From Pre-Modern to Post-Modern Interpretation of the Bible
I. “Pre-Modern” Exegesis
I’m not sure I like the term pre-modern. It sounds like someone is saying we are more intelligent now than people used to be, or that Western society has evolved beyond its more “primitive” beginnings. I have some objections to thinking like that.
So what do the phrases “pre-modern exegesis” or “pre-modern interpretation” mean? I find it easiest to explain pre-modern thinking as thinking that is unaware of its own presuppositions – that is, unreflective thinking. When you look at it this way, everyone will always be “pre-modern” to some extent. To a great degree, everyone will always be somewhat unaware of the true reasons why they think the way they do.
“Modern” thinking, therefore, is reflective thinking – thinking that tries to be objective and is at least somewhat aware of its own biases and presuppositions. When I think in this way, I realize that there may very well be a difference between what I think is true and what is actually true. This way of thinking takes contrasting points of view seriously, even if one is arguing against them.
Here’s an example that might help you catch a glimpse of what I mean. Matthew 5:45 says that God sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Since I grew up saying, “Rain, rain, go away. Please come back another day,” I always assumed that this verse meant that God allowed bad things to happen to both the good and the wicked – rain was a bad thing to me. It never even entered my mind that this verse could be understood differently. I was an “unreflective thinker” with regard to this verse, interpreting it through my glasses and my world.
Then one day it occurred to me that
Pre-modern exegesis, therefore, is Biblical interpretation that unwittingly reads the individual words of the Bible as they strike me in my world without realizing I am substituting my context for the original contexts. The original meaning of the Bible – the understanding the people to whom the Bible was first written would have had – was a function of the way words were being used so long ago when the Bible was written. It is most improbable that a contemporary reader will come up with this meaning without significant training. They will inevitably understand the Bible’s words on the basis of how words can be used in their contemporary world.
2. Characteristics of Pre-Modern Interpretation
Let me suggest some general characteristics of pre-modern interpretation. There are of course varying degrees to which someone may show such characteristics, and as I have already said, every single human interpreter is “pre-modern” to one degree or another.
a) An assumption that the meaning of the Bible is obvious – anyone with any sense can see what the Bible means
A pre-modern interpreter is unaware of his or her own presuppositions. The meaning of the Bible may therefore seem obvious to them. Such a person may be aware of others who disagree (e.g. a Wesleyan may be aware that there are Calvinists out there!), but those other positions will seem silly or even fiendish. Perhaps one will even think that those who disagree have a major spiritual problem because they do not see it your way.
One time when I was talking to someone about the Wesleyan “tradition,” I was immediately corrected: “Don’t call it our ‘tradition’; we just read the Bible and do what it says.” This person is a prime example of a pre-modern interpreter – they were completely unaware of how their culture and the preaching they had heard all their life had shaped the way they read the Bible.
b) A failure to read the words of the Bible in context
“The Bible was not written to anyone who is alive today.” Most of us would recoil at such a suggestion – did not God inspire the Bible as a revelation of absolute truth for all time? Maybe if I reword the statement you will understand it better. “The books of the Old Testament were written to ancient Israelites, not modern Americans, and the books of the New Testament were written to Romans, Corinthians, Philippians, etc…”
Surely we all would agree that Paul understood the words he wrote – even though he was under inspiration – as did for the most part those who received his writings. The first recipients of God’s revelation were those to whom these words were first given. I think we would all, at least on the whole, agree with such claims. After all, wouldn’t it be the height of self-centeredness and arrogance to think the Bible was somehow written to me more directly than those whose names actually appear on these books: Romans, Corinthians, etc… It would be highly narcissistic to forget that millions of Christians have found meaning in these words long before the text came to me.
“But it was equally written to us,”
someone might say. Do we understand
words in the same way people did two thousand years ago? There may be some broad similarities, but the
way the ancients viewed the world was drastically different from us in many
respects. When I use the “dictionary” in
my head to read the words of Scripture, the connotations and meanings of those
words are significantly, even drastically different from what those at
What about the meaning in God’s “dictionary”? Can any human truly think the thoughts of God or in the categories of God? To claim such would be blasphemy, making oneself a god, putting oneself on the level of God. No, if the Bible were revealed in God’s absolute language, no human would ever be able to understand it appropriately. Rather, the Bible presents us with God’s repeated “stooping to the weakness” of His people, meeting them where they were at with “baby talk” that revealed Him in terms that helped them catch the smallest glimpse of who “He” is. In fact, even calling Him a “He” is baby talk, for God has no genitalia like Baal was thought to have.
Therefore, since we believe God meant Himself to be understood when He revealed the Bible, we can assume He revealed Himself in the language and categories of the Bible’s first audiences. But since the categories of those audiences were significantly different from ours, the Bible by and large must not be written in my categories or on my terms. The implications of this simple fact are immense.
who reads the Bible as if it is a message directly to him or her must largely
be reading the Bible out of context in a pre-modern way – or at least reading
it on a figurative level. Take Jeremiah
29:11: “‘I know the plans I have for
you,’ says the LORD. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you
a future and a hope’” (NLT). This verse
was spoken to Jeremiah concerning the fate of
In my opinion, it is not necessarily wrong to read verses like this one as direct messages from God to you as an individual. The Holy Spirit may very well speak directly to you by way of the words on the pages of the Bible. But you should not mistake these messages for the real meaning of the Bible – anyone who reads the Bible in this way is reading its words out of context. In theory, God could just as well speak like this through a Reader’s Digest. In other words, those who read the Bible in this way are not reading the words of Jesus, Paul or any of the Biblical authors in terms of what they actually meant. Usually those who emphasize the memorization of individual Bible verses are pre-modern in their interpretations, ripping verses out of the surrounding contexts that tell us what those words really meant.
