Thursday, June 27, 2013

Beyond simplicity - critical realism and biblical hermeneutics

There's an old phrase in Christian circles that says 'God said it. I believe it. That settles it.' It's wonderfully simple, direct, appealing, but often wrong.

Now don't misunderstand me, as a post-conservative evangelical, I may have abandoned the idea of inerrancy as being hopelessly modern and an inappropriate label to apply to Scripture, but I do believe in inspiration and the authority of the bible. I do believe that 'God speaks' through the bible. I do however also believe that the process of revelation (i.e. God speaking) is closed in a Trinitarian sense, i.e. the bible is the collection of books God wrote via the Holy Spirit inspiring its writers, attesting to the person of Jesus, and interpreted by the Holy Spirit. The last clause is well attested in opening chapters of 1 Corinthians.

That said, it should be clear in a sense I'm being pre-modern rather than modern or post modern. One might say that the text has one original meaning to its original readers but multiple applications and understandings depending on the context of the reader. Put in terms of Roger Olson or Tom Wright, scripture is a narrative to be told and retold, not so much mashed up as lived, entered into and improvised in new contexts. But how do we know how to do that?

Peter Enns in his book Inspiration and Incarnation draws an analogy between the inspiration of the bible text and the incarnation of Jesus. Both are mysteries where the object or subject under question represent the union between the human and the divine, without destroying either. What that means is that the bible may be for us but it wasn't written to us. And it was written to the culture of the day, in the language of the day, etc. It means that there is always some hard work to be done in understanding what the text meant before we can understand what the text means now and how to improvise it for our own circumstances. Skip the first step and the second and third steps will be askew.

It means we need to read the bible often, deeply and with the best scholarship we can find (and understand) to know what it means. Thankfully a fair amount of that has been done in the bible translations as every act of translation is an act of interpretation (though read several translations exactly for this reason if you don't have a good grasp of Greek and Hebrew). It means that for a good many issues all we can hope for is that we have the best understanding we can develop and try not to be overly dogmatic (we see through a glass dimly as Paul says). This isn't a lack of confidence so much as being appropriately humble. Yes, some things are clearly wrong, but a good number of things are not quite as so. At the very least, we should be willing to try and set aside our own systems to read the text afresh, and be willing to modify our own systems to better fit Scripture, and less the other way around.

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