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.

 

A “Motion” for Southern Baptists on the Interpretation of Scripture

With the Southern Baptist Convention happening in my hometown and as a first-time attender, I decided to post a paper I wrote a few years ago on Southern Baptists and biblical interpretation. In the paper, I argue that Southern Baptists and pre-critical exegetes, such as Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas, have much in common. And thus, believing in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible can exist alongside thinking critically about the Bible.

The introduction is copied below and the whole paper is available for those interested (Southern Baptists – A People of the Book)

Southern Baptists and Pre-Critical Exegesis

Introduction

            As the first decade of the twenty-first century draws to a close, the discipline of biblical interpretation finds itself in a state of flux as postmodernism[1] continues to challenge the modern worldview.  Perhaps, most significant for biblical studies has been postmodernism’s frontal assault on the modern vision of objective or universal truth.  On this front, numerous ‘new’ theories of interpretation have opposed the historical-critical method of interpretation, the prevailing method of modern biblical scholarship, and its search for a biblical text’s one true meaning.  Theologians and exegetes, such as Karl Barth, Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, Stephen Fowl, Gustavo Gonzalez, and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza have each, in their own way, offered alternative ways of interpreting Scripture. 

            Regularly, an antagonist of these ‘new’ theories of interpretation is the so-called conservative fundamentalist.[2]  While conservative fundamentalists usually are not defined in any specific terms, the label is designed to distinguish them as the prototypical modern interpreter who relies precisely on the mindsets and methods in question.  In this paper, I am going to assume to speak for my particular Christian denomination, which is frequently if not always, placed within this faction, namely Southern Baptists.  My primary purpose is to establish that when one considers the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, as defined in our own official statements this is, in many respects, a case of mistaken identity.  I also have a secondary purpose for this paper and that is to call Southern Baptists to reexamine our habit of biblical interpretation in light of our own understanding of Scripture.  All too often, what has passed as Southern Baptist interpretation defies what we claim about Scripture, or in more colloquial terms, we do not practice what we preach.  I contend that if Southern Baptists practice exegesis according to our own doctrine, our interpretation should correspond most intimately not with modern or post-modern exegesis, but with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.

            To accomplish these tasks necessitates beginning with the works of Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas.  By examining what David C. Steinmetz describes as the pre-critical exegetical tradition,[3] I identify a simple but fundamental doctrine of Scripture and from this I construct a two-fold exegetical theory.  With this historical perspective, I examine the Southern Baptist doctrine of Scripture, illustrating the similarities between our understanding of Scripture and that of the pre-critical tradition.  As would be expected, there will be instances of divergence, but in studying their works, Southern Baptists may surprisingly find comfort and reassurance.[4]  In conclusion, I briefly outline a way forward for Southern Baptists that embraces the doctrinal similarities and adopts a pre-critical exegetical theory as the foundation for our interpretation of Scripture. 


[1] I am using postmodernism in the most general sense in that it comes after modernism.  Of course, even in this general sense it still conveys distrust in the ideas of modernism.

[2] For example, Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones, Reading in Communion (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 1.

[3] David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today, 37 (1980): 27-38.

[4] As a supplement to this engagement with the pre-critical understanding of Scripture, I have included an appendix, which examines the exegetical methods of Augustine and Aquinas.  With Southern Baptist congregations specifically in mind, my desire is to reveal that engaging their writings can enrich both our understanding of the nature of Scripture and our interpretation of Scripture.