· What we will discover is that context runs very deep. There is, for example, the literary context – the genre or type of literature you are reading. How do you know to laugh at a comic strip or be serious when reading an obituary? These types of literature don’t come with instructions – I know how to read them because I belong to the same culture that uses these genres. There are many genres in the Bible – ancient genres. If I am unaware of the “rules” of these ancient literary genres, then I no doubt will read much of the Bible out of context to one degree or another.
· Perhaps the most crucial context about which many of us are unaware is the difference between our “cultural dictionary” and those of the ancient world. Indeed, many third world readers of the Bible are far more likely to understand the Bible appropriately than I am as a Westerner – much of African culture, for example, is much closer to the cultures of the Biblical world than mine is. If the Bible was written first to the ancients, then it was written in terms directly relevant to their cultures. That implies that it was not written as directly relevant to my culture. To the extent that I don’t realize this fact – usually to the extent that I believe the words of the Bible to be immediately relevant to modern American culture – to that extent I am reading the Bible out of context in a pre-modern way.
c. A tendency to read the Bible as one book
The final “out-of-context” reading I want to mention is reading the Bible as one book. The Bible is made up of 66 books. That means I cannot even speak of one context for the Bible. There are numerous contexts. There are numerous authors, each with different styles using words in different ways to address different situations and different audiences. When I try to interpret Paul by way of Matthew or Exodus by Jeremiah, I am probably reading the Bible out of context. Paul did not use words in the same way as James, nor did he address the same situations as James. To splice their words together – even to try to harmonize the four gospels into one story of Jesus – usually involves Scripture twisting, taking the words of the Bible out of their original contexts and creating some other, artificial context.
Most of the Bible is situational rather than philosophical. Even Romans, often thought to be Paul’s most general theological statement, has everything to do with the situation between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first half of the first century. Most of the time when we make absolute statements out of Scripture verses or take them as all-time statements without any further ado, we are reading the Bible out of context.
III. How the New Testament Interprets the Old
So called “pre-modern interpretation” has more often than not been the normative way of interpreting the Bible throughout church history. In fact, there is a real sense in which “modern interpretation” is cultural – it is particular to modern Western culture. We should be careful not to discount out-of-context interpretations completely before we have done some careful thinking.
One of the most significant reasons we should be cautious not to throw out pre-modern exegesis completely is because the New Testament largely interprets the Old Testament in this way. Let me give some examples:
a) Matthew 2:15 and Hosea 11:1
Matthew understands Jesus’ exit from
b) 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 and Deuteronomy 25:4
“It is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest (NIV).”
It is difficult for the city dwelling Paul to believe that the original meaning of this verse would be limited to literal oxen. In good pre-modern fashion, he assumes that there is a deeper meaning for him in his day. His application of the verse is inspired and the principle he extracts from the verse is valid – but he is taking the verse way beyond its original context. After all, Deut 25:4 really was about literal oxen in Old Testament times.
c) Hebrews 10:5-9 and Psalm 40:6-8
The heading of Psalm 40 reads “a psalm of David,” which either means that David composed it, or that it was written in honor of David (or later read in the light of him; the headings were not original). We can assume, therefore, that the psalm should be understood as words that could apply to David. For example, the psalmist mentions his sins in verse 12. Certainly Christians would not want to relate that verse to Christ. A person reading in context, therefore, would not naturally apply this psalm to Christ.
Yet one interesting characteristic of the early Christians is that they often interpreted the psalms in terms of what they would mean if Jesus prayed them, and they didn’t worry if all the verses didn’t fit with something he would say. They just took the ones that did – out of context. This is true of Hebrews 10, where Christ proclaims certain verses from Psalm 40 as he comes into the world. The spiritual meaning of these verses from Psalm 40, Hebrews tells us, is that Christ takes away the Old Testament sacrificial system by offering his body as a once-and-for-all replacement. As Hebrews 10 quotes the psalm, “you did not want animal sacrifices and grain offerings. But you have given me a body…” (NLT).
While this interpretation is related to what David meant, Hebrews takes it way beyond the meaning of the original text. Not only does Hebrews apply these words to Christ instead of David himself, but Hebrews takes it to mean the termination of the sacrificial system on the basis of Christ’s offering of his physical body. The original text had nothing like this in mind.
In fact, the text that Hebrews relied on in quoting the psalm was different from the original text. Here’s a thought for those who don’t think you should preach from Mark 16:9-20 because these verses weren’t in the original manuscript of Mark – the New Testament itself “preaches” from texts that weren’t in the original of the Old Testament. What the original text of Psalm 40 said was “sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced…” (NIV). The word body is nowhere to be found. In the period between the psalmist and the author of Hebrews, the original text of the psalm had changed in some way to say something quite different than it had originally. The “version” the author of Hebrews had in front of him used the changed text. Hebrews thus not only makes its point by taking the original words out of context, but it does so by way of words that weren’t even in the original text.
Out of context interpretation is thus the order of the day for the New Testament writers. At times they may do so because the Biblical authors are not aware of the original meaning – true pre-modern interpretation – but it is important to note that they saw nothing wrong with interpreting the Bible out of context. Matthew was not stupid. If you had asked him whether Hosea 11:1 was about Israel or Christ originally – and explained what you meant by “originally” – he no doubt would have said, “Well sure, it was about the exodus when Hosea wrote it, but why is that important? Spiritually, Christ gives the verse its fullest meaning.” Their methods were simply different from ours – at least from those of us who have been taught to read the Bible for what it originally meant.
