1.1 The Problem of Christian Scripture
The contemporary problem of Christian Scripture is a by-product of two primary features of modern times: 1) the decentralization of political control over the meaning of the Bible and 2) the rise of the historical-cultural method. In themselves, neither of these developments was bad. Indeed, in many respects they have been great boons to the pursuit of truth. Nevertheless, as with so many correctives, they unleashed a chain of events that has resulted in a situation on the opposite extreme--one that currently is no better than the one they sought to correct and indeed, that is arguably even worse.
In the West, when the church was unified as the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian meaning of the Bible was relatively stable, as it remains in the Orthodox East. The RCC did not have official interpretations of every verse in the Bible, but there were clear cut canons of what a Christian could believe. In the late medieval period, it was not necessary for the teachings of the church to map closely to the Bible, so it was not necessary to explain away biblical passages that seemed to contradict the church's teachings. In any conflicting situation, the church held the final authority anyway.
This is not to say that the Bible was not an integral part of the reasoning of the medieval church. If we look at the writings of Thomas Aquinas in the 1100's, for example, we find references to the Bible permeate his thoughts. At the same time, no premium was put on following the "literal" meaning of the text. Without limitations on non-literal interpretations, texts of the Bible could be interpreted allegorically, especially if the apparent surface meaning of the text seemed incongruent with the church's desired meaning.
The reaction of Martin Luther and other reformers to this church hermeneutic is well known. Luther rejected any number of developments in Roman Catholic thought without clear precedent in the Bible, beliefs like purgatory or the practice of priests needing to be celibate. Under the banner of sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," Luther sought to peel back the development of doctrine and practice beyond the New Testament. A premium was placed on the "literal" meaning of the text, so that such developments could not be maintained by recourse to meanings that were not obvious. And the "second canonical" books that might be used in support of ideas like purgatory were rejected as "apocrypha."
In his famous debates with Erasmus, Luther contended that individuals did not need the church to help clarify for them the meaning of the Bible. Under the twin headings of the "priesthood of all believers" and the "perspicuity of Scripture," Luther held that Christian individuals did not need someone to interpret the Bible for them and that the meaning of the Bible in relation to salvation was sufficiently clear in itself that an individual did not need the help of the church to interpret it.
Another element in Reformation hermeneutics was Luther's contention that "Scripture interprets Scripture." The thrust of Scripture as a whole is clear and the meaning of central passages relating to salvation are clear, but there are unclear passages in Scripture. These unclear passages should be interpreted by recourse to the clear ones.
If we try to analyze the situation of the Reformation as objectively as we can, it is obvious that much more was going on here than ideology. Luther recognized corruption at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church of his day and he recognized conflict between commonly recognized core ideals of Christianity and the priorities and emphases of the church of his day. These are the driving forces behind the Reformation's beginning. But these ideals would not have sustained the Reformation if there were not others--including others with power--who wished to undermine the power of the church over them or who resented the corruption and derailment of core values. A movement was thus born.
The hermeneutical theory Luther devolved from this political situation is epiphenomenon. It is a tool to support the political detachment of the Protestants from Rome and the separation of core Christian values from issues of central conflict at the time of Luther. As we will see, radicals like the Anabaptists and the Socinians probably represent a more thoroughgoing example of sola scriptura than Luther or Calvin. But in the end, the notion itself is incoherent, an impossibility of language given the nature of the biblical texts as situational documents written in such diverse contexts.
The decentralization of political control over the Christian meaning of the Bible has resulted in as many meanings as there are centers of power. When a Christian group consolidates power and becomes a denomination with a central creed, then there is a more or less common reading of the Bible for that group. But the principle of the "priesthood of all believers," accompanied by the rise of the printing press and a culture of literacy, has resulted in virtually as many meanings to the Bible as there are interpreters.
Practically speaking, it makes no difference how much authority a person assigns to the Bible when there is no clear meaning of the Bible. A person might affirm the inerrancy of Scripture in the strongest of terms and yet believe the Bible tells them to murder any practicing homosexual they might find. Affirmations of Scripture's authority thus are only as meaningful as the interpretation is appropriate.
