us to an arrogance that we have attained knowledge, rather, it should birth a humility that we are delving into the depths of the sea of God’s knowledge. Our pursuit is not the accumulation of knowledge itself but an increasing ‘knowing’ of God.
In terms of theological reflection and listening to the traditions of the Church I lean towards a broad ideal called ‘Paleo-Orthodoxy’ which, in simple terms, means paying particular attention to the consensus of early Church thinkers (with thought to the prevailing thoughts). In the least, it is foolish to believe that people particularly close to the apostles and inspired writers of Scripture do not have a level of credibility and authority that later writers do not practically contain. That is not to say everything they say is absolute but rather their proximity helps with perspective. I feel somewhat confused when some authors encourage people to read ‘dead people’ by which they really mean ‘dead reformation protestants’. Although I am somewhat comfortable (and yet uncomfortable) with the term Protestant it must be recognised that the writers of the Protestant Reformation were specifically responding to the corruption in the Mid-Ages Roman Catholic Church, this in my opinion often taints their angle in the discussion. I find early Church fathers credibility higher than many of the Protestant Reformation writers. It must also be noted that Western Christian’s tend to think of church thinkers nearly in solely western centred terms, rarely going to Eastern Orthodox thinkers. It may sound a little unusual to some but I find Eastern Orthodox thinkers expressing thoughts in close parallel to the experience and wonder focused objectives of myself as a Pentecostal believer.
To give example using Early Church Fathers, Irenaeus (130 – 202) as did Papias before him, states a clear hope in a coming literal Millennium based upon Revelation 20 (Irenaeus Against Heresies book 5, chapter 22, paragraphs 3-4.).
He does not accept Amillennialism (a metaphorical understanding) but rather accepts literal Pre-Millennialism (sometimes called Chialism or Historic-Premillienialism) as the Orthodox position. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was discipled by John who wrote Revelation. Furthermore, Justin Martyr (100 - 165) believed a literal millennium is functionally part of Orthodox belief (Justin Martyr Dialogue With Trypho, chapter 80). Pre-Millennialism (Chialism) was the dominant pattern of thought of nearly all Early Church Fathers before becoming an increasingly powerful established Roman entity. Though there are difficulties in interpretation in regard to Revelation, I will defer or at least lean towards prevailing thoughts such as Irenaeus.
In 2 Tim 2:15 it seems to say (superficially) that women are saved through bearing children. We know that a straightforward understanding cannot be the case because, firstly, it has never been so, secondly, it directly contradicts all other writings by Paul and the apostles. It is ‘unreasonable’ to believe this could be the case. Additionally, such an ‘unreasonable’ statement should make us ask deeper questions of the contextual elements in the wider text as well. John Wesley quotes 1 Cor 14:20 in reference to building ‘understanding’ or ‘reason’.
“Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” 1 Cor 14:20
Building understanding and a reasonable approach is simple but remember it too is limited. Wesley also says in the same sermon… “it (reason) cannot give either faith, hope, love, or virtue, so it cannot give happiness; since, separate from these, there can be no happiness for any intelligent creature.” (http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-70-the-case-of-reason-impartially-considered/)
I am Pentecostal. I do not say such with a level of pride nor shame. It is my Pentecostal experience that reinforces and informs my reading of Scripture. One cannot truly understand being ‘born again’ without being ‘born again’. One should not be worried that experience has a voice in our approach to Scripture, one should be concerned when experience trumps the historically consistent interpretation of the text. Scripture is not subjective in its intent, it seeks to show us how God has worked in our world, how he speaks to us and how he will continue to do so. Some would say that the Pentecostal emphasis on experience is negative but I would argue we only acknowledge what others already practice but often live in denial about. For instance, John Calvin when making a comment on Acts 8:16 says Luke here does not deny that “they who believe in Christ with their hearts and confess him with their mouth are endowed with any gift of the Spirit (Romans 10:10),” but rather Luke has “in mind the receiving of the Spirit, by which manifest powers and visible graces were received” (Institutes 4.19.8). I totally agree with Calvin to this point. Calvin maintains, however, “those miraculous powers and manifest workings, which were dispensed by the laying on of hands, have ceased; and they have rightly lasted only for a time.” (Institutes 4.19.6) What motivates such a conclusion? Good scriptural argument? No, rather it was his negative experience. “We see the oil – the gross and greasy liquid – nothing else” (Institutes 4.19.5).
This is nothing more than placing his subjective experience onto a tradition and interpreting Scripture accordingly. Interestingly, the advent of early Pentecostalism started from a Biblical pursuit that was reflected in an experiential understanding. It saddens me that such an influential figure in Protestant theology rejected the present day empowering of the Spirit and Gifts because the tradition in front of him was ‘powerless’. Experience helps inform us of the real life experience of God’s word out worked. It helps confirm many of its truths but it must submit to the Word, not vice versa.
I believe without a doubt that the Holy Spirit need be an active part of our Biblical reflection. It is the Spirit who inspired its writing and as such, the Spirit helps bring understanding or our attention to an area. In Psalm 119:18 the Psalmist writes “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” (NIV)
There are moments as we lean into the Word through the Spirit that our ‘eyes’ pop to something we have never seen before or the Spirit reminds us of something read or learned previously. The purpose of illumination is to engage our life and spirit with the Word. It brings the ‘Word to life’ as it points and convicts us of what we need to know, change or do in our lives.
Biblical study should be an active spiritual experience, not just an intellectual pursuit to gather knowledge but a convicting and comforting, informing and inspiring, directing and discipling journey with the one who inspired the very words on the pages. In understanding the words on the pages we should see these things outworked in our lives through obedience and transformation. I believe that these ‘leanings’ do well to try and create a level of objectivity without presuming it is even possible to be entirely objective. I don’t think any discussion can or should be ‘entirely objective’. My aim in theology is not to be impartial but constantly seek out God’s perspective. OK, there you go, five legs not four legs for my chair when it comes to interpretation but that is where I start. What about you? To see how this shapes my approach to interpretation feel free to read my series on Salvation and predestination here or my series on the Holy Spirit and Tongues here