IV. Making the Shift
I am not claiming that God does not speak to people directly by way of the words of Scripture taken out of context. In fact, I have come to view God as very pragmatic, ever stooping down to our weakness, meeting us where we are. He met the author of Hebrews, for example, with truth by way of the version of Psalm 40 he had at his disposal. Part of my personal theology is that God has chosen the words in our Bibles (whatever version we might be using in whatever language we are using) as a special meeting place for revelation through His Holy Spirit – the Bible being a kind of “sacrament” of revelation. While in theory He could do the same through a Reader’s Digest, I don’t think He has chosen Reader’s Digest as the established place where He speaks to us today. Therefore, I do not at all wish to deny the validity of the countless truths Christians have understood as they have read the Bible out of context.
But once you have really understood what it means to interpret the Bible in context – for what Jesus and Paul and the Biblical authors were really saying to their particular audiences – it will be difficult to continue reading the Bible in the same way you used to read it. Let me try to present the shift for you. Here are some questions I have used in my New Testament Survey classes that help us see the shift.
True or False: 1 Corinthians was written by Paul from
Many of my students put “true.” Why? Because they view the Bible as a book written to them. It’s called “1 Corinthians”; why wouldn’t that be the place from which Paul wrote it to me?
But 1 Corinthians was a very real
letter from Paul to
· Which of the following was probably the first book of the New Testament to be written: a) Matthew, b) Mark, c) Acts, d) 1 Thessalonians?
Many Christians would no doubt answer “Matthew.” Since they view the Bible as one book, it only makes sense that it would be written from beginning to end. Some of my students put “Mark” because most scholars believe that it was the first gospel to be written. The correct answer, however, is d, 1 Thessalonians. It is extremely likely that all of Paul’s letters were written and he had been martyred before a single gospel was penned.
The shift from reading the Bible out of context to reading it for what it actually meant takes place when one begins to read its books and words as a part of history – not as a self-contained text I can understand without knowing its historical, literary, and ideological contexts. I begin to see the individual books of the Bible as a part of the broader history of Israel and Christianity rather than as words in a timeless bubble – a bubble by the way that pre-modern interpreters assume they are in, as if their understandings were unaffected by their own culture.
The shift out of pre-modernism leads one to think in terms of the events to which the Bible gives witness rather than the words of the Bible placed into my context. When I read the Bible in its contexts, I read these books as examples of God’s repeated stooping to the weakness of particular peoples – crisp, dynamic, and relevant words to His people, rather than static propositions that in the end simply mirror my own world. If we truly respect the words of the Bible, surely our primary focus in interpretation will be oriented around hearing them for what they actually meant rather than on how we might rip those words from their true meaning and graft them artificially into our world.
The shift from viewing the words of the Bible in a timeless bubble to reading it in its historical context took place in the 1600’s and 1700’s, although most still read the Bible in a pre-modern way. Historical-critical method is the name of the approach that attempts to make decisions (which is all that the word critical means here) about the historical meaning of the Bible.
The nice thing about the pre-modern approach is that the authoritative voice of God (if you believe it can come through pre-modern interpretation) comes directly by way of the words of the text – it does not necessarily involve research of any kind. Not that pre-modern interpretation does not involve sometimes massive intellectual activity – after all, great theologians like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and even John Wesley thought much more in pre-modern terms than in terms of historical meaning. Just like all interpreters, the pre-modern reader has to fit all of his or her individual interpretations together into some kind of a system. But ultimately their system is based upon the way they think in the world of their day. Theologians from the early centuries until even the 1900’s more often than not read their systems into the text more than out of the text.
Hearing the authoritative voice of God for us today by way of historical method is much more complicated than hearing it with pre-modern glasses on. The pre-modern must fit together ideas into a system, but they do so on their own turf. What I mean is, since they are reasoning it out (or letting God direct their thoughts) in the terms of their own world and culture (even though they do not realize it), they are on familiar ground. The pre-modern already sees the Bible as one book, generally with its words all meaning similar things.
But the one who reads the Bible historically must fit together very diverse ideas, just as the actual situations of the Bible were very diverse. Creating a system out of meanings that are derived from several different “cultural dictionaries” (what the historical interpreter must do) is more complicated than creating a system in which perhaps only the cultural dictionary of the interpreter is used (what the pre-modern exegete does).
Let me give an example. Matthew 5:17 says, “I did not come to abolish the Law or the prophets,” while Ephesians 2:15 says that Christ “abolished the law with its commandments and regulations.” How do these two statements fit together? First of all, a pre-modern interpreter will ask the question exactly as I have. I quoted these two statements on the basis of chapter and verse – which were not in the original text – and I treated them as if they were propositions unrelated to any context. Similarly, a pre-modern reader assumes that Matthew is recording the exact words that Jesus said while he was on earth. I could just as well have written, “Jesus says in Matthew 5:17…”
When we read the Bible in terms of its original meaning, however, we will have to place these words in their historical contexts. It is the author of Matthew, for example, that depicts Jesus as saying that he did not come to abolish the Law or the prophets, and it is the writer of Ephesians that indicates that the Law has been cancelled. To word it in this way is not to deny that God inspired the author of Matthew or the writer of Ephesians. But He certainly worked through the minds of these persons to create the Biblical text.
