Postmodernism and the Bible

1. Introduction

By this point, the word postmodernism has become so passé and has taken on such various different meanings that the very presence of the word in a title is almost enough to make you leave the room screaming. Indeed, the writer or speaker usually goes on to give some vague definition for the word that is less than helpful. Take my definition, for example: postmodern means “after modernism.” OK, great. What’s modernism?

 

Then the speaker or author has to face the additional fact that a good number of the audience or readership already will have a bias one way or another toward the word. And it will usually be a strong bias, either positively or negatively. For some, postmodernism is the essence of all that is wrong with America and the world today. It is the death of truth and the triumph of relativism. For others it is the latest hip “in” thing, and anyone who knows anything or is anybody is a part of it.

 

Then there are the glib and not too insightful dismissals. “So postmodernism claims there is no such thing as truth, right? Well, that’s a truth claim itself. So by claiming there is no truth you are claiming a truth and, therefore, postmodernism is fundamentally incoherent.”

 

The original title I had in mind for this piece was “What is true about postmodernism in relation to the Bible?” It was meant to be a mildly amusing pun on the fact that postmodernism is more often associated with “un-truth” than with truth. Indeed, some might describe postmodernism as anti-truth. It is more about what is not true than what is true.

 

But as I will define postmodernism in a moment, there are important truths to be gained from this epoch of thought and un-thought. In particular, post-modernism brings with it some very significant reflections on the Bible and the way the Bible functions as Scripture among Christians. At least from my current vantage point, some of these seem unavoidable. Let me mention some of my conclusions up front so you know where we are headed.

 

For example, many Christians do not seriously reckon with the fact that the Bible itself is an object of knowledge.  In other words, it is something outside of ourselves that gets into our heads by us thinking about it. What we might call a “pre-modern” reader of the Bible tends to assume that the meaning of the Bible is self-evident: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me.” They speak about the Bible as if its meaning came installed and unzipped on their hard drive. But a little reflection on the process of “inputting” the Bible into our word processor argues strongly otherwise, as does the massively fragmented history of Protestantism.

 

Postmodernism thrusts on us a question that has always been even more important than the question of whether the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. And that is this: which interpretation of the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative? David Koresh thought the Bible was inerrant... but he was a nut ball.

 

Let me put a second truth I get from postmodernism this way: meaning is a matter of minds.[1] What I am trying to say is that squiggles on a page mean nothing to a tree. Ever held a book up to a tree so it could learn something?  And whatever written words might mean to a chicken, it is hopefully not the same as what they mean to me. Once a text becomes detached from its author, the author loses control over its meaning (Ricoeur). The determinative element in the equation of meaning is thus always the reader or audience. I say this as a matter of description rather than prescription.  Even if someone would argue that I should try to figure out the original meaning of a text, the actual meaning I understand is always a function of my mind.  Meaning for me cannot take place in your mind. It ultimately can only take place in my head.

 

The result of these two points is that there are indeed far more potential meanings for “the Bible” than most people would imagine. We emphatically would see that this is the case if we could tally the interpretations of all the Bible study groups around the world on a given text. We emphatically see this in the over 20,000 different Protestant denominations thinking themselves to base their doctrine solely on the Bible. We emphatically see this in the diversity of interpretations by scholars of the original meaning on any particular text, multiplied by the trends of even the last century.

 

So who will free us from this body of confusion and ambiguity? The problem is to figure out what the Christian meaning of these books are. The obvious answer is to read the text as God does. But this answer is no answer. I am stuck in my mind, not God’s. There would be no problem in the first place if there were some straightforward way to know how God reads the text.

 

Let me suggest only a slightly less outrageous proposal. The Christian reading of these texts is the reading of these texts that an ideal Christian would have. This is what I have gleaned from what seems to be true about the current postmodern critique of human knowledge. Of course that raises the question of who exactly the ideal Christian is.  By the end of this paper I will build a case that the ideal Christian knows as much as a human can know, is as filled with the Spirit as a human can be filled, and is in as much communion with the saints of the ages as a Christian can be in communion.  Since no individual could possibly be this, we are on safest ground when we read the Bible as the community of faith, as the larger body of Christ.  It is on this quest to be the ideal reader of Scripture that we now embark.

 

 

2. A Working Definition of Postmodernism

I mentioned a moment ago that my starting definition for postmodernism is simply to define it as “after modernism.”  Fair enough. So what is modernism? Are we referring to a period of cultural history, to a philosophy? These labels seem all too vague and imprecise, even if they are pointing to some “truth” somehow. By the end of this section I hope to convert this language into categories I find slightly more precise and useful.

 

In philosophy, we might date the birth of “modern” philosophy to Rene Descartes, author of the famous dictum, “I think; therefore, I am.” Descartes had set himself to doubt everything that he could possibly doubt so that he could eventually establish all those things that he could know with certainty. By the end of the first part of his quest, the doubting part, he concluded that the only thing he could not doubt was the fact that he existed as a doubter, as an “I.” By now, movies like the Matrix have called even that conclusion into question. Perhaps I am a very sophisticated future computer program. So maybe we should now put it as “I think; therefore, something is.”

 

Let me use Descartes to point out three of the many features of the modernist period of Western thought. First, Descartes was very reflective in his doubting process—he was focused on himself as a “knower.” Secondly, he tried to be as objective as possible. He tried as logically as possible, using the evidence at hand, to form an unbiased conclusion. Thirdly, he was preoccupied in his venture with certainty in knowledge. He wanted to know what he could not doubt about reality.

 

These are some of the main features of modernism as we are speaking of it. You will notice how scientific these characteristics all sound. It is no coincidence that these last five hundred years have been the age of science. As Stanley Grenz once suggested, the character of Spock from Star Trek is an excellent picture of modernism. He is completely aware of himself as a knower; he can tell you the percentage of certainty on any question; and he is absolutely objective—he is in control of his emotions and they do not influence his decisions.

 

I will now sadly reveal that I can quote certain lines from the first Star Trek movie in the ‘80’s. Captain Kirk and Spock are having a casual conversation when Kirk says something like, “I won’t argue with you.” Spock then responds, “That is wise.” It is not that Spock is boasting—he cannot boast, for that would involve his emotions. He is simply making a logical, objective assessment of the situation. He objectively, as a detached knower of reality, knows that he is correct. It would be foolish to argue with someone who knows the truth and is completely objective and certain.

 

Against this backdrop, postmodernism affirms that no knowledge is certain, that no one is completely aware of themselves as a knower, and that no one can thereby be completely objective. Here I am struck by the fact that these characteristics of postmodernism are really the outworking of the original “modernist” principles that I first mentioned. Indeed, these concepts seem to flow naturally out of Descartes’ agenda to doubt anything he could doubt until he could not doubt anything. We can distinguish his enterprise from that of postmodernism in at least two key ways.  First, he didn’t realize that he could doubt his existence as a subject over and against the outside world as an object—he did not question himself as an “I.”  Secondly, after doubting all he could doubt, he rebuilt certainty on assumptions that were not nearly as certain as he thought.

 

In my opinion, what we call postmodernism is really only the ultimate answer to the modernist equation. It is the outworking of the principle that we are all stuck in our heads, that we reflect on the world from where we sit and that no human can be fully objective. There can be no human like Spock, emotions or no emotions. Everything except existence itself can be doubted, and thus all constructions of truth involve a significant degree of faith.

 

Let me suggest categories I personally find more helpful than the vague terms pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. I believe we can accommodate the data in a useful way if we think of the entire enterprise of knowing as collapsing into the two categories of pre-modern and post-modern, or as I would put it, unreflective knowing and various degrees of reflective knowing. These are not so much epochs of culture or stages of development in an individual’s intellectual pilgrimage. This is everyone at every point of his or her life as a knower.

