In the previous column, I mentioned the growing enthusiasm of evangelicals in seeking out theologians and Bible commentators from various ethnicities and cultures. Attentive to the effect of social location and cultural background on an interpreter’s work, we recognize the importance of reading the Bible in community and hearing from people who might remove some of our cultural blinders.
At the same time, variations of standpoint theory have arisen, which—applied to hermeneutics—prioritizes voices from oppressed or minority groups because their “lived experience” offers exclusive insight into the biblical text. Standpoint theory, followed to its logical conclusion, leads to a conundrum: we are told our social location is so bound up in terms of privilege or oppression that interpretations from privileged groups are inescapably biased (in other words, wrong), but we are also told that the pursuit of a text’s “objective” meaning is a pointless exercise, since all knowledge is culturally constructed. In the end, we’re prisoners in a cultural cage; it’s just that certain cages are better than others.
Some evangelicals, who express a sincere desire to hear from Christian interpreters from other parts of the world, may slide toward some sort of standpoint theory that would cut them off from the wisdom of theological luminaries in the past. Other evangelicals, who express an appropriate opposition to standpoint theory, may fight postmodern problems with “modern” tools, cutting themselves off from the wisdom of diverse voices while minimizing the effect of the “preunderstanding” we bring to the text.
In this article and the next two, I offer principles that should guard us from both of these errors. The goal is to become better Bible readers who will not fall prey to philosophies (whether modern or postmodern) that undercut our commitment to the authority of God’s Word.
1. We should neither minimize nor exaggerate areas of distance that affect our ability to understand the Bible.
Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral, a standard evangelical textbook on how to interpret the Bible, notes four areas of distance that challenge our ability to rightly understand God’s Word:
Our convictions regarding the “perspicuity” or “clarity” of Scripture do not preclude serious study that would shrink these areas of distance between the contemporary world and the Bible’s original context. When we say we believe in the clarity of Scripture, we are affirming the truth that whatever is “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” is clear enough that anyone, educated or uneducated, can read and study Scripture and come to sufficient understanding. The doctrine of Scriptural clarity does not mean that all of the Bible is equally clear, or that the careful study of cultural, geographical, and linguistic differences is unnecessary.
Some evangelicals, in resisting standpoint theory or the idea that we should listen to voices from other cultures or backgrounds in order to better understand the Bible, may be falling back into Scottish Common Sense Realism, which according to Osborne assumed that “the surface of the text is sufficient to produce meaning in and of itself. Therefore, the need for hermeneutical principles to bridge the cultural gap was ignored, and individualistic interpretations abounded.” We should be careful that we do not rightly oppose postmodern interpretive theories by championing modern and Enlightenment-era interpretive theories, which bring their own set of problems.
Some Christians minimize the areas of distance, but other Christians exaggerate them to the point that no interpretation can be valued as better than another. (I’ll speak to this problem of maximizing the differences in the next column.)
2. We all bring “preunderstanding” to the biblical text.
Osborne urges us to consider the “effect of cultural heritage and worldview on interpretation. The sociology of knowledge recognizes the influence of societal values on all perceptions of reality. This is a critical factor in coming to grips with the place of preunderstanding in the interpretive process.”
No one comes to the biblical text as a blank slate. We bring certain questions and assumptions.
For example, Ajith Fernando lays out several differences between a guilt/forgiveness paradigm and an honor/shame perspective. Another example is Esther Acolatse. In her book Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit she shows that, whether we are in North America or the Global South, we will tend to incorporate the biblical language about powers and principalities into frameworks or within worldviews that are foreign to Scripture. Enlightenment ideology affects North American readings, while dualism affects the Global South. In seeking to interrogate our worldview, Acolatse offers a challenge both to Bible readers in the West and also to those in the Global South.
On a similar note, E. Randolph Richards and Richard James’s book Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes lays out ways in which our conceptual categories—formed by individualistic intuitions—easily miss aspects of biblical stories that arise from ancient cultures. Returning to the parable of the prodigal son as an example, it’s not just that Russians are more likely than Americans to remember the famine when retelling the story, but also that they see the younger son’s demand for independence (thereby rupturing of family relationship) as the egregious error, while Americans are more likely to emphasize the squandering of resources and the failure of self-sufficiency as the primary contributor to the son’s desperation. Different cultures illuminate the story differently due in part to the “preunderstanding” we bring to the text.
The Bible is not culture-less; neither are Bible readers. David Clark, in his masterful method of theology To Know and Love God, reminds evangelicals that “our thought reflects our culture. We can too quickly act as though our theology is free of cultural elements, even though, when we are pressed, we admit that this is not true.”
But does this mean that all interpretations of the Bible are culturally imprisoned? Does acknowledging “preunderstanding” make it impossible to arrive at a true and genuine understanding of the text? Not at all, which brings me to a third point.
3. We should counter the idea that all claims to knowledge are in the service of power.
In Limuru, Kenya, in 2007, a working group associated with the global evangelical Lausanne Conference pointed out how postmodernism is an ally for evangelicals only insofar as it exposes “the modern myths of exhaustive knowledge and human progress.” Postmodernism has punctured Enlightenment hubris, and at this, evangelicals can rejoice.
However, the Lausanne document continues, postmodernism “is radically skeptical about human ability to apprehend knowledge and regards the claim to possess knowledge as an attempt to gain power.” For this reason, evangelicals must oppose standpoint theory. It is not because we wish to retreat to an Enlightenment fortress of absolute certainty, but because we believe “the Bible affirms our ability to know in part, even if not fully.”
“Evangelical theology at its best will acknowledge that perspective influences all thinking. And a modest deconstruction of overly assertive modernist claims is all to the good. But proper evangelical theology also realizes the need for deliberate strategies to prevent cultural and historical location from imprisoning theology in the thought of a particular time.”
Watch how Richard Lints, in an excellent chapter in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, first acknowledges the reality of preunderstanding:
“All interpretation is shaped by the unique experiences of the interpreter. Part of this unique experience is the social location and cultural context of the interpreter. What one sees is influenced by what one is expecting to see. Those expectations in turn are formed in the complex interplay of individual and social orientations.”
But then watch how Lints explains that this preunderstanding does not make impossible a genuine understanding of the text. Neither does an acknowledgement of preunderstanding relativize all interpretations.
“This part of the cultural narrative appears to incline us to believe that all interpretations might be equally valid, or that one’s interpretation should be insulated from criticism from other cultural locations. But the wider story into which our own particular narratives of human knowing occur point in the opposite direction. All interpretations are not created equal. There are better and worse culturally influenced readings.”
This latter point deserves more attention. A diversity of interpretations does not imply hermeneutical relativism. In the next column, we’ll consider why it’s important to keep this truth in sight, to prevent us from slipping toward standpoint theory or retreating into Enlightenment certainty.
This is the second in a series on this subject. See the next posts here:
- Understanding (Not Exaggerating) the Distance Between Us and the Bible
- Becoming Humble Interpreters of God’s Unchanging Word
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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.