Hermeneutical Humility

A thought provoking piece on how debates around interpreting the Bible can be used to avoid the hard reality of applying it to our lives:

If we don’t know how God’s word exercises authority over us, and how to take what it says and apply it today, then we end up fudging the whole kit and caboodle. In the old days, people used to come right out and say that they didn’t submit to the Bible. Thomas Jefferson had the good manners to cut out all of the bits that he didn’t believe. But these days, the opposition to the authority of Christ is more creative.

As Mark Twain said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”

The really tough bits of the Bible are far less to do with the ins-and-outs of the πίστις Χριστοῦ debate1 and far more to do with things like “how do I really love my enemy? Is it realistic? How am I doing on that front?”

Complexity can be used as an excuse. Often a phrase like “Ah, but there’s lots of ways of interpreting the Bible” can belie a deeper resistance. Our very approach to the scriptures can set us up for spiritual blindness by choosing to supplant the purpose of reading the Bible to meet with Jesus, with looking for academic arguments and ‘proof texts’ in what we are reading. When we read and interpret the Bible, the purpose is encounter with the Living Word.

And it’s usually the bits about what is sinful, and what is not, that lead people to play the “ah, but that’s just your interpretation” card, which turns out to be a joker in more ways than one. That’s the oddity of the discussion: the texts over which people are most likely to drop the I-bomb (these days, they’re often the texts about sexuality) are the ones over which there is the least disagreement amongst scholars, and amongst teachers throughout the ages.

A key interpretive principle for me is that the interpreter should never see himself or herself as sitting ‘over’ scripture as judge, but rather coming to scripture and being willing to ‘sit under’ its authority because the authority of scripture derives from God’s authority. There is always more to discover – we will never exhaust the depth of mystery and treasure to be found in God’s written Word. We read scripture with the intention to obey, and to give us a language and framework for relationship with the divine.

For me, hermeneutical humility is about recognising the vulnerability of the interpreter as an influential factor in interpretation. Hermeneutical humility is about recognising that you as an interpreter are fallible, and any conclusions you draw are provisional. God has spoken, the rest is commentary. That is not to say that we cannot – and indeed absolutely should – be willing to lay a stake in the ground for what we feel the Bible clearly teaches. Again, we read the Bible to meet with Jesus and to obey. Not to satiate our desire for debate or get ammunition to avoid obeying what we think it says.

There is something, though, about the tone of Andrew Wilson’s article that I find unsettling. Having questions about the interpretation of scripture – even on orthodox issues – does not mean that the questioner is not prepared to ‘sit under’ scripture. I want to live in an environment where honest, heartfelt and soul-searching questions are encouraged and valued – not chided or pulled apart for any hint of heresy or false motive. We don’t need to always be trying to sniff out the hairy liberal lurking behind each interpretative corner.

Applying truth to our lives often has to be done prayerfully, tearfully and with vulnerability – especially in the area of the brokeness of our sexuality – and any hint of belittling someones view because it differs from our own isn’t on. That said, his closing paragraph is a good corrective:

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say again: as a statement, “ah, but there’s lots of interpretations of the Bible” is quite true. That’s why we need to work hard to understand what the original authors intended; it’s why research matters; it’s why theology matters; it’s why I do what I do. But if that card gets played with unrepresentative frequency when people start talking about what we do with our genitals, then we may be excused for wondering whether something else is going on. It often is.


  1. Whether Paul’s language of pistis christou refers to “faith in Christ” or “the faithfulness of Christ”  ↩

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