 

We are all at the same time some combination of reflectivity and un-reflectivity. And it is impossible for us to know the exact combination for we are, by definition, unaware of those things about which we are unreflective. We can perhaps get some sense of where we’ve been in relation to where we are now and at least have the impression that we are more reflective today than we were yesterday and thus more reflective than we might be.

 

By faith as Christians we might also affirm that only God is perfectly reflective in His knowing. Only God knows all the data in its proper relationship to all the other data. Only God is truly objective and certain in His knowing. You’ll notice that I have introduced God into the equation. So did Descartes, Locke, Kant, and so many of the early modernist philosophers at this point. The enterprise of epistemological reflection—reflection on the manner of our knowing—inevitably raises the question of faith. Am I to get stuck in a profitless solipsism, where I conclude that I am the only thing that really exists and that you all are simply products of my warped and twisted imagination? Or am I to assume by faith what all sane people seem to: that while I can’t prove it, things really do exist outside myself?

 

I would argue that this distinction “works” in practice, and that this is the stuff of which “truth” is all about.  I cannot prove that I am not a computer program or a brain in a vat with lots of wires and machines attached to it or a thought in the mind of God or something I cannot possibly imagine.  But the idea of knowers and objects of knowledge works, as long as it comes with what I call the eternal footnote: although it works to think of myself as an “I” that exists as a subject distinct from the world outside myself as object, I am not in a position to know what these things literally “mean.”  God knows.

 

Here I am invoking some of the imagery of Immanuel Kant without adopting all of what he meant by it.  Once again, postmodernism seems little more to me than the working out of the modernist enterprise, with Kant as one of the most crucial steps along the way. Kant suggested that while the world outside myself exists, I can only know it as my mind processes it. What I can’t know, he suggested, was das Ding an sich, the “thing-in-itself.” I can know a wall as it appears to me. But I can’t know what the wall really is apart from me knowing it (or what it likes to do on weekends). Kant—like Descartes and others—then finds himself introducing God into the equation in order to end up with some sense of confidence that the way his mind puts reality together is something like what it actually is.

 

Let me flash forward to today. If we think of postmodernism as a bomb that has blown up human pretenses to knowledge, the smoke has had some time to clear, and it looks to me that we do in fact have something we might call “truth” left standing. For one thing, we can at the very twist something Richard Rorty calls “pragmatic realism,” which I might sum up as the idea that “reality works.”[2]  I may not know for certain that the Mach truck coming down the road is real, but I’ll step out of its way just the same. 

 

In Christian circles, it has become popular to go a bit further with the idea of “critical realism.” Critical realism goes a little further than pragmatic realism. I affirm by faith that reality exists outside myself, but acknowledge that my apprehension of that reality will inevitably come from where I sit apprehending it. Within critical realism, we will find various levels of confidence by various individuals about the degree to which our perspective might skew our apprehension of reality in itself. As a Christian thinker I operate in this way, just as long as the eternal footnote is understood:  

 

This quick overview of postmodernism, unashamedly made from my own perspective, is more than adequate for the task at hand. Time will tell of paradigms, the deconstruction of the meaning of texts, and the role of power in what is acclaimed as truth.   

 

 

3. The Uncertainties of Biblical Meaning

3.1 Postmodern Contributions to Our Understanding

I once had a conversation with a fellow Wesleyan in which I was talking about how our “tradition” interprets the Bible. At some point in the discussion, the person began to get frustrated and finally exclaimed, “Stop calling it our tradition. We just read the Bible and do what it says!”

 

We do not need to reference post-modernism to recognize the incredible diversity of biblical interpretation out there. There are over 20,000 different American denominations who claim to get their beliefs from the Bible, yet we will find that each one has its own unique understandings and “traditions” of how to interpret and apply different passages. Go to a typical Bible study within each of these churches and you will multiply the interpretations a million-fold, as each individual within each of these groups brings his or her unique lenses to bear on the biblical text. “Here’s what it means to me. What does it say to you?”

 

In my opinion, the current situation in relation to the Bible implies that Luther really lost his debate with Erasmus on the question of whether the Bible in isolation from the church is a sufficient basis for Christianity. Someone like David Koresh believed himself to get his beliefs from the Bible and he believed it to be fully inerrant in every aspect, yet apart from the church he found heinously un-Christian meanings to its words. Severed from the church, the Bible in his hands became a catalyst for evil.

 

We might say that the Bible along with the Holy Spirit is sufficient, but how are we to know when someone is hearing the Spirit? People sometimes “hear” the Spirit giving conflicting messages. Is not the church a safer forum to test the spirits than as isolated individualists? But these are the end points of our quest. What we want now is to find an island of order in this sea of interpretive chaos and chart a course to it. I have personally found the thinking of several late modernist and post-modernist thinkers very helpful in conceptualizing the reason for such diverse biblical interpretations. Let me suggest just two reasons for such incredible diversity of interpretation.

 

 

a. Meaning is a function of minds.

Those of you who are acquainted with post-modern thought will immediately recognize that most thoroughbred postmodernists would not like the way I have worded this first point. For Derrida or Heidegger, I have messed up from the very beginning. For Derrida, I have invoked meaning as if it were a presence, while he would argue it is not a thing but an absence. For Heidegger and others, I have seemed to invoke the mind as if it were distinguishable from the world it contemplates, the so called distinction between I as subject and the world as object.

 

So goes the ongoing discussion we call the history of philosophy. My sense is that their language is laced with a good deal of irrelevant baggage from philosopher reacting to the philosopher before her, who was reacting to the philosopher before him, etc... I find useful things in all of them, but often feel the need to discard much that is the business of professional philosophical accountants.

 

Enough of that. All of it is to say that I am using “meaning” and “mind” in non-technical senses. I do not know what mind or meaning really might “be”—and I’m not suggesting that anyone else other than God really does either. But they are certainly useful concepts, modern “myths,” if you would, that express true mysteries. Don’t be alarmed at my use of the word myth in this way, for I consider scientific equations to be very precise modern myths that express truths about the ultimately mysterious workings of nature.

 

Back to meaning and minds. In my journey to understand language, one late modernist thinker I have found helpful as one entry point is Ferdinand de Saussure. In particular, he argued that there is no pre-existent set of concepts that the words of a language map to. Rather, the specific meanings of words in a language depend on the culture that speaks the language. Further, the look and sound of the words in a language are pretty much arbitrary.

 

Take for example the word dog. This word neither looks anything nor sounds anything like a dog. The “signifier” that means “dog” in English is for all intents and purposes arbitrary. In that sense, texts (whether they be written or oral) are really cues of meaning—there is no meaning in the squiggles on a page or the sounds in the air. The meaning in my mind is cued by these sights or sounds.[3] But the meaning is ultimately a matter of the mind looking at the text.

 

A simple illustration will suffice. The word “Gift” is a set of sounds I just uttered or if you are reading this paper, a set of marks on a screen or page. But what does it mean in your mind? If you are primarily an English speaker, you probably thought of something someone gives. But in German, the word “Gift” means poison. The meaning this word cues thus does not come from the look or sound of the word, which for all intents and purposes is exactly the same in each case. The meaning of the word depends completely on the mind reading it.

 

 

b. Meaning is a function of context.

Perhaps the most important idea of late modernism in relationship to meaning came from Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his own way, Wittgenstein helps us see that the words we use do not have some fixed meaning behind them. What the full blooded postmodernist Jacques Derrida would do in a far more flamboyant and far less helpful way, Wittgenstein gives us in a much more useful way.

