Before we leave this discussion, we should point out a key conclusion we are forced to draw about the Bible as a source of truth. Far more thinking is involved in interpreting and applying the Bible than most people realize. On the one hand, the pre-modern interpreter is more known for what s/he does not think than for what s/he thinks, since this person is largely unaware of his or her assumptions. Unless the Holy Spirit is directing their thoughts, they will likely mistake their own voice for God’s.
Nevertheless, even the pre-modern ends up using a good deal of reason to fit the various parts of the Bible together. A person can believe that none of the parts of the Bible conflict with each other and still acknowledge that there are a lot of statements that at least seem to conflict with each other. Paul says, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28, RSV). James says, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24, RSV). Neither Paul nor James tell us how to fit these seemingly conflicting statements together. That is to say, the Bible does not give us the answer for how faith and works go together. We have to reason out the answer ourselves or, more likely, rely on some Christian tradition for its answer.
In the previous section we discussed how to apply the verse, “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss” to today. It is important to point out that the Bible did not give us the answer to this question. 1 Thessalonians was a letter to ancient Thessalonians—God did not tell Paul to include a footnote on how to apply the truths of the letter to a different cultural context.
The long and short of all these observations is this: the fact that the Bible is God’s word does not in any way by-pass or remove the role that reason plays in coming to truth. We would certainly hope for the Spirit to direct our reasoning, but without reason we cannot come to any conclusion on what “the Bible” as a whole says or about how to apply such a conclusion to today.
Nor can we eliminate our past or current experiences from our engagement with Scripture. Our experiences shape the questions we ask and what aspects of the biblical text stand out to us. Our experiences create a sort of common sense that leads us to see some verses as clear and others as unclear. Our denominational backgrounds and the broader culture to which we belong serve as filters as well. We should try to be as objective as we can in relation to the forces at work on us, but Gadamer is surely correct when he sees us inevitably bringing all of our hermeneutical “baggage” with us to any text.
What we see is that the Bible is a unique source of truth for the Christian, but it does not by-pass the normal use of reason and experience. Even when I have a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit, I inevitably interpret it with my human reasoning. I not only have a finite perspective on the universe, but I have that perspective stuck within my head. The person who thinks that s/he simply reads the Bible and does what it says—God said it, I believe it, that settles it—is a dangerous person. For this person is vastly unaware of the forces at work on their understanding. They are wired to regularly mistake their own thoughts for the thoughts of God.