Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Greatest Common Denominator of Scripture

Someone asked yesterday if I had written anything on a "big picture" view of scripture replacing the "atomization" which has been so common. The wording of the question indicated that they had read the piece Jeremy Summers and I wrote for the Missio Alliance blog. It also relates to something I wrote last week on how modern inerrancy in the 1800s shifted the center of biblical theology from the big picture to the details of individual passages, chiefly to oppose abolitionism. Individual verses on slaves obeying their masters came to trump the big principle that in Christ there is no slave.

I took the comment as a blog challenge. What would a hermeneutic look like today that tried to recapture the "inerrancy" of the pre-modern era? It's a difficult question because you can't undo historical consciousness. To the extent that someone understands reading in context, you can't undo it. This is in fact what current ETS inerrancy is--a partial understanding of context that can't be undone. It just gets more complex, as a D. A. Carson or Kevin Vanhoozer demonstrate.

For the record, my hermeneutic was born of this dilemma. I have found it impossible to deny inductive Bible study method as an evidentiary method. I don't see how anyone who truly understands it could. The only "successful" counter is presuppositional and thus turns to blind faith. Regardless of the evidence, we just won't follow the evidence. This is a recipe for eventual atheism--or at least eventual atheism for your children and students.

So since before I cranked out Who Decides What the Bible Means one week in the summer of 2005 (my first self-published book), I have argued for a two level hermeneutic, one of which involved the original meaning of the Bible and the other of which read the Bible in terms of common Christian understanding. The second is more or less the pre-modern way in which the fathers, Luther, Wesley read Scripture, before the modern inerrancy of Hodge and Warfield.

All of that is preface. My two level approach has not found general appeal, even though I think it is the only legitimate way to do what evangelicals want to do with Scripture. It is 1) both honest with history yet 2) allows us to read the text as the fathers read the text. What I am going to present below does not necessarily contradict what I've just written above, but it might be more palatable.

The Post
The problem with modern inerrancy is that it tends toward "the most difficult common denominator." I don't want to say "lowest common denominator" because every piece of the text is Scripture. But if you think of what a lowest common denominator is, you will get the picture.

Modern inerrancy functions such that, even if the vast majority of biblical texts seem to point in one way, a single difficult text can dislodge that trajectory. Before the modern, historical era, these "problem verses" were simply reinterpreted to mean something else. In modern evangelicalism, trump verses tend to undermine the big picture of Scripture.

I have the great benefit of being born an old soul into a old family in a hidden corner of the church. One of my grandfathers was born in 1883 and my mother grew up on Bible college/camp meeting grounds. My first hermeneutic was more or less the revivalist hermeneutic of the late 1800s/early 1900s.

I early recognized that I could not simply take a verse for what it seemed to say. Individual verses had to fit with what the rest of the Bible said. I distinctly and clearly remember thinking that as I read through my King James Bible. The meaning of an individual verse must be interpreted in the light of the whole.

Of course this is not the neo-evangelical or modernist way. An individual verse must be interpreted on its own terms. This is of course completely true from a historical perspective. It just isn't true from the way the pre-modern Christians of the centuries have read the Bible.

So what might a return to the "inerrancy" of the centuries look like?  It would be able to "set aside" problem verses until we know what to do with them. It would, in the words of the Reformers, be able to interpret the unclear verses in the light of the clear ones.

For example, we know that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). We know that one indication of the age of the Spirit is that sons and daughters will prophesy (Acts 2:17). We know that women did play spiritual roles and lead in the early church (Priscilla, Phoebe, the prophetess daughters of Philip, the prophesying women of 1 Cor. 11). Spiritual common sense says, especially in the Western world, that to prohibit women from ministry doesn't make any sense. The only argument you can make against it is that God just doesn't want it.

Now enters the modern inerrancy of Charles Hodge. Sorry, there is one verse in 1 Timothy that you cannot ignore, just like you cannot ignore the individual verses on slavery. Thus the majority of evangelicals are swayed. They flow to the most difficult common denominator. They take the most problematic Scriptures and make them central.

The problems here are massive. You may end up taking the most "that time" elements of the Bible and make them center stage. So instead of focusing on Jesus' love command, you may end up focusing on the annihilation of the Canaanites. You may end up using the Bible to promote things that are actually contrary to God's will because you have placed the center in the most difficult common denominator!

If we return to the sense of Scripture's truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists, we look rather to the "greatest common denominator" of Scripture.  What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don't know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.

Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an "unclear" tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don't let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.

This is something like what I have in mind when I speak of a big picture approach to the Bible driving the interpretation of the details, rather than an atomism. It is an approach that looks to the greatest common denominator and thus returns as best we can in the modern era to the hermeneutic of the fathers, Calvin, and Wesley.


Ken Schenck said...

P.S. This is a much more appealing tactic than the often mentioned cop-out, "in the original manuscripts," as if we don't know what the original manuscripts basically said. A much more convincing strategy is to say, "in the original context." Now, that is something almost everyone believes can be elusive.