 

Derrida argued that words have indeterminate meanings. He used the Greek word pharmakon as an example because it can mean either poison or remedy. The word, he argues, has opposing meanings in and of itself. Yet while Derrida goes on to try to destabilize the meaning of any text, Wittgenstein stands ready to help us from the very beginning. After a number of migraines from reading Derrida, we are left basically with two useful conclusions: 1) that words are very slippery things whose meaning can quickly unravel and escape us and 2) that “context is everything” in determining the meaning of words.

 

Words do not have fixed meanings, to where some thing that is the meaning of the word will always or even often appear in a bubble over your head, like in a cartoon, when you read or hear the word. In some cases they might in a most basic way. A two year old sees a fire and says, “dat?” The Mommy replies, “fire” and points to the fire. The two year old says, “fire.”

 

But Wittgenstein pointed out that we often have nothing concrete to point to—in other words, there’s no picture in the bubble over our heads. What concrete thing stands behind the word “is” or the word “righteousness”? Until I began to think about Wittgenstein, I personally had never pictured a goose when I talked about a “wild goose chase.”  In the end, a word needs a context for us to have any real sense of what it means.

 

So you can’t know the meaning of the word fire unless you hear it in a context. “Well of course I can,” someone might say. “I can tell you what the word fire means without a sentence. It is something that burns, has a orangish-yellow hue,” etc...

 

But what if the sentence I have in mind is, “I am going to fire you.” How well does the burning, orangish-yellow definition suit this sentence? Unless you have just given a controversial paper at a Truth Conference, I doubt that getting fired was the definition that first came to your mind.

 

We can easily show just how complicated the situation can become. “Ready, aim, fire.” “I’m all fired up for the Truth Conference.” “Come on, baby, light my fire.” This last phrase in particular raises an even more significant issue. A non-English speaker might put this last sentence into Google and translate it. But there’s a better than average chance that they will end up with a puzzled look on their face. “Come forward, infant, ignite my orangish-yellow burning stuff”? Frankly, an American of fifty years ago might not make much sense of the sentence anymore than they might a phrase like “shock and awe,” “google,” or “blog.”

 

Really to understand the sentence, “Come on, baby, light my fire,” you need to know late twentieth century American slang and probably have heard a certain song by the Doors in the late 60’s/early 70’s. Wittgenstein well put it when he suggested that we wouldn’t likely understand a lion even if it spoke English, because we would not have a frame of reference from which to know what “language games” the lion’s words were playing.

 

We could multiply many an amusing story at this point. At the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the German demanding surrender from the American general found himself unable to interpret the response he received, “Nuts.” What does that mean, thought the General and his translators? He’ll surrender if we send them some nuts?

 

During my early days in England I felt the same way. I remember a night in particular I spent during my first week in England. All the words I heard around me were words I knew, but because I knew nothing of British TV or “football” culture, I really had no real idea what anyone was saying.  It was similar to a feeling I would have in Germany a couple years later when everyone was speaking German all around me.

 

So, Wittgenstein wisely suggested, the meaning of a word derives from the “language game” you are playing in particular setting in life. A dictionary thus does not tell us what a word means—as if the word had some fixed meaning in itself. Dictionaries are lists of how words are used at any point in time, and these change all the time. The meanings are listed from most common to least. New meanings are constantly being added and old meanings constantly removed.

 

 

3.2 A Case Study: Daniel 11:31

So what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the Bible? The answer is that individual words, phrases, sentences, and so forth can have multiple meanings and combinations of meanings. The Protestant Bible is made up of 66 books written in three languages over the course of at least 1000 years all over the ancient world in countless individual settings. It has many, many words. This multiplies the potential meanings of its words, especially in combination, into the billions.

 

The fact that the uses of words change over time also contributes to such complexity. Dictionaries are constantly adding new meanings and removing unused archaic ones. Indeed, this is the biggest problem with those in the American scene that we might call “King James only” advocates.  Most of them do not even realize that the version of the King James they are using is a 1769 revision of the original 1611 King James, the fifth major revision to update the original wording with 1000’s of changes from the original 1611 version. And the English language has only continued to change significantly since the late 1700’s. There ain’t nothin’ our English teachers can do stop change in language.  It will happen, like, whether we want it to or not.

 

Let us do a brief case study in the changes in meaning that we can observe with the words of the biblical text using Daniel 11:31: “They will set up the abomination of desolations.” The phrase “abomination of desolations” provides us with a great example of Derrida’s idea that words have an un-decidable meaning (in themselves).

 

Anyone who has followed the Left Behind series or its Late Great Planet Earth predecessor will know the popular interpretation of this verse. The Antichrist will rebuild the Jerusalem temple and reinstitute the daily sacrifice. But at some point in the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist will set himself up as God in that temple: thus, the “abomination of desolations.” Perhaps these heirs of John Darby (in the early 1800’s) are correct about the end of time. But if they are, it is because the Holy Spirit has given them this perspective on these words in the Bible. As most in this room will know, the Darby approach to prophecy is an ingenious (and pre-modern) interweaving of biblical texts together that originally had little to do with each other.

 

Here is our first example of the flexibility of the meaning of words. The tendency of every generation of Bible users is to read the words of Scripture in the light of their own culture, situations, and contexts. The interpretations of biblical prophecy are only an extreme example. The tendency is to do this with every part of Scripture, ranging from what we might think it specifically means to “love your neighbor” to the specifics and connotations of what it means to “commit adultery.” The greatest cause behind the myriad of biblical interpretations is the tendency of all interpreters to define the words in the light of their own dictionaries, their own “language games” and “forms of life.”

 

Luke 21 interpreted the “abomination” of Daniel 11 differently from Darby, Lindsay, or LaHaye. There Luke renders a prophetic word of Christ in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is near.” Luke seems to take the abomination as the destruction of Jerusalem as a whole, not specifically in terms of anything placed or done in the Jerusalem temple. In Luke’s interpretation, the most significant meaning of the Daniel text came to fulfillment in AD70 when Titus destroyed Jerusalem.

 

Matthew and Mark, just slightly earlier than Luke, give us a more ambiguous and slightly different impression of the phrase “abomination of desolations.” On the one hand, the context of Matthew 24 and Mark 13 leads us—as in Luke—to read the prophecy in relation to the events surrounding the destruction of the temple in AD70. But unlike Luke, Matthew and Mark’s wording pushes us more in the direction of something “standing” in the temple where it should not be. Also, their wording of the prophecy tends to mix words relating to the destruction of the temple in AD70 with words relating to the second coming of Christ. LaHaye would not use Luke to argue that these prophecies are about the end times. Luke teased out almost all the elements of the prophecy relating to the second coming and focuses the words almost exclusively on the destruction of the temple in AD70. On the other hand, Matthew and Mark leave the prophecy somewhat ambiguous, with us wondering whether it was fully fulfilled in AD70 or whether it might also relate to events still to come as well.

 

Another text that likely presupposes Daniel 11 is 2 Thessalonians 2:4. From where we sit today, 2 Thessalonians 2 is a case study in biblical ambiguity. Paul probably had Daniel 11 in mind when he said that a “man of lawlessness” would set himself up in the temple as God—at least that is my interpretation.  Other New Testament scholars might make good arguments from the same evidence to the contrary. But what temple did he have in mind? Did he mean the church, since Paul tells the Corinthians, “You are the temple of the Lord”? Did he mean the temple in Jerusalem? It was of course standing when Paul wrote these words. But it is now gone and Paul says nothing of its destruction anywhere in his writings, let alone its later reconstruction.