In this sense, the basic Protestant hermeneutic has set in motion the disintegration of the Bible's meaning as Scripture. It has left us with no way of knowing what the Christian meaning of Scripture actually is. It has left us with words of the highest significance that nevertheless have no clear meanings. It is true that most mainstream Christian traditions do hold certain basic understandings of the Bible in common. But, as we will show, this commonality derives from the fact that they remain in the common tradition of the church rather than because the words of the Bible demand these understandings in themselves.
A second repercussion of the Renaissance and Reformation is the rise of contextual reading of the Bible. When John Calvin and other reformers began to seek after the literal meaning of the Bible, they set in motion a movement that would eventually give rise to the historical-cultural method, as I will refer to it. This method is the attempt to read the books of the Bible in their original settings and contexts, to read them roughly as their first audiences would have read them, with the meanings generally their original authors and editors intended them to have.
For the interpreter who wishes to arrive at the most likely original meaning of a text given the available evidence, in the most objective manner possible, an inductive method has developed. The person who approaches the biblical texts in this way approaches them as a scientist would approach a set of evidence. For example, if we ask who the author of Genesis, Matthew, Mark, or Luke was from an inductive standpoint, we will conclude that these writings are all anonymous, for they nowhere tell us who their authors were. When we ask what the meaning of a word in a biblical text was, we look for the potential meanings that those words had at the time they were written. At the same time, we would not presume that the way a word was used in Mark would necessarily be the way that word was used in John for these are two different texts from two different authors.
The result of this quest for the original meaning of the biblical texts, which stands in continuity with Luther's desire to get back to Scripture alone, has not yielded exactly what the reformers thought it would. In general, it has led to an "ugly ditch" between the likely meaning the books of the Bible had in their original contexts and the theological meanings that Christians have found in these texts throughout the centuries. We see the result in various sociological movements in late nineteenth and twentieth century Protestant Christianity.
First there was the rise of theological liberalism, in which the ability of the biblical texts to speak to today almost completely unraveled. The original meaning and the Jesus of history both together became strangers to the modern mind. We should not create a "straw man" out of thinkers like Adolf von Harnack or Albert Schweitzer, as if their only problem was a lack of faith and a disbelief in miracles. Many of the issues that the late nineteenth century interpreters of the Bible raised were real issues, issues that we are still addressing today.
Liberalism is a direct heir of the Protestant Reformation and its insistence that it is the original, literal meaning of the Bible that is the only legitimate one. When Adolf Jülicher insisted that there could only have been one meaning for any parable Jesus spoke--and thus that any gospel parable that is an allegory cannot possibly have come from Jesus--he was simply playing out the "literal meaning" trajectory set by the Protestant reformers.
The fundamentalism of early twentieth century America was a reaction to this unraveling of the Bible as Scripture. Without answers to the questions raised by modernism and liberalism, many Christian groups retreated from the discussion. They founded little colleges where their children could be educated without being exposed to the evils of evolution and higher criticism. They could simply be indoctrinated in the beliefs of the group. Most of the Bible teaching in these Bible colleges returned to the pre-modern, earlier non-contextual interpretive methods. The main difference from the medieval period was the political body telling the group what the right interpretations were. Each group imposed its own political reading of the biblical text on its children and people and removed itself far enough away that no one could question it.
Others became militant and enlisted brilliant thinkers and scholars to find ingenious ways to address the questions of liberalism on its own terms, namely, historical ones. Places like Westminister Theological Seminary were founded as intellectual military establishments. At the same time, this variety of fundamentalist inadvertantly found himself accentuating the importance of historicity and scientific accuracy in ways completely foreign to the biblical texts themselves.
The late 1940's saw the rise of neo-evangelicalism, a slightly more intellectually and socially respectable version of the earlier fundamentalists. The intervening years have seen significant changes in the nature of American evangelicalism and its hermeneutic. For one thing, time has only increased the awareness of evangelical scholars of what it means to read biblical texts in context. The professed goal of evangelical study is indeed the original meaning of the text. Rising evangelical scholars have thus learned all the tools of historical study--the same ones that were developed and used by the earlier liberal scholars. As long as no fundamental doctrine is at issue, evangelical scholars have felt free to follow the historical-cultural method to its logical conclusion.