Paul Tillman said...

I think saying, "The majority of Scripture points to this," is a stronger argument than, "This one verse (or fewer verses) must trump all." It seems a more difficult hermetic to make all else conform to what you call the "most difficult common denominator" and a bigger giving up of the truth, than to just admit that we don't know how to reconcile a certain verse.

Susan Moore said...

Yea, that’s it.
God’s patterns are huge and encompass the entire period of measured time. To look at Him with only a laser light does not do Him justice.
The laser light and the cross-section approach are the same thing to me; both cut and separate (illuminate) a section of scripture from the rest of the Bible. The section size can vary depending on the needs of the one cutting and separating. The section could be comprised of a single verse or a chapter or a book, or even just everything written by one author.
It’s okay to take a piece out to examine. But it is vital to put it back in its place when the examination is over.
I do believe it matters to God what one’s intention is in separating and examining a piece of His book. What does the work of the separator/examiner reveal about his/her heart? For instance, does one believe that only men should lead the church because God expects men to protect and prosper women, “the weaker vessel”, similarly to how Christ protects and prospers His Church? Or does one believe it is better for men to lead the church because one has gender insecurities, or is insanely competitive, or is afraid of or hates women, or otherwise desires to oppress women, “the weaker vessel”? I believe His Word is alive and active, and will declare the former as mercy and the latter as sin. This goes back to the ‘conversation’ yesterday about ‘rights’ and the God’s desire for us to love Him and one another above all else.
Does one have faith in the Word or the Bible; is one’s relationship with the Person or the character of Jesus in one’s Bible-book?
Not everyone can think in patterns. Thinking in patterns takes a strong right side of the brain. In general, men seem to have stronger left brains, the analytical side that thinks in numbers and thinks in black and white terms, like an on/off switch. To the left brain, something either is or it isn’t. Pattern –what pattern? Through no fault of one’s own, a person who strongly uses the left brain can’t ‘see’ patterns.
The way to remove error’s in hermeneutical methods is not to pray that God makes everyone’s brains equally strong on both sides. No, our prayer should be for unity in the Church. With unity there would be understanding that God made us each different, and for a purpose. With unity those with the strong left brains can cut and examine away to their hearts content, and share their analysis with the strong right brains who will make sure the piece is taken out cleanly and put back in its place with the breath of life still in it. There will also then be greater accountability for Biblical interpretation. Lose denominational prejudices, they are just a way that Satan keeps us apart.
And not everyone who takes a piece out desires to put the piece back in its place. Furthermore, some desire to take the pieces and scramble them up. It looks to me like some of the blogs you watch are from some of those kinds of people. Be careful that you do not fall for their same foolishness!
The patterns of God are described and defined by the longitudinal method, the Common Language of God, which is what I study. I have never read your books, just your blog. It’s good to know that the Spirit can still produce the joules to enable two of His minds to think alike (said tongue in cheek, of course, I don’t believe either of us were doubting that!).
Wow, have we finally discovered the common ground, the reason God brought me to your blog (and IWU)?

MarkK said...

The Greatest Common Denominator is an extremely helpful metaphor for viewing an overall hermeneutic. Especially in contrast to the *atomization* or least common denominator view which I have been taught for decades is the correct way to view the Scriptures. Thanks for taking the time to clarify, Ken. Hit me at a crucial time in my journey.

John Smith 710 said...

I second MarkK's comment. This concept is very helpful. If you have time it would be helpful to write up an example to illustrate the method. But thank you for this.

Susan Moore said...

In general, the estranged church is longitudinal studiers. Many have left the local churches due, in large part, to the erroneous teachings from the pulpits that were produced through someone’s laser light studying of Scripture (and also, it seems many of the myriad of denominations were formed by people who did not leave but simply split and formed their own communities). It is my firm belief that their leaving the church is how the formal church was enabled to become so lopsided in her left-brained approach to studying scripture. As the Church becomes more centered, I believe many of the estranged will return, they miss fellowship in communal worship and breaking bread together. Many are second or more generations estranged and have not been baptized.
Perhaps 2005 was the time He planted seeds. So now let’s see how much they’ve grown. It should come as no surprise to find He has other people scattered around studying the Bible in this holistic way. They could be people who equally use both sides of their brains, or they could be left or right brained people who have found others to balance their one-sidedness. They could be anywhere, with any level of education, and from any faith-tradition -because the Spirit doesn’t really need human institutions to grow His souls.
Let’s pray in the Spirit for God to reveal if the timing is right to strengthen His Church, by asking Him to bring together these like-minded Spirit-led people to develop the skeletal system of His Church.
In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Susan Moore said...

In case it matters, I am planning on being in Marion around the time of April 26, 2014, if God is willing. I say it like that because He told me I would complete my degree at IWU, He did not specify that meant I would graduate as well.