Each of the books of the Bible has its own individual style, its own way of using words, and its own themes. The Hebrew word soul in Genesis 2:7 (NIV – “living being”), for example, refers to all of Adam, including his body. But Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, using the Greek equivalent of this word, uses the word soul as something distinct from the body. These two ways of using the word soul do not necessarily contradict, but they show that God’s inspiration used the language categories and thought forms of those He was inspiring – He met them where they were at.
There is a whole host of new questions that arise when we read the Bible in terms of the words and thought forms of the writers God inspired. While the answer to many of these questions may seem obvious to us, they would not even have been thought of when we were reading the Bible in a pre-modern fashion. If we are really concerned to know the true meaning of the Bible’s words, we probably should not dismiss these questions too quickly without at least a serious consideration. Are we really interested in what the Bible actually meant, or is our real agenda a desire to reinforce what we already believe – whether it is actually true or not?
More often than not, pre-modern interpretation is not really interested in objective truth but rather works vigorously to maintain the beliefs its tradition already holds. It is deeply ironic that many of those who think they have the highest view of Scripture actually show the least respect for the Bible because they do not let it speak on its own terms. Rather, they interpret the evidence as necessary to maintain the presuppositions with which they came to the text, and they interpret its words as necessary so that it will fit with the conclusions they have already made.
Is it any wonder that Baptists consistently find the doctrine of eternal security in Scripture or that Wesleyans find the Bible to teach “free will.” Why do some Christians believe the Bible to teach capital punishment while others think such a practice to be atrociously non-Christian? We must at least in part conclude that many of those who hold such positions have reached their conclusions long before they approached the Biblical text.
But let us return to interpreting these verses from Matthew and Ephesians. First of all, there is the issue of the gospel of Matthew’s perspective on Jesus’ teaching. I will pass over the question of whether Jesus actually taught what Matthew portrays him as teaching here – that is, whether the “historical” Jesus differed from the Jesus of Matthew. In our pre-modern days, we would not even have thought about the potential distinction between the Jesus who actually walked the earth and the Jesus that the Bible and Christians envisage.
But even when we accept that Jesus did in fact affirm the validity of the Law, no presentation of history comes without a perspective (I’ll put aside questions about the ancient genre of biography – in other words, to what degree should a gospel be considered history writing). There is always far more data to relate in presenting history than could possibly be related by the “historian.” A random spark may harmlessly occur somewhere deep in a Space Shuttle as it is launched. But chances are, that bit of data won’t make it into the history books – even though it technically was a part of the event.
All history writing involves the selection and de-selection of events. It involves prioritizing and emphasizing. It involves selecting some of the causes and effects, but never all. In short, a presentation of history can be broadly accurate, but it will also always “skew” the data somewhat in one direction or another. Only God’s mind can handle all the data at the same time in all of their proper relationships – no human on earth will ever be able to do so. And certainly no written presentation of history can ever give us an objective picture of events, since the limits of this medium eliminates even more data than even the human mind can contain.
So reading the gospels as a part of early Christianity leads us to consider what particular concerns led God to inspire the gospel writers to choose to tell certain events and omit others, as well as why they have worded the material in the way they have (all these concerns pertain to redaction criticism). For example, most scholars believe that Matthew wrote for a Jewish Christian audience. Did Matthew’s community of Jewish Christians believe that they needed to continue to keep the Mosaic Law? Did the author of Matthew present Jesus in such a way as to put forward those aspects of his teaching that particularly applied to Christian Jews while omitting others that did not as readily apply?
What, for example, is the difference between Matthew 15:17-20 and Mark 7:17-19? The answer is an explanation of certain Jewish practices. Because Mark is writing for non-Jews, he explains why the matter of Jesus’ disciples washing their hands before eating is an issue. Matthew, on the other hand, writing for Jews, does not need to explain the issue. When we look at Matthew in its original context, we must ask what the perspective of this gospel is and how his presentation of the gospel might relate to a particular context. To absolutize his words, on the other hand, will often be to take them out of context.
Ephesians, on the other hand, was almost certainly written with an eye to Gentiles. One issue that is debated in scholarly circles about Ephesians is whether it was actually written by Paul or was written by one of Paul’s disciples under the authority of Paul’s name – that is, is Ephesians “pseudonymous.” We have numerous examples of this type of literature in the world of that day. So since the vocabulary, style, and teaching of Ephesians differs somewhat from Paul’s other letters, many scholars believe it was actually penned by a Pauline “disciple.”
Again, while the answer to this question may seem obvious to us, our respect for the Bible will lead us at least to consider the possibility with seriousness. In regard to the verse in question, for example, the statement that the Law is abolished seems to be a somewhat different approach to the subject of Christians and the Law than Romans 3:31 and 8:4, where Paul speaks of upholding and keeping the Law. Could the difference between these two books be the difference between a mixed Jew and Gentile audience for Romans and a strictly Gentile audience for Ephesians? My point here is not to argue for a position on this particular issue, just to show the kinds of questions that arise when one begins to interpret the Bible in context.
The question of who the author of these letters was and what audience they were addressing does not even matter in a pre-modern interpretation. These verses will be harmonized strictly on the basis of the meanings these individual words can have in the mind of the person doing the interpreting and their Christian tradition. A pre-modern interpreter might suggest, for example, that Jesus meant the essence of the Law or the moral law – conveniently ignoring Matthew 5:19 and 23:3, 23. A pre-modern might suggest that Paul means that the ceremonial law was what was cancelled, not the moral law. But Ephesians itself does not make such distinctions – nor would mainstream Jews of the first century have divided up the Law in this way.