 

Should we hear an event in AD39 in the back of Paul’s mind as he wrote these words? In that year, the emperor Caligula tried to set up a statue of himself in the temple, thinking himself a god.  This event had already happened by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, but was Paul speaking of a similar event in the near future? At the end of time? Was it a reference to the destruction of the temple in AD70? Did he expect Nero to try something like this?

 

This is again an extreme example of ambiguity, but it demonstrates the fact that even the original meaning of Scripture is subject to great ambiguity even when we know how to search for the original meaning. 2 Thessalonians 2 is filled with ambiguous comments that remind us that we are not the original audience of this text, that we are not the original “you” of the books of the Bible. Paul tells the ancient Thessalonians, “Don’t you remember I told you about these things when I was still with you?” They may have known, but we weren’t there. We are not the “you” he was originally talking to.

 

Finally, in terms of its original meaning, it is universally agreed that the original referent of Daniel 11:31 was the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem in 167BC by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Syrian king. The series of events throughout Daniel 11 read like a history book of the early second century at least up until 11:40.

 

So we see in this case study an example of how the same words can and have come to take on quite a variety of meanings depending on the context against which they are read. Not only is this phenomenon true of those unequipped to ask after the original meaning, but it is true among those scholars who supposedly are so equipped. As a side note, this case study shows that the biblical text itself swims in the ambiguity of its own texts. When biblical books interact with other biblical books, they frequently reinterpret the meaning of words and phrases, providing us with a microcosm of what has and will always take place in the interpretation of biblical words.

 

In the light of these realities, I cannot even make sense of the claim that the text of the Bible alone can serve as the only authority for Christianity. Given the nature of the original meaning of the biblical books, it doesn’t even seem to be a coherent suggestion.  The text itself is capable of taking on almost limitless different meanings. It is crucial for us to specify carefully which meaning of the Bible is authoritative for Christians.  This is something that, by the very nature of the situation, something outside the Bible must do looking in. To say that the Bible is the authority without specifying a context against which to read its words is to open the door for any individual reader to define the words  themselves and, thus, to allow that individual’s mind to have the authority of God. The most important moment in our quest for biblical authority is the specification of the appropriate context against which to read the biblical texts.

 

 

4. Finding a Unified Meaning in the Bible

4.1 How Paradigms Work

It is only because I thought I might be misunderstood that I titled this section “finding” a unified meaning rather than “creating” a unified meaning. But the latter title would have been appropriate if I could be sure you would hear me for what I meant by it. Both theory and history demonstrate that it is possible, indeed almost certain, that different individuals and groups will claim to find unified meanings to Scripture that differ from one another. What we will show is that, because words take on different meanings depending on the context against which they are read, we must consider these different unified meanings equally valid in terms of the text alone. It is only when a specific context is specified that we can begin to evaluate certain unified meanings as more or less valid than others.

 

The following is the typical way in which interpretive paradigms work.  1) An individual or group will have a controlling concept or text on a given matter. 2) Texts that cohere with this controlling concept or text, or whose meaning can be made to cohere with it, are prioritized. 3) Texts that do not cohere as well or are potential threats to the controlling interpretation are reinterpreted and de-prioritized.

 

Here the postmodern philosophers of choice are Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. Kuhn’s name will be familiar to many here for his popularizing of the word paradigm in the 80’s. Dealing with the philosophy of science, Kuhn discussed the “structure of scientific revolutions.” According to Kuhn, “normal science” proceeds in accordance with certain paradigms. So currently, some dominant paradigms are relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc... The bulk of scientists operate under the basic assumptions of these paradigms. They will not, for example, look at the fossil evidence to determine if evolution is the best hypothesis—it is the assumption under which they operate. Instead, they will work to fill in the details of evolution or to explain data that doesn’t seem to fit with the dominant paradigm.

 

But normal science will assume the data does fit. It will not throw out the dominant paradigm simply because of anomalous data. Indeed, normal science will fight tooth and nail to maintain the dominant paradigm, whether it be the idea that the sun goes around the earth or that packages of energy do not just simply jump from one state to the next. It is at this point that we might mention another postmodernist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend, who has discussed the scientific guild as a social institution. Those who even suggest something outside the dominant paradigm are often shamed by the guild, ousted or prevented from having jobs, etc. These dynamics remind us of Michel Foucault, who has pointed out that power is always involved in what is considered truth by a given group.

 

But Kuhn points out that eventually the anomalous data, what I call “naughty data,” will begin to eat at some young upstart (or old upstart) who begins, often secretly or on the side, to brainstorm outside the box of the dominant paradigm. If they can convince others or maneuver their ideas well enough politically, those who hold to the old paradigm will eventually die off, leaving them as the power brokers of the new and improved normal science. So Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics. But he’s dead now, and you will search long and hard to find any contemporary physicist who disagrees with it.

 

It is important to note that Kuhn was not arguing for some evolution of knowledge. Although he back-peddled a little when some suggested creation science might be as valid a paradigm as evolution, Kuhn’s basic point was that science is not evolving into more accurate constructions of reality. In his view, science just changes paradigms; it doesn’t get closer to some objective thing we might call “the truth.”

 

As I mentioned, he reneged some on this extreme view in his second edition, and I think he should have reneged even more than he did. I have already alluded to my understanding of scientific claims as modern equivalents to ancient myths. But I do not in any way suggest that they are therefore false or to be discouraged in any way. Clearly some scientific “myths” are better expressions of the mysteries of nature than others. Clearly some scientific theories have better predictive power than others, and it would be silly to throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m quite happy with my car, cell phone, and the lap top on which I typed this paper.  To invoke Rorty’s imagery, “science works pretty good.”

 

What does all this have to do with the Bible? I wish to discuss two examples of interpretive paradigms at work to “find” a unified meaning in the biblical texts. I wish to start with a pre-modern example of these dynamics at work and then follow it up with an example of how they work when we are trying to read the biblical books in their original contexts.

 

What we will find is that the idea of a “biblical worldview” or a “biblical perspective” always involves the processing of the data in the biblical texts by way of a particular interpretive paradigm we bring to the text from outside the text.  Because the books of the Bible are diverse texts written with diverse meanings to address diverse situations, the idea of “the Bible” as a singular entity is, by the very nature of the situation, a meaning construct that results from the application of an ideological paradigm to individual texts that use language, imagery, and concepts differently from one another.  What this means is that “the Bible” as a unified meaning is something distinct from the individual books themselves.  This is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around, but I hope I will make it clear enough what I mean by the end of this section.

 

 

4.2 A Pre-Modern Case Study

The United Pentecostal Church will supply us with our pre-modern example of how individuals and groups go about creating a unified meaning in the biblical texts by way of their particular interpretive paradigm. As with most small Christian groups with particular ideologies, the UPC has a handful of biblical texts that serve as the controlling texts for its interpretive paradigm. Acts 2 is probably the most important, but selections from Acts 19 and Titus 2 also serve very important roles.

 

We start with two very important “definitions” for Acts 2. First, the UPC equates the Spirit filling of Pentecost and all the Spirit fillings of Acts with initial conversion. In itself, this is not an unreasonable position to take, given that by far most original meaning New Testament scholars would agree. However, the UPC then takes the fact that the early Christians spoke in tongues on this occasion and conclude that a person who truly receives the Spirit will speak in tongues (the first major distinguishing mark of the UPC paradigm). So with this controlling text and controlling interpretation in hand, the UPC proceeds to assume that tongues are always involved whenever the New Testament speaks of receiving the Holy Spirit, even though it is only in Acts and 1 Corinthians that tongues are even mentioned in the New Testament.

