Theology

Biblical Interpretation and Leaning into the Mystery of God, Part 2

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In Part One of this article, I reflected upon the nature of epistemology and its relation to biblical interpretation; in this installment, I will offer suggestions on how we are to shape our hermeneutics by strengthening certain convictions while softening others, all while drawing us into an honest and mutual awareness of the difficulty before us and the humility and reverence that is thus required when going about such work.

First, we must exercise humility and concede that only God sees things as they truly are. Only God is liberated from the pitfalls of bias and prejudice. All humans exist in relation to the “data.” We must accept that we cannot fully understand, interpret, or represent that data as it is intended. Only Jesus did this perfectly.

Second, interpretation requires educated, fervent, and persistent effort. Interpretation is not easy. Though it is indeed aided by the illuminating presence of God’s Spirit, we fail to do justice to the nuance of the text if we do not make ourselves students of subjects such as history, language, and geography, to name a few. This is not a cop-out from agreeing wholeheartedly that God has communicated both clearly and effectively his will for human agents through history. It is also not some slippery liberal compromise which inevitably ends in losing sight of the faithful sun behind the chaotic waves of relativism. We can both affirm that God has communicated consistently and effectively throughout history, and also agree that, rooted as we are in sin, the agents of communication have often become as muddled and contradictory as the applications they’ve furnished—requiring, themselves, another layer of careful and sensitive translation. Submitting ourselves to the resources made available through others is one of the ways we equip ourselves to perform the tedious work of sorting through the various human elements in order to retrieve the essence and vitality of the Word of God.

Though interpretation is indeed aided by the illuminating presence of God’s Spirit, we fail to do justice to the nuance of the text if we do not make ourselves students of subjects such as history, language, and geography. Click To Tweet

Third, the multiplicity of detail which we are unavoidably pitted against in biblical interpretation need not be a hushed innuendo to leave the difficult work of interpretation to the paid professionals. I have found frequently that it’s the paid professionals who have not themselves risen above the clouds of confusion, and who have often needlessly compounded their own bias by pledging loyalty to constructs and traditions which demand particular screenings within particular assumptions. Interpretation (exegesis) is the work of the whole church, not a privatized affair for the educated and elite.

Interpretation (exegesis) is the work of the whole church, not a privatized affair for the educated and elite. Click To Tweet

Fourth, education and knowledge do matter, but what matters most of all is love. Paul said this to the church and it rings true today.1 Head knowledge is much different than the love which surpasses knowledge. The love of God can enable one to live in agreement and witness with the text (through God’s Spirit) even in cases when that person is ignorant of the text. Paul suggests this reality, quite sharply I might add, to the Jews in Rome when he tells his Jewish audience that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves…(and)…show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” (Rom 2:14-16). Of course, the ultimate desire is to be one who both possesses the written Word and lives by it. The church needs men and women teachers, empowered by the Spirit, educated in the methods and elements of biblical interpretation, and permeated with the love of God to help, teach, exhort, and guide others.

The church needs men and women teachers, empowered by the Spirit, educated in the methods and elements of biblical interpretation, and permeated with the love of God to help, teach, exhort, and guide others. Click To Tweet

Lastly, it is not God who must do something different. If the church has imitated the vitriol of the current culture, that is a problem. Unfortunately, I think one could argue that in many ways we preceded and championed it. We must always be careful that we see the connection between our own witness and the state of the surrounding culture. We are often too quick to point out the decay and demise of cultural standards without recognition that we are the ones God will hold responsible for the seasoning and preservation of the culture in which we find ourselves.2 Repentance makes us ever-ready to humbly and lovingly challenge the culture, to see and live within the greater narrative of God’s hounding love.

As Christians, we are called to reflect Christ not only in our belief statements, as if they were our party policies, but, as Paul iterates:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

—Eph 4:29-5:2

Embracing the Contradiction

We are living within a glorious contradiction. Our awareness of the delicacy of that contradiction should encourage us to extend tremendous grace to one another. It should also lead us time and time again back to the importance of the process. How we communicate matters as much as what we communicate. Both are mediums through which God’s truth is displayed.

God has been made known to us, in Christ, through the church, and through the writings of God’s people in the Bible. Also, God is shrouded in mystery, a “cloud of unknowing,” as the desert fathers suggested. The church has historically given consistent witness to this dialectic. We moderns are so quick to forget the myth of progress so implicit to our national identity. It is easy to assume that we are the ones who see most clearly. There is an inherent arrogance to that belief. We must confess, privileged as we may be, we are also steeped in bias because of Enlightenment rationalism, rampant individualism, commercialization, and industrialization, just to name a few of the hindrances that beset us. If we are not careful, we will encase ourselves in a tomb of temerity and presumption so thick that whatever witness we may have had will have been all-but-wasted.

We must confess, privileged as we may be, we are also steeped in bias because of Enlightenment rationalism, rampant individualism, commercialization, and industrialization. Click To Tweet

Just like guitar strings that exist in tension, drawn across the neck of the guitar by the bridge on one end and the tuning pegs on the other, we must not forget that to collapse the tension is to kill the music. The invitation is to lie back into the dialectic truths of the mysterious transcendence of God and the communicability (transfer) of God. We must resist the urge to relieve the tension, to satisfy the anomaly. A group of people who can learn instead to love and lean into that tension by God’s grace will find themselves able to play and listen to beautiful music together, music that the whole world is longing to hear.


[1] Ephesians 3:19
[2] Matthew 5:13-16

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