If the one approaching these texts from a historical
perspective wishes to relate these two voices to one another, he or she will do
it in context. When Jesus says that he
has not come to abolish the Law, for example, he is addressing Jews on the mountainside of ancient
2. The complications of historical method
There are other issues that arise when one begins to read the Bible for its original meaning. The stereotypical pre-modern interpreter uses whatever version of the Bible they know – the King James Version, for example. But when Christians began to look at the Bible from a historical perspective, they had to deal with the question of figuring out just what the first copies of the books of the Bible actually said. There are over 5000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and no two of them have exactly the same wording throughout. The science of textual criticism arose, which addresses the variations in the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments and tries to figure out what the “first editions” most likely said.
This aspect of historical method created new questions for us. If the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) was not in the first edition of John, can we still preach from this passage? Is the authoritative voice of Scripture to be found in passages the church has used for thousands of years, yet which were not in the original manuscripts?
A further wrinkle takes place when
we ask the question of sources behind the New Testament documents – source criticism. Most scholars, for example, believe that
there were sources of some kind both behind the Pentateuch and the Synoptic
Gospels. If there was a source that
Matthew and Luke used for Jesus’ sayings – a source scholars call Q – was it
authoritative? If there was an epic of
Yet even here things can get sticky. Who decided when there were enough psalms to stop collecting them, for example, and who decided that prophetic collections like those of Jeremiah or Ezekiel were edited into their final form? If someone has updated the names of cities in Genesis so that later Israelites would know where “Luz” was (28:19), who decided that no more updating would be done? For that matter, who decided which books belonged in the canon and which not? We believe that God did.
But God did so through communities
of faith, whether
Just to follow the questions, if we one day determined that Jesus said something in a significantly different way from how it came to be recorded in our gospels, which would be more authoritative – his actual words or his words as they appear in the Bible? In other words, is the text of the church or the history of the actual events more authoritative? Again, we would not have even understood this question in our pre-modern days.
When historical method arose, the fundamentalist scholar answered that we did not have to choose one or the other, for the Bible’s text gave us the history of the actual events accurately. The fundamentalist view promotes the idea of “inerrancy,” which they define as the absence of error of any kind in the Biblical text. Usually implied in the fundamentalist definition, however, is also the idea that the Bible’s narratives are historical presentations and that imagery that can be related to science should be taken literally.
But what if ancient history writing did not follow the same “rules” as our history writing? And what would the difference be between saying a parable is a story presenting truth and saying that Jonah was written as a novella presenting truth? And if the Bible represents God revealing Himself in the categories of His people, then would we really expect the Bible’s images of the universe to look anything like what we would learn in a modern science class? Wouldn’t we expect Paul to visit the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2) and for there to be primordial waters above the stars (Gen 1:6, 14)?
It is possible, of course, to define the word “inerrancy” more broadly, since surely it is most important to understand the Biblical texts in their own categories rather than to impose ours on them. A fundamentalist agrees that a parable is not in error because it does not tell a story that happened in history, because it never meant to do so. Whatever decision we make with regard to the genre of Jonah, the Bible would not be in error if it were to turn out it was a novella. The fundamentalist preoccupation with history and modern science is as much a product of modernist culture as that of the atheist Biblical scholar is.
On the other extreme, many during the rise of historical method thought there was a difference between text and history – a radical difference. They predictably answered that history is more authoritative than text – the actual words of Jesus over and against the words in the Bible. Indeed, there was a drive in the 1800’s and early 1900’s to push back behind the documents of the Old and New Testaments to the history, where God’s real dealings with his people were sometimes thought to be located.
First, source criticism pushed to find the earliest sources, thinking that these would be more reliable than the later ones. For a time, Mark was valued as providing the true picture of Jesus, since it was thought to be the basis for Matthew and Luke. Then William Wrede argued that Mark himself had created his picture of Jesus from a false theological angle, and so a certain segment of the modernist scholarly community despaired of ever finding the historical Jesus.
Form criticism took a different tactic to reach history. By looking at the forms of Jesus’ sayings, the form critics thought they could strip them of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s theology and reach what Jesus actually said. But just as pre-modernism resulted in many theologies, there were almost as many different reconstructions of the historical Jesus as there were scholars trying to find him. For a sizeable portion of the twentieth century, an incredible pessimism clouded Biblical scholarship. In the words of one scholar, Jesus became a “stranger” – a historical figure from an alien world, a man we would not recognize today. The section on “Text and Reader-Centered Interpretive Methods” below will discuss where scholarship has gone from there.
A final complication of reading the Bible in terms of its original context is that a tremendous amount of this original context is unavailable to us. The author of Hebrews and the situation he addresses, for example, is unknown to us. It is thus no wonder that countless different proposals have been made about its situation and teaching.
Further, filling in many of these blanks is likely to mislead us. If I presume Paul wrote Ephesians and I am wrong, I am reading the letter out of context. Yet if I presume that Paul didn’t write Ephesians and he did, I am also reading the letter out of context. Knowing the answer to this question would go a long way toward helping me understand this letter’s original meaning. You can find almost as much disagreement among scholars about the original meaning of the Bible as you find among the various pre-modern interpreters of different denominations. The amount of uncertainty about the original meaning could cast doubt on our hopes of finding the authoritative voice of Scripture here.
What we can speak of is a broad domain of possible historical meanings that the Biblical texts could have had. For example, an ancient author and an ancient reader could have taken the same words differently, but both would have understood those words from within the set of meanings possible in the first century. No one in the first century, for example, would have thought that the phrase “the moon turned to blood” meant that the molecules of the massive physical structure circling the earth would be transformed into the molecular structure of human blood. These simply were not the categories of the first century. In some ways, therefore, we can say more about what the original meaning was not than what it was.
