Doctrine of Scripture and Interpretation

The doctrine of scripture fascinates me. Not as a study of doctrine, but as a study of hermeneutics. In other words, how does what I believe about scripture influence the way I interpret scripture?

First of all, I do not think that we can set aside our ideas about scripture when we sit down to read scripture. The search for an objective reading, a reading that happens separate from our preconceptions, is more illusion than allusive. Furthermore, our preconceptions are not just the confluence of social, economical, and physical factors, they include what we believe about what we are reading:

  • Whether or not you believe scripture is a source of truth (big or little ‘T’) matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture holds authority, and if so what kind, matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture is inspired, and if so in what way, matters;
  • Whether or not you believe scripture has a divinely inspired purpose, and if so what is it, matters;
  • Whether or not you believer that there is a connection between what the text meant and what it means matters.
  • What is scripture’s relationship to the church, civil authority, culture, relationships, morality, if any?

Secondly, failing to recognize our answers to these and other questions about scripture leads to bad hermeneutics. Bad in the sense they can become muddled or ad hoc, not that they always lead to bad or wrong readings.

Therefore, as I have thought about how I answer these questions, three central concepts have arisen: divinely inspired, uniquely edifying, and truth that transforms.

  1. Divinely Inspired – The divine inspiration of scripture can be a hot button issue for some today, but historically that is not really the case. The divine inspiration of scripture was the common, if not universal, conviction of the Christian Church’s forefathers.[1] Furthermore, figures from throughout the church’s history, such as Origen, Augustin, and Aquinas, considered this matter of such importance they evaluated this particular subject extensively in their respective works on scripture.[2] Thus, while I do not adopt a particular theory of inspiration (at least not with any degree of certainty) I firmly stand with Christian tradition in affirming that scripture is inspired by the Spirit of God.
  2. Uniquely Edifying – God designed scripture with a specific purpose, namely to reveal the wisdom necessary for salvation. At a fundamental level, this means God reveals Himself in scripture to lead humanity toward union with its author. In this way, scripture is not primarily a spiritual memoir that we read to find mystical utterances hoping to gain inner peace, nor is it primarily a textbook that we read hoping to gain elusive knowledge.  Rather, it is God’s self-revelation we digest, even participate in, so that it can nourish our souls and form us into the community it would have us to be.
  3. Truth that Transforms – Scripture contains Truth (I believe in “T” Truth), but truth does not concern only the mind. Rather, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom 12:7). Accordingly, Augustine thought scripture taught us not only what to believe, but what to hope for and what to love. In fact, he wrote, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand at all.”[3] Additionally, Richard Hays writes, “No reading of Scripture can be legitimate if it fails to shape the readers into a community that embodies the love of God as shown forth in Christ.” [4]  Churches, therefore, need to be communities faithfully embodying the text for our world. Our places of worship, through our study and interpretation of scripture, must mold us into living witnesses to the transformative power of scripture.

For you, what are the central concepts for understanding the nature of scripture? And how does your understanding of scripture influence the way you interpret scripture?

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 60-64.

[2] Origen, First Principles; Augustine, On Christian Doctrine; and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

[3] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40.

[4] Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 191.

 

2 thoughts on “Doctrine of Scripture and Interpretation

  1. Great post, I have similarly been thinking through similar questions. I would in general agree with your three central concepts. I would also add, albeit probably a tier lower than those three concepts, understanding how the Church has understood different passages throughout its history. Looking at this it reveals that 1) like you said we can’t come to scripture without any presuppositions 2) sheds light on interpretations that we may not have seen because of our own life situation. If we believe the Holy Spirit guides Christians today in interpretation then it must be the same throughout history so we should also give thought to earlier Christian interpretations.

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    1. Brian,

      Thanks for the thoughts. I agree we need to look at how the Church has understood the passage historically (and also globally). You also mentioned the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation which I neglected to cover in my post. Looks like I’ll be making some revisions!

      Like

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