Understanding the Bible

by Jack Crabtree


Jack wrote this for the original project that eventually became The Language of God.

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As biblical inerrantists, we believe the Bible to be an infallible source of objective revelation. Assuming that it is, one would expect all like-minded Bible students to agree on what it teaches. But that is not the case. There is wide disagreement about what constitutes true, biblical Christianity. Yet each differing viewpoint appeals to the authoritative teaching of the Bible. It would appear that the Bible does not teach the same thing to everyone who reads it. There are as many different versions of the Bible’s teaching as there are people interpreting it.

Anyone who has ever argued about the meaning of the Bible knows how difficult it is to resolve disagreements. One example—out of hundreds which could be cited—is a fundamental disagreement among Christians as to the extent to which Jesus’ death has redemptive value.[1] Most Bible students can agree that Jesus’ death paid the due penalty for man’s rebellion against God. Many believe that Jesus’ death paid this penalty for every human being throughout all time. (This group is said to believe in the doctrine of unlimited atonement.) Others are persuaded that it paid this penalty only for “the elect”—a select group of individuals whom God has chosen to save. According to this view, Jesus did die for the elect; he did not die for the non-elect. Likewise, God will save “the elect”; he will not save the non-elect. (This group is said to believe in the doctrine of limited atonement.)

I John 2:2 explicitly addresses the redemptive value of Jesus’ death:

“… and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” (NASV)

The verse, however, does not end the argument between limited and unlimited atonement. The proponent of unlimited atonement takes a firm and confident stand on such a verse:

John says “for the sins of the whole world.” If he says “the whole world,” he means the whole world. He means that Jesus died for every single individual in the whole world.

The verse is easily and naturally interpreted in a way which supports his belief in unlimited atonement.

The proponent of limited atonement, on the other hand, sees absolutely no conflict between his theology and the teaching of this verse:

If John were saying here that Jesus’ death is a propitiation for every individual in the whole world, then, of course, I am wrong to believe in limited atonement. But John is not saying that. His point is that the value of Jesus’ death to appease God’s wrath is not limited to the Jews (or, for that matter, to any other race). The group of people that will enjoy God’s forgiveness will include individuals from every race, every nationality, and every slice of humanity. Jesus’ propitiation is for the elect; but God does not show partiality when he chooses his elect. The elect will come from every race and from every corner of the globe. That is John’s point.

This verse does not explicitly advocate limited atonement. That he freely admits. But neither does it exclude it. There is a perfectly reasonable way to construe I John 2:2 which sees it as totally compatible with the truth of limited atonement.

Even if both our debaters here are intelligent, sincere, teachable, believing people, there will still be no meeting of minds. As long as the advocate of limited atonement believes that limited atonement is true, he will be unpersuaded of his antagonist’s understanding of the text. And so long as the advocate of unlimited atonement believes that unlimited atonement is true, he will view his interpretation as perfectly self-evident. The two sides are at an impasse.

How is it that two equally intelligent, sincere, honest, pious, and faithful people do not reach the same understanding of I John 2:2? Where is its objective meaning? Can the verse only say what the interpreter wants it to say? Only what the interpreter’s theological assumptions demand that it say? This would seem to be the case. As goes your theology, so goes your interpretation of the verse.

The phenomenon described above is not unique to I John 2:2. What we see there is repeated verse after verse throughout the Bible. Virtually every text of Scripture is amenable to several different interpretations, all of which are “possible” (i.e., plausible, intelligent, and reasonable). What’s worse, deeper and more-detailed study does not narrow the field of “possible” interpretations. It broadens it.

We should be troubled by the obvious question this raises: What is it about the process of interpreting the Bible that makes it so subjective? And how can an alleged source of objective revelation appear to have no objective meaning at all? This is a very important question. One of the primary purposes of this chapter is to give it a satisfactory answer.[2]

There are two unsatisfactory answers one might give to the question: (1) everyone else is inept; or (2) I am inept.

It would be easy if I could dismiss everyone who disagrees with me as stupid, ignorant, careless, insincere, or unbelieving. If one is to arrive at the objective meaning of the text, he must certainly take care in his interpretation of it; he must interpret it knowledgeably and intelligently; and he must pursue its meaning out of a sincere interest in the truth. Much of the failure to reach the objective meaning of the biblical text can legitimately be explained as the result of one or more of these personal flaws among its students. Many Bible students are ignorant, stupid, careless, or deficient in the necessary integrity—i.e., they are not committed to truth; they would readily manipulate the text for their own selfish ends.

If all the disagreement could be traced to this sort of inadequacy in the other interpreters, then the Bible’s seeming lack of objective meaning could be clearly seen to be an illusion. There is an objective meaning—most likely the interpretation which I and all other unflawed interpreters agree on. But it isn’t that easy. If I am open and honest, I must admit that those who oppose me are usually not so easily discredited. They appear to be knowledgeable, intelligent, disciplined, and sincere in their faith. Their interpretation is not the result of ineptness, insincerity, or unbelief. Something else is at work. If ultimately they are wrong, it is not because of some obvious personal inadequacy as a Bible student. If there is some subtle and hidden inadequacy (and ultimately I will argue that there is), it is well-masked by the complexity of the interpretive process.[3]

According to an honest surface appraisal, there are equally sincere and capable Bible students who disagree with me on the meaning of the Bible. Only presumption and arrogance could let me dismiss their interpretations as obviously wrong-headed. I must confront the question as it truly presents itself to me:

If the Bible is God’s objective revelation to man, then how can equally capable and sincere Bible students fail to reach agreement on the meaning of the biblical text?

It would be just as hasty to simply dismiss myself. I cannot assume that I am the one who is inept or insincere. It is not as if I am the odd man out. It is not that all other Bible students agree with one another and I, alone, diverge in my interpretation. None of the others agree with one another either. When all is said and done (and with little exaggeration), there are as many different interpretations of the Bible as there are people to interpret it. Even worse, there are as many different interpretations of the Bible as there are sincere, intelligent, faithful, knowledgeable people to interpret it. On the surface, therefore, my claim to understand the Bible is no less valid than the next person’s.

So the question remains: How can so many capable Christians read the same Bible and yet arrive at so many different and conflicting conclusions? If the Bible is the infallible, inerrant word of God, if it is absolutely true, and if it reveals the truth for everyone, everywhere, universally, then why does it seem to say such radically different and contradictory things to the different people who study it?

Subjective Meaning vs. Objective Meaning

Before we can answer this question, I must distinguish between the objective meaning of a text and the subjective meaning of a text.

The objective meaning of a text is the meaning that truly resides in the text and is present there for anyone to discover. Our firm belief is that the objective meaning of a biblical text (as of all written texts) is the meaning that its human author intended it to convey. It is the meaning that the human author put there.

The objective meaning of a text is the meaning that the human author of that text intended it to convey to a reader.

In contrast, the subjective meaning of a text is that text’s meaning as construed by a particular interpreter. The advocate of limited atonement interprets I John 2:2 one way. That is its subjective meaning relative to him. His theological opponent (the advocate of unlimited atonement) interprets I John 2:2 another way. That is its subjective meaning relative to this opponent.

Both interpreters believe that the subjective meaning which they ascribe to the text is the objective meaning of the text. That is, they believe that the meaning they ascribe to the text coincides with the meaning that John (its author) intended it to convey. Yet both must acknowledge that the meaning they ascribe to to the text results from their own personal decisions. They did interpret the text. They did decide what meaning to ascribe to it. Each may be firmly convinced that his interpretation is a discovery of the objective meaning of the text. Nevertheless, each interpretation is, at the same time, a subjective meaning of the text. It is a personally-constructed interpretation of the text’s objective meaning. In point of fact, in the case of one of these interpreters, the subjective meaning does not coincide with the objective meaning.

The subjective meaning of a Biblical text is the meaning which an individual interpreter ascribes to that text as its objective meaning as a result of his seeking to interpret it.

The distinction should be clear by now: the objective meaning of a text is the actual meaning which its author, in fact, put there; a subjective meaning is the understanding of that text which a given interpreter might reach. We can now frame the fundamental question of this chapter differently, using our newly-defined terms.

Our view of biblical authority involves the belief that the objective meaning of the biblical text is infallible, absolutely without falsehood of any kind. But in order for biblical infallibility to be relevant, its objective meaning must be discoverable by the reader. But if the objective meaning is discoverable, one might expect substantial agreement in the subjective meanings of the biblical texts. But this is not the case. There is a wide disparity in the subjective meanings of any given text. This is the fundamental puzzle we need to explore:

Why are there so many different subjective meanings of every biblical text?

The beginning of an answer lies in the concept of the pre-understanding and the role it plays in biblical interpretation. The pre-understanding makes a significant contribution to the subjective meaning of a text. To understand the contribution that it makes is to begin to develop an answer to the fundamental question before us.

The Concept of Pre-Understanding

As I sit alone late at night, I hear a strange and unfamiliar moaning coming from upstairs. It is unlike any sound I have ever heard. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what to think. I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe that the spirits of dead people come back and haunt places in the here and now. (Whether I am right to disbelieve is unimportant. The fact that I do disbelieve is all that matters.) What am I to conclude about the strange, unfamiliar sound I am hearing? Do I think, For goodness sakes, that must be a ghost. And here I’ve always thought there were no such things. I guess there are ghosts after all.

No, of course not. I scour my knowledge searching for a “logical” explanation—an explanation which is logically consistent with what I already “know” to be true. Only the person who is already convinced that ghosts exist is prepared to believe that he is hearing a ghost. Given my conviction that ghosts do not exist, I will not entertain the ghost theory as a serious possibility.

We interpret all of our experience in just this way. We always seek to understand our present experience in the light of what we already “know,” in the light of what we are already convinced is true. This is not advice as to how we should interpret our experience. It is a description of how we do, in fact, attempt to understand it. Every attempt to understand our experience is always made in the light of an understanding of reality which we already had going into the experience. I always assume that experience will be compatible with my prior understanding and will confirm it. I do not assume that my prior understanding will be overturned.

All of us, by adulthood, have very sophisticated, well-developed theories about reality. Our commitment to these theories may be more unconscious than conscious, but we hold them nonetheless. They include all sorts of beliefs about everything: the nature and origin of reality and existence, innumerable facts about reality, values, the source of those values, morals, the source of those morals, and even method—i.e., how we ought to do what we do. We even hold theories as to how to form beliefs—i.e., how we ought to decide what to believe.

These theories—this collection of beliefs and convictions—which make up our current understanding of reality in all its aspects is what philosophers have come to call our pre-understanding.[4] Presumably, the prefix “pre-” arises from the fact that pre-understanding is always discussed in the context of interpretation. Every experience which we have requires us to interpret it. Experiences do not interpret themselves to us—i.e., they do not carry their own meaning and significance with them. What meaning and significance they have for us we must ascribe to them. Pre-understanding, according to the philosopher’s use of that term, describes the understanding of reality which one already possesses as he enters into a given experience. It is in the light of just such an understanding that he will interpret that experience. Presumably, it is because pre-understanding describes the understanding which he had before the given experience even occurred that the prefix “pre-” suggests itself to the philosopher. The term pre-understanding, therefore, makes sense if we recognize that it describes the existing state of our understanding prior to the occurrence of some specific experience in need of interpretation.

My pre-understanding, at any given time, is the state of my understanding of reality in terms of which I try to make sense out of my experience.

The pre-understanding is not static, but dynamic. It changes and gets constantly modified as I alter my beliefs and convictions. What it was last year is not what it is today. Over the course of time I reject some of my former beliefs and embrace new ones. With each change in my belief system, my pre-understanding is altered.

The Pre-Understanding Makes Knowledge Possible

The pre-understanding makes human reasoning economical enough to be possible. Since we “know” that our current understanding is true, we extend our understanding of reality further by interpreting our experience so as to support and confirm this pre-understanding. In other words, we assume the validity of our pre-understanding and interpret our experience in the light of it. If we felt compelled to prove the truth of our pre-understanding (and felt no freedom to simply assume that it was true) before we could interpret our experience in terms of it, we would be paralyzed, unable to function. It is utterly impractical to justify every belief we wish to use every time we wish to use it. It is because we can assume a whole network of beliefs to be true (without feeling compelled to justify them each time) that human reasoning is possible.

Interpreting from the Pre-understanding is Rational

Assuming the truth of one’s pre-understanding is not merely a matter of expedience. There is a distinct logic to it as well. We have the pre-understanding we do because we are convinced it is true. This should be obvious. It would be rather incongruous to hold beliefs we thought were not true.[5] Consequently, it is logical for us to assume our pre-understanding and use it as the starting-point of our interpretation.

According to logic, conclusions which have been logically-derived from true premises will be true. No such guarantee attaches to conclusions which have been logically-derived from false premises. If I know my premises are true, then I know that what logically follows from them is true. If my premises happen to be false, there is no guarantee. What logically follows may be false. Therefore, from a pre-understanding which we “know” to be true (as from true premises), we can reason to an understanding of our experience which we know to be true. This method (which we all instinctively use) is perfectly compatible with the nature of logic and reason.

Interpreting from Pre-understanding is God’s Intention

Interpreting experience in the light of one’s pre-understanding is, as we have seen, inevitable. It is also universal, rationally-appropriate, and practical to the point of being invaluable. It is undoubtedly the way God intended for humans to construct their knowledge. It does not merely describe how we, in fact, develop our knowledge. It describes what God has ordained.