3. Where is the authoritative voice of the original meaning to be found?
Before Christians began to interpret the Bible in its historical context, there was an assumption that the whole Bible was true and fit together. The meanings of words were simply interpreted in such a way that they fit together into a coherent system. When we started reading the Bible in context, however, fitting its teachings together took on a different look. In addition to fitting the truths of the Bible together, many were now also concerned to correlate a literal reading of the Bible with history and science. The concept of “inerrancy” arose, which is based on the logical distinction between a literal reading of the Bible and a historical reading of the Bible. An inerrantist believes that these two do not contradict. Before the rise of historical method, none of these issues would have even occurred to us.
But what does the authoritative voice of God look like in a presentation of history or science? The inerrantist opts for accuracy in history and science as a kind of authoritativeness, but what do these have to say about how God wants me to live today? History, of course, has many lessons to teach us, and the Bible often draws out those lessons for us. Our discussion above also hints that the perspective of the historian is a strong candidate for hearing God’s authoritative voice. Matthew might emphasize the ongoing validity of the Law for Jewish Christians. The theology of the gospel writer can thus be considered a vehicle for God’s authoritative voice.
God’s Voice in a Narrative?
There are many times when a narrative does not make a value
judgment. The narrative of Judges 19,
for example, does not tell us what to think of the Levite who offers the
Benjamite crowd his concubine so they will not rape him. Nor does the narrative tell us whether he
should have chopped her dead body into 12 pieces and sent them to the tribes of
The book of Acts does not tell us explicitly whether the apostles handled the controversy between Aramaic and Greek speaking widows properly (chapter 6). It simply tells us that the event happened. How do I know if this story models something for me or is simply introducing Stephen in the narrative so I will know who is being martyred in the next chapter?
Many Christians assume that the book of Acts gives us a
blueprint for church growth today, but where does the text of Acts tell me
that? How did we decide that the
authoritative voice of God indicated we should do the same kinds of things
recorded there – especially since our world is so different from theirs? Why would we take strategies Paul used to
spread the gospel to urban centers of the Roman Mediterranean and use them in
the inner city of
And where is the authoritative voice of God to be found in a genealogy, or in expressions of grief such as one finds in Psalm 22 or 137? The pre-modern interpreter could easily move from a literal to a figurative or spiritualized interpretation when the historical meaning of a text seemed inapplicable. How does one find the authoritative voice of God in Psalm 137:9, which applauds anyone who would dash the babies of the Babylonians against rocks? A pre-modern might reinterpret “babies” here to be the seeds of sin that Satan uses to snare us. Blessed is the person who dashes those seeds of sin before they grow to entangle you.
But when we read this psalm as a genuine expression of grief on the part of an Israelite captive, we are uncertain about what this might mean for us. It is not a communication from God to a human; it is an expression from a person to God. There is no teaching involved, no command to the psalmist. Perhaps we begin to broaden our perspective of God’s “voice” beyond the logical mode of teaching or the directive mode of command to other modes of expression, such as the emotional. Perhaps God can use this psalm to speak comfort to us in whatever trial we might be in.
This discussion leads us to see that historical method in and of itself may not give us the authoritative voice of God. Once we know what the text meant, we still do not necessarily know how to apply it to today. In the end, we find that applying the historical meaning to today involves many of the same processes we used when we were pre-modern readers, like finding an emotional point of contact with a psalm.
There is no one scheme for bridging the gap between historical meaning and contemporary application. With regard to the Bible’s commands, there is no guarantee that the essence of these directives would play out the same way today that they did then. We can try to isolate what seem to be the principles behind the Biblical commands, but sometimes even such principles can mislead us. When 1 Timothy 2:12 states that wives cannot have authority over their husbands, the principles provided are the authority of birth order (Adam first) and the deceivability of the female race in contrast to the male (Eve was deceived, not Adam). Are these the principles by which we transfer God’s authoritative voice from then to now? How far out on a limb can we go? Can we say that these principles themselves are cultural and that the real principle is to be a good witness to one’s surrounding culture – which might not have happened if the Christian community to which 1 Timothy is addressed had allowed husbands to be taught by their wives?
Dr. Steven Lennox of
Why does the God of the Old Testament sometimes seem more condemning, less predictable? Does it not have something to do with the picture of God they needed and could understand? Can we not say the same thing about the picture of God in the New Testament – not necessarily that their understanding of God has “evolved,” although certainly Christ fills in a host of blanks, but that God was meeting a different time and place with the true picture of Him that they needed?
Certain kinds of reasoning make more sense in one culture
than another as well, presenting us with the challenge of how to translate the
historical teaching of the Bible from one context to another. The editor of the books of Samuel had no
problem attributing God with David’s impulse to number the fighting men
Does not this same process apply to truths such as the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ? These teachings are not developed in the text of the New Testament – it took centuries of trial and error before the church finally affirmed them. What do these processes have to say about the development of our theology today? Can we as the church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, take the trajectories of Scripture and draw lines to our cultural context? While one cannot deny the essential appropriateness of the historical approach, it becomes increasingly clear that it opens a Pandora’s box of complicated issues we did not have to face before. We can barely see back in the distance the Reformation’s pre-modern affirmation that Scripture alone was authoritative for the Christian. Suddenly we realize how much more than the text alone is involved in appropriating the Bible for any context.
III. Text and Reader-Centered Interpretations
In a sense, the pre-modern interpreter saw only the words of the text in front of him or her. They were unaware of what it might mean to read those words in context – for what the original author and readers might have thought those words meant. They were also unaware of themselves as readers and the way in which their own world in fact dominated their interpretation of the text.
