“That’s not a biblical norm, that’s just a cultural norm.”
You may have heard someone say this when they’re arguing about how a verse in the Bible applies to us today.
Or they might say, “Let’s let go of our preconceived ideas so that we can hear what the Bible is actually saying.” Or, “You need to study the Bible with the right method, or you will read your own biases into it.” And the argument-winner: “When they say the Bible allows them to do that, they are wrong because they have found a way to make the Bible mean whatever they want it to mean.”
It may surprise you to find out that these ways of understanding Bible interpretation are wrong in an important sense. That sense has to do with something vital that is at stake when we try to understand how we interpret the Bible. I hope to leave you with a better grasp of what that is and explain* why you may be interpreting the Bible better than those understandings would suggest.
Are we the problem?
If your experience is like mine, you likely agree that notions like those expressed in the above statements are commonly taught and assumed in the Adventist community. I’m not going to argue that such views are always wrong. I have held such views myself, and I think my motives for doing so were good insofar as I believed them out of a desire to keep myself in line with the truth of God’s word. And I still tremble at the real possibility that I may somehow substitute my own voice for God’s when reading the Bible.
The common thread that runs through the above statements, however, is an assumption that human personhood is primarily an obstacle to understanding and applying God’s word. One best interprets the Bible, the thinking goes, when one minimizes or even obviates one’s own history, experiences, will, desires, intentions, and the like, because those aspects of personhood form preconceptions about the meaning of things, including the things of God. After all, if our own minds are more responsible for misleading us than anything else (according to Jeremiah 17:9), isn’t the solution to get them out of the way entirely?
This perspective on Bible interpretation culminates in various proposals for interpretive methods that promise to reduce or eliminate interpretive bias in various ways so that we can all arrive at the same conclusions.
The ideal interpreter
Let’s try to imagine what the ideal Bible interpreter would be like, according to the assumption that our backgrounds, preconceptions, and biases mostly get in the way of our understanding Scripture. This ideal interpreter would have no experiences prior to encountering the Bible or any sense of having a story, for these could lead to wrong expectations about what the Bible means or is about; no desires, for even the desire to understand the Bible could lead to reading meanings into the text that God did not intend; no will, for that would afford the ability to choose something besides interpreting the Bible and obeying it; and no intentions, for these might lead the ideal interpreter to distort the Bible’s presentation of God’s purposes. In short, the ideal interpreter of the Bible—under the assumption that human personhood is primarily an obstacle to understanding and applying God’s word—is like, or is in the process of becoming, a machine: “not a free moral agent, but a mere automaton,” a creature that “would have sustained Satan’s charge of God’s arbitrary rule” (Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, 49).
The Bible was not written for machines, however. It was written for people like you and me—sinful, fallen human beings—because God wanted to instruct us in wisdom for our salvation through faith in Jesus the Messiah and to equip our moral characters to do good in a fallen world (2 Timothy 3:15–17). Nor was the Bible written to turn us into robots running on the software of Scripture. Rather, according to the Bible, its ideal interpreters become wise and acquire good judgment. They need their life’s story to matter in some way and can join their story with God’s story to attain that experience. They desire goodness and can choose to trust God. Therefore, sound interpretation of Scripture cannot be conditioned on us acting as though we are machines. We rightly interpret the Bible as earthly, embodied characters caught up in a celestial drama, not as computer programs crunching abstract code in a realm untroubled by considerations of consciousness, time, and location.
Between Berea and Athens
The apostle Paul’s message of the gospel had its best reception in the synagogue of Berea: “These [Jews] were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NKJV). This verse exemplifies a sola scriptura approach to theology: receive God’s word, compare it with previous divine revelation, make a fair-minded judgment, and walk accordingly. “Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men” (Acts 17:12, NKJV).
What should we do when we go through that process and still disagree? And how do we explain it when our disagreements break along cultural lines? Let’s read further.