The way to know, as God himself designed it, is for us to form an understanding of our experience and then assume the validity of that understanding as we attempt to understand future experience. In such a way, learning will be cumulative. Understanding will give rise to further understanding which will give rise to still further understanding.

If this accurately describes the progression of knowledge as God designed it, the possibility of any knowledge requires an initial deposit of knowledge from which we can start. Is this plausible? Can we make sense out of an “initial deposit of knowledge”?

The Beginning of Knowing

Consider the newborn infant’s first confrontation with the outside world. We look at his environment and see a quiet, peaceful nursery—a crib with a mobile over it, a changing table, a dresser, a lamp, a rocking chair, a rug on the floor, colorful pictures on the wall. What does the infant see? Most likely, what we see as a peaceful and orderly environment, he “sees” as a bewildering chaos of colors, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes.[6] What we know to be a poster hanging on the wall, he sees as a patch of colors in the midst of a larger patch of colors. What’s worse, it is a dynamic collage, always changing, constantly in motion. Whether he feels the pull of the muscles moving his eyes or not, the collage is constantly moving.

How does the newborn infant, confronted with this hopelessly chaotic experience ever come to see and recognize the order which is in it? In other words, how can he ever come to know what we know. How does he come to recognize the geometric pattern of colors as a dresser? How does he come to recognize that other shape and color pattern as his mother’s face? One important observation about a child’s coming to knowledge is inescapable:

The human infant could never come to know anything if he did not already know something.

If the human child were not born with certain important pieces of fundamental knowledge, then no knowledge would be possible. Let me illustrate.

Consider the thoughts, if they could be made articulate, which would pass through an infant’s mind if he began with absolutely no knowledge.[7] The infant is several days old and has opened his eyes on numerous occasions to see his mother’s face staring at him:

Look at that! There it is again. That peculiar combination of shapes and colors. I saw that just a little while ago, and I have seen it several times now altogether. It’s amazing that all those shifting shapes and colors out there would come together in just that particular pattern so often. That’s a really amazing coincidence, if it is a coincidence. I wonder. Perhaps there is some rational explanation for it. Maybe there is something out there which causes those shapes and colors to be that way. Oh well! There is no way to tell. It could be caused by something, but it might just be a coincidence. I guess I’ll never know.

The infant has reached an impasse in his quest for understanding. He has no logical basis for believing that his experience is rationally-ordered rather than the result of pure randomness. But without knowing that, he has no way of knowing whether his experience is being caused by some outside world and thereby providing him with reliable information about it.

By way of contrast, consider the reasoning which would go on in the thinking of an infant who already “knew” that his perceptions were the orderly effects of an outside world which caused them:

Look at that! There it is again. That peculiar combination of shapes and colors. I saw that just a little while ago, and I have seen it several times now altogether. It’s amazing that all those shifting shapes and colors out there would get together in just that particular pattern so often. Somehow there is a logical explanation for why that same pattern keeps recurring. I’ll have to keep looking for it and studying it and find out more about it. Perhaps I can learn what it is that always causes me to see that pattern.

Because this infant “knows” that pure coincidence is not a true explanation of his experience, he is poised to allow the orderliness of his experience to be significant—i.e., to tell him something about the outside world. This is a clear contrast to the infant who does not “know” that pure coincidence is not a valid option. The latter infant is paralyzed by the logic of his situation. Hence, he could never learn anything from his experience.

This is a crucial realization. Assume that the human infant was completely void of any and all knowledge at any level. The only capability of his newly formed brain was to translate external stimuli into isolated subjective experiences of taste, color, smell, texture, and sound. The consequence would be life-long infancy with no growth in knowledge whatsoever. The infant would never come to an orderly, intelligent understanding of external reality. Instead, the whole of his existence would consist of a perpetual, dynamic, chaotic collage of unconnected, unrelated visceral experiences.

This example illustrates the earlier claim that the human infant could never come to know anything if it did not already know something. It shows that the acquisition of knowledge by an infant is possible only on the assumption that it has a built-in, instinctive knowledge of at least one proposition. He must “know” (at the very least) that his experience is caused by an external objective reality and is rationally-ordered in a manner corresponding to the rational structure of that objective reality. So, to at least this extent, human beings are capable of acquiring knowledge precisely because they already have some knowledge. Knowledge makes understanding possible. It is because we already understand some things that we are able to learn from our experiences and acquire new understanding.

As Christians, of course, we believe that the human infant is created by God with the foundational knowledge necessary to make all other knowledge possible. God built it in. The baby possesses that initial knowledge in the very structure of his human intelligence. His initial grasp of those first essential truths is innate and instinctive.

To draw an analogy with computers, the human infant has a certain Read-Only-Memory[8] created by God. A computer would be completely and utterly worthless without its ROM. The computer’s ROM consists of certain key pieces of information which the inventor of the computer has built the computer to “know” without having to be taught. It is knowledge that is literally built into the physical structure of the machine. It is because of its ROM that the computer can be “taught” (by software) to perform its other functions. It is on the basis of his God-created ROM that the human infant is able to learn from experience about the outside world. It is not necessary here that we be able to list what our God-given ROM includes. One such truth was indicated above. But there must certainly be others. It probably includes a built-in grasp of the laws of logic; and it likely includes the foundational assumptions which underlie moral reasoning. But whatever ought to be included in our analysis of this ROM, the important point is this: there is an initial built-in ROM in human beings which makes human knowing possible. Apart from such a built-in ROM, no knowledge at all would be possible.

This is exactly what we would expect if it is true that God designed the knowing process to build on previous knowledge already acquired—i.e., to build on our pre-understanding. The very beginning of all knowledge, therefore, (as we have speculatively understood it) stands as a paradigm for all knowing whatsoever:

We extend our knowledge of reality by interpreting our experience of reality in terms of our pre-understanding.

The Conservative Nature of Knowing

If God has structured human knowing to work by building on pre-understanding, then it has a very important consequence:

All interpretation of my experience is done in the light of my pre-understanding.

This is not only what does occur, it is also what should occur. It is just as God designed human knowing to work. To put it another way, God designed human knowing to be conservative. He designed human knowing to preserve, so far as possible, the knower’s current understanding of reality. Instead of inventing a whole new theory of reality to explain my experience every time I encounter something new, God designed the process of knowing so that I seek to understand all new experiences in the light of my current theory of reality.

Suppose a modern atheist were to read the Bible’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Given his pre-understanding, what is the appropriate response that he, as a human knower, should make. Should he say,”Oh, I get it. There is a god after all. Jesus was his chosen Messiah, and God raised him from the dead!”

No. Such a response would be in complete violation of his God-given design as a knower. Rather, his response ought to go something like this:

“Well, I know that all that stuff about God and miracles and Jesus’ being the chosen representative of God is absurd. Jesus was not really raised from the dead. That is impossible. The only logical explanation is that his resurrection is a purely legendary account. It does not represent any actual historical event which occurred.”

Given the atheist’s understanding, there is no other reasonable way for him to understand how the biblical text got to be what it did.

From the Christian (and biblical) point of view, the atheist is not wrong to interpret the resurrection in the light of the atheism to which he is committed. That is the right and natural way for him as a human knower to proceed. He is wrong for being a committed atheist to begin with. He is wrong because he begins with a faulty understanding, not because he interprets life in the light of it. He is wrong for having a pre-understanding which he ought not have.

The resurrection is not, and cannot be, a sign to the committed atheist. The resurrection was intended to be a sign, first and foremost, to the contemporary Jew. He was already a theist. In the context of a theistic pre-understanding (and especially in the context of a first-century Jewish pre-understanding), the resurrection is full of significance as to the identity of Jesus and the purposes of God. But, interpreted in the light of any other pre-understanding, it does not have the same significance. If one is to have a true understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, he must start with a true pre-understanding. To the extent that one’s pre-understanding is false, his understanding of the resurrection will be false.

If we are to persuade the atheist of the gospel, it does no good to present him with the claim of Jesus’ resurrection.[9] Jesus’ resurrection does not mean to him what it means to the Christian. First, he must be persuaded to believe that a transcendent God exists and is the maker of the world. He must be persuaded that, by interpreting life and reality in the light of atheism, he is interpreting it in the light of a faulty pre-understanding. Only then will other facts (like the resurrection) take on the right significance to him.

Pre-Understanding in Biblical Interpretation

Understanding the role of the pre-understanding in human knowing is a very important aspect of a biblical theory of knowledge. As we have seen, it has important ramifications for apologetics and evangelism. But, our concern in this book is biblical interpretation. The rest of the chapter will concentrate on the consequences which the nature of human knowing has for the process of biblical interpretation.

Pre-Understanding and the Subjective Meaning of the Text

As we have seen, the nature of human knowing determines that one will interpret any life experience in the light of his own pre-understanding. This applies to literally every life experience—including the experience of understanding language. Verbal communication is one of the experiences of life where interpretation is done in the light of one’s pre-understanding. The verbal communication present in the Bible is no exception. We interpret what the Bible is saying to us in the light of the pre-understanding we bring with us to the text. Let me illustrate with two passages: Matthew 16:13-20 and John 3:16.

Matthew 16:13–20

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. (NASV)

Traditional Roman Catholic doctrine holds that Peter was the first pope and that all popes subsequent to him hold their authority by succession from him. The doctrine of papal succession holds that Jesus established a single human being—the pope—to wield Jesus’ authority in his place, and that Peter was the first such pope. If I approach this passage with the firm conviction that this traditional Roman Catholic doctrine is true, it is obvious that Jesus, in this particular account in Matthew, is giving expression to just this doctrine. Peter is the “rock” precisely because he is the first pope—the very first, foundational representative of Jesus. Peter’s holding the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” such that “whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven” is quite obviously a reference to the papal authority which Jesus is granting him. Once I understand that Jesus is referring to the reality of Peter’s papal authority, I can understand the Matthew account by interpreting Jesus’ words to Peter in the light of what I already know about papal authority. Jesus gave Peter exactly that authority in the early church that the Roman church says the pope has today.

The Protestant does not share the Roman Catholic’s understanding of the papacy. Indeed, he does not believe the papacy is a biblical institution at all. He believes it to be a vain human invention. So the Protestant is unconvinced by the Catholic’s interpretation of Matthew 16:13-20. To the Protestant, it makes much more sense to understand Jesus’ words as a reference to Peter’s apostolic authority. (An authority he shared with the other apostles.) Jesus is instructing Peter, for the first time, on the special role of apostleship he is to fulfill. Peter’s recently-received insight into the identity of Jesus (i.e., “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”) is, Jesus is saying, the first installment of a gift which is to be given to Peter (and to the other apostles ). Specifically, the gift is an understanding of the nature of the kingdom of heaven. This gift—this understanding which Peter has even now begun to receive—will be the foundation upon which Jesus’ church will be built. Peter’s role (along with the other apostles) will be to impart this understanding (this gift) to others, thereby building up the church. Peter (and the other apostles) have a unique role and a unique sort of authority within Jesus’ church. This understanding of the kingdom of heaven will be given to them in full measure and in perfection. Their understanding of the kingdom of heaven will be a flawless, infallible understanding—an understanding of the kingdom of heaven which originated in heaven itself (“… whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven…”). So Peter (along with all the other apostles ) has been given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Peter, as an apostle, can unlock the gates of heaven for others, granting them access, by imparting to others his God-given insight into the identity of Jesus and the nature of his kingdom.

This Protestant interpretation is significantly different from the Catholic one. In the Protestant interpretation,[10] Jesus is instructing Peter about a role which he will share with others (the apostles). In the Catholic interpretation, Jesus is instructing Peter about a role that he will have uniquely, as an individual. In the Protestant interpretation, Jesus is telling Peter about an authority which is linked to the inspired understanding which has been granted him.[11] In the Catholic interpretation, Jesus is telling Peter about an authority which is an attribute of the office which has been granted him.[12]

The point is not to sort out who is right and who is wrong. The point is to illustrate the powerful affect our pre-understanding has on our biblical interpretation. If one already accepts the papal authority of Peter as true, then the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16 is clearly the more likely one. It is not that the Catholic’s interpretation becomes merely plausible in the light of a Roman Catholic pre-understanding; rather, his pre-understanding virtually requires his interpretation. But if one rejects the papal authority of Peter and acknowledges only the Protestant understanding of apostolic authority, then the Protestant interpretation of Matthew 16 is the most likely. Again, it is not that the Protestant interpretation is merely rendered possible. Given the Protestant’s pre-understanding, he is forced to the interpretation he adopts. The point to note is:

The pre-understanding which one takes to a biblical text virtually determines how one must interpret that text.[13]

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

Consider how different the meaning of this very familiar verse is to the Calvinist as compared to the Arminian. The Calvinist is persuaded of God’s sovereign control over the will and choices of men. The Arminian believes in the total autonomy of the human will. The Arminian understands Jesus to say:

Whoever, by an autonomous act of his own will, chooses (in complete independence from God ) to trust in the Son, this one will be granted eternal life.

For the Calvinist, however, these same words mean something very different:

Whoever genuinely trusts the Son gives evidence of the fact that he has been chosen by God to receive eternal life; for all who are chosen to receive the grace of eternal life receive (as a sign of their election) another gift as well – the disposition to trust in the Son.

The same simple words receive radically different interpretations due to the radically different pre-understandings that are brought to the text by the interpreter. Once again, the pre-understanding of the interpreter has been determinative in the interpretation which he gave to the biblical text.