 

The group also notes that baptism in the book of Acts is always “in the name of Jesus Christ.” This becomes the controlling idea in the second major distinguishing mark of the UPC paradigm, namely, that one must not be baptized in the name of the Trinity, but in the name of Jesus only. So we turn to Acts 19:1-7 where Paul has a group of “disciples” re-baptized because they have not been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. We note that they speak in tongues when they are baptized in the name of Jesus. Two other concepts/texts of interest are 1) the fact that God is one and 2) Titus 2:13, which refers to Jesus as “our great God and Savior.” They put these concepts together and conclude that there are not three persons in some Trinity, but that there is only one person, God in the Old Testament who becomes Jesus who becomes the Holy Spirit.

 

These are the controlling ideas and texts in the UPC paradigm. We see immediately that this group has paid a good deal of attention to Scripture to get to this point. No one could accuse this group of a liberal view of Scripture—they have formulated their beliefs on the basis of a close reading of the words of the text. This reading—baptism in the name of Jesus only resulting in speaking in tongues—is the “normal science,” the controlling ideas in their interpretive paradigm.

 

But almost any interpretive paradigm will find “naughty data,” in this case “naughty verses,” that do not fit as easily into the paradigm as others. The UPC, like any church, has developed an ingenious set of coping strategies, “interpretive patches,” if you would, that fit the anomalous data into the system.

 

So we approach the UPC’er with our first “naughty verse.”  “What about Matthew 28:19,” we say: “go make disciples… baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Now for the ingenious rejoinder: “But look, the word name is singular here, meaning that these are all the same person in three forms. And beside, this is the only reference in the NT worded like this. Acts consistently mentions baptism in the name of Jesus only.” Rats.  The novice debater with the trained UPC’er may be foiled.

 

“OK, so what of 1 Corinthians 12:30,” we come back: “All don’t speak in tongues, do they?” This is a question expecting a negative answer in Greek. In other words, Paul’s very point is that all Christians do not speak in tongues. Another ingenious rejoinder: “Ah, but this passage is dealing with the gift of tongues, not the basic tongues all Christians will manifest when they truly receive the Spirit. Everyone must have faith to be a Christian, but only a smaller number have the gift of faith. So with tongues. Tongues in Acts are the evidence of having the Holy Spirit. But some will have the gift of tongues over and above the basic evidence of the Spirit.”

 

If you have ever dealt with someone from any sect like this one, you will know how well-rehearsed their answers are to our common sense arguments. No one can accuse them of not paying the closest of detailed attention to the biblical text. No one can accuse them of having a low view of Scripture. Indeed, it is their so called “high” view of Scripture that is part of the problem.  They view the meaning of the Bible as so unified and so directly from God that they do not take into account that these books were not a single book originally. Matthew, Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus were all written under different circumstances and can’t be expected to formulate concepts or use language the same ways.

 

In any case, the UPC gives us a beautiful example of the way paradigms work with regard to the pre-modern creation of unified meaning in the text. A group or individual comes to have a controlling idea or text, usually as a result of cultural or sociological forces at work at the time of the group’s inception. Then other biblical texts are integrated into the paradigm of the controlling concept. Problem verses are then ingeniously reinterpreted to fit.

 

Paradigm revolutions are then the stuff of split offs. The UPC itself is the result of a paradigm shift out of the parent Assemblies of God group. And the Assemblies of God group is a slight paradigm shift from the original Pentecostals, who were a paradigm shift from the holiness revivals of the late 1800’s, which were arguably a paradigm shift from Wesley and earlier Methodism, and so on.

 

 

4.3 A Modernist Case Study

We might multiply the preceding example many times over, almost denomination by denomination as we identified controlling ideas and corresponding texts, then explored how anomalous texts are reinterpreted and re-appropriated accordingly. These pre-modern paradigms, because they largely do not read biblical texts against their original contexts, generate countless different understandings of the Bible’s teaching as a whole. They construct their unified meanings with little limitation on how they reinterpret individual texts. And thus individual biblical texts become a unified “Bible.”

 

By contrast, the modernist evangelical paradigm tries to play the game of integrating texts on a more restrictive playing field, namely, that of the original contexts of individual biblical texts. What is important for the typical evangelical is not so much to fit the surface words of biblical texts together but abstracted principles behind the words. However, I would argue that, like the modernism of which twentieth century evangelicalism was a part, this strategy is not quite reflective enough, even if it is far more reflective than its pre-modern cousin.

 

Pre-modern interpretation actually creates a very unified meaning from the biblical texts, because the context against which the books are read is itself singular: it is fairly straightforwardly that of the person or group reading the text. It is as if the pre-modern reader is looking into the text as a mirror for what they already believe. They come to the text with the dictionary of their own mind and unsurprisingly find that the words come to mean exactly what they already believe.

 

In contrast, evangelical interpretation faces a much more daunting task, for it tries to find a unified meaning in the midst of 66 different texts and thus 66 different contexts. It is no surprise that evangelical books on how to study the Bible often read like complex manuals or that Asbury’s classic interpretation text is titled Methodical Bible Study. What is ironic is that the end product is still often very diverse—more stable than the pre-modern free for all, but still quite unstable yet.

 

To illustrate, let’s take the issue of faith and works, the classic tension is between Paul, who says things like, “A person is justified by faith and not by works of law,” and James, which says, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  The pre-modern ground is already well staked out. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was sola fide or “by faith alone.” Luther chose a number of controlling texts in Paul’s writings, invested those words with a particular meaning, and then proceeded to cope with the naughty verses elsewhere that might seem to conflict. He created a kind of “canon within the canon,” where his interpretation of Paul became the most important lens through which to read the other books of the Bible. To this day, Protestantism tends to emphasize Paul’s writings over the gospels as far as theology is concerned.

 

The classic “naughty verse” for Luther was of course James 2:24: “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This verse was so troublesome to Luther’s paradigm that he initially did not even translate James into German, calling it an “epistle of straw.” The same authority he felt to exclude the deuterocanonical books that had been in use by Christians nearly since the beginning of Christendom also initially gave him the boldness to question the authority of James.

 

On this particular issue, some reflectivity on context actually helps resolve some of the tension between the texts on justification and faith in Paul and this passage in James. To be sure, the resolution is something we are doing from the outside of the text looking on. The Bible itself, the Bible alone, does not tell us how to fit Paul and James together. James does not say, here’s how what I’m saying about justification fits with Paul, and Paul likewise does not tell us how his words fit with James. The glue we use to connect individual teachings in the Bible to one another is not biblical glue—it is theological and rational glue we have to provide from our interpretive paradigms to create a unified meaning to Scripture, to be able to say “the Bible” says this or that.  

 

The Wesleyan tradition has always had an easier time connecting these texts in Paul and James than some other traditions. In the Lutheran tradition, it is very important that no human effort at all be involved in justification. The very essence of “by grace alone” for the Lutheran is that God forgives with no basis in human action whatsoever. And for the Reformed individual, because God predestines those who will be saved, truly there is no pretext in human action for salvation whatsoever.

 

Yet the Wesleyan tradition has always emphasized the importance of what we call holiness after justification. So we have easily suggested that James is giving us the other side to Paul’s coin. True, we get right with God because of His grace, not because of any merit on our part. But if we do not produce fruit, then we will not stay right with God for long.

 

But what were Paul and James themselves thinking in terms of the original meanings of these texts, not the mirror readings of later Christian debates? Let me now bring us out of the pre-modern discussion, where the focus is on the text without much attention to the underlying contexts. Indeed, I have been able to discuss faith versus works above with barely one concrete reference to a specific biblical text. My point for the rest of this section is to show 1) just how much uncertainty exists about the original meaning of these texts and 2) just how much thinking and creativity we would really have to exert to create a unified meaning if we follow through with the evangelical path to make the Bible speak to us today. I wish simply to give a glimpse of the kinds of issues we would need to address in a masters or doctoral level discussion of the original meaning of these passages. My point is not to resolve these issues, just to show how complicated the question of meaning quickly becomes when we read these texts reflective of original context.

