Last week I posted here on the importance of the inerrancy of Scripture and received a number of comments and personal messages regarding the nature of the Bible and how we are to relate to it.
About two days later I made a comment on Twitter/FB to the effect that the Bible is authoritative, but our theology is man-made. At least two people challenged my statement, insisting that an objective understanding of the Scripture is virtually impossible, because we all bring preconceptions and cultural biases into our reading of the text.
As technology has made the world smaller and we have become more aware of alternative interpretations of the Bible (and for that matter, of alternative religions), a popular refrain from certain theologians has been that we need to be extra careful not to assert anything “absolute” from the Bible. Doing so, it is claimed, marks us off as “modernists” who are intent upon using the Bible for our own diabolical schemes, to oppress the weak or to justify our own suppression of all contrary viewpoints. I had one seminary professor who would repeatedly remind us that “just me and my Bible” is a dangerous equation, since the community, culture, and historical situation to which we belong significantly affect our interpretations.
Fair enough. One positive contribution of postmodern thinking has been the realization that I can never completely separate myself FROM myself. I will always bring preconceptions to the text. Because I am finite, my interpretations and understanding of God’s revelation will always be short of perfection.
It is possible, however, that we need to swing the pendulum back toward the middle of the spectrum a bit. Although I can never have perfect and exhaustive knowledge, that does not mean that I should throw up my hands and give up the search for truth. In his excellent book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, D.A. Carson argues for “critical realism” and describes it in the following way: “Critical realists hold that meaning can be adequately determined, over against both naive realists, who are inclined to think that meaning can be exhaustively determined, and non-realists, who hold that the objective meaning cannot be determined.” In other words, truth exists; I might not be able to find it perfectly, but I can find it adequately in most situations.
Some would call this naive, but isn’t it really how we operate most of the time? No, I can’t prove exhaustively that vegetables are always good for me (the whole idea could be a power-play by greedy farmers), but I can know enough about their benefits to go ahead and eat them.
So how does this relate to the Bible?
-Admittedly, we cannot fully understand the author’s intent (or the Author’s intent) because I am limited and finite.
-However, our understanding of God is that He genuinely desires to communicate with us certain propositions, ideas that are vital and (gulp) absolutely true in all situations. (Why else is Jesus Himself referred to as The Word if God except that God intends to communicate something Real through Him?)
-That means my interpretive process primarily involves attempting to find the authorial intent of the Scripture rather than to first ask, “What does the Bible mean to me?” College students, if you want to understand why we use Inductive Bible Study Methods (observation, interpretation, application), this is why: we want to do our best to look at what the Scripture says before we impose meaning upon it or try to act in light of it. No, we can never completely remove our biases, but we can slowly become more aware of them and (hopefully) allow them to be challenged by the text itself.
Kevin VanHoozer, in his book Is There Meaning in This Text, argues that interpretation of texts is fundamentally an issue of authority. Will I submit to the authority of the Author of the text (and of Creation), or insist upon my own understanding and authority as I read?
So the Bible alone is inerrant and infallible. My theology and my interpretations are flawed, but they do have some value in the teaching and leadership of the Body of Christ. As long as humility is maintained as I interpret and teach, there is no real conflict between stating that only the Bible is absolutely authoritative but acknowledging that he uses fallible human beings to communicate the Bible’s message.
Grace and truth…sounds strangely familiar.