The modernist reader adds the history behind the text to the equation. The meaning of the text is now thought to be text + author. But the deeper we went into our discussion of historical method above, the more that method began to yield uncertain results. We simply do not have enough information to be certain about many of our interpretations. There are too many gaps in our knowledge of the context.
No doubt even ancient authors and readers at times would have taken the same words in different ways, leading us to ask what the “original meaning” was anyway? Whose understanding of the text should be considered original? Further, once we know the historical meaning in its original context, how do we apply that meaning to today? We run the risk of finishing our exegesis paper and still not knowing where to find God’s authoritative voice in the ancient meaning.
Post-modernity adds a serious consideration of the final component of interpretation, namely, the reader. In its proper sense, post-modernism is not so much a new system of truth as a realization of the limits of modernity. Modernism moved beyond pre-modernism by making us somewhat aware of our own biases and pre-suppositions. We began a quest for objectivity. What post-modernism makes us aware of is the fact that our quest was, in the end, somewhat doomed for failure. We will never be able to shake free of our human perspective and reach a God-like objectivity. No matter how timeless and absolute the truth, it will always be skewed when it comes into the domain of human understanding. That is the legacy of the Fall and the limitations of the non-divine.
Yet despite the excesses of some post-modernists, we do not have to abandon the idea of absolute truth, even though we must acknowledge that the way we conceive of this abstract idea itself comes by way of our modern Western worldview. We can only ascribe such truth to God’s domain, not ours. We “see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror,” but God is able to hold all the data together at the same time in all its proper relationships. He speaks “baby talk” to us, meeting us at whatever point He finds us, enabling us to catch the smallest glimpse of His truth. The Bible is thus a kaleidoscopic collection of true God-pictures.
Not all who have thought through these things have retained any concept of truth at all. Some extreme “interpreters” of the Bible, for example, are called deconstructionists. Their principle claim is that any interpretation of the Bible will fall apart if it is examined closely enough. Steven Moore, perhaps the best known deconstructionist in Biblical studies, uses the idea that Jesus is the living water in John as an example. While Jesus claims that he eliminates the need for earthly water in chapter 4, he finds himself requiring that same water when he is on the cross. Post-modernists love to point out what they see as ambiguities or inconsistencies in any system of thought.
A slightly less extreme wing of contemporary Biblical studies than the deconstructionists is made up of those that practice reader-response criticism. Those who practice this form of interpretation range from scholars interested in how the original audience of the Bible would have heard its words to those who feel that any reader’s response to the words of the Bible are as good as anyone else’s. In this latter approach, we have come full circle back to where we were in pre-modernism.
In pre-modernism, we read the words of the Bible out of context as they struck us as readers. We largely read them along the lines of whatever group or tradition to which we happened to belong. But we did not realize we were doing this! In post-modernism, groups and individuals read the words of the Bible out of context once again – but they do so consciously. After all, some reader-response critics might say, the original context is unavailable to us anyway. There are feminist readers, African-American readers, liberationist readers – and some of these think that any reading they come up with will be just as appropriate as any other. “What does this Bible verse mean to you?” However you answer, this type of reader-response interpreter affirms that you are correct.
Yet these post-modern interpreters have surely thrown the baby out with the bath water. It is true that a close examination of the historical meaning of the Bible will lead us to substantial ambiguities when we take the method to its fullest extent. But I feel quite certain that Judas Iscariot was one of the bad guys and that Jesus was the hero of the story. While we may certainly get things out of focus as readers sometimes, I’m convinced that responsible scholarship puts us in the ballpark most of the time.
What seems true about post-modernism’s interpretation of the Bible is that we as readers and communities of readers are de facto the determinative component in our interpretation. After all, Beethoven’s symphony may be a mind-boggling work of perfection, but that doesn’t mean I can appreciate it. Someone may be trying to call me, but I may not have a telephone. While we may appreciate the original meaning and hold up God’s perfect revelation as inspired and authoritative, what if we do not have ears to hear? The meaning we understand ultimately is a function of our heads and what they are able to receive – a practical reality that deals a severe blow to our theological dreams and plans.
But surely we can tell the difference between broadly accurate historical interpretations and ones that are clearly wrong. I know I did not shoot John F. Kennedy, nor did Julius Caesar. N. T. Wright has supported an interpretive position called critical realism. In this approach, we take seriously the fact that none of us will ever be completely objective about the facts, but that does not mean that we have to abandon the idea that there are indeed facts out there. This conceptual framework seems the most appropriate of all the ones we have examined so far.
2. The Shift From Historical to Literary Methods of Interpretation
I’ve already mentioned that historical criticism left many scholars in the early to mid-twentieth century in despair about the relevance of Christianity for today or about the possibility of ever knowing what the historical Jesus actually looked like. Well over a hundred years after Julius Wellhausen thought he had solved the question of sources behind the Pentateuch, scholars are still undecided. Long after everyone was sure Mark was the first gospel to be written, we still have a significant number of prominent scholars who are not so sure. And form criticism did anything but create a consensus on the form of Jesus’ actual sayings. Scholars tired of atomizing the text and coming no closer to reliable meaning. Rather relevance seemed to move further and further away.
In this period arose a turn back away from history, this time intentionally. Pre-moderns were unaware of what it would mean to interpret the Bible in its historical context. Scholars of the late twentieth century found themselves unsure of that context after vigorous study into the ancient world and so turned to things they thought they could be sure of, namely, the text of the Bible that was in front of them.