 

First, what is the meaning of the following words and phrases in specific passages like Romans 3, Galatians 2, Ephesians 2, and James 2: justification, salvation, faith, faith of Jesus Christ, works, works of law? What is the timing of salvation and what were the audiences to be saved from. What is the timing of justification?  Is it legal language?  Eschatological language?  Covenantal language?

 

It is the consensus of Pauline scholarship that Paul used salvation language primarily in relation to the future, that we will be saved from God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment (e.g., Rom. 5:9). Here is already one distinction between the way most American Christians discuss these texts in contrast to Paul. We use the verb “saved” primarily in the present and past tense; Paul apparently used it most literally in relation to an event that has not yet even taken place for him!

 

Still again, Ephesians is unusual among Paul’s writings in the wording “You have been saved through faith.” Paul’s writings more typically connect faith with justification rather than salvation, which is then a result of justification that we will experience in the end times (Rom. 10:9). Apparently we must not only integrate Paul with James, but we ourselves must integrate the teaching of Paul’s own writings with each other as well. Paul in Romans does not tell us how to connect its teaching to Ephesians, and Ephesians does not tell us how to integrate its wording with Galatians or Romans. These are all tasks we are forced to do. We begin to see the incoherency of the claim that our understanding comes from the Bible alone. Much more is involved.

 

The plot thickens. When Paul told the Galatians and Romans that they were justified by “faith of Jesus Christ,” he used a phrase that can legitimately be translated from the Greek either as “faith in Christ” or as the “faithfulness of Christ.” There is no current consensus among original meaning scholars as to which Paul had in mind. American Pauline scholars tend to favor the faithfulness of Christ as what justifies us, with an emphasis on our faith in God and what God has done by raising Jesus from the dead. European scholars—particularly Lutheran ones—have held out longer for the traditional Protestant reading faith in Christ.

 

There’s more. The phrase that Paul uses in Galatians and Romans is not usually just “works” but “works of law.” There is no consensus among original meaning scholars as to what exactly this phrase precisely has in mind. A good portion thinks that it refers not to human effort in general but to aspects of the Jewish law that separated Jew and Gentile ethnically, boundary issues like circumcision and food laws. Indeed, many would suggest that we should understand grace in Paul’s writings in terms of patron-client relationships in the ancient world, informal relationships between have’s and have not’s in ancient society. If so, then grace not only could involve action on the client’s part, but may have required it for the patron to continue to extend grace.

 

Scholars would also be divided on whether the language of James 2 is meant deliberately to evoke Paul’s writings or arguments. James sure sounds like he is in dialog with some Pauline argument. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith; but James disagrees and argues that Abraham was justified by works. On the other hand, works in James are nothing like what they are in Paul. Works for James are concrete good deeds of a largely social nature, helping the poor, widows, the fatherless. Paul never uses the word in this way, with the possible exception of Ephesians. Is James in dialog with Paul or with pervertors of Paul?

 

I’ll stop now, but believe me I could go on to worlds unknown. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of doctoral level discussion has taken place over these issues with no clear consensus among those who are supposedly the experts on these topics. So what hope is there for the rest of us? Surely there is another way. My point is the immense controversy and uncertainty surrounding even the original meaning of key passages, not to mention the question of how we might integrate them together into a unified teaching so that we can say, “the Bible says this or that.” We have seen disagreement among those who are supposed to know the most about the original meaning of every passage.

 

And even if we knew the original meaning of each passage, there would be more than one way to integrate them. For example, as Protestants, we have a tendency to treat Paul’s texts as the controlling texts. But it would be equally legitimate to make James and Matthew the controlling texts, and consider Paul’s texts the less central ones. Someone might suggest that Paul was dealing with a particular juncture in salvation history when it was important to incorporate Gentiles into Christianity without forcing them to be circumcised. We might then treat his writings as more time-bound and the others as more timeless.

 

Matthew strongly emphasizes the continuity of the Jewish law and the importance of true, concrete righteousness. Its Parable of the Wedding Banquet arguably casts a Gentile Christian into outer darkness for being “dressed” inappropriately. And not all who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, even individuals who cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Those who did not clothe the naked or feed the hungry are arguably some of those who, even if Christians, will be cast into outer darkness where there is much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. This approach fits well with that of James. I can think of no valid argument a person might make against a group that would view these texts as the controlling texts and Paul’s as side discussions dealing with issues particular to his time.

 

My point in all this discussion is not to argue that we change the way we understand Paul or prioritize the teaching of the New Testament—I personally quite like making my camp in Paul’s writings. My point is that we are quite significantly unaware of how we come to think “the Bible says” something or another and that the real reasons for our thoughts involve far more than just the Bible alone. We know intuitively that the Bible is immediately relevant to every individual. We know the bulk of what God is saying to us through its words. But we have argued here that 1) most Christians really don’t know how to read the words in context in terms of their original meaning; 2) even those who know how to read the words in terms of the original meaning disagree on what that meaning was; and 3) even if we knew the original meaning we would still be able to integrate the individual teachings together in multiple, legitimate ways.

 

Who will free us from this body of polyvalence? There is a more excellent way.

 

 

5. The Ideal Christian Reader

The natural tendency would be to run through this litany of examples and philosophy and then leave like the person of James who after looking at his or her face in the mirror, goes away only to forget what they look like. So as we now ask who the ideal Christian reader is, it is important that we take with us the conclusions of our quest thus far.

 

First, all readers of the Bible are, to one extent or another, unreflective readers. By this we mean that all of us read the biblical text to some extent or another without realizing that the text might possibly mean something other than the options we have considered. More specifically, all of us, to one extent or another, read the biblical text out of context. This is true of everyone from the best scholar of all time to the worst biblical interpreter in the world.

 

Some readers of the Bible are less aware of what context is than others, and we would call a reading of Scripture that is programmed paradigmatically to read the text out of context a “pre-modern” approach to the biblical text. In many respects, such pre-modern readings aren’t as far off as your typical seminary professor might lead you to believe, especially if a person’s unreflective reading of the text is done through the lens of orthodox Christianity. A Wesleyan reading the Bible in a pre-modern way is far to be preferred to a faithless atheist trying to read the Bible in its original context with no allowance for miracles or the literal existence of God.

 

Yet the words of the Bible can come to mean virtually anything with the pre-modern approach, so it is the basis for cults and all kinds of false teaching. Ultimately, the text can come to mean anything an individual wants or mistakenly thinks the text means, and their voice subtly becomes the voice of God, which is extremely dangerous.

 

On the other hand, it seems to me that radical postmodernism has thrown the baby out with the bath water.  It would at least appear that communication takes place between individuals all the time and both assent that meaning has been understood.  A text may be autonomous from its author in a very real sense, yet this only complicates matters, it does not make communication an impossibility.  Individuals write each other all the time and would both assent that meaning has been understood. 

 

It does not seem incoherent to suggest that texts have more and less likely meanings in terms of their original authors.  When we cannot question the real author of a text, there is always a potential difference between the “implied author” we reconstruct as best we can from the text and the actual author.  But again, this only complicates and makes the process more uncertain.  It does not automatically imply impossibility.  Would anyone truly doubt that Judas is not meant to be the hero and good guy of the gospel stories?  True, Matthew seems to portray him more sympathetically than the other gospels, but in no gospel is he as honorable as Jesus—at least in terms of what we can infer of the real author from the author implied by the gospel texts.

