In the first article in this series, I described the enthusiasm of a growing number of evangelicals who wish to glean insight from theologians and Bible commentators from other cultures and backgrounds. I also expressed concern that this development could lead to an exaggeration of the cultural distance between us and the biblical text, which imprisons us in our social location, such that the authority of Scripture is undercut.
- On the one hand, we should not minimize the “preunderstanding” we bring to the text. We need different voices to help us refine our interpretations.
- On the other hand, we should not exaggerate the impact of our social and cultural locations. We can celebrate the widespread agreement that Christians in submission to Scriptural authority find when we carefully exegete the text together.
Our goal is not to adopt a quasi-postmodern standpoint theory that would relativize all interpretations or destabilize the text. Neither is our goal to revert to a common sense realism that minimizes the need for engaging with interpreters from different cultures and backgrounds.
What we need is epistemic humility. We want to be humble interpreters of God’s unchanging Word. As a theological virtue, we can define humility as Gavin Ortlund does:
“Humility . . . does not entail a low opinion of oneself or one’s theology, but rather a posture of eager pursuit of the truth through all the means God has provided and a ready willingness to admit what we do not yet know in the process.”
In this final column, I offer a few suggestions to keep us from falling into either postmodern or modern error.
1. Recognize and reflect on your limitations as a Bible reader.
We are finite. We cannot fully escape our limitations as Bible readers. But we can be aware of some of those limitations. We can become more aware of how our cultural and social location influences our Bible reading.
It’s better to be aware of the cultural forces that may shape your Bible reading (in both good and bad ways) than to assume those forces are absent and to ignore them. As you come to understand how your culture and experience affects your interpretation, you can begin to “see” the lens you look through, and this helps you gain perspective as you study the Scriptures.
An example: many Americans—shaped by individualist intuitions—read New Testament commands as primarily directed to individual Christians. The original language, however, as well as the original context of the listeners (in churches) would have us hear the plural you and plural verb forms. This community focus can easily go unnoticed by English readers today. These commands are for individuals, yes, but the primary focus is on the church’s corporate obedience. D. A. Carson remarks:
Believers in Africa might be quicker to detect Pauline metaphors for the corporate character of the church, while many in the West will find it harder to see them owing to their heritage of individualism. Christians need each other; this is as true in the hermeneutical area as elsewhere.
In this instance, then, acknowledging that your reading is shaped by individualist assumptions helps you see your limitations, so that you become a better Bible reader. That leads us to the next point.
2. Rely on wisdom from others who submit to God’s Word.
Richard Lints shines light on the richness we receive when different parts of the Body of Christ benefit from each other:
“The variety of gifts is given for the well-being of the church, even as the well-being of the church depends upon the embrace of the one gospel in Christ. . . . The diverse parts of the body must understand each other well enough to benefit from each other in the task of biblical interpretation. This requires the difficult labors of listening enough across the divides to permit understanding, and also to affirm that understanding is possible across the divides.”
What matters most is a deep and abiding commitment to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word. To simply say “we need each other” is not enough, as some have used this truth as a tool for promoting passing fads or aberrant agendas or postmodern philosophies that would have us stand over Scripture in judgment rather than kneel under God’s Word in submission. D. A. Carson is right to point to the indispensability of the Holy Spirit in this process:
“In the Bible’s view of the relation between God and his people, we need the help of God’s Holy Spirit to understand the truth as much as we need his help to do the truth. However that help may be mediated to us, the aim of thoughtful Christians, after all, is not so much to become masters of Scripture, but to be mastered by it, both for God’s glory and his people’s good.”
Our need for the Spirit humbles us and reminds us of the importance of praying for God to illuminate the meaning of his Word and aid us in interpretation. We approach this task with humility, in prayer. The prerequisite for good Bible interpretation is a doxological spirit, and the end goal of good Bible interpretation is to worship the ultimate Author, in awe and wonder at his revelation. Worship and exegesis must go together.
3. Remember that not all readings are equal.
What do we do when believers from different cultures who adhere to Scriptural authority find themselves at odds in how they understand the text? The temptation in a postmodern era is to say, “I guess we can’t really know what the Bible means, since we’re all just captive to our own cultural readings.” Instead, we should remember that not all readings are equal.
Carson recognizes that there will be diverging views:
It is an act of both realism and humility to recognize that no individual, and no single community, has all the truth about any individual biblical passage or theme. Listening to one another is bound to result in richer interpretations than would otherwise be the case—and sometimes it issues in straightforward correction.
No one has all the truth, but we still do have truth. The widespread agreement of Christians across the world and through the ages is a testament to a common faith. In Grassroots Asian Theology, Simon Chan makes this point:
“Local cultures do shape the way the faith is received and expressed, but for a local theology to be authentically Christian, it must have substantial continuity with the larger Christian tradition.”
