As a seventeen year old university student I made a decision to become a Christian. This took place in north American evangelical context. I’m convinced that a very real change occurred in my life at that point. Subsequently, I was involved in an evangelical Church, which in many ways was typical. Our Christian community was quite homogeneous and in the process my belief system became very clearly defined. Yet, even at this stage of my life I would often ponder my interpretations of the Bible and wondered if we were interpreting correctly, what God wanted to tell us. For instance, were things being treated literally which should have been viewed metaphorically or vice versa, or were the meanings of words being dealt with appropriately. Statements like “‘all’ means ‘all’ and thats all all means” are still in my memory. This was an attempt to absolutize for theological purposes certain passages like Collossians 1:6 “… All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing …” However, an absolute understanding of the word “all” runs into theological difficulties when one reads 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Questions such as these accompanied me throughout the first phase of my Christian life. However, I never made the effort to make a serious investigation and in some ways my inquiring spirit became dormant.
Later, I moved to Europe as part of a church planting effort and in the process was confronted with views of the bible and Christian traditions that differed from my own. I had been fairly sheltered theologically in a homogeneous Christian tradition and was approaching things from a north American cultural viewpoint. This confrontation to my belief system caused me to consider if my belief system was in fact true and it reinvigorated my desire to investigate how we interpret the bible and to discover the idealized “correct” way of doing so.
The quest for truth
A few years later I had the opportunity to begin a theological education and finally settle these questions. My goal was to learn how to interpret the bible properly after which I could return to my Christian community with a strengthened certainty about what we as Christians should be doing. However, in the process of my theological studies it became ever more apparent that this was no easy task. I discovered that the theological convictions of many which I had previously discounted as being incorrect did have a biblical backing and were logical. The root of the differences were to be found not in the bible but in the presuppositions and traditions that one used to interpret the bible. In short hermeneutics the method one employs in interpretation was the key. So my focus went in that direction and my goal then became determining a water tight hermeneutical method which would result in the correct interpretation. I wrote my first thesis on the book “The hermeneutical spiral” by Grant Osborn. asking the question “How certain can we be that we are using the correct hermeneutic?” The results were rather disappointing. It seemed more and more the case that there is no absolute way of knowing on a purely rational basis if one is correct or not. Our starting point and presuppositions we have are things that we simply choose, accept and believe. One can surely narrow things down quite a bit but a water tight hermeneutic which could be used to “prove” a specific theological stance became less and less a realistic possibility (for more on this see Two leaps of Faith).
How should we interpret?
Not giving up I continued my studies at the masters level and wrote a thesis comparing the views of Kevin Vanhoozer in his book Is there a meaning in this text? with James K. A. Smith and his book The fall of interpretation. This investigation was a major turning point in my theological outlook concerning hermeneutics. Vanhoozer’s book is excellent but more or less went in a similar direction to what I had already done. Certainty and singularity in meaning can be improved if one approaches the bible using the paradigm that Vanhoozer recommends (this is of course debatable Integral and Differential Hermeneutics – A. K. M. Adam). However, Smith’s book provided for me a completely new insight and was especially convincing. In short he asserts that the need for interpretation can never be overcome since it is part and parcel of the way God created us. Thus, we must accept that we as human beings are in essence stuck in a situation where we all interpret differently because we are all embedded in culture, traditions and limitedness that cannot be overcome. For Smith interpretation is a good because it is part of our created nature and existed even in the garden of eden. To try and overcome the need for interpretation is in essence trying to overcome part of nature which God intended to always be there. Smith’s viewpoint was a radical change for me and for a long time took the wind out of my sails. If we cannot achieve certainty in our hermeneutic then why bother? I am still continuing my theological studies at the doctorate level and after my epistemological depression have recently overcome my doldrums and am investigating other avenues and approaches to theological hermeneutics which may not yield a 100% certainty but do hold some promise. The writing of A. K. M. Adam (see photo right and the link above) has reinvigorated me to continue asking questions and to seek some way of knowing more clearly what God wants to tell though the bible.
Guest Blog Post
Kevin Vanhoozer analyses a problem with systematic theology (which can alos be applied to confessional statements which result in “confessionalism”), preferring the term “epic” theology. He writes:
Epic provides a comprehensive account of how things are told from the perspective of a single “voice.”
…Transposed to theology epic takes the form of a monological system that unfolds its story from an absolute perspective. Systematic theologies resemble epics to the extent that they appear to be written by impersonal and omniscent narrators who stand nowhere in particular.
…What makes Christian doctrine epic is not its appeal to Scripture as such so much as its attempt to make one interpretation of the biblical testimony — an interpretation that necessarily, though surreptitiously, draws on the thought forms and perspectives of the interpreter — absolute. The epic voice in theology, assuming as it does the unversial applicability of its perspective, encourages uncritical repetition. Epic invites admiration rather than action. It fails to recognize that new situations may require new formulations.
…Epic prefers to rehearse the past. Even an inerrant epic is theologically inert unless it is performed. …there is no place for the eschatological, for the already/not yet, for the reader’s ongoing participation in the events of the narrative (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 85-86).
Some of Vanhoozer’s thoughts may sound radical and subversive. He is actually arguing a very conservative opinion of Scripture and theology. And yet, he is definitely calling for a “new” understanding of how we conceive of reading the Bible and doing theology.
Vanhoozer develops further his critique of “epic” theology under the categorical heading “cognitive-propsitionalist theology.” He writes:
Such theology is “cognitive” in its emphasis on coming to know the truth of objective realities and “propositionalist” in its emphasis on language as the primary truth-bearing informative medium.
…What is tempting in propositionalist theology is the idea that one can “master” divinity by learning the system of truths communicated through the language and literature of the Bible. What is tempting is the thought that one can package the Bible in a conceptual scheme that is tidier than the original. What is tempting is the suggestion that it is enough to know the information thus packaged. It is precisely this sense of distantness, even more than the grandeur of the systematizing vision, that makes propositionalist theology look epic. It is ultimately not a grand but a narrow vision, however, because it isolates the truths of Scripture, and the theologian, from the larger economy of salvation of which Scripture and its interpreters are a part. Cognitive-propositionalist theology risks deflecting doctrine from its proper role of drawing us into the drama by turning it into an ossified, formulaic knowledge that will either wilt on the vine or, on another plausible scenario, be used as a shibbolethic instrument of power” (The Drama of Doctrine, pgs 86, 87, 88).
These comments represent what I have been trying to formulate in my mind as an objection to “confessionalism” as it manifests in certain Christian communities today. Vanhoozer is not only correct theoretically but in practice too. The last paragraph is especially poignant and pointed. It is well worth taking seriously.