These differing interpretations of Matthew 16:13-20 and John 3:16 illustrate a general principle:

The subjective meaning of a text is directly determined by the pre-understanding which the interpreter takes with him into the interpretation of that text.

We now have the beginning of an answer to the fundamental question with which we started: How do we explain the wide disparity in the subjective meanings of a biblical text? It is there because of the decisive role played by the pre-understanding. There is a wide divergence in the subjective meanings of a text precisely because there is a wide divergence in the pre-understandings which the different interpreters bring to the text. Two interpreters of equal intelligence, integrity, discipline, and sincerity will come to different interpretations of the same text if they begin with a substantially different pre-understanding.

We have more that needs to be said in answer to the fundamental question with which we are concerned. But the effect of the pre-understanding on the subjective meaning of a text is the initial insight which gives rise to our answer.

Pre-Understanding and the Objective Meaning of the Text

We have seen the effect which the interpreter’s pre-understanding has on the subjective meaning of a text. It will be helpful to observe its effect on the objective meaning of a text. Just as the pre-understanding of an interpreter determines the subjective meaning he ascribes to a text, the pre-understanding of its author determines the objective meaning which is encoded in it. Stated as a principle, we have:

The objective meaning of a text is directly determined by the pre-understanding which the author takes with him into the writing of that text.

This principle has a noteworthy ramification:

To arrive at the true and accurate interpretation of a Biblical text, it is necessary to understand the pre-understanding which its author had when writing the text and to interpret the text in the light of that pre-understanding.

This is not always easy. It can be difficult to imaginatively reconstruct the biblical author’s pre-understanding. But it must be done if one is to acquire a full and accurate understanding of the text.[14]

We begin to see more clearly how the wide disparity in biblical interpretations can occur. The uniformity of interpretation we expect is tied to a common grasp of the biblical author’s pre-understanding. But grasping his pre-understanding can be a difficult and elusive quest. To the extent that all or most will fail, their interpretations of his text will miss the mark. Not only will they be wrong, but they will vary widely from one another as different interpreters make different sorts of mistakes.

The quest for a valid interpretation of a biblical text, then, is first and foremost this: a quest for the original pre-understanding in the mind of the biblical author which informed his thoughts and writings as he composed the text. This one fact poses a fundamental problem for biblical interpretation. The problem is this: How is interpretation possible in the light of the historical gap which leads to the hermeneutical circle ?

The Historical Gap

No two individuals have exactly the same pre-understanding. Our pre-understanding is shaped by our life experience, and our life experience is shaped by the unique circumstances which make up our lives. The greater the difference between people’s life circumstances, the greater the difference between their pre-understandings.

It follows that two people from different cultures will find a greater distance between their pre-understandings than two people from the same culture. But even two people from the same culture, as similar as their life experience might be, will have passed through different sets of circumstances. As a consequence, even they, to some degree, will have come to different pre-understandings.

As we saw above, the fundamental problem in biblical interpretation is to understand the pre-understanding out of which the biblical author wrote.[15] The biblical author, being a different individual from the interpreter, does not automatically write from the same pre-understanding from which the interpreter interprets. The interpreter must not, therefore, interpret the text in the light of his own pre-understanding. He must seek to understand that very different pre-understanding out of which the author composed the text.

The gap between the biblical author and the biblical interpreter is much worse than the gap between two modern men. In addition to the ever-present gap between individuals, there is also a historical gap. The biblical author exists in a radically different place in history from the modern interpreter. He lived and thought in a different geographical place, in a different language, in a different culture, and in a different time. All of these differences combine to create a historical gap between the biblical author and us. Communication is difficult enough across the gap between two individuals. But when communication must also bridge this historical gap, it becomes immensely more difficult.

On each side of the historical gap exist radically different pre-understandings which have emerged from radically different life experiences. It is much greater than a mere culture gap alone—a gap which arises when two people live and think in different places, different languages, and different cultures, but in the same time in history. All else being different, by existing in the same time, there is much the two can share in common. But when they are separated in time, much of that common ground disappears. The more than nineteen hundred years separating the modern interpreter from the biblical author creates a huge chasm between them. Bridging this historical gap is the greatest difficulty in biblical interpretation. It creates for the interpreter two major problems:

First, given that a modern interpreter interpreting a text from the standpoint of his own pre-understanding will not and cannot reach a valid interpretation of the text, how can he avoid misinterpreting the biblical text from the standpoint of his own pre-understanding?

Second, do we have enough information to reconstruct the biblical author’s pre-understanding?

The First Problem: Our Pre-Understanding

We have already suggested that a valid interpretation of a biblical text is one which corresponds to the objective meaning of the text—i.e., the meaning which the author intended to convey when he composed it. The objective meaning, in turn, arises from the biblical author’s own pre-understanding. At the same time, the subjective meaning which an interpreter finds in the text arises from his (the interpreter’s) own pre-understanding. The historical gap between the biblical author and the interpreter guarantees that their pre-understandings will be significantly different. Hence, it follows that any interpretation which a modern interpreter gives to a Biblical text, interpreting it from the standpoint of his own pre-understanding, will not and cannot correspond to the objective meaning of the text. The objective meaning of the text was informed by a radically different pre-understanding, that of the historically distant biblical author.

There a way to overcome this problem—at least in theory. If the interpreter could interpret the biblical text from the standpoint of the Biblical author’s pre-understanding rather than his own, then he could arrive at the objective meaning of the text. Herein lies an extremely important principle in the theory of biblical interpretation:

Valid interpretation of a Biblical text is possible only insofar as the interpreter adopts the pre-understanding of that text’s author as the standpoint from which he interprets the text and does not interpret the text from the standpoint of his own pre-understanding.

The Skeptical Response

An objection can be raised at this point: Granted, in theory, it is possible to arrive at a valid interpretation by adopting the pre-understanding of the biblical author as one’s interpretive standpoint. But in practice, this is not possible. It is never possible to step outside of one’s own pre-understanding. My pre-understanding defines who I am. To step outside of my pre-understanding would be to step outside of myself. It cannot be done. It is psychologically impossible. All my beliefs about all my experience will always be informed by my pre-understanding. So the modern interpreter could never escape his own pre-understanding and adopt a radically different one. Hence, he could never adopt the biblical author’s pre-understanding rather than his own. As a consequence, he could never arrive at the objective meaning of the text as we have defined it.

The skepticism about the possibility of discovering the objective meaning of the biblical text embodied in this objection is:

  1. based on ignorance—on an inaccurate conception of how people form their beliefs;
  2. fraudulent, insincere, and anti-intelligent—the fate suffered by all skepticism;
  3. based on an exaggeration of the distance between the modern interpreter and the biblical author. Though the historical gap clearly does entail a distance between them, it is not as unbridgeably wide as this skepticism requires.

(1) Skepticism is based on ignorance.

The skepticism about the possibility of discovering the objective meaning of the biblical text conceives of the pre-understanding as causing our interpretation of the biblical text like a mechanical cause causes a mechanical effect. It assumes that one’s pre-understanding is absolutely determinative of the beliefs one holds and the interpretations one constructs. But this is not the case.

It is true that a mechanical cause determines its effect absolutely. A billiard ball colliding with a second billiard ball determines absolutely the second ball’s speed and direction. But our pre-understanding does not shape our interpretation of the biblical text in the same mechanical way. Hence, one’s interpretive conclusion does not follow from his pre-understanding out of absolute necessity. It is a strong influence on our interpretation, but it is not its cause.

Human beliefs are freely chosen. An act of volition is an integral part of belief-formation. We believe what we do because we have freely chosen to do so. Consequently, any belief is possible and any interpretation of the Bible is possible. Any conceivable interpretation of the text is open to us.

If this is so, why does it seem so inevitable that a given interpretation follow from a given pre-understanding. If our pre-understanding does not actually determine our interpretive choice absolutely, what makes it appear to do so? Two factors explain the strong influence which our pre-understanding has on our beliefs (and our biblical interpretation): habit and reason.

Our pre-understanding is our habitual way of viewing reality. Consequently, it takes no effort to interpret our experience (including the biblical text) in the light of our own pre-understanding. It comes naturally. But it takes a concerted effort to interpret our experience from the standpoint of any other understanding of reality. Therefore, unless we make a concerted effort to interpret the biblical text out of another pre-understanding, we will automatically interpret it from the standpoint of our own. By default, then, our own pre-understanding will usually be the one which shapes our interpretation. It is simply too difficult to interpret out of an alien pre-understanding and too easy to interpret out of our own.

The role of our pre-understanding is, in effect, to recommend an interpretation to us. But it recommends it to us on the most compelling basis possible: its reasonableness. As rational creatures (made to be rational by God himself), we will almost always find such a recommendation compelling. This puts our pre-understanding in a very powerful position. It is clearly our most influential counselor. But we must not lose sight of the fact that it is only that—a counselor. It does not mechanically cause our interpretation of the text; it recommends it to us. Because it recommends it on such a compelling basis to us—on its reasonableness, we almost always accept its recommendation. This creates the illusion that it causes our interpretations. But, in fact, we are ultimately free to reject its proposal. We are free to believe whatever we want, rational or irrational, true or false. Hence, we are ultimately free to interpret the biblical text however we want. We can choose to interpret it in the light of our own pre-understanding (i.e., to give it that interpretation which seems most “logical” in the light of our own understanding of reality); or we can choose to interpret it in the light of any other pre-understanding.

So the manner in which our beliefs are formed does not preclude any possible interpretation whatsoever. Clearly, we can interpret the text in the light of the biblical author’s pre-understanding (if we can know what that is). Our pre-understanding cannot prevent us from doing so. By assuming that it can, the skeptical objection has totally misperceived the manner in which our beliefs are formed.

Granted, it is not easy to step outside one’s own pre-understanding and adopt another’s. It requires imagination and a disciplined effort. I must be able to imagine creatively another way of perceiving reality; and (for the sake of interpreting the biblical text) I must have the discipline to view reality from that other perspective even though it runs contrary to my habitual way of viewing things.

The skeptic may counter that his skepticism is not based on the assumption that beliefs are mechanically caused, but rather on the practical fact that to step outside of one’s own pre-understanding is hopelessly difficult—so difficult that it is, for all practical purposes, impossible. This modified objection, however, naively underestimates the power of human intelligence. Human intelligence includes a creative imagination which is quite capable of imagining one’s beliefs to be different from what they are. Further, it is capable of reasoning from those beliefs even as if they were one’s own.

Likewise, this skepticism underestimates the human capability for intellectual discipline. It is not outside the reach of human intelligence to sympathetically and imaginatively embrace the pre-understanding of another. This ability to remain “open” to another way of looking at reality is a simple fact of human intelligence which this skepticism fails to take into account.[16]

The fallacy of this modified skepticism is easily demonstrated from our own experience. If it were impossible to step outside of one’s own pre-understanding and imaginatively embrace another, then the phenomenon of disagreement could never be observed. If you are always constrained to construe my words in such a way that they are compatible with and reflect your own pre-understanding, then my words will always seem to you to reflect your own pre-understanding. It will appear to you that my understanding of things (as reflected in my words) is totally compatible with yours. We will appear always to agree completely. But in fact, we clearly experience disagreements between us and others. This shows clearly our ability to grasp another understanding of things other than the one we actually embrace. (Namely, it demonstrates our ability to grasp an understanding which we are firmly convinced is either mistaken or nonsensical.) And if we can do that, then clearly it is possible to interpret a biblical text from the standpoint of its author’s pre-understanding rather than my own.

(2) Skepticism is fraudulent, insincere, and anti-intelligent.

If the skepticism about the possibility of discovering the objective meaning of the biblical text is correct—that is, if one cannot step outside of one’s own pre-understanding and understand another’s language from any other standpoint—then not only is it impossible to arrive at the objective meaning of the biblical text, but it is impossible to arrive at the objective meaning of any language whatsoever. Hence, no communication of any kind would be possible.

Does the skeptic really believe this? Does he sincerely doubt that communication is possible when he orders scrambled eggs for breakfast, when he carries on a lengthy discussion with his friend, or when he writes a book on the impossibility of communication? Of course not! It is a theory which he espouses while his feet are on his desk and his pipe is in his mouth. But he promptly stops believing it the minute his feet hit the ground and he walks out the door. It is in this sense that this skepticism (like all forms of skepticism) is fraudulent and insincere. It is insincere because no skeptic (as evidenced by the way he actually lives his life) really believes it. It is fraudulent to the extent that the skeptic would recommend to others what he does not, in fact, embrace himself.

But there is an even more basic criticism of this skepticism. It (like all other forms of skepticism) is anti-intelligent. Let me explain:

As we saw earlier, the process of human knowing requires an initial starting point. Human knowledge requires some first-order assumptions about reality from which all other conclusions will be derived. Because these first-order assumptions are the starting-point of knowledge, they will be incapable of justification. There are no prior beliefs from which they can be derived or in terms of which they can be justified. First-order beliefs, therefore, will be the very foundation of one’s understanding of reality.

There is a particular set of first-order assumptions which form the starting point for our commonsense understanding of reality.[17] It would be overly difficult to determine a complete list of these first-order beliefs of commonsense. But probably the following beliefs would be on such a list:

  • The belief that I, a knower, exist.
  • The belief that a world external to my own mind exists.
  • The belief that the experience of my senses is directly correlated in a rational way with the outside world such that my sense experience is a reliable source of knowledge of the outside world.
  • The belief that reality is rationally-ordered in such a way that the experience of other minds which exist will parallel my own experience.