One cannot help but recall the many warnings in the Bible regarding false doctrine, false Christs, false gospels. Not all interpretations are created equal, and just because some interpretation or other is espoused and protected by a particular community, it does not follow that it is faithful to Scripture. And so we return to careful listening to others, and to rereading of the Bible, eager to be corrected if that means greater fidelity—and eager, too, not to stand over Scripture as if we are the final judges, when in reality Scripture must stand over us and be our judge.
4. Expect God’s Word to challenge all cultures.
It is shortsighted to think that our interpretations are only enhanced when we engage Christians in other cultures. The truth is, all cultures are corrupted in some way or another. We can expect the readings of other Christians to expose some of our cultural idolatries, yes, but Christians in other parts of the world should expect our interpretations to challenge their prevailing idols as well.
This is one of the primary problems with appealing to “lived experience” as the standard by which all other interpretations must be judged. Our experiences can obscure, not merely illuminate. David Clark warns us away from powerful philosophical principles that would control the reading of the Bible. He uses liberation theology as an example:
Theology that begins with a nonnegotiable commitment to the liberation of the poor exerts detrimental theological control over theology if that commitment is articulated through the thought forms of a non-biblical perspective. This procedure can undercut biblical authority. I do not say that liberating the poor undermines Scripture. I say that the thought forms of non-biblical perspectives do so.
Here is where Clark embodies multi-directional leadership. As we’ve seen in previous columns, we should spot the threat both in postmodern theory and in naïve and individualistic interpretations.
Traditional evangelical theology sometimes overlooks its cultural assumptions. But it is no solution simply to replace one culture’s naïveté regarding biblical interpretation with a call to experience—as though experience were neutral—since experience always embeds theoretical commitments.
This is also where scholars such as Esther Acolatse succeed. In her work on the powers and principalities, she does not simply correct one cultural interpretation with another’s, but recognizes that both must return again and again to the Scriptures, in dialogue with other believers, so that the Scriptural challenge can be heard and heeded in every cultural location.
5. Don’t assume that one’s ethnicity or cultural background is theologically representative.
Simon Chan expresses concern that some Christians assume an Asian theologian likely reflects the experiences or doctrines of Asian churchgoers. This is not the case, he says. Some Asian theologians have simply adopted the “liberal program,” which is one of “accommodation to culture and of commending Christianity to its cultured despisers. When culture sets the agenda for theologians, it is only a small step for culture to set the norms for theology as well.” He writes:
“This highly selective understanding of what constitutes Asian theology must be challenged, not only for its uncritical assimilation of Enlightenment epistemology and the resultant lack of theological discernment, but also for the way it totally ignores vast swaths of Christian movements in Asia: the evangelical and Pentecostal movements in much of Asia and, more specifically, the indigenous Christian movements in India, Japan, and China. . . . . It is not surprising that, by ignoring the lived theologies from the grassroots, the so-called ecumenical theologians of Asia can only offer rehashes of old ideas.”
The same phenomenon is observable, Chan says, in Africa and Latin America as well:
“Elite theologians may theologize about the poor and oppressed, but such a theology is not likely to find much traction among the poor themselves. The failure of such theologies is well summed up by one Latin American theologian who noted, ‘Liberation theology opted for the poor and the poor opted for Pentecostalism.’”
Similarly, just because a theology gets labeled “Black” does not mean that it is representative of the vast majority of black Christians discipled in the black church tradition. Do not assume that a theology or theologian with an ethnic or cultural label is truly representative of practicing Christians who remain tethered to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word.
In bringing this series to a close, I can’t do better than quote David Clark once more, who lays out several principles to guide us in humble Bible reading:
We who are evangelicals should do several things.
(1) We should recognize the reality of cultural influence on all theological interpretation.
(2) We must purposefully adopt a self-critical stance toward any and all cultures.
(3) Yet we should assert the need for theology to achieve cultural relevance.
(4) While doing so, we must yield to the priority of Scripture over any and all cultural assumptions.
Two mistakes are possible. One is to pretend that cultural or philosophical preunderstanding does not exist or is relatively unimportant. This is where too much evangelical theology has failed in the past.
The other is to so delight in cultural and philosophical assumptions that they set in concrete the entire agenda for theology. This is where mainline/liberal versions of contextualization continue to stumble. Indeed, capitulating to contemporary agendas can lead to a faith that is indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. And if faith is indistinct from culture, it loses its vitality.
Let’s aim for epistemic humility—a way of reading Scripture that helps us avoid the pitfalls of both modernism and also postmodernism. May we bow the knee again and again before King Jesus, whose authority is exercised through his Word within the context of the beloved community for the benefit of every culture.
Below are the other three parts in this series:
- Do We Need Diverse Voices to Understand the Bible Rightly?
- Preunderstanding and Postmodernism: 3 Principles for Bible Interpretation
- Understanding (Not Exaggerating) the Distance Between Us and the Bible
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Editors’ note: Check out Trevin Wax’s new book The Multi-Directional Leader (TGC, 2021), available now for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.