The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann, who probably had a greater affect on New Testament scholarship than anyone else in the twentieth century, wrote, “The message of Jesus is a presupposition for the theology of the New Testament rather than a part of that theology itself.” In other words, while the so-called historical Jesus stands in the background of the New Testament and the truth it offers us, he is not a part of that truth. Bultmann and the movement of neo-orthodoxy of which he was a part came to value “truth” above history – for Bultmann, this “truth” was the truth of existentialist philosophy that he claims to extract from the New Testament after he has “demythologized” it.
And so in the period that followed, scholars stopped looking to find the literary sources of the gospels and the history behind their presentation. Instead, they now asked how each of the gospel writers had used their sources – redaction criticism. In other words, what was the theology of the gospel writers? While this question is a historical one as well (what is the situation behind the creation of this gospel), it is moving back in the direction of the text.
After redaction criticism would come rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism, and structuralism. All of these approaches are text-centered rather than author-centered methods of extracting meaning from the Biblical text. Rhetorical criticism was still looking at the text from a historical perspective, at least at first, for it asked what light ancient conventions of rhetoric might contribute to our understanding of the way the train of thought in the Biblical text was structured.
Asbury’s method is quite text-centered – there has sometimes been a tendency among those who practice it to bracket authorial intent and reduce interaction with historical context to a bare minimum. It is no coincidence that teachers at Asbury have dabbled in such text-oriented approaches as narrative criticism, canonical criticism, and discourse analysis (another kind of “rhetorical” approach). All these approaches ride the wave of a shift in focus away from history and toward the text.
Canonical criticism, for example, attempted to read the whole Bible in a “canonical context.” What is important for such interpreters is not so much what the text originally meant but what those words mean in the context of the whole of the Bible. Here we have once again come full circle back to pre-modernism. Pre-modern interpretation read the words of the Bible in terms of what a particular Christian tradition believed – even though they did not realize they were doing this. Canonical criticism will do so again, but this time full well knowing that it is taking words out of context at various points, using the New Testament as the interpretive high ground. It is not the “Hebrew Scriptures” that are a concern for Christians, they might say. Rather it is the “Old Testament” – those very same words understood through the eyes of the New Testament rather than in their original context.
Structuralism was a highly technical approach to the Bible’s text that attempted to analyze its meaning in terms of certain basic structures thought to be a part of all story telling and cultural thinking. Such interpreters felt no need to ask questions about authorial intent or anything historical – these structures were thought to be such that meaning could be taken out of the text without any thought for historical context. Narrative criticism grew out of the seeds of structuralism. Its main proponents discarded all regard for actual authors and readers and instead sought for “implied” authors and readers derived from the text itself.
While these approaches have left us with some helpful tools – narrative criticism has yielded some very helpful categories for looking at the Biblical stories – they ultimately fall prey to the same fallacy as pre-modern interpretation. Texts do not exist in a bubble. Words only have meanings in a context – otherwise they are merely marks on a page or sounds in the air. Mark Powell, a narrative critic, has suggested that historical background should be bracketed from our interpretation of a story unless the story itself demands its consideration. But every word ever understood has been understood because of the way a particular historical context uses that word. I will either insert my historical context for the word or I will insert some other historical context of which I am aware. If we are to ask, then, what parts of Matthew demand the consideration of historical background in order to understand it, the answer is every single word. The only other alternative is to insert my historical background into its words – or some other of my choosing.
An Interpretive Ultimatum
Our discussion has left us with some important things to consider as we try to bring all these factors together in order to form an appropriate hermeneutic. More than anything else, there is the bottom line that no matter what the message may be, it is always understood and appropriated in human minds. Thus while it seems appropriate to keep the original meaning of Scripture in constant view as our ideal goal, the authoritative voice of God is always heard in the domain of the reader(s). Surely this fact places the focus of Biblical authority on the “spiritual meanings” the Holy Spirit brings to us by way of whatever text, method, or conceptual framework we happen to be using.
The pre-modern reader of the Bible hears the voice of God in its words. He or she does not realize that the meaning they hear is unrelated to the Bible’s original meaning, but it is God’s authoritative voice to them through whatever version or language they may be reading. The one who tries to read the Bible in the light of its original meaning does better and is an important check on the excesses of pre-modern interpretation, a fixed point to keep the pre-modern from bungee jumping to their death. But knowing what the Bible meant originally does not mean that we know how to apply it appropriately today. A mechanism of appropriation is needed, and the text itself does not furnish us with one.
Can we intentionally take verses beyond the meaning of their original context, just like the early Christians? Perhaps we can as long as the message we are proclaiming is true to the core beliefs we have derived by way of the original meaning. If this is the case, such out-of-context interpretations can have a depth to them unknown in pre-modern interpretation.
Ultimately, the authoritative voice of God must be heard through the ears of the Holy Spirit, who can help us hear no matter what our method is. Since the meaning of these words has proved to be so flexible, so capable of being turned in one way or another, it makes sense that we should read the Bible in the company of other Christians – in community. No one has a corner on the Spirit, who inhabits the body of Christ as a whole far more than solitary individuals. Each kind of interpreter is like a part of the body, to use the imagery of 1 Corinthians 12. Will the ear say to the eye, you are not a part of the body?
 See his article, “What Does This Passage Tell Us About God?” in the online journal Quadrilateral: An Online Journal in Service of the Church 1 (1999).
 Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1989) 159-163.
 The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 32-46.
 Theology of the New Testament, translated by K. Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951) 3.
 What is Narrative Criticism? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 20-21.