Sunday, November 18, 2012

How We Read the Bible - Part 4

Assuming we all pick and choose in our reading of Scripture as I argued in post 2 and Scripture is a multivocal conversation as I argued in post 3, where does that leave us in our interpretation?

It means we have to take sides. I could say that in a more diplomatic way, but that's the reality.

None of us (including me) are exempt from reading Scripture with a bias. Our family of origin, church of origin, life experiences, and the people who have taught us to read Scripture have all played a role in how we read Scripture.

And that bias leads us to privilege certain texts. And when we privilege those texts, we superimpose our favored texts on top of other texts when studying a topic.

Churches of Christ emerged from a religious tradition called the Restoration Movement, or the Stone-Campbell Movement. Ours was a movement that sought to do everything like the 1st-century church did. The Bible was our only creed. And the focus of our restoration centered on our worship.

Can you guess which texts our movement favored in that task? We favored Paul. Yes, we also focused on the Book of Acts, but when we had a question about worship, we focused on Paul's epistles.

Some segments of our movement went as far as to argue for a dispensational view of Scripture that favored Acts-Revelation over the rest of Scripture. In some minds, the Old Testament was nearly useless for restoring 1st-century worship. But not only the Old Testament. We valued Paul over the gospels, the very words of Jesus.

Now, that kind of bias has tremendous implications!

-What do you do about slavery in the 19th century? Well, one major way our hermeneutic led us astray was to privilege and superimpose Paul's words (Colossians 3:22-25; Ephesians 6:5-8; Titus 2:9-10) and Peter's words (1 Peter 2:18-21) over the entire counsel of Scripture. And if your a slaveowner who benefits from this bias, it's easy to see how many of our preachers preached in favor of slavery.

-How do you read Scripture when it comes to the role of women? Once again, superimpose and privilege two seemingly clear passages (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12) from Paul regarding women and the case is closed. How could anyone allow women to lead when these texts from Paul are so clear? A broader reading of Scripture shows that this conversation can't be settled by two proof texts from Paul.

-How does a church select new elders and deacons? Well, what does Paul have to say? Then, we go to Paul's counsel (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) and we have our checklist of qualifications.

This biased hermeneutic has been practiced for so long that we don't even think to question it. We don't even realize how often we superimpose and privilege Paul's words over the rest of Scripture, even the words of Jesus.

How might these three examples turn out differently if we superimposed different texts?

-What about slavery? This one is more simple since most of us (there certainly are some who would argue that Paul's words allow for slavery even today) have learned to rethink Paul's seemingly easy-to-interpret words from Colossians, Ephesians, and Titus. Yet, I still wonder why our change of heart on the issue of slavery doesn't cause us to question our taken-for-granted hermeneutic. Why hasn't our new stance on slavery dealt a death blow to the Old Hermeneutic (command, example, necessary inference)? It should have produced some kind of cognitive dissonance.

-What about the role of women? First, anyone using a careful eye in 1 Corinthians must acknowledge the inconsistency between Paul's words regarding women in 1 Corinthians 11:5-10 & 14:34-35. Second, why do we settle the issue with two proof texts (usually read out of context) rather than taking the entire scope of Scripture? What would it look like to superimpose and privilege Paul's words in Galatians 3:26-28 over what he says about women in 1 Corinthians 14 & 1 Timothy 2?

-What about selecting elders and deacons? Have you ever noticed that the lists in 1 Timothy and Titus are not identical? So, which of Paul's list do we favor? Well, we don't favor either text usually. Most often, we combine the "qualifications" from each text and impose more stringent standards on elders and deacons than either letter imposed...all in the name of playing it safe. What if we were superimpose and privilege Ezekiel 34? What if we were to look for men who lived out the Sermon on the Mount most clearly? What if the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 became our standard for selecting elders and deacons?

Now, I'm conceding that we all must pick and choose in our reading of Scripture. We all have a bias when we come to the text. We all superimpose certain texts over other texts as we interpret.

We can't fix those problems.

But we can be more forthright and intentional in the ways we interpret through our biased lenses.

When our biases are allowed to affect us completely subconsciously, we can maintain our inner belief that we are "neutral" interpreters. And when we believe we are "neutral" interpreters, it's easy to devalue the interpretations of others because they are so obviously "biased."

In order to read Scripture better, we must consciously choose how we will pick and choose. There are better biases to bring to Scripture than others. For example, a racist bias will lead us to worse reading of Scripture than a bias centered on Galatians 3:26-28 (at least that's my bias).

Over the next couple of blog entries, I'm going to reveal some of my conscious biases. I will never be able to access all of my biases, but I can begin with those I am aware of.



Alexander Spray said...

Have you ever read "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman? It's really a very interesting read on cognitive bias. Unfortunately it's left me with with an epistemological crisis. :P

Collin Packer said...

Our book club read it a few months ago. Great book...especially if you like social experiments and stories like I do.

But it will certainly mess with you!

Anonymous said...

Great Post and so true and so formative of our fellowship. The next generation is going to hear God say from the mount of Transfiguration, "My Son.. Listen to Him." From Paul, "Follow me as I follow Christ." and and 1 Cor. 7. Jesus commands versus Paul's opinion.
Larry Wishard

Tim Byrne said...

Good stuff Collin! Richard Beck (I know, I'm obsessed) just posted this morning about liberation theology and the bias of siding with the poor. Hopefully I'm not jumping the gun here regarding any of your future posts, but I'm hoping that you will address whether there may be certain biases that we should have when reading scripture that are in line with God's nature?

Skye Noe said...

I think i read your blog with a bias...