Reading the Bible: Part #1, Make Your Call

In one of my classes we had a discussion about how to read the Bible. Specifically, we were wrestling with the ubiquitous problem of multiple, rival interpretations and how to resolve them. Christian Smith calls this issue "pervasive interpretive pluralism."

Given all the rival ways of interpreting Scripture, and all the good arguments on every side, my students asked me the question, "Dr. Beck, given this situation, how do we know what the Bible says?" 

It's a great question, and in three posts I'll share my answer to the students, an answer that has three parts.

The first part of the answer was this: You just have to make your call.

My students, like most evangelical Christians, are foundationalists. They want their interpretations of Scripture to stand on a firm foundation, Biblical Truth. The Bible says it, we believe it, and that's it.

Trouble is, that foundation doesn't exist. Once we step into the hermeneutical whirlwind there's no escaping the truth that, whenever we read the Bible, we are, in fact, interpreting the Bible. Interpreting is inescapable. But with the dawning of that hermeneutical self-awareness it feels like quicksand has opened up beneath our feet. If all is interpretation, with no firm foundation upon which to sort true and false readings of the Bible, it seems we can never be certain that we're getting things right. 

Of course, it's not quite as bad as that. It's not like anything goes when reading the Bible. Readings of the Bible can be more or less plausible. Some readings are just too strained to be compelling or persuasive. Plus, there's the Creeds and the Great Tradition of the faith. There might not be a foundation, but there are come guardrails. 

Still, how do you adjudicate, say, between views regarding gender roles in the church? Legitimate and good-faith Biblical arguments can made in favor of both complementarianism and egalitarianism. How to choose between these positions?

Here's what I told my students. You can't avoid it. You just have to make a call. 

Because we're foundationalists we want to believe we can avoid this. That if we just study hard enough the Bible will, in the final moment, become wholly clear and transparent. That universal agreement and consensus will break out.

It won't. Study all you want, you're just going to circle back to the strong arguments being made on both sides. You can't avoid making a call. 

So that was Part #1 of my answer to my students. Do the hard work of Biblical study, put in the time and effort to explore, but don't think you can avoid, in the final analysis, the necessity of making a call. So make it. 

And yet, such a prospect terrifies us. What if we get it wrong?

That brings us, tomorrow, to Part #2 of my answer.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply