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Does ethnic diversity matter when it comes to Bible interpretation?

Should we consider a Bible commentator’s background and experience?

What effect does our cultural context and social location have on our interpretation of Scripture?

Evangelical leaders have wrestled with these questions in recent years. Some express concern that cultural blinders may distort our interpretation of Scripture or screen out various elements of God’s inspired Word that might challenge us. Others worry that giving attention to an interpreter’s ethnicity or experience will breed a relativism that minimizes the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word.

This is an area that calls for multi-directional leadership—the ability to recognize and oppose threats from multiple directions, and in this and the next three columns, I will lay out some principles to consider as we study the Scriptures.

Leaning on the Local Church

First, the desire to hear from different voices in other parts of the world merely extends a principle we believe to be true in our local church: we read the Bible in community. Rightly understood, the precious doctrines of the inerrancy, inspiration, and clarity of Scripture do not imply that hermeneutics is a “solo” discipline, something we undertake on our own apart from the wisdom of others. We recognize the need for Christians to sharpen one another—to read and study the Scriptures together in the local church.

In the best Bible study environments, the primary question is not what the text means to you (as if the significance or application of Scripture is endlessly malleable depending on someone’s personal preference), but what the text means. We gather to discuss the Bible, and even if we bring different questions, come from different backgrounds, or read from within a particular theological framework, our desire is to grow in our knowledge and love for God and to humbly submit to whatever he has said. We examine our assumptions in light of the text, and in community we refine our understanding as we—alongside others—submit to the Scriptures as our ultimate authority.

Leaning on the Global Church

If we need the local church in order to interpret the Bible rightly, surely we receive benefit when we listen to believers from other churches and cultures whose perspective might enhance our Scripture reading. To put it another way: we first adopt a principle—it is wise to study the Bible in community—and then we broaden its application. Just as Christians in church learn from one another, Christians from different cultures can do the same. We need God’s people in order to rightly understand God’s Word.

One of my favorite examples of how this principle works out in practice is told by Mark Allan Powell. He writes about how Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son is “heard” in Russia in contrast to the parable’s reception in the United States. When recalling the story by memory, Russians are much more likely than Americans to mention the famine that precipitated the younger son’s despair before returning home. Powell surmises that the siege of Leningrad—where the number of citizens who perished by starvation surpassed all U.S. and U.K. soldiers who were killed in WWII—remains within living memory of many grandparents and great-grandparents. That may be one reason why the famine plays a larger role in the Russian student who hears the parable.

Likewise, books like Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James explain ancient categories of kinship, patronage, and honor and shame. Certain community-based elements in the Old and New Testament can seem strange or unintelligible to those of us raised in individualist cultures. Kenneth Bailey’s excellent work on the parables, illuminated by his many years as a missionary in the Middle East, offers interpretive insight (even if in some cases he may lean too heavily on later traditions or contemporary Middle Eastern experiences).

Evangelicals have celebrated these efforts and cheered the rise of theologians and scholars from across the world, whose cross-cultural conversations and commentaries answer our desire to better hear and heed the Scriptures. The goal, of course, is better Bible interpretation. This is why many evangelicals look to incorporate more global voices into their work—to “diversify” their reading lists in order to benefit from Bible readers whose social location and experience outside the majority world or majority culture may challenge assumptions and preconceived notions we bring to the text.

What About Standpoint Theory?

But this recent push to expand our horizons of biblical interpretation also corresponds with trends in the academy and wider culture that call into question whether it is possible to genuinely understand the meaning of a text. Postmodern views of knowledge, meaning, and significance have given rise to “standpoint theory,” described by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose this way:

“Standpoint theory operates on two assumptions. One is that people occupying the same social positions, that is, identities—race, gender, sex, sexuality, ability, status, and so on—will have the same experiences of dominance and oppression and will, assuming they understand their own experiences correctly, interpret them in the same ways. From this follows the assumption that these experiences will provide them with a more authoritative and fuller picture. The other is that one’s relative position within a social power dynamic dictates what one can and cannot know: thus the privileged are blinded by their privilege and the oppressed possess a kind of double sight, in that they understand both the dominant position and the experience of being oppressed by it.”

In short, the more privileged a person is, the harder it is to understand reality. Privilege blinds. Applied to Scriptural interpretation, this principle implicates many commentaries and theologians from Christian history (too many privileged white males) and casts a shadow of suspicion on even the most careful of exegetes, while prioritizing interpretive communities whose “lived experience” is one of oppression and poverty.

Unlike traditional evangelical hermeneutics, standpoint theory—when applied to Scripture interpretation—doesn’t ultimately help us discover the meaning of the text, but instead destabilizes the idea of the text having a real meaning at all. Since no one can be perfectly “objective” in their interpretation of the Bible (because objectivity doesn’t really exist), it’s impossible to obtain true knowledge. All we are left with is my truth or your truth, and our truth is always bound up with and inseparable from our cultural perspective as interpreters.

There are right and wrong ways to react to the rise of standpoint theory, and in the next three columns, we’ll consider principles that align us with the best of traditional evangelical hermeneutics while helping us avoid the pitfalls of postmodern philosophy.

This is the first in a series on this subject. See the next posts here:

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