A humbler approach to the Bible

My doctor referred me to a vascular surgeon for a consult. The surgeon’s assistant led me to an examination room and went over my paperwork, asked a bunch of questions, then told me I’d have to strip down to my skivvies while I waited for the doctor.

Earlier that day I’d donned a t-shirt with a graphic of Lake Superior above a graphic of Lake Erie. Each graphic has a caption. The top one reads, “Michigan is Superior” while the bottom reads, “Ohio is Erie.” The shirt was a gag gift from an anonymous University of Michigan fan. (I’m from the Cleveland area and make no secret of the fact that I root for Ohio State, which is a sort of heresy in southern Michigan, where we live.)

I suppose the observant doctor noticed my t-shirt and wrongly assumed I was a Michigan fan. The real reason I wore the shirt was that I was going over to my son’s house after my appointment to help him paint his laundry room. I chose that particular shirt because I thought it was the one article of clothing I own that would look better with paint splotches than it does without them.

Now suppose the doctor was a University of Michigan graduate. He would, perhaps subconsciously, approve of my shirt and me. My shirt might even inspire him to greater interest in my case, which could only turn out for my good.

On the other hand, imagine that the good doctor was a graduate of Ohio State and was a huge Buckeye fan. He would, perhaps subconsciously, find my shirt and me disagreeable. My shirt might even discourage interest in me and my case.

In either scenario, the doctor would be in danger of making assumptions from the available data that might mislead him. Because he didn’t know the backstory – the friendly rivalry in our church between Buckeyes and Wolverines – he might completely misread the situation. A whole host of miscellaneous data – where we live, the outcome of the college bowl games, past conversations – might lead him to draw the wrong conclusions.

I don’t for a moment think the doctor would have provided second-rate care had he known I was a Buckeye fan. My point is rather that the interpretation of a text, whether on a t-shirt or in the U. S. Constitution or in the Bible, will be affected by the assumptions we bring to it. The interpreter does not come to the data as a completely detached and objective observer.

We come to the Bible with all kinds of cultural and linguistic (not to mention personal) baggage in tow. Even the questions we bring to the text are conditioned by our own experiences and expectations. For example, people expect the Bible to answer a question like, “Can a believer lose his salvation?” But for a person to use biblical data to answer that question, he or she must deal with a number of preliminary issues, among them: what constitutes a “believer” and what the biblical writers had in mind when they used the word “salvation.”

A person might come to the Bible with the assumption that “salvation” is about getting into heaven when one dies, but is that all there is to it? When St. Peter wrote, “…for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” did he really mean his readers were getting into heaven, at that very moment? And, if not, what else (or what more) did he mean?

To do justice to a text, any text – the Bible, the Constitution or a t-shirt – it must not be divorced from its author’s intent. This is not to deny that there may be more to a text than even its author understood (as many poets have testified about their own poems, and as Christians generally believe about the Bible). It is to say that the author’s intent and the text’s meaning are inseparable.

The Bible has been used to lend support to all kinds of theological and ecclesiastical campaigns that would have puzzled, and perhaps angered, the biblical writers themselves. Interpretive integrity requires a more principled and, frankly, a humbler approach.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/13/2016

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