Berea was too close to the hostile Jews who were present in Thessalonica, so Paul had to leave for Athens (Acts 17:13–15). His reception there was rather different than in Berea: for the first time, Paul’s proclamation of Christ garnered a response not just among the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles but also among the pagans (Acts 17:16–18). And in recording what Paul did next, Luke provided us with the Bible’s only explicit explanation of how God works in history and in the cultures that history produces to draw people to Himself.
Paul was distressed by the idolatry of the Athenians (Acts 17:16), but in connection with their sin he found a seed of truth: an altar to An Unknown God (Acts 17:23). Having been invited to give a presentation to the philosophers (Acts 17:19–22), he explained that this altar was in their city because God is at work in the history of every group of humans in the world. God shifts the times and boundaries of groups of people, planting seeds of truth in their cultures that open avenues for them to seek for God and find Him (Acts 17:26–27). That is how Paul was able to recognize the altar to An Unknown God for what it really was.
Yes, groups of people with whom we identify, and the languages and cultures that go along with them, change the meanings of Scripture for us. Some of those changes can lead us farther from God in ways other groups don’t struggle with, but others of them lead us closer to God in ways that other groups struggle to understand. To name this state of affairs “confusion” and wish that it were otherwise is to dream the dream of Babel-unity (Genesis 11:4), which results in the spiritual confusion of end-time Babylon’s global dominance (Revelation 18:23–24); for the unity in diversity God gives to His people appears as confusion to the ungodly (Acts 2:6–13).
What then is required for sound Bible interpretation? Biases, preconceptions, and cultural backgrounds are required, because without these there would be no reason to interpret the Bible in the first place.
To get started, we need a bias that comes from love and is in favor of knowing God better and of aligning our wills with His (Matthew 22:37).
We also need preconceptions based on our experiences that form in us a general sense of reality, without which Scripture wouldn’t mean anything to us. But we also need the experience of having God renew our minds so that we are willing to revise both our concepts and our previous interpretations based on new meanings we find in Scripture. Methods that reduce bias in interpretation—like those set forth in the Adventist Church’s 1988 Rio de Janeiro Statement—are helpful on this point because they alternately challenge us to consider alternatives and rule out interpretive options, as long as we don’t imagine that these methods will replace faith and judgment calls. These make knowledge active, and action is necessary for character transformation.
And we need love for ourselves and others so that we can appreciate the seeds of truth in our own lives while not excluding the ways seeds of truth God has placed in others can expose our own tendencies toward sin (Matthew 22:39). We change our biases by changing our experiences; we change our experiences by changing our practices; and we change our practices by the aspirations and community of faith that the Holy Spirit unites in and among us (Galatians 5:22–6:5). This requires relationships in which people of different backgrounds can productively disagree over their interpretations not only of Scripture but of life in general, by drawing attention to inconsistencies and demonstrating for each other how to hear the call of God in Scripture and live with integrity.
Finally, we need to grow as people by moving back and forth over these various sites of interpretation over and over and over and on into an eternity of ever-unfolding and reflecting the manifold dimensions of God’s character of love. If you want to start growing in this way, start or join together with a prayer partner or small group under this goal.
In place of an impersonal ideal of unbiased Bible interpretation, I propose that we embrace, instead of rebelling against, our limited, irreducibly biased creatureliness in a way that amounts to a unique kind of relativism—not an idolatrous relativism that holds all things relative to human judgment, but a reverent relativism that holds all things, including human judgment, relative to God.
David Hamstra is the lead pastor of the Edmonton Central Seventh-day Adventist Church in Alberta, Canada, and a Doctor of Theology student at Andrews University.
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* My explanation broadly draws on insights from the hermeneutic tradition in continental philosophy associated with Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002), and Jürgen Habermas. Fernando L. Canale, emeritus professor of theology and philosophy at Andrews University, was influenced by this tradition, especially in his early work. It has also stimulated contemporary reflection on biblical and theological interpretation in the broader Christian community that holds a high view of Scripture, including works by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and James K. A. Smith.