 

In a more modernist, contextual reading—on the other side of pre-modern readings—is what I call the principle of reform. We in this room are Protestants, and while Luther’s reforms were not perfect and, in some respects, went to an opposite extreme in their relative separation and isolation of Scripture from the church, the idea of the original meaning of Scripture holds within it a catalyst for legitimate reform. The process of identifying beliefs we might have as Christians today that were not on the map of the earliest Christians is a wonderful tool for ecclesiological self-examination.

 

So for Luther, the concepts of purgatory and the celibacy of the clergy were ideas clearly not based in Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church might have read them into Scripture in a non-reflective way, but they are not aspects of the original meaning. These moments of reflectivity led to the Protestant Reformation. So if we do not accept the principle of reform based loosely on the original meanings of the biblical texts, then we should all become Roman Catholic.[4]

 

On the other hand, simply because we identify a point of development doesn’t mean that we must abandon it. This is the point where I believe Luther and Protestantism has got it wrong. For example, I do not believe the early church had anything like ordination as we now practice it. Nor did they practice communion the way we do nor did they have a developed understanding of the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ that we do. We need not abandon church buildings, as the house church movement does, simply because most of the early church met in houses. It is not development of doctrine and practice per se that we should reject, but inappropriate development of doctrine and practice. The original meaning is the most appropriate catalyst for such reflection on development, and we should have some pin heads like me around to ask inane original meaning questions.

 

The ideal Christian reader will know everything that can be known about the original meaning of the text. Such a reader does not exist of course, but we should have as a part of the body of Christ scholars who devote their energies to reading the Bible in context.

 

At the same time, the quest for the original meaning is not the same as our quest as Christians to hear the Christian meaning of these words either. Again, let’s remember what we saw in the mirror. The original meaning of the biblical text is often uncertain and requires a technical expertise in original languages and in ancient history, culture, and literature that few in the church are competent to conduct. There are many plausible reconstructions of the original meaning of the biblical text that are at best pre-Christian and many plausible reconstructions—that is, in terms of the evidence we have—that may actually conflict with things we believe as Christians.

 

And let me mention at this point that the Wesleyan Church has intrinsically voted against the original meaning as the most important path to the meaning of the Bible. If we thought the original meaning were the most important path to hear the Christian meaning of these texts, then we would require Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of anyone who had the capacity to learn it. We would go and sell all we had to learn ancient Canaanite and Mediterranean culture so that we could read the words in their original historical and literary context. We would get our hands on every commentary we could, whether it be written by Christian or atheist, and be open to many concepts we traditionally are not, because we don’t want to take any chance of missing the true original meaning of the text. We would rather be heretics or liberal than let traditional Christian interpretations trump the original meaning… if we really down deep thought the original meaning was the meaning through which we hear God’s Word in the words!

 

But this is not the way we read Scripture. Indeed, it is not the way evangelical Bible scholars read Scripture, though they would likely deny it vehemently. When I used Hays and Duvall’s evangelical inductive Bible study textbook this Spring, I had to smile at a category they called “presuppositions” for biblical interpretation. It amounted to a set of rules for how a Christian is allowed to read the biblical text. It intrinsically deconstructs the evangelical claim to hear God’s Word strictly in the original meaning of the Bible, for it sets non-biblical parameters for what we can and cannot let the text mean.

 

In the postmodern age, I am arguing that it is and has always been appropriate to read the biblical texts with Christian glasses on, whether what we are seeing turns out to be the original meaning or not. When the early church was debating over the Trinity, the anti-trinitarian Arius himself argued from Scripture that Christ was in fact the first of God’s creations before time. He used texts like Colossians 1:15 to argue his case—“he is the firstborn of all creation.” Indeed, the church largely abandoned the use of logos language such as we find in John 1:1—“In the beginning was the logos... and the logos was God”—because the background of the logos in ancient philosophical thought envisaged it as the first of God’s creations.

 

In short, to defend the idea of the Trinity, the biblical language alone was insufficient to fend off heresy. The Nicene Creed had to turn to quasi-philosophical language to present what we as Christians believe, that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father...” Each one of these phrases answered a controversy of the early church. And all of them require us to read the biblical text well beyond its original meaning. The quest for the original meaning will not guarantee us the Christian meaning, the very reason for which we read these texts.

 

So how would the ideal Christian reader read the words of the Bible in addition to the knowledge of the original meaning options that we have already suggested? A second aspect of such a reader, and one very amenable to our Wesleyan tradition, is that the ideal Christian reader will be as full of the Holy Spirit as humanly possible as he or she reads the text. Certainly when God is defining the words for you, you will hear God’s Word in the words.

 

The Bible itself implies that such Spirit readings may or may not be in continuity with the original meaning of the text. The easy example that I often use is Matthew 2:15’s use of Hosea 11:1. Hosea 11:1 in its original meaning clearly is talking about Israel and its exodus from Egypt, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called them, the more they went from me; they sacrificed to the Baals and offered incense to idols.”

 

But Matthew sees a portion of Hosea 11:1 fulfilled in Jesus’ exit from Egypt over 700 years after Hosea. When Jesus was a child, God “called his Son out of Egypt.”  Clearly the spiritual meaning Matthew found in these words is quite removed from anything Hosea intended—did Jesus ever sacrifice to Baals?  Certainly not. In this one example alone we have the deconstruction of the modernist evangelical paradigm. When we place the locus of biblical authority in the original meaning, the original meaning tells us that it is not necessarily the locus of biblical authority.[5]

 

However, we have already mentioned the danger of looking for the Spirit apart from context and original meaning. Who is to say that you are really hearing the Spirit? It is an easy excuse to fall back into the pre-modern paradigm, to forget what we’ve seen in the mirror. So we need something more, namely, the weak link in the Protestant paradigm, the church. If the Spirit of Christ inhabits the body of Christ, then it is when we are most in communion with the church, made up of the saints of all the ages, that we are most likely to hear the Spirit. In other words, the ideal Christian reader will read the Bible through the eyes of the church, in communion with the saints of the ages.

 

What does this mean in practical terms? The early fathers referred to something they called the “rule of faith” of Scripture. Augustine suggests that it comes “from the plainer passages of Scripture and from the authority of the church” (De Doctrina 2.2). When a Christian is confronted with “unclear” passages, you use either the context or this rule of faith to steer you toward the correct interpretation.

 

You might recognize Augustine’s teaching here as nothing other than Kuhn’s model for how paradigms work. The church of Augustine’s day had established certain interpretations of key texts as the controlling texts. For example, Augustine mentions in On Doctrine that Scripture enjoins nothing but love (2.10). So any passage that might seem to contradict the love principle must be read differently or figuratively. In other words, if a literal meaning did not seem to fit with the rule of faith, Augustine downshifted into metaphor or allegory.

 

Of course Augustine was a pre-modern reader. But as “postmodern evangelicals” (in at least a cultural sense), we can follow his basic principles with our eyes open to context. There are certain rules to what a Christian can believe and do. We find these in their most concentrated form in the creeds and universal traditions of the church. It is possible to read the words of the Bible in ways that contradict these, and we find plausible arguments from original meaning scholars in their favor.

 

But these are not the Christian ways of reading these texts. You could easily argue that Genesis 1:1-2 were not originally about ex nihilo creation, but this is not the Christian way of talking about this text. You could easily argue that New Testament texts calling Jesus Son of God were about his cosmic royalty rather than his ontological divinity. But this is not the Christian way of talking about these texts. For Christians, the words of these texts should cue discussions about certain beliefs all Christians hold in common, the consensus ecclesiae, the “consensus of the church.” This is the rule of faith in belief and the law of love in practice. Any reading of the words of Scripture that does not eventually cue the common beliefs of Christendom or the practice of love is not a properly Christian reading of the words.