The problem comes when the canons of reading in context appear to lead to a meaning for the biblical text that conflicts with the evangelical "rule of faith," the commonly agreed Reformation principles or the beliefs and practices of the specific evangelical tradition in question. In such cases, evangelical scholars have typically applied their great intellect to finding possible readings of the text that fit with their understanding rather than going with what at first glance might seem a more probable one.
A good example is the interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2 by some evangelical interpreters. The most straightforward reading of the Hebrew text is, "When God began to create the heavens and earth, the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the Deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters." In this translation, God does not create the world out of nothing, but He creates order out of a pre-existing chaos of waters, not too dissimilar to what we find in other ancient creation stories of the time like the Babylonian Enuma Elish or the Greek Theognis. Further, we have no clear evidence of any Jewish literature holding to a creation out of nothing (ex nihilo) until around the time of Christ, perhaps even a couple centuries after Christ. The most probable conclusion, it would seem, given the evidence alone, is that the original meaning of Genesis pictured God creating the world out of primordial waters.
This situation would not have been a problem for medieval interpreters. They could either take the passage figuratively or insist that the later church's understanding of the text is the correct Christian one. But Protestant ideology is driven to find the Christian meanings in the text, not in later developments of understanding. Evangelical scholars have thus often felt compelled to argue that the original meaning of this text pointed to an ex nihilo creation. Various evangelical scholars have applied their considerable intellect to find possible ways in which the text might be taken that way. Perhaps they are correct, but to outsiders it has called the scholarly integrity of evangelical scholarship into question--and has led to not a few faith crises and even loss of faith to sincere students within evangelical communities.
The limits of what an evangelical scholar could or could conclude was the original meaning loosened considerably in the last decades of the twentieth century. We would argue that much of this loosening resulted from the Bible itself and the genuine desire to hear what it says. In some circles this loosening was further facilitated by the rise of the "church growth" movement, which allowed thinkers in these churches the freedom to pursue interpretation without as much political involvement from church leaders. The focus was on increasing numbers in the pew and on a bare bones gospel, not on holding the line on some set of inherited doctrines or practices. Of course ideological purity remained a central concern in the most central evangelical circles.
The evangelical mechanism of joining "that time" with "this time" is somewhat complicated, but has gained in considerable sophistication from the early days of the 1950's and 60's. The text is read in context (within the understood evangelical boundaries of what it is allowed to mean). Then points of continuity and discontinuity are identified between the original situations and our current context. Then the fundamental principles are played out today. Thus the ugly ditch is crossed.
Yet at the turn of the twenty-first century, the ditch remains a major concern. Many evangelical Bible scholars are turning to theological interpretation, the desire to join back together the reading of the Bible with Christian theology. The popularity of this movement must surely indicate that, for all the complex method of joining that time with this time, the presence of the ditch is still felt. Someone like Grant Osborne in The Hermeneutical Spiral can say that the inductive method is available to anyone, but in reality, the canons of evangelical hermeneutics--and indeed of historical-cultural interpretation--effectively take the Bible out of the hands of the individual Christian and put it back in the hands of a new priesthood, the priesthood of biblical scholars.
The historical-cultural method has thus helped us to read the books of the Bible in context, but it has shown us at the same time that the original meaning was an ancient meaning that is often far removed from our situations today. It has also, as we will see, led us at times to meanings that are not clearly Christian or at least that are less Christian than the way we as Christians have tended to read the Bible throughout history. Further, the process of original meaning interpretation is one that requires great expertise in ancient languages and knowledge of hermeneutics and ancient cultures. The simple reality is that only a small minority of individual Christians will ever be competent at the historical-cultural method and, ironically, even those that are regularly disagree on the original meanings of the biblical texts.
The problem of Christian Scripture today is thus the problem of knowing what the Christian meaning of the books of the Bible actually is. Christendom lacks a central political body to dictate such a meaning, and the pursuit of the original meaning results in 1) countless fragments of meaning corresponding to the individual, dozens of biblical books. These meanings 2) correspond to a myriad of ancient situations and contexts that 3) are not always clearly Christian in the sense of what Christians historically have come to believe and practice. We are, however, at a point in the history of ideas where we are not only able to understand our hermeneutical situation better than ever before. We are at a point where we are able to find an equilibrium between the concerns of the Reformation and the importance of common Christian tradition.