How do we read the Bible well? Part 3

2.3 Consider your philosophy

Bible reading is made much more difficult by two, somewhat prevalent views which are infact philosohpical postions. The first is that there is only one truth or one way of stating or expressing truth. The second is that there are a vast variety of truths and so a multitude of possible truthful expressions.

The first view is inspired by Modernism and the Enlightenment, the second by varieties of Postmodernism. Insofar as these philosophies concern truth about what and how we know, they relate to the branch of philosophy called “epistemology.” Now the important part is that everyone holds some manner of belief about truth and how the knowledge needed to acquire truth and, once again, we hold such beliefs whether we are aware of / can articulate them or not. So when we are unaware of our philosophical perspectives then they function as expectations that impact what we believe the Bible can mean, and how this meaning is acquired.

On the one hand, those holding a modernist perspective typically believe that there is only one truth, and that truth equates with “reality.” A statement you might hear from a Bible reader with modernist sensibilites is “you may need to interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there,” or “the meaning of this passage is clear to anyone using their common sense,” or again “we can be absolutely certain that this is the proper meaning of this verse.”

The view that truth equates only with reality ignore those Biblical truth claims that present God as being God of “the possible.” For example, God’s claim to love and forgive those who see themselves as unlovable or unforgiveable is not false, but is a claim to possible truth, waiting to be realized through certain events and through the passage of time.

Importantly, in each of the above three cases the modernist is making a faith-related claim on the basis of philosphical convictions unrelated Christian convictions.

On the other hand, those holding certain postmodern sensibilites (I mention “certain” sensibilities because postmodernism is much broader and more varied than modernism) typically focus on how truth is formed and used—how culture and story work to created established ways of thinking that we equate with truth—and so can abandon any definitive notion of truth altogether. A postmodern statement might focus on truth as relative “That’s true for you, not for me” or as produced “I think ideas in this passage are only an accepted norm or cultural value.”

Importantly, in each of the above two cases the postmodernist is making a faith-related claim on the basis of philosphical convictions unrelated Christian convictions.

Indeed, both of these philosophies miss the point, or rather points. The first point: as limited, finite entities human beings are always forced to interpret, and human knowledge is never final. Only God know accurately (and so does not interpret), and only God knows fully (and so need not revise or augment God’s knowledge). Yet the second point: as limited, finite entities human beings have the power to interpret, which provides valuable knowledge and understanding. God has created humans as competent but dependant knowers who can have partial yet true knowledge of their world.

The upshot of above is twofold. First, we need to balance between these extremes by embracing the tension inherent in human life and human being as valuable and productive, such as between confidence and humility. Second, in what will only be satisfying in a longer presentation, these philosophical considerations lead us toward three components that are necessary to competent Bible reading: interpretation, hermeneutics, and dialogue.

I will define each before moving on:

a) Interpretation is what me “make of” something: what we take it to mean or imply based on a number of factors that together could be called context. Further, where there may be upwards of 3 or even 4 valid interpretations to a biblical text, there are not 14 or 40: interpretation has bounds.

b) Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation: it is the laws and norms that guide the practice of interpretation and includes a sense of “practical wisdom” as to how and when we apply these laws and norms.  One’s hermeneutical lens governs the outcomes of one’s interpretations.

c) Dialogue is the practice of listening not to formulate a counter argument but in order to promote the true strength of what is being proposed. As such dialogue requires listening first, though it also requires that we maintain the ability (and willingness) to critique. Dialogue opposes both dispute and debate, and dialogue is the best mode of engaging with others about such things as what the Bible means.

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