In the last two columns (here and here), I pointed out two dangers in reading and understanding the Bible.

  • The first is to adopt a view of Scripture influenced by postmodern standpoint theory—a hermeneutic that so emphasizes the impact of our social and cultural location or the “lived experience” of certain communities that we fall prey to a relativist interpretive approach that renders careful exegesis unnecessary.
  • The second is to react to this hermeneutic by returning to modernist or Enlightenment-era philosophies that minimize the impact of the “preunderstanding” we bring to the text and render unnecessary any attempt to diversify our conversation partners to as we seek to interpret the Bible rightly.

In the previous column, I offered this principle: we should neither minimize nor exaggerate areas of distance (time, culture, geography, and language) that affect our ability to understand the Bible. There, I focused primarily on why we should not minimize the distance, but it’s important now to consider the danger of exaggerating the distance, which would cast doubt on our ability to understand the Bible at all.

How can we acknowledge the impact of “preunderstanding” in our Bible reading and also work toward genuine knowledge of the text’s meaning?

1. Recognize the difference between genuine and omniscient knowledge.

We must distinguish between “genuine” and “omniscient” knowledge, just as we must distinguish between true and false humility. Some Bible readers, convinced by the postmodern critique of an Enlightenment-era certainty (an “objective” or “God’s eye” view of reality), assume that the humble posture is one of throwing up our hands and admitting we can’t really know anything. But this is not true humility. Just because we cannot know everything doesn’t mean we cannot know anything. We don’t have to pursue omniscient knowledge in order to obtain genuine knowledge. You can know in part something true (genuine), even if you don’t know that truth in full (omniscient).

D. A. Carson writes:

“The Bible demonstrates, often implicitly but sometimes explicitly, that human beings can grow in knowledge, with appropriate certainty, responding to God’s revelation with thought and active faith and obedient submission to our Maker and Redeemer.”

To deny the possibility of growing in knowledge, or to emphasize what we cannot know, is to render God’s revelation unintelligible. We give up on the possibility of obtaining genuine knowledge by appealing to “humility,” an excuse often conveniently employed to close our ears to what we don’t want to receive from his Word.

2. Recognize the impact of culture on Bible interpretation without reducing all Bible interpretation to culture.

As we’ve seen, it’s important to consider our social and cultural location so that we recognize aspects of the “preunderstanding” we bring to the text. None of us is neutral in Bible study. Culture informs our interpretation.

But postmodernism’s influence on hermeneutics would reduce everything to culture. As Kevin Vanhoozer has warned, everything then becomes “location, location, location.” The hermeneutical task shifts from the universality of genuine knowledge to the situatedness and relativity of the Bible reader.

The Lausanne document from Kenya I mentioned in the previous column lays out the main problem with this approach—a functional denial of biblical authority:

If all claims to universality are relative to the social contexts in which they arise, and if there is no neutral and objective basis upon which differing viewpoints may be adjudicated, then one ends up with multiple perspectives jockeying for supremacy with no one perspective enjoying privilege status. Diversity of viewpoints is celebrated. When everyone has a right to his opinions, and when these opinions cannot in principle be challenged, then no opinion is wrong. Thus the Bible is no more authoritative than other sacred texts. Each is relevant within the context of the different religions, and none can claim to be an exclusive route to the truth.

Yes, we must recognize the impact of social location on our understanding the Bible. Yes, we acknowledge the benefit of dialogue with faithful Christians in other cultures so that we all come to a greater and more genuine understanding of the biblical text. Nevertheless, we should resist the notion that truth is contingent on one’s point of view. The Lausanne document goes on:

Such egalitarianism means that the criteria for truth are strictly immanent to the form of life or social contexts in which the different truth-claimants live. With no pressure to conform to an agreed upon standard, the door is opened to a plurality of viewpoints and the embrace of differences.”

3. Celebrate the areas where there is widespread agreement across common cultural divides.

Again, we should neither underestimate nor overestimate the importance of social location on our ability to understand the Bible. One of the ways we can keep from maximizing the areas of distance is by recognizing and celebrating the widespread agreement we find with people who love Jesus and submit to his Word.

D. A. Carson makes this point:

“It is surprising how much agreement regarding what the Bible is saying can be achieved, provided there is agreement among dialogue partners that the Bible is the final authority, and that they are willing to be corrected by it. Elsewhere I have recounted my ten happy years with what was then called the World Evangelical Fellowship, coordinating highly diverse study groups where I was invariably pleasantly surprised by how much unanimity could be achieved by hard work, patient discussion, mutual criticism, humility of mind, and a greater hunger to be faithful to the text than to be thought right.”

The key, of course, is that these interpreters all agree that the Bible is the final authority. In other words, their posture is one of submission to Scripture, with appropriate openness to insights from brothers and sisters who share the same heart and pore over the same texts. The result is usually much more agreement than disagreement. Here is Carson again, with a telling example:

“When the Africa Bible Commentary was published a few years ago, its publishers and promoters kept insisting that at last we could hear the voices of Christians living in another continent reaching their own conclusions as to the meaning of Scripture, thus contributing to worldwide mutual Christian enrichment. In some measure, of course, this is wonderfully true. The Africa Bible Commentary devotes more attention than do Western one-volume Bible commentaries to exorcism, to questions surrounding ancestor worship, and to challenging the ‘health, wealth, and prosperity gospel.’ But what is most striking about the volume is that 90 or 95 percent of its content could be read and understood by, and could have been written by, believing Christians in virtually any part of the world. That should not surprise us: after all, we do share the same Book. Before we become too enamored with a narrowly conceived reader-response hermeneutic, we must ask ourselves in what ways the Africa Bible Commentary is not innovative, and shouldn’t be.”

How, then, should we read? In the next column, I’ll offer some suggestions on how we can read and study Scripture with epistemic humility—acknowledging the benefit of voices from other cultures and backgrounds, while maintaining humble confidence in the genuine knowledge we glean from Scripture as we read.

This is the third post in a series. The final post is here:

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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.