 

 

6. Conclusion

Let me now try to review the path we have trod to bring us to a point of decision of some sort. Postmodernism has brought with it certain challenges to the way mainstream evangelicalism does its business. In my opinion, it has brought less challenge to the way the Wesleyan Church does business because we have always tended to read the Bible in a more “spiritual” and thus pre-modern way than the stalwart, Calvinist dominated Evangelical Theological Society might.

 

In my opinion, the greatest value of postmodernity is the way it lets us look into the abyss of uncertainty surrounding everything we think we know. It humbles us and calls attention to the role that faith plays in all knowledge. But you can’t live in that abyss—it is an endless falling, never to land, not even to go splat. We learn our lesson from the look and then do our best to move forward as reflectively as we can. Thus one of my colleagues would consider me more a “chastened modernist” than a true postmodernist.

 

No matter. Given the uncertainty that surrounds the meaning of the biblical text on every side, given the multiply valid ways one might connect its parts to one another, given the countless ways in which one might connect the text to today’s world, the postmodern reader needs controls on the meaning of the biblical text.  In reality all readers do; it’s just the postmodern reader that realizes it. As Christians we must have some “checks and balances” on a text that by itself can come to mean almost anything. Throughout this paper I have suggested three such controls.

 


a. The original meaning.

The first control I am suggesting is the original meaning of the words of the Bible, which is the meaning these words first had when they were written to their original contexts. To know this meaning to any significant degree you must have an extensive knowledge of the original languages and the ancient cultures and situations to which these books were first written. In many, many cases the best scholar will still have insufficient evidence to conclude on the original meaning with any degree of certainty.

 

The value of the original meaning is at least two fold. First, it is the meaning that God inspired some ancient author to write to some specific ancient context. The complex, methodical path of mainstream evangelical scholarship is not wrong, it is just filled with great uncertainty and complexity. If it is the only path to hearing God’s Word, then most of the Christians who have lived and died throughout history have not heard God’s Word with any degree of certainty.

 

The second value is that the original meaning is a primary catalyst for reform. Studying the original meaning helps us identify development of doctrine and practice, not to reject it, but so that the church can evaluate it in the open with greater reflectivity.

 

 

b. The Holy Spirit

Both the original texts of Scripture and the authentic developments of belief and practice in the church have been directed by the Holy Spirit. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, we cannot be who we are unless we affirm the continued work of the Holy Spirit beyond New Testament times. We would not even have a New Testament if God had not led the church to affirm these specific books. We would simply have a bunch of books, including the Gnostic gospels and countless other books of varying value.

 

And the Spirit continues to speak even today. The Wesleyan Church is one of an increasing movement of churches that affirms that the Spirit fills both men and women equally and that our daughters can prophesy in this age just as well as our sons. The church of a hundred years from now will look back on us as some of those who heard the Spirit’s voice on this topic, while it will shake its head in shame at those who opposed women in all roles of ministry in this time. The church of the future will wonder about the spirituality of Christians today who pigeonhole women into certain earthly roles because of their physical anatomy, just as we have a hard time not questioning the spirituality of those Christians a hundred years ago who were in favor of slavery. There is nothing those opposed to women in these roles can do to stop this forward movement of the church, for they are fighting the Holy Spirit.

 

 

c. The Consensus of the Church

There are things that all Christians agree on, things that the Holy Spirit has long since led all mainstream Christians to affirm. I refer to the rule of faith as those canons of Christian belief long established in the church. They are more than the creeds. I would argue that belief in things like fallen human nature and creation of the world out of nothing go beyond both what the Bible clearly teaches and anything explicitly stated in the creeds. Yet these are the common beliefs of Christendom, affirmations we make in communion with the saints of the ages.

 

The law of love is the unanimous affirmation of the New Testament, beginning with Jesus himself and reiterated by Paul, James, Matthew, and John. Any appropriation of Scripture in violation with the love of our neighbor is not a Christian use of Scripture.

 

So who is the ideal Christian reader of the biblical texts? The ideal Christian reader knows as much as a human can know about the text, is as filled with the Holy Spirit as a Christian can be with the Spirit, and is in as much communion with the saints of the ages as an individual can be. Clearly such an individual does not exist. That is why Christians must read the Bible in community far more than as lone individuals. The task of appropriating the Bible for today is bigger than any one person. It is most properly the ongoing task of the church in its entirety.

 

Let me end with a final challenge.  I believe that churches in the Wesleyan tradition, whose center is focused on the heart and on a personal engagement with God through Christ, are situated excellently to be leaders of the church in the postmodern age.  The Wesleyan Church in particular has largely been a pre-modern church that has read the Bible “spiritually,” against its own context, rather than in a modernist way.  Our leaders have consistently distanced us from fundamentalism.  Our background is revivalist and proto-Pentecostal—Pentecostal before tongues was added in the early 1900’s.  We have not put our twentieth century eggs in the modernist basket, so we have not absorbed as much of its excess baggage as some other Christian traditions.  That puts us in an excellent position to lead the broader church in these coming decades.

 

It’s our time.



[1] I say let me put it this way because a hard core postmodernist would not.

 

[2] Rorty himself might not quite be saying the same thing I am here, but a true postmodern hardly has ground to complain that someone else is exploiting the potentiality of their words in a slightly different direction.

 

[3] Or in the case of brail, feelings—we could communicate by smell or taste as well

 

[4] This comment could of course spawn its own side discussion.  In the end it is not so much the original meaning of these texts themselves that is foundational for the church so much as the fact that these texts are our primary source for what God did foundationally in the first century of the New Testament church.

 

[5] In conversation, Gary Cockerill has argued that Matthew is paying attention to context in the sense that Matthew is meaning to compare Jesus to Israel.  This is a wonderful opportunity to show some differences between what we are suggesting here and Gary as the quintessential modernist evangelical. 

 

First, he is at least acknowledging that Matthew is not reading the Hosea text literally, that Matthew at the very least is taking the words in a different sense than they were originally intended.  Hosea 11:1 was not even a prophecy but a recounting of history. 

 

But how close is the parallel?  Of course there will be something in the context that connects Hosea’s text with Matthew’s.  But how much of the context is really presumed or on Matthew’s mind.  So is the parallel between Jesus and Israel or between Jesus and Moses?  I am not convinced that Matthew is thinking Jesus equals Israel here.

 

So we reinforce several of my underlying claims.  First, that competent New Testament scholars frequently disagree on the original meaning of texts.  Second, that modernist evangelical scholars are often ingenious in the way they find ways to “make things fit,” just as the normal scientist who angrily resists those who suggest changes in paradigms because of naughty data.

 

But back to the original meaning, Matthew is not saying that Jesus, unlike Israel, did not sin after the Baals like Israel, that Jesus is a new Israel here.  Matthew’s talking about Jesus geographically leaving Egypt—no profundity of this sort is immediately apparent in the context of Matthew.  If anything, Matthew does seem to imply that Jesus is like Moses, only greater.  But how close is that parallel.  God led Israel out; God led Jesus out; Jesus like Moses, leads God’s people out of their sins?  Not a very precise parallel to be sure.

 

And of course, this is not the most extreme example.  I only choose it because it is easy to see that Matthew is not reading the Hosea 11:1 passage literally and that Hosea 11:1 was not originally a prophecy in any way, shape, or form.  But the examples of New Testament authors reading OT passages out of context could be multiplied ad infinitum.  It’s no skin off my nose, but the hard core evangelical scholar must explain away every one of them, because otherwise the Bible has something they would define as an error in interpretation.