Conversations from Campus: Bible Interpretation 2

Rick Mattson Bible, Uncategorized 2 Comments

Last week I raised questions about Bible interpretation because I get these questions constantly in my travels to college campuses.

Here’s what I always say first in my replies:

Don’t interpret the Bible in isolation.

This statement usually rubs a few students the wrong way. They value hearing directly from God.

For them, direct communication from God bypasses the imperfections of human interpretation and ivory tower wrangling over ancient language grammar and syntax.

They value inspiration more than perspiration.

I guess I’m just enough of a mystic to believe that God still speaks directly to his people. You hear a word from God, you act on it. That’s basic discipleship.

Yet, I’m really firm about this notion of interpreting Scripture (and words from God) in community. It’s called the interpretive community, the historic conversation — the sifting of scriptural meaning through the authority and wisdom of the church.

So I guess in that way I’m pretty traditional. Why?

1. Because we were made for community. That’s how the Christian life is to be lived (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, etc.).

2. Sin extends to the understanding. Our minds are fallen.* We misunderstand people, situations — and Scripture. Our best safeguard against misinterpretation is the wisdom of community.

I believe the God of history speaks through history — that we as contemporary Christians rightly “stand on the shoulders” of the saints who’ve gone before us.

That’s two millennia of interpreters. We ignore them to our peril.

* Theologians and philosophers sometimes call this the “noetic effects” of sin.
Of many good books on the subject of Bible interpretation, my favorite is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Fee and Stewart.

Comments 2

  1. Rick,

    How would you respond to a “Noetic argument against Theism” (NAAT)? This would run broadly along the lines of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

    Basically, the NAAT says that under Theism, we can never be confident that our fallen minds have achieved true knowledge. Our sinfulness could be impairing our judgment. God may have hardened our hearts like he did to the Pharaoh of Egypt. The devil may be deceiving us.

    Given the apparent inconsistency between the Bible story which says that there was a global flood 5,000 years ago, and the geologic/biologic evidence which says there was not, how are we to decide which evidence to believe? Perhaps the noetic effects of sin have impaired our ability to read the book of nature correctly. Or maybe the noetic effects of sin have impaired our ability to read Scripture correctly.

    Are the noetic effects of sin not an undefeated defeater for the ability of anyone to have true knowledge under Christian Theism?

    Michael D

  2. Ahh, Michael, you are sharp as always. This being a popularized forum I will attempt a non-technical, abbreviated reply.

    The argument against naturalism, if I understand it correctly, essentially asks why we should trust our “monkey-minds” to be giving us truth about reality. The assumed framework is naturalistic evolution.

    But in a theistic understanding we can have confidence that God has endowed us with truth-finding abilities (“proper function,” roughly). And though we are fallen creatures, he has provided many ways for us to find truth, among them the input of Christian community.

    Given Christian theism, then, the NAAT should be avoidable.

    Intellectually, I suggest we steer along a path of “humble confidence,” avoiding the left ditch of arrogance (the claim to perfect knowledge) and the right ditch of hopelessness (giving up on knowledge altogether). This route seems to take account of our human limitations and fallenness, but also God’s initiative to reveal light and truth to us.

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