Everyone who accepts a commonsensical understanding of reality accepts these beliefs, but probably none of them can be justified in terms of any of our other beliefs.[18] All our other beliefs presuppose these. They seem to be as basic and foundational as you can get. We do not hold these beliefs because they have been proved; we simply assume them as the starting-point of our knowledge.

Whereas commonsense embraces these fundamental beliefs, it is the perverse genius of skepticism to reject them. How should we respond to skepticism’s rejection of the foundational assumptions of commonsense?

Surprisingly, skepticism is not illogical or unreasonable in doing so. Logic places no requirements on the assumptions it starts from. One can start from common-sense first-order assumptions such as those listed above, or one can start from the skeptical denial of these assumptions and still be perfectly logical. One is logically free to deny any assumptions whatsoever. Certainly one is logically free to reject the foundational assumptions of commonsense.

But the fallacy of skepticism is to assume that since we are logically free to deny these assumptions, we are totally free to do so. But logic is not the only constraint on what we believe. Beliefs must not only be logical, they must be intelligent as well. Skepticism is anti-intelligent, for it involves a rejection of the very foundations of human intelligence itself.

As we saw earlier, the first-order assumptions upon which commonsense is founded are not so much chosen as they are given to us. They are innate beliefs. They are built into the very structure of human intelligence by God himself.[19] We have innate “knowledge,” providing the foundation of human intelligence itself, that these commonsensical beliefs are true.

Whereas the skeptic is not being illogical to deny such assumptions (he is logically free to do so), he is rebelling against the very foundation upon which his own human intelligence is founded.[20] To reject these assumptions, though not illogical, does violence to his own intelligence. It undercuts it at its foundation and paralyzes it. It is a form of intellectual suicide. Therefore, though skepticism cannot be said to be illogical, it can rightly be said to be absurd, stupid, ridiculous, silly, laughable, and pathological.

What is true of skepticism in general is true of the specific form of skepticism under discussion. Though belief in the possibility of communication is probably not itself a first-order foundational assumption, its denial must ultimately involve a skeptical rejection of beliefs that are such assumptions. Ultimately, then, skepticism about the possibility of communication is anti-intelligent in the same sense as all other skepticism.

(3) Skepticism exaggerates the historical gap.

The proponent of the skepticism based on an exaggeration of the distance between the modern interpreter and the biblical author may object that his “skepticism” is not a true skepticism in the sense just criticized. Nor is it based on that misunderstanding of belief-formation discussed above. Rather, it is an utterly realistic appraisal of the vast historical distance which exists between the modern interpreter and the biblical author. It is a pessimistic appraisal of the powers of human intelligence and imagination in the face of that historical distance.

Earlier, in order to highlight the fact of the historical gap between author and interpreter, I stressed the distance between them. We must not minimize that distance. It is there, and it is a significant fact which Biblical interpretation must confront. But having acknowledged it, it must not be exaggerated.

The “skepticism” or “pessimism” currently under consideration blows it all out of proportion. Though the historical gap makes interpretation difficult, it does not make it impossible. To say so is to either underestimate the abilities of human intelligence and imagination, to overestimate the historical distance between author and interpreter, or both.

Though the historical gap creates distance between modern man and the biblical author, it does not create an infinite distance. In other words, it does not obliterate all common ground. Modern man necessarily shares much in common with the biblical author. Both are human beings living in the same created order. Life and human experience is fundamentally the same for both. This will always be the same no matter how far removed in time, place, language, and culture. And the possibility of understanding one another which that common ground of human existence itself makes possible can never be eclipsed by the differences which arise on other grounds. The pessimism which asserts that we cannot know the objective meaning of the biblical text has lost sight of this immense area of common ground which keeps the historical gap from becoming unbridgeable.

The skeptical objection aside, then, the first problem posed by the historical gap (namely, the problem of how to avoid misinterpreting the text out of my own pre-understanding) is solvable: The interpreter must discipline himself to adopt the pre-understanding of the human author who wrote the biblical text as the standpoint for his interpretive decisions.

The Second Problem: The Hermeneutical Circle

The principle that valid interpretation of a biblical text is possible only insofar as the interpreter adopts the author’s pre-understanding as the standpoint from which he interprets the text results in a second problem. The principle assumes that we can discover what the pre-understanding of the biblical author was. That, in turn, assumes that we have access to the right kind and amount of information to be able to reconstruct the biblical author’s pre-understanding. Is this the case? Do we have the information?

We find the historical gap opening before us once again. We know what the pre-understanding of our friends and neighbors is. Not only because it is so much like our own, but also because we have ready access to their thoughts. We talk to them daily. If we are confused about something they think, we ask them. Similarly, we know the pre-understanding of our contemporaries in other places and cultures, for (with a little effort) we can gain access to their circumstances and thinking. But the situation is different across the historical gap. Most of the information by which we could reconstruct the life, culture, circumstances, and (ultimately) the pre-understanding of the biblical authors has been lost to us in the onward march of time. The language, culture, times, and places which formed the world of the biblical authors simply do not exist any longer. They will never exist again. We cannot hop on a plane and visit them. We cannot go there in person to study them—to get absorbed into their language, time, and culture and understand it from the inside out.

This is not to suggest that human intelligence is inadequate to the task of stepping outside its own view of reality (as discussed above). This is different. This problem arises from the fact that human intelligence and imagination need something with which to work. They need some data. With data we can reconstruct the biblical world. But without it, how can we possibly do so? So the problem is this:

Given the historical gap, how can the modern interpreter find enough data from which to reconstruct the pre-understanding of the biblical author?

The kind of data that is often most important in reconstructing the pre-understanding behind a biblical text is information with regard to the theological and philosophical beliefs of the biblical author. But where is that information to be found ? Often, the only such information available is the very biblical text which I am attempting to interpret.[21] This puts the modern interpreter in what would appear to be an impossible situation. He cannot know what the biblical text means until he adopts the pre-understanding of its author. But he cannot know what the pre-understanding of its author is until he knows what this biblical text means. The historical gap, it would appear, has created a logical circle which has no point of entry. This “circle” is the fundamental problem of all hermeneutics[22] (or interpretation). It is most certainly the fundamental problem for biblical hermeneutics.

The Hermeneutical Circle[23] is the dilemma faced by the modern interpreter of the Bible: He cannot know what the biblical text means until he adopts the pre-understanding of the biblical author, but he cannot know what the pre-understanding of the biblical author is until he knows what the biblical text means.

Finding a Way Into the Hermeneutical Circle

Most approaches to biblical hermeneutics admit defeat when faced with the hermeneutical circle. They conclude that there is no way in and, hence, that the objective meaning of the biblical text is inaccessible. Then they formulate an approach to the Bible which does not require that we discover the objective meaning of the text.[24] But these approaches are wrong. We need not admit defeat to the hermeneutical circle. We are not hopelessly locked out. There is a way to break in. Two key factors which make entrance into the circle possible: 1) the power of human intelligence and imagination, and 2) textual resistance.

(1) Intelligence and Imagination

Human reason is capable of stepping outside its own beliefs and imagining what it would be like to hold a completely different set of beliefs. Therefore, human intelligence can, to a significant degree, imagine how reality might be viewed from the standpoint of a different culture, time, language, place, and worldview. This is crucial to our ability to break into the hermeneutical circle. Though we do not begin knowing what the biblical author’s pre-understanding was, we have the ability to imagine various options for what it might have been. It is this capability of our imagination that opens the door for discovering the biblical author’s pre-understanding.

(2) Textual Resistance

Language, by its very nature, is an effective guide to meaning—even when one does not already share the pre-understanding out of which the text was formed. Its effectiveness stems from a property of language I will call textual resistance, a property inherent in language itself. A text, by the very nature of its language, offers resistance to any false interpretations.

Textual resistance is that property of language which eliminates all but one interpretation of a text from being a perfect match. It is that property of most texts which renders any false interpretation of that text “forced” and “unnatural.”

To use an analogy, if a text is like a bolt and a possible interpretation of is like a nut, then every false interpretation will be like a nut with mismatched threads. The nut can be forced onto the bolt; but it will take force. The nut will not easily screw onto the bolt. The bolt will resist the nut’s being screwed on.

False interpretations are interpretations which require different linguistic patterns in the text (i.e., different “threads”) from those that actually exist in the text. There is not a perfect match. These false interpretations can be forced upon the text (some requiring more force than others), but they must be forced. The linguistic clues in the text resist them. A true interpretation, on the other hand, matches the text perfectly. It “slips” naturally and easily “onto” the text.

Like nuts and bolts, it may not always be obvious immediately when there is a mismatch between the text and one’s interpretation. It takes skill born of experience to recognize when an interpretation (like a nut) is requiring “force” to make it fit. Though it may require a practiced skill to see it, nevertheless, there will always be a discernible difference between a valid interpretation and an invalid one with respect to how naturally it construes the text being interpreted.

The Ambiguity of Language: An Objection

Many will want to object at this point. Language is inherently ambiguous, they say. Given the inherent ambiguity of language, there will always be more than one way to naturally construe a text. It will have several natural, unforced interpretations which can be given to it. Language is not clear, precise, and unambiguous. To assume so is naive and ignorant.

Two things need to be said in response to this objection:

First, when one raises the objection that language is ambiguous, how is the objection raised? In language, of course. How ambiguous is the language in which the objection is raised? What is the objector prepared to say? That it is so ambiguous that more than one interpretation would follow easily and naturally from his words? He would have to say so if he is to avoid contradicting himself. Yet he cannot sincerely believe that, or he would never have bothered to say anything to begin with. He would have never used language to state his objection. If he did believe it, in time he would stop trying to communicate, for communication would be impossible.

This objection—the inherent ambiguity of language—is a form of skepticism because it denies the possibility of true communication through language. As such, it can be rejected on the same grounds as all other forms of skepticism: it is fraudulent, insincere, and anti-intelligent.[25]

Second, more often than not, those who espouse the inherent ambiguity of language are confusing two different things. They confuse the inherent ambiguity of words —which is true—with the inherent ambiguity of language —which is not true.

Words by themselves, without a context, are unquestionably ambiguous. If they weren’t, language would be impractical and unusable. Words need to be sufficiently ambiguous that they can be used in a large variety of different ways. This gives language the flexibility it needs to communicate that huge multitude of different ideas we want to communicate without becoming so unmanageable that it it is impossible to learn.[26]

But whereas words by themselves are inherently ambiguous, words in context are not. The context in which a word occurs gives specificity and clarity to it. The same word which alone is ambiguous and unclear is very clear and specific in any given context. It is by combining words into a unique context that we take inherently ambiguous tools, words, and use them to designate precise and unambiguous meaning.

When we speak of language, we speak of words in context, not words out of context. That is what language is—words combined into contexts. Hence, to assert that language is inherently ambiguous is to assert something far more radical than the obvious and necessary truth that words by themselves are inherently ambiguous. It is to hold the absurdly mistaken notion that words in context are inherently ambiguous. This, rather than affirming the clarity of language, is naive and ignorant.

The ambiguity objection aside, I am suggesting that the inherent powers of human intelligence and imagination, combined with the inherent effectiveness of language as a guide to its objective meaning, provide the way into the hermeneutical circle.

The Process of Interpretation

As long as we view the hermeneutical circle as truly a circle, it will seem impossible to gain entry. I cannot understand the text until I have reconstructed the biblical author’s pre-understanding. But I cannot reconstruct his pre-understanding without first understanding the text in question. It would appear to be a real “Catch 22.”

But entrance into the hermeneutical circle is possible because, ultimately, it is not a circle. It is a spiral, ending in a point. The interpreter can move back and forth between approximations of the underlying pre-understanding and approximations of the objective meaning of the text until finally he arrives at both simultaneously. His thinking about both questions converges and he discovers the answers to both questions at the same time.

The interpreter eventually comes to an interpretation of the text which irresistibly commends itself to him. But implicit in this interpretation is an account of the author’s underlying pre-understanding. Embracing this interpretation necessarily involves embracing a corresponding account of the author’s pre-understanding. The process of interpretation, therefore, is actually a hermeneutical funnel. It brings the interpreter to the point where both problems (the objective meaning of the text and the underlying pre-understanding) find a solution at once. We need to examine this process more closely.

Step One: Guess at biblical author’s pre-understanding.

On the basis of my current understanding of the historical and cultural background of the biblical times, I, the interpreter, adopt the best assumption I can as to the biblical author’s pre-understanding.[27]

The assumption I make as to the biblical author’s pre-understanding is subject to two important constraints: 1) the information available about the ancient world and 2) rational consistency or coherence.

(1) Information about the Ancient World

Any Bible student eventually gains some knowledge of that world which has shaped the pre-understanding of the biblical authors—specifically, of its languages, cultures, worldview, geography, history, etc. Archaeologists and historians are continually contributing to the information we have available for reconstructing that world. Our account of the pre-understanding which underlies a text must be answerable to that stockpile of information. I cannot disregard those glimpses into the biblical world which research and scholarship have uncovered. Any account of an author’s pre-understanding must be plausible in the light of what we do, in fact, know about the ancient world.

This stockpile of information, then, is my starting-point in biblical interpretation. Based on the information available, I reconstruct as best I can the biblical author’s pre-understanding.[28] There will be many gaps in my account. There are points where I must speculate. But when I speculate, I take care to do so in a way that renders my speculation consistent with what reliable information about the biblical world I do have.

Undoubtedly, where I have no direct evidence, my speculations will tend to make the biblical author think and believe as I do. That, of course, may be misleading because frequently it is untrue. But it is a natural tendency. As we shall see, however, when this natural tendency has, in fact, led me astray, it eventually becomes evident that it has.

One important qualification needs to be noted. We must take care to define what it means for our account of the biblical author’s pre-understanding to be answerable to the beliefs and values of the ancient world. One possibility is that we must see the understanding of the biblical author as congruent with the beliefs and values of his contemporaries—i.e., we must assume that he is a child of his time, a product of his culture. But (according to the view of biblical authority which we endorse) this cannot be. The biblical author is not a messenger of his culture; he is a messenger of God. He teaches God’s perspective on reality, not that of his fellow-countrymen. Likely as not, the biblical author’s beliefs will conflict with those of his culture.

To make our account of his pre-understanding answerable to the beliefs and values of the ancient world, therefore, is not to bring the author’s pre-understanding into conformity with the beliefs of the ancient world, rather, it is to realize that the beliefs of his contemporaries form the context into which he speaks. In order to understand the biblical author, we must understand his message as one directed to the specific false beliefs which surrounded him. The beliefs of the ancient world were his ideological enemies. The questions he addressed, the issues he confronted, the problems he sought to solve—all these things are to be understood in terms of the questions, issues, and problems which concerned his contemporaries. The biblical author spoke directly to his own time and culture. We cannot accurately understand his message, therefore, unless we can identify that milieu of false beliefs and wrong values that he sought to challenge. It is in this sense (and only in this sense) that the biblical author’s pre-understanding is to be reconstructed in the light of his contemporaries’ beliefs and values.

(2) Rational Consistency, Coherence

The author’s pre-understanding (as I reconstruct it) should be a rationally coherent understanding of reality. In other words, I must assume that the author’s understanding of reality is logically self-consistent, non-contradictory, and otherwise commonsensical in every way.

This constraint is unique to the interpretation of the Bible. It follows from the view of biblical authority which we espouse. If the understanding of reality which the biblical authors teach is the truth from God himself, then it must be rationally coherent, for rational coherence is a necessary attribute of truth. Therefore, since the Bible is an infallible revelation of truth, its message (the underlying pre-understanding of its authors) must be rationally coherent.

Step Two: Interpret text in light of the author’s rationally coherent pre-understanding.

I construct the best (i.e., the most “natural”) interpretation of the biblical text I can in the light of my initial account of the biblical author’s pre-understanding.

Step Three: Check for textual resistance.

Being duly sensitive to textual resistance, I determine whether this interpretation meets any such resistance from the text.

As I seek to reconstruct the meaning of a biblical text, the first constraint I must answer to is the current state of reliable information on the biblical world which comes from scholarship and research. My understanding of the author’s pre-understanding (and, hence, my understanding of his text) must be consistent with that information. The second constraint is rational coherence. It is necessary for the text, as I interpret it, to reflect a rationally coherent view of reality. The final constraint is the nature of the text itself. My interpretation must construe the text in that way which is most “natural” (i.e., which is least “forced”).

So my interpretation must be made to answer to two different poles simultaneously:

First, my interpretation must be consistent with the most reasonable and responsible reconstruction of the author’s pre-understanding that is possible.

(In order for an account of the author’s pre-understanding to be a responsible one, it must reflect a rationally coherent worldview and it must be consistent with current reliable information about the biblical world.)

Second, my interpretation must be the most natural, straightforward interpretation possible of the language of the text.

The interpretive process, therefore, is the process of finding an interpretation of the text which meets both of the above requirements simultaneously. I must not “force” my interpretation of the text in order to accommodate my account of the author’s pre-understanding. If, having reconstructed the author’s pre-understanding as best I can, I cannot interpret the text in the light of that presumed pre-understanding without “forcing” the text, then the text is resisting that interpretation and the presumed pre-understanding which underlies it. In such a case, the text itself forces me to alter my interpretation and, correspondingly, my account of the author’s pre-understanding (and perhaps even my understanding of the cultural or historical background which gave rise to that).

It is crucial, therefore, for the interpreter be alert to and discerning of textual resistance. If he cannot recognize it or is not at all bothered by it, his initial guess at the meaning of a text will almost always seem right to him. Only the interpreter who is skilled at discerning textual resistance and committed to avoiding it will find a wrong interpretation (and a correspondingly mistaken account of the biblical author’s pre-understanding) revealed by the text. The unskilled interpreter will find his false interpretation seemingly validated by its plausibility, for he is totally insensitive to the subtle textual resistance which should call his wrong, but plausible interpretation into question.

Step Four: Cry “Eureka!” or adjust interpretation of text and the pre-understanding which underlies it.

If my interpretation encounters no textual resistance, then I am justified in assuming that I have discovered the objective meaning of the text, and my interpretive work is done. But if I do encounter textual resistance, I make intelligent adjustments to my interpretation and, if needed, to my account of the biblical author’s pre-understanding—adjustments calculated to lead to an interpretation which will be more amenable to the language of the text (i.e, one which will construe the text in a more “natural” and “unforced” way).

One can see in this the extent of our confidence in language. We assume that an interpretation which meets no textual resistance is the valid interpretation. It is the interpretation which corresponds to what its author intended it to convey.

This assumes, of course, that I have the skill to recognize textual resistance. This is an important assumption. Not every Bible interpreter has the requisite skill. Therefore, one’s assurance that he has reached the objective meaning of a text is only as valid as his skill as an interpreter.

But assuming that I am a sufficiently skilled interpreter, if I meet textual resistance, then I know (as we saw above) that my current interpretation (based on my current account of the author’s pre-understanding) is not valid. Consequently, I must modify both my interpretation and my account of the author’s pre-understanding.

Here, again, interpretive skill comes into play. I must not make random modifications in my reconstruction of the author’s pre-understanding. I must pay particularly close attention to which features of the text offer resistance to my latest interpretation. I must ask myself, “What aspects of my interpretation would need to be altered in order to lead to an interpretation which would no longer meet with this same resistance?” and correspondingly, “What aspects of the underlying pre-understanding would need to be understood differently in order to lead to an interpretation which would no longer meet with this same resistance?” I answer these questions and make modifications to my interpretation accordingly.

Repeat Steps One through Four (as necessary)

At this point the interpreter essentially repeats steps one through four trying a different, modified interpretation of the text and a correspondingly different account of the biblical author’s pre-understanding with each repetition. He continues to repeat this process until finally he arrives at an interpretation which meets no textual resistance. At that point, as we have seen, he can be confident that he has arrived at the objective meaning of the text.

Observations About The Interpretive Process

Notice what has allowed this process to work:

  1. I am imaginative enough to imagine a pre-understanding in the mind of the biblical author which I have never myself held.
  2. I am intelligent enough to anticipate how the modifications I make in an account of the pre-understanding which underlies a text will affect the interpretation I must give to that text. (This allows me to anticipate what modifications I must make in order to render the required interpretation less forced and unnatural.)
  3. I am discerning enough to notice when the language of the text offers resistance to an interpretation and, correspondingly, to the account of the author’s pre-understanding which underlies it.
  4. The language of the text offers resistance to any interpretation but the one which corresponds to the author’s intended meaning. (This means that it also offers resistance to any account of the underlying pre-understanding other than the correct one.)

As circularly interdependent as a text’s meaning and its author’s pre-understanding are, the inherent magic of language combined with the abilities of human intelligence make it possible for an interpreter to arrive at an understanding of both, even when he begins with an understanding of neither. Hence, the hermeneutical “circle” only seems to lock me out. As a matter of fact, I can get in!

Two Modern Interpretive Problems

Two common problems arise from a failure to appreciate the powerful role of our pre-understanding: proof-texting and our belief in the sufficiency of plausibility.

(1) Proof-Texting

A common practice among many Christians who grant authority to the Scriptures is the practice of proof-texting. Proof-texting is citing a verse to prove a point. If I want to prove a particular doctrine or theological conviction, I cite a reference which either explicitly states that doctrine or implicitly assumes it. In theory, of course, proof-texting is a perfectly reasonable approach to persuading another of my point of view (assuming the other person grants authority to the Scriptures). The problem arises only because of my naive expectations as to what the citing of a proof-text can and will accomplish. Many people who cite a proof-text are reasoning something like this:

I believe X but person P believes Y. Why does person P believe Y? Surely he has never encountered this text T. As I understand text T, it clearly and unmistakably teaches X. If person P were to be confronted with text T, he would have no choice but to change his mind. He would reject Y and embrace X.

A proof-textor in this state of mind has not taken the influence of the pre-understanding into account. Text T “clearly and unmistakably” teaches X to the proof-textor because the pre-understanding in terms of which he has sought to understand T already includes a belief in X. If text T were interpreted through the grid of an entirely different pre-understanding (for example, through the grid of person P’s pre-understanding, a pre-understanding which excludes X), no longer would T clearly and unmistakably teach X. Indeed, so interpreted, it may even clearly and unmistakably teach Y! The proof-textor’s understanding of T is totally dependent on the pre-understanding he has taken to the text at the outset. Consequently, his “proof” of X will only be compelling to one who already shares his belief in X. To one who is unpersuaded of X, this “proof” of X will have little influence. Person P will be just as unpersuaded of the proof-textor’s interpretation of T as he is of X to begin with.

Proof-texting, therefore, will be a frustrating and futile endeavor to one who is unaware of the role and impact of the pre-understanding on biblical interpretation. In order to engage in the citing of proof-texts profitably, one must be ready and able to go back and defend the assumptions which underlie his interpretation of the proof text. If one is ready and able to do that, then he can responsibly (and perhaps even effectively) use proof-texts. If one is unwilling or unable to do so, proof-texting is of virtually no avail. And if, in his naivete, one sees no need to defend his assumptions, the failure of his proof-texts to persuade will be totally mystifying to him.

(2) Belief in the Sufficiency of Plausibility

Having persuaded another (say, person P) that your interpretation of a text is flawlessly reasonable, it is not uncommon to have him reject your interpretation nonetheless, on the grounds that his preferred interpretation of the text is perfectly plausible too. The logic of his rejection of your interpretation runs something like this:

Sure, your interpretation is plausible. But my interpretation is plausible too. Therefore, since both interpretations are plausible, there is no greater need for me to be persuaded of your interpretation than for you to be persuaded of mine. Since we have reached a standstill and I am just as justified in believing my interpretation as you are in believing yours, then I see no need to change my mind.

The problem with this line of reasoning is its naive acceptance of “plausibility” as an adequate standard for the validity of an interpretation. Few interpretations of the biblical text are implausible. No intelligent human being, sincere in his efforts to understand the biblical text, would recommend or embrace a totally implausible interpretation. Any interpretation which is logically consistent with the set of assumptions which the interpreter takes to the text (i.e. with his pre-understanding) will be a plausible one.[29]

If interpretation H follows logically from the assumption of J, K, and L, then one can readily see that, assuming J, K, and L, the text must mean H. In other words, interpretation H is plausible if it can be seen that it is the correct interpretation of the text on the assumption that J, K, and L are true. Now oftentimes it is not far-fetched to think that J, K, and L might be true. Consequently, there can be scores of plausible interpretations of any single passage of the Bible. Each plausible pre-understanding will have a different plausible interpretation of the text corresponding to it. Therefore, being satisfied that one has reached a valid interpretation of a text because he has reached a plausible interpretation is extremely naive.

Probability, not plausibility is the appropriate basis for adopting an interpretation. One is justified in embracing an interpretation only when that interpretation has the highest likelihood of being in conformity with the author’s intent.[30] The remainder of this book is our attempt to spell out further how one determines the likelihood of an interpretation’s conforming to the author’s intent. For my purposes here, it is only necessary to note the role of our pre-understanding in this whole process.

If I interpret a text from a pre-understanding which is significantly different from the assumptions from which the author wrote that text, though my interpretation will undoubtedly be plausible, there is no possibility that it will be correct. The difference between a merely plausible interpretation and the correct one is this: a correct interpretation is informed by a pre-understanding which conforms to that which the author had when writing the text; a merely plausible interpretation is informed by an alien pre-understanding, one which does not conform to that which the author had. A plausible interpretation is one which could, in fact, be the correct one. It would be the correct one if the pre-understanding which gave rise to it was identical to the one out of which the author wrote. That is precisely why it is a plausible interpretation.[31] But the big “if” remains. It would be correct only if the pre-understanding which informed it were the correct one.

The purpose of the remainder of this book is to elaborate further on the interpretive process described above, the process by which the interpreter can know when the pre-understanding he is employing in his interpretation conforms to the one the author had when composing the text.

The Hermeneutic of Biblical Authority[32]

Two major factors shape the approach to biblical interpretation which we are espousing in this book: 1) our understanding as to the way in which verbal communication works, i.e., our philosophy of language; and 2) our view of biblical authority, i.e., our belief in the absolute authority of the Bible—its infallibility and total inerrancy.

In this section I use what we have learned about the role of the pre-understanding in verbal communication (combined with our assumptions about biblical authority) to show how the hermeneutic of biblical authority which we espouse is the most rational and commonsensical approach relative to all the alternative theories.

In order to list, systematically, all the theoretical options, we need to return to a previous concept. The different approaches people take to biblical hermeneutics are finally determined by how they confront the problem of the historical gap. The different theoretical approaches to biblical interpretation can be outlined as follows:

I. Hermeneutic of neutrality

II. Hermeneutic of commitment

A. Hermeneutic of subjectivity

B. Hermeneutic of orthodoxy

C. Hermeneutic of authorial intent

1. Hermeneutic of dialogue

2. Hermeneutic of biblical authority

The first choice an interpreter makes is whether he will embrace a hermeneutic of commitment or a hermeneutic of neutrality.

I. Hermeneutic of Neutrality

As we have seen, the historical gap is a problem because of the inevitable difference between the pre-understanding of the biblical author and that of his modern interpreter. How can the modern interpreter ever hope to arrive at the objective meaning of a text (that which the biblical author intended) when his interpretation is always being skewed by the presence of his own personal beliefs and commitments?

One solution which has been proposed is for the modern interpreter to rid himself of any and all assumptions as he enters into the interpretive task. He must shed all preconceptions, commitments, and beliefs. He must become absolutely neutral and non-committal with respect to any and all ideas. Having done so, he will have made himself open and amenable to the biblical author’s ideas. He will have placed himself in a position to hear and understand the biblical author without his own personal preconceptions entering in to skew the message of the text. This approach is what I shall call the hermeneutic of neutrality.

The goal of the hermeneutic of neutrality is a noble one—namely, to counteract the tendency of our own pre-understanding to lead us away from the objective meaning of the biblical text. We are in total agreement with its goal. The problem with the hermeneutic of neutrality, however, is that it is naively unrealistic. It is based on complete ignorance of the way in which verbal communication actually takes place.

First, there is the simple fact that true neutrality is not even conceivable. What could it possibly mean to approach the task of interpretation with absolutely no prior assumptions? It is impossible to know what that would even look like. No matter how much, by focusing on it, we may have achieved neutrality on a particular issue,[33] there will be dozens of other issues (outside the scope of our attention) where our commitments and beliefs are still very much intact. If nothing else, we have hundreds of prior assumptions as to the meanings of words in the language we are using. Total neutrality is simply not a realizable goal. It is psychologically impossible.

Second, even if it were realizable, it would not be desirable. As negative an influence as the interpreter’s pre-understanding can be (skewing the meaning of the biblical text), nonetheless, its positive contribution to the process of interpretation far outweighs its potential negative influence. The existence of our pre-understanding makes learning and knowledge possible. Similarly, biblical interpretation would not be possible without it. Without the operation of our pre-understanding, we would be completely paralyzed before the task of interpretation.

Imagine approaching the text of John 3:16 from the standpoint of total neutrality, a standpoint which assumes absolutely nothing:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

Having assumed nothing, we have no idea what John means by “God” (even if we grant our “total neutrality” to allow a basic understanding of the English language). Who or what is “God”? What exactly is John’s conception of God. We cannot assume that it is like the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God which has come down to us through history. Perhaps it is very different. It would be violating our neutrality to assume that John’s conception coincided with ours.

And what about “Son”? John’s notion of a “son” of God cannot be assumed to correspond to any modern notions of sonship relative to God. Neither can we assume that Jesus is in view here without violating our neutrality (not even when we take the context of John 3 into account). Our previous belief that Jesus is the Son of God makes us think immediately that this verse is referring to Jesus.

We could go on and illustrate the same thing with respect to every word in this verse. The point is this: Our pre-understanding makes Bible interpretation feasible by giving us a head-start on the meaning of the text. From past learning and experience, we know (or, more accurately, think we know) what the biblical author means by most of the concepts to which he refers in his text. If we were not allowed to assume that we understand these concepts, each verse would present us with a monumental task. To interpret one verse would be such an intimidating prospect that we would never even begin. We would be overwhelmed to the point of inactivity.

An objection may be raised to the use of our pre-understanding in interpretation: We use assumptions in our Bible interpretation, but only after having begun from the neutral standpoint which the hermeneutic of neutrality espouses. We now assume that we understand John’s conception of God, sonship to God, etc. But, if our assumptions are justified, it is because previous study has led us to some convictions as to how to understand these notions in John’s teaching. We started from total neutrality; we did not simply assume that John’s notions corresponded with the traditional understanding of these notions. Before we felt justified in understanding John’s notions along the lines of the traditional ones, we set the traditional notions aside and proved to ourselves (from a direct study of the biblical texts) that John’s notions did, in fact, coincide with them. At least, this is what we should have done!

The point raised in this objection is largely true, but misleading. It works as an objection only because of the technical nature of the examples I used. What if we focus on different words and concepts in John 3:16? What about “life,” “world, “perish,” “believe,” “gave”? To what extent did we ever set aside our conceptions of these and prove to ourselves (from the biblical text alone) what the strictly biblical conceptions of these words involves? Indeed, to what extent could this have been done ?

Try it. Try to become absolutely neutral with respect to the meaning of the word “gave.” Now do a word study, remaining absolutely neutral at every point along the way to make sure your own preconceptions do not mislead you. It is virtually impossible. Without a preconception already given you by a knowledge of the English language you are at a loss to know what to conclude. You are utterly dependent upon your pre-understanding of the meaning of words. This is as it should be. This is exactly how language works. Verbal communication is possible only because the one communicating can assume his listener has a pre-understanding of the meaning of words. Total neutrality, rather than being an aid to understanding, would render verbal communication impossible.

Therefore, neutrality is hardly the ideal standpoint from which to understand a text. Neutrality paralyzes. It erodes the foundations upon which verbal communication is based. Neither is it realizable. The minute we use language, we have departed from total neutrality. Instead, the ideal standpoint from which to understand a text is the one which the author is assuming of his reader. To know, understand, and believe what the author assumes you know, understand, and believe is that ideal standpoint from which to interpret a text. It is to have exactly those pre-conceptions and commitments which he has assumed you have. Only then are you in the best position to understand the author’s text. This is not the standpoint of neutrality. This is a standpoint of commitment. Any theory of interpretation which acknowledges the impossibility and impracticality of total neutrality and which has an intelligent grasp of the essential role which the interpreter’s pre-understanding plays in the interpretive task is what we will call a hermeneutic of commitment.

Faced with two theoretical options—the hermeneutic of neutrality or a hermeneutic of commitment —we clearly side with the latter. Our philosophy of language requires it. The hermeneutic of neutrality is utterly ignorant of the true nature of verbal communication.

II. Hermeneutic of Commitment

Given that we reject the hermeneutic of neutrality in favor of a hermeneutic of commitment, there remain three options for a theory of biblical interpretation: 1) the hermeneutic of subjectivity; 2) the hermeneutic of orthodoxy; and 3) the hermeneutic of authorial intent.

A. The Hermeneutic of Subjectivity

The historical gap threatens to render the objective meaning of the biblical text inaccessible. But perhaps the objective meaning of the text is not what God intended for us to concern ourselves with. Perhaps God intended that we each interpret the Bible in the light of our own pre-understanding. The true, God-given message of the Bible is what it means to each one of us, individually, as we interpret it in the light of our own unique pre-understanding. Perhaps what the Bible means to me is precisely what God intended it to mean. This not uncommon perspective on the Bible is what we shall call the hermeneutic of subjectivity. Under this view, the Bible is a catalyst to my own personal revelation from God.

The hermeneutic of subjectivity certainly solves the problem created by the historical gap: I can ignore both the biblical author’s pre-understanding and the objective meaning of the text, for neither is of any concern to me. My only concern is the meaning of the text as interpreted in the light of my own pre-understanding, to which access is unproblematic.

The problem with the hermeneutic of subjectivity arises when we try to reconcile this hermeneutic with our view of biblical authority. One of the fundamental features of the inerrantist’s view of biblical authority is that the Bible has a single, coherent, objective meaning, available to all universally and absolutely authoritative. This view of biblical authority cannot be reconciled with the hermeneutic of subjectivity, which sees the relevant meaning of the biblical text as fundamentally subjective. The biblical text will not and cannot have one, single, coherent, objective meaning for all interpreters universally. It means a significantly different thing to each interpreter, who brings a significantly different pre-understanding to the text. This is a clearly logical consequence of the hermeneutic of subjectivity. Consequently, anyone who is convinced of the traditional view of biblical authority—where the Bible conveys an objective message possessing absolute, infallible authority—cannot opt for the hermeneutic of subjectivity.

The hermeneutic of subjectivity reduces the Bible to a completely private book useful only for private edification; the Bible is rendered useless as an authoritative source of rebuke or criticism. I could never, on the basis of the Bible’s teaching, criticize another person or institution for failing to conform to the biblical standard, for what the Bible says, it says only to me.

B. The Hermeneutic of Orthodoxy

The hermeneutic of orthodoxy solves the problem of the historical gap in a completely different way. The hermeneutic of subjectivity—interpreting the Bible in the light of our own pre-understanding—leads to relativism. According to it, there is no single, objective meaning of the text. The message differs, depending upon who is interpreting it. Our biblical hermeneutic must provide a basis for a universally uniform interpretation if we are to do justice to our notion of the Bible as an objective authority—an authority which does not change its message relative to the individual interpreter.

The hermeneutic of orthodoxy provides just such a basis. It offers a unique solution to the historical gap in a way that does not lead to relativism: a standardized pre-understanding. According to the hermeneutic of orthodoxy, one must neither interpret the text from the standpoint of one’s own individual pre-understanding, nor interpret it from the standpoint of the biblical author. Rather, one is to interpret the text from the standpoint of a prescribed pre-understanding. The church or religious tradition in which one stands artificially creates a uniform pre-understanding (which, for reasons we have discussed, will tend toward a uniform interpretation of the text) by prescribing that pre-understanding which the Bible student is to adopt when interpreting the biblical text. The spirit of orthodoxy says, “Read your Bible for yourself, but read it this way.” Creeds, confessions, and both spoken and unspoken traditions are various guides to the pre-understanding which the “true” believer will and must adopt. There are also various ways in which the prescribed pre-understanding is enforced on the interpreter.

The clear advantage of the hermeneutic of orthodoxy is that it narrows the historical gap immensely without degenerating into relativism. It does not eliminate the gap completely, but it narrows it to manageable proportions. The Bible is clearly an ancient document, written in a time and place completely and totally alien to us. This is not so of the traditions, creeds, and confessions which define the various brands of orthodoxy. These creeds and traditions (in the form in which they are currently employed) are old, but they are not ancient. The fundamentally modern authors who composed these traditions (and even more so those who interpret these traditions to us) are not totally alien to us. We know them. We understand them. They are like us in many respects. To a large degree, we live in the same intellectual and theological world. Those differences which do exist can easily be understood and bridged by the vast amount of information available to us about their times and cultures.

This is very different from the situation with the Bible. Interpretation in accordance with the hermeneutic of orthodoxy, therefore, is not so problematic as interpretation which insists on capturing the biblical author’s intent: to interpret the Bible validly one need only understand the relatively modern worldview which has given rise to one’s preferred brand of orthodoxy. There is no need to gain access to the obscurity of the ancient biblical world.

Once again, the hermeneutic of orthodoxy collides head-on with our conception of the nature of biblical authority. Our view is that the text of scripture itself bears the authoritative message from God. God’s word is inscribed in the biblical text. It is this inscribed text which has objective authority over our lives and beliefs. The hermeneutic of orthodoxy shifts the locus of authority. The authority no longer rests in the biblical text, but in the text of the confessions or creeds which define that orthodoxy. Or, if there is no written text by which the orthodoxy is defined, then it rests in the unwritten (perhaps even unspoken) “text” of the tradition which defines it. The orthodox believer’s interpretations, then, are shaped by a pre-understanding which has been authoritatively defined for him by his orthodoxy. The true authority, therefore, rests in the orthodoxy itself—in the prescribed pre-understanding which every orthodox believer must adopt. This is not consistent with the traditional view[34] of biblical authority. In the traditional view, the Bible alone is the sole source of objective revelation.

No matter how much he might protest, the Protestant believer who is committed to a creed is just as much a practitioner of the hermeneutic of orthodoxy as the Roman Catholic. He objects, of course, that he does not grant any authority to the creed. He uses the creed as merely a helpful grid through which to begin reading and understanding his Bible. This objection is believable if his creed is not above challenge. But is this usually the case? How often are Protestant creeds revised on the grounds that they are mistaken? If not often, why not? Because they are such an impeccably perfect representation of the coherent, unified message of the Bible? All of the creeds, mutually contradictory as they are, cannot be perfect. And how do the adherents know that their creeds are perfect? Have they verified them through a Bible read in the light of them? That’s no good. That is circular. Of course my Bible study will confirm my creed if I assume my creed as the only standpoint from which the Bible can be read. Or have they verified their creed from the authorial intent of the biblical text? Though not impossible, I think it highly unlikely that most Protestants have validated the creeds to which they are committed through independent discovery of what was intended by the biblical authors. If I am right, then these Protestants are practitioners of the hermeneutic of orthodoxy.

In any case, one cannot consistently hold to the traditional view of biblical authority (which involves the absolute authority of the biblical text) and at the same time espouse the hermeneutic of orthodoxy. The two are irreconcilable.

C. The Hermeneutic of Authorial Intent

The final option, the one we believe to be uniquely consistent with our philosophy of language and our view of biblical authority, is the hermeneutic of authorial intent. This hermeneutic faces squarely into the need to arrive at the objective meaning of the text if one is to have an authoritative biblical message which is both truly objective (universally available) and truly present in the biblical text. Under this hermeneutic, therefore, the historical gap is a very important problem. In order to arrive at the objective meaning of the text, the interpreter must capture the author’s intent in the text. To do that, he must come to an understanding of the underlying pre-understanding of the author. To do that, he must bridge the vast chasm which exists between the biblical world and today.

I have already shown why it is possible to transverse this chasm, and I have laid out the process that makes it so. The historical gap, therefore, contrary to popular opinion, does not make the hermeneutic of authorial intent impossible nor impractical. This is the hermeneutic we espouse in this text.

There are actually two different forms of the hermeneutic of authorial intent worth mentioning: the hermeneutic of dialogue and the hermeneutic of biblical authority. Both forms are valid and useful in the right contexts. But only the hermeneutic of biblical authority is appropriate to a study of the Bible. A common mistake being made today is to apply the hermeneutic of dialogue to the study of the Bible.

Both the hermeneutic of biblical authority and the hermeneutic of dialogue strive to determine the biblical author’s intent in the language of the Bible. They differ in how they propose to respond to that message once they have determined what it is. The hermeneutic of dialogue proposes to dialogue with the text as with a peer; the hermeneutic of biblical authority proposes to submit to the text as to an authoritative teacher—indeed, as to the Lord himself.

1. Hermeneutic of Dialogue

To understand this difference between the hermeneutic of dialogue and the hermeneutic of biblical authority, imagine how we might interact with an ancient text—a text which is equally as ancient as the Bible, but to which we grant no real authority. Take, for example, the works of Plato. What do we hope to gain by studying them? And how do we interact with them?

Our concern in studying Plato (as it should be in any intellectual pursuit) is truth. We desire to learn the truth about life and reality. But how can Plato help us? Is Plato the source of truth? Does Plato have an infallible grasp on everything we need to know? Certainly not. In one important sense, Plato is our peer. He is just as fallible and human as we. So we do not go to Plato in order to believe whatever he teaches. That would be folly. We go to Plato to look at the reasonings and conclusions of a very brilliant man. Even if his conclusions and reflections are not ultimately the truth, they are certainly worth listening to.

Plato was brilliant, a profound and stimulating thinker. By looking into his mind and seeing how he views life and reality and by seeing the questions which he asks, my own thinking will be stimulated. To “dialogue” with this great thinker, my own perspective will be broadened, stretched, and challenged. I will be stimulated to pursue new and different philosophical vistas. All of this will aid me in my own quest after truth. Perhaps, in dialogue with Plato, I will be stimulated to some new insight which is indeed true. That is what I seek. That is what is important.

In summary, then, I am interested in Plato because I am interested in dialogue with him. But in dialogue, I must listen to what the other has to say. Consequently, the goal I set in the study of Plato’s works is to understand what he was intending to say. I strive to understand the message which he actually put there—i.e., I strive to grasp the objective meaning of his writings.[35]

But, as I have just been saying, I do not trust that the objective meaning of Plato’s dialogues will be the truth. I trust only that it will be provocative, stimulating, and helpful in my own quest for understanding the truth.[36] Consequently, with Plato, it is not ultimately important whether I have determined the objective meaning of his text. If I have reached it, great. If not, that’s all right too. Ultimately nothing important is at stake. The reason I am reading him in the first place is for the spiritual and intellectual stimulation—for the help along the road to true understanding. If this help and stimulation results from my misconstruing Plato and not from what Plato actually intended, so be it! My primary objective has nevertheless been achieved. My dialogue with Plato (however unfair to Plato) has nevertheless been stimulating and helpful. And if it is in misunderstanding him that I am led to a further understanding of truth, then so much the better for misunderstanding. Such a fortuitous error would be infinitely better than an accurate interpretation which profited me nothing in my quest after truth.

2. Hermeneutic of Biblical Authority

Consider how different the situation is for the Bible student who believes that infallible truth is contained in the biblical text itself. The motivation is no longer (as in the case of Plato) to merely carry on a stimulating dialogue with the biblical authors. The motivation is to uncover the objective, authoritative statement of truth which resides in the text itself. Turning from Plato to the Bible, I no longer presume that some of what it says will be wrong. I presume to find nothing but truth there. I do not study the Bible as a stimulus to finding truth wherever it may be; I study the Bible precisely because the truth is there. The biblical authors (unlike Plato) are not my peers. They are not writing as my equals—fallible human beings groping in the dark for some glimmer of the truth. I do not read them because they are intelligent and profound fellow-students of life with much worthy insight into the truth. Rather, I submit to them as to authoritative teachers. I am prepared to believe whatever it is they believe. I am prepared to discard whatever they say to discard.

My basis for trusting them so implicitly is their role as prophets and apostles. They have been given supernatural insight by God into the objective truth about life and reality. Their insight is not based on their native ability as thinkers; it is based on their chosen function by God—to be his messengers.

This shift in assumptions and purpose alter drastically the importance of determining the author’s intent.[37] In Plato, if I make a mistake as to Plato’s intent, not much is lost (in fact, something may even be gained). In the Bible, if I make a mistake as to the biblical author’s intent, then I am misled into assuming the wrong teaching to be the authoritative word of God. This is a very grave error.

The need to carefully determine the author’s true intent becomes the all-important problem for biblical hermeneutics.

The Proper Hermeneutic for Interpreting the Bible

We have just described two different approaches: the hermeneutic of biblical authority and the hermeneutic of dialogue. The hermeneutic of dialogue, the approach that we would take to Plato, is the approach that one should take to any non-authoritative literature. The hermeneutic of biblical authority, by its very nature, is unique. Its approach to the text is shaped by the uniqueness of the literature it is attempting to interpret. It is only applicable to literature which possesses absolute authority—the Bible.

Therefore, a Bible student who fails to acknowledge the absolute authority of the Bible (but who acknowledges the legitimacy of the hermeneutic of authorial intent) logically must interpret it in accordance with the hermeneutic of dialogue. This would be the only consistent approach he could take. But the Bible student who does recognize its authority must employ the hermeneutic of biblical authority. Given his assumptions with respect to biblical authority, this is the only legitimate approach he can take. Were the Bible student to approach the text from the hermeneutic of dialogue, his interpretive approach would be totally inconsistent with the view of Biblical authority he espouses.[38]

The theoretical options available for a biblical hermeneutic are prompted by different views of the nature of language and biblical authority, different perspectives on the goal of biblical interpretation and how to manage one’s pre-understanding in the process of interpretation, and different solutions to the problems posed by the historical gap. We believe the hermeneutic of biblical authority, within the hermeneutic of commitment and the hermeneutic of authorial intent, is the one and only reasonable approach to biblical interpretation.

Outline of the different theoretical approaches to biblical interpretation in the face of the historical gap:

I. Hermeneutic of neutrality (no)

II. Hermeneutic of commitment (yes)

A. Hermeneutic of subjectivity (no)

B. Hermeneutic of orthodoxy (no)

C. Hermeneutic of authorial intent(yes)

1. Hermeneutic of dialogue (no)

2. Hermeneutic of biblical authority (yes)

Toward a Theory of Biblical Misunderstanding

We return once again to the question with which this chapter began: Why do intelligent, apparently capable Bible interpreters disagree? Fundamentally, we have seen that the influence of an interpreter’s pre-understanding serves to answer this question. Sincere, capable Bible interpreters disagree because they approach the text from the standpoint of different pre-understandings. In this section, we will explore the answer to this question in a little more depth. To do so, we need to examine three more concepts: the concepts of an obscure text, a genuinely ambiguous text, and an apparently ambiguous text.

An Obscure Text

The interpretation which “fits perfectly” (meeting no textual resistance) is the objective meaning of a text.

In an obscure text every conceivable interpretation meets some degree of textual resistance: the text is amenable to no possible interpretation.

Usually an obscure text results from a gap in our understanding of the historical and cultural background. Many passages are impossible to understand except in the light of certain pieces of information about the times, places, and culture in which the text was written. But if neither historical research nor speculative reconstruction has supplied the background information needed to make sense out of a certain text, then it will be unintelligible to the modern interpreter. It will be an obscure text. Obscurity, then, is a direct outcome of the historical gap. Presumably, an obscure text would not have been obscure to the original readers—to those contemporary with its author.

I Corinthians 15: 29 is an obscure text:

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? (NIV)

Paul alludes here to a practice of baptizing people for the dead. We are totally in the dark about this practice. We know nothing of its nature, its rationale, or its origin. We have very little indication as to whether it was a religious practice or some other sort of practice. We cannot even tell whether Paul approved or disapproved of it. On the one hand, historical research has failed to shed any light on what this practice might have been.[39] On the other hand, there is too little information in I Corinthians 15 to allow for a speculative reconstruction. Paul’s reference is far too brief. But without the necessary background information on this practice, it is virtually impossible to understand what Paul is saying in this verse. As things stand now, this verse is hopelessly obscure. Its objective meaning is inaccessible to us.

In theory, then, the obscurity of a text would be an important cause of disagreement in the interpretation of a text. The wildly speculative interpretations put forth by Bible students in their attempts to unravel the objective meaning of an obscure passage are not likely to agree. They will diverge greatly and are not likely to be right. Wild speculation is risky business. It is seldom the truth.

But the proliferation of differing interpretations of the Bible as a whole cannot be explained by obscurity in the biblical text, for genuinely obscure texts are not very common in the Scriptures.[40] Hence, genuine obscurity of the biblical text is not a significant obstacle to a consensus on the meaning of the Bible.

Ambiguity: Genuine and Apparent

Two qualities are absolutely essential to skillful interpretation: 1) intolerance of textual resistance, and 2) discernment of the presence of textual resistance.

A skillful interpreter is highly intolerant of textual resistance. He is not fully satisfied with an interpretation which is less than a perfect “fit.” He will not adopt an interpretation which is “forced” on to the text against the textual resistance that it offers. At times it appears that no interpretation is perfect, that all the possible options encounter some degree of textual resistance. When such is the case, the skilled interpreter insists on embracing that interpretation which offers the least textual resistance and then remains unsatisfied that there is any textual resistance at all.

A skillful interpreter is keenly discerning of the presence of textual resistance. He is very adept at recognizing textual resistance when it is present, regardless of how subtle that resistance might be. In other words, he has a high sensitivity to textual resistance.

The phenomenon of textual resistance cannot guide an interpreter to the objective meaning of the text if he is unable to discern or is willing to ignore its presence. For an interpreter with such dulled sensibilities, a whole multitude of interpretations will “fit” a text he is interpreting. (The higher his tolerance for textual resistance and the lower his sensitivity at detecting it, the further from the mark an interpretation can be and still seem to him to “fit.”) Hence, it will appear to him that there are many valid interpretations. To him, the text appears ambiguous. An important point emerges:

The apparent ambiguity of the biblical text is greatly increased when the interpreter in question is not adequately skilled or experienced in the task of biblical interpretation.

The proliferation of differing interpretations of the Bible cannot be explained by obscurity in the biblical text. Are they, then, to be explained by ambiguity in the text? By definition, the ambiguity of a text refers to the fact that more than one interpretation (perhaps even several) presents itself as valid. Ambiguity, then, clearly would explain how different interpreters (all of them intelligent, sincere, etc.) can come up with different interpretations of the same Bible.

The exact source of the problem, however, depends on the nature of the ambiguity. There are two different senses in which a text could be ambiguous: genuinely ambiguous and apparently ambiguous.

Genuine ambiguity exists when a text is no less amenable to one interpretation than to another because it is too vague or too imprecise to distinguish between two different meanings.

Apparent ambiguity exists when a text seems no less amenable to one interpretation than to another on account of the interpreter’s low sensitivity to textual resistance and/or his high tolerance for it. (In other words, such a text would not seem ambiguous to an interpreter who had a high sensitivity to and a low tolerance for textual resistance.)

If the Bible’s ambiguity is genuine, then the final explanation for the proliferation of diverging interpretations rests in the nature of the Bible itself. The Bible is simply too genuinely ambiguous to reach a consensus on its meaning. But if its ambiguity is only apparent, then the final explanation rests in the current state of interpretive skill. The reason we cannot arrive at a consensus is because so very few (if any) of us have the interpretive skill necessary to discover the objective meaning of the Bible. We must explore this question as to where exactly the problem lies. Does it lie in the Bible? Or is it the result of a tragic lack of interpretive skill today?

Is genuine ambiguity a problem today?

If the Bible is genuinely ambiguous, then it would do no good to develop our interpretive skills. A genuinely ambiguous Bible would never disclose its meaning anyway. But the fact is, the Bible is not genuinely ambiguous.

To begin with, genuine ambiguity is not a widespread occurrence in the Bible. It exists; but not to such a degree that it renders the Bible as a whole incomprehensible. Secondly (and more importantly), even when a passage is genuinely ambiguous, we have ways to determine its true objective meaning nonetheless. I will describe that process shortly. But for both these reasons, genuine ambiguity in the biblical text cannot explain the frequent disagreement as to what the Bible means. It is not an obstacle to consensus on the Bible’s meaning.

But this claim is, in part, dependent on my assertion that we can determine the true meaning of texts which are, in fact, genuinely ambiguous. I turn now to the process by which a skilled interpreter would come to interpret genuinely ambiguous biblical texts.

Interpreting Genuinely Ambiguous Texts

Genuine ambiguity, as we have seen, consists in a text’s being amenable to two significantly different interpretations. On the basis of that text alone, then, one is not able to rule out one interpretation or the other as untrue or invalid. The text (which speaks infallibly and inerrantly as the absolutely authoritative word of God) does not authoritatively eliminate either interpretation.[41] Therefore, the skilled interpreter will be unable to decide between the two (or more) equally admissible interpretations of the text and the pre-understandings which underlie them.

Can the meaning of such a text ever be determined? Yes, the skilled interpreter can decipher a genuinely ambiguous text by turning to evidence other than that which exists in the text itself. He uses three other criteria: 1) his understanding of other biblical texts which are not themselves ambiguous, 2) his understanding of the coherent worldview which is taught by the Bible taken as a whole, and 3) his understanding of life, experience, and created reality. Here, then is a step-by-step process for interpreting a genuinely ambiguous text:

Step 1: Determine all possible interpretations.

Using the method of textual resistance described above, the interpreter arrives at all the seemingly valid interpretations available. (Since it is a genuinely ambiguous text, by definition, there will be more than one.)

Step 2: Eliminate interpretations which are contradicted by other biblical texts.

Taking each seemingly valid interpretation in turn, the interpreter asks the following question of each interpretation: Is the pre-understanding which underlies this interpretation contradicted by the pre-understanding which underlies the correct interpretation of some other unambiguous text? If so, then this interpretation can be ruled out. It is invalid. If not, then this interpretation is still in the running. It remains a viable possibility.

It is not immediately obvious that this step is justified. What is the basis for it? How do we defend it? It is odd, on the surface, that my understanding of a text written by Paul should be in any way informed by my understanding of a text written by James (and vice versa). And yet this is what step 2 suggests. If a text in James is ambiguous, I decide the objective meaning of James’s text by insisting that its message be consistent with the objective meaning of a text by Paul.

No other book can be read this way. You cannot interpret my words by assuming they must be compatible with what some other person has said.[42] Obviously, not all people have the same pre-understanding. I have no right to assume that two different people will be in agreement on some point in question. Their viewpoint on the relevant concern could easily be different. How then, do I justify the assumption that two biblical authors (e.g., Paul and James) must necessarily teach the same message and the same view of reality?

It is justified in the light of our assumption of biblical inspiration. Belief in the inspiration of Scripture involves the belief that all of the human authors of Scripture have faithfully and infallibly conveyed to us one consistent understanding of reality—namely, that understanding in which they were instructed by the Spirit of God. In other words, belief in Scripture’s inspiration is a belief that the biblical authors are faithful disciples of the same teacher, representing his teaching infallibly. That teacher is God himself, and he teaches an infallibly accurate understanding of the truth about reality. The consequence of this belief is clear: if each biblical author is faithfully representing a common worldview (namely, the truth as taught by God himself), then it follows that I can legitimately use my understanding of one biblical author to help me understand what is ambiguous in another. I know that their views of reality are identical, for they are both faithful expositors of exactly the same teaching—the teaching of God himself.

Clearly, then, the assumption of biblical inspiration is a critical assumption. If the assumption of biblical inspiration is true, then step 2 is justified; if not, then step 2 is an absurd and ill-founded procedure.

Step 3: Eliminate interpretations which are contradicted by the biblical worldview taken as a whole.

After step 2, one or more of the seemingly valid interpretations may have been eliminated. Now the interpreter considers each of the remaining options. Taking each in turn, he asks the following question: Is the pre-understanding which underlies this interpretation contradicted by the coherent worldview of the Bible taken as a whole (as best I understand it)? If so, then this interpretation can be ruled out. It is invalid. If not, then this interpretation is still in the running. It remains a viable possibility.

This step is justified on exactly the same basis as step 2—the assumption of biblical inspiration. The Bible, being inspired by God, reflects one coherent view of reality—the infallible truth as taught by God. Even though its message is conveyed by several different authors, nonetheless, it is assumed to present a coherent picture of one and the same thing—the teaching which originates from God. Consequently, to the extent that my study of the Bible has brought me to a fundamental grasp of its unified teaching, to that extent I am justified in interpreting every particular text in the light of it.

Step 4: Eliminate interpretations which are contradicted by sound conclusions about reality I have reached by reasoning from my own experience.

After step 3, one or more of the previously remaining options may have been eliminated. Now the interpreter considers each of those options which still remain. Taking each of these in turn, he asks the following question: Is the pre-understanding which underlies this interpretation contradicted by that coherent understanding of reality which I have arrived at through sound rational inference from life experience? If so, then this interpretation can be ruled out. It is invalid. If not, then this interpretation is still in the running. It remains a viable possibility.

This step is justified in the light of a different assumption—our assumption that true knowledge is attainable through experience. Truth is the fundamental concern of a Bible student. We study the Bible because we believe it reveals the truth. Indeed, we believe that the Bible is the only infallible teaching about reality. Though it is the only infallible teaching about reality, it is not the only infallible access to truth about reality. Truth about reality is also attainable through direct experience of reality. As we live in and experience reality, we directly confront the truth about it. To the extent that we can learn through our experience, to that extent we can, through experience itself, come to an understanding of truth. This, then, is another avenue to truth which runs parallel to the Bible. It can serve as a check on our interpretation of the Bible. If we already know from experience that something is true, then no understanding of the biblical teaching can contradict that, for the Bible never teaches falsehood. (This is implicit in the assumption of biblical inspiration.)

Many will object to this step. Whereas experience does lead us to an understanding of reality, it does not lead us to an infallible understanding of reality. This is the difference between understanding which is born of experience and understanding which is born of Bible study. Understanding born of Bible study is necessarily infallible; understanding born of experience is not. It may not be true.

But this objection fails to see an important parallel. Granted, sound biblical interpretation will lead to an infallibly true understanding of reality. But, in actual practice, Bible study is quite fallible. I do not always interpret the texts I study correctly. As a consequence, my actual study of the Bible yields a flawed understanding. Only unfailingly sound Bible interpretation can yield a perfectly true understanding.

Understanding born of experience parallels this. Actual understanding of reality through human experience is clearly flawed. Sometimes it is true; sometimes it is in error. For sometimes I interpret my experience correctly, and sometimes I get it wrong. But whereas, in practice, human interpretation of experience is fallible, yet, in principle, a soundly rational interpretation of my experience is not:

If I were to interpret my experience of reality in a soundly rational way unfailingly, I would necessarily arrive at a true interpretation of my experience and an accurate grasp of the truth.

Why is this? Because the rationality out of which we construct our beliefs about reality corresponds to the rationality in accordance with which God created it.[43] God imparted a structure to created reality which conforms to his own reason. He imparted that same rationality to us to employ in constructing our beliefs about reality. Consequently, since God designed them to be congruent, our rationally-constructed beliefs about reality conform to the structure of reality as it actually is. In other words, our rationally-constructed beliefs about reality give us true knowledge of the world as God created it. To the extent that we construct our beliefs in accordance with reason, our beliefs will be true. To the extent that we construct our beliefs in contradiction to reason, they will be false.

An objection commonly raised at this point: Although this holds true for mundane truths, it is not true for “spiritual” truths—i.e., for truths about God, his purposes, and the invisible realities which transcend the mundane realities. These, so it is said, are mysterious. And, as mysteries, they do not conform to the logic and reason which we typically employ in everyday life.

There is indeed a valid sense in which God and divine truths are a mystery. God is beyond us and above us and his knowledge is infinitely more far-reaching. Consequently, given his greater knowledge and awareness, what looks “logical” (and is logical) from our point of view does not look “logical” (and is not logical) from God’s point of view. From the point of view of Jesus’ disciples, it did not seem “logical” that God would send his Son to earth only to be humiliated and crucified. But from God’s point of view it was perfectly “logical,” for God had a much bigger and better perspective from which to see the consequences.

God’s radically different point of view gives his actions and responses to us that air of mystery which the Bible speaks of. We have no access to the hidden and secret purposes and knowledge of God. But God does, putting him at a distinct advantage. Being disadvantaged as we are, we are not in a position to “make sense” out of God and his actions. Hence, he seems mysterious. But this is totally different from the popular claim that God is above or beyond logic and reason. God is not above logic and reason, rather he is an eminently rational person operating from an infinitely superior frame of reference. His ways and purposes do not defy logic and reason (indeed they are perfectly logical and perfectly reasonable); rather, they defy the limitedness and short-sightedness of our merely human perspective on life.

There are, therefore, two infallible means to an understanding of truth:[44] 1) a sound interpretation of the biblical text, and 2) a soundly rational interpretation of life experience. The latter is infallible because it is the God-given means to understanding the reality which I directly experience. The former is infallible because it is a teaching about reality which comes from God himself. Hence, it is infallibly true. The implication is clear:

The objective meaning of the Bible and a soundly rational interpretation of life experience will never contradict one another.

This assumption provides the justification for Step 4. It, in turn, follows from two of our fundamental beliefs: our belief in the inspiration of the Bible and our belief in the infallibility of sound reasoning from experience.

It does no good to object that, though sound reasoning from experience is infallible, we can never know when our reasoning is sound reasoning. This objection is a two-edged sword. It could similarly be argued: though a sound interpretation of the Bible is infallibly true, we do not know when our interpretation is a sound one. If we are confident that we can reach a sound interpretation of the Bible (through reasoned exegesis), then, by the same token, we can reach a soundly rational interpretation of our experience. If we can do one, we can do the other. If we reject the possibility of both, then we are rejecting the possibility of any true knowledge of reality whatsoever. That is a radically skeptical position. It deserves to be rejected along with all other forms of skepticism.

Step 5: Cry “Eureka!” or give up.

The interpreter now observes those options which still remain. If only one interpretation remains, then it can reasonably be assumed to be the valid interpretation of that text. If more than one still remain, then that particular biblical text is a hopelessly ambiguous text—one where no definitive interpretation can be given to it.

Summary of Theoretical Assumptions

The five-step procedure for determining the meaning of a genuinely ambiguous text using extra-textual evidence hinges on the application of three criteria for eliminating false interpretations:

  1. Is the pre-understanding which underlies a proposed interpretation in contradiction to the pre-understanding which underlies the valid interpretation of an unambiguous biblical text?
  2. Is the pre-understanding which underlies a proposed interpretation in contradiction to the coherent worldview of the Bible taken as a whole?
  3. Is the pre-understanding which underlies a proposed interpretation in contradiction to a coherent understanding of reality derived by sound rational inference from life experience?

The application of these three criteria is justified in the light of two important assumptions about truth and the biblical text which are implicit in our understanding of the Bible’s origin and authority:

1. The worldview which underlies every biblical text is one and the same coherent worldview.

2. The teaching of the Bible will always be perfectly congruent with the conclusions reached by soundly reasoned reflection on life experience.

Therefore, given that it is possible to reach the objective meaning of a genuinely ambiguous text, genuine ambiguity in the biblical text does not pose a significant problem. We must seek further for an explanation of the lack of consensus on the Bible’s meaning.

Is Apparent Ambiguity a Problem Today?

I would contend that apparent ambiguity is a serious problem today. Apparent ambiguity finally explains the wide disparity in our interpretations of the Bible.

The process of acquiring knowledge, as God himself designed that process to work, is an inherently conservative process. We do not readily permit our understanding of things to be completely overturned in favor of another way of looking at it. Consequently, my current pre-understanding at any given time is a forceful and decisive influence on my interpretation of all that I encounter, including the Bible. When this natural and appropriate function of the pre-understanding is combined with two unnatural realities, the pre-understanding becomes a nearly invincible force. The two unnatural realities are these: 1) a woefully low sensitivity to rational dissonance and textual resistance (i.e., an inability to recognize these when encountered), and 2) an unconscionably high tolerance for rational dissonance and textual resistance (i.e., a willingness to let these pass in the biblical interpretations I embrace, even when I do recognize them). When just such high tolerance and low sensitivity exist, the net result is that the already powerful influence which one’s pre-understanding has is amplified many times over and is turned into an irresistible influence over one’s interpretative decisions.

Unfortunately this high tolerance and low sensitivity are widespread among aspiring Bible students today. Consequently, it is commonplace to find a Bible student’s pre-understanding absolutely determinative of his interpretive conclusions. What he finds in the Bible is never anything more than a mirror of his prior theological convictions. Hence, we find ourselves in a situation where there are as many different interpretations of a Biblical text as there are interpreters interpreting it. Since our interpretations do little more than reflect our own pre-understanding, our interpretations of the Bible are as unique and idiosyncratic as the pre-understandings which spawn them.

This high tolerance of and low sensitivity to rational dissonance and textual resistance also result in our common perception that the Bible is highly ambiguous. In the terms defined above, this is apparent ambiguity, not genuine ambiguity. Nevertheless, people view the Bible as having no clear, determinate meaning. Most of us could list numerous biblical texts where our own preferred interpretation of the text seems no more plausible than some rival interpretation. My basis for choosing the one over the other is only some intuitive sense that mine is right. I have no idea where the intuition comes from. Wanting to be humble, open, and fair-minded, I am tempted to think that both interpretations must be valid. In other words, I conclude that the text is ambiguous—without a definite, determinative meaning.

This apparent ambiguity of the Bible has three negative effects on the modern Bible student: He will succumb to dogmatism, relativism, or skepticism. Confronted by the fact that his interpretation is no more plausible than a rival interpretation, and confronted by this phenomenon in text after text, the modern Bible student is likely to respond in one of three ways:

  1. He will dogmatically hold to the validity of his interpretation of the text even though he himself acknowledges the ultimate arbitrariness of his preference. He has no rational basis for preferring his interpretation to any rival interpretation. Such dogmatism is morally reprehensible.
  2. He will conclude that the biblical text is amenable to any number of different interpretations (perhaps even to contradictory interpretations) and will conclude that all of them are equally valid. Because he assumes that each interpreter is attracted to the interpretation most “personally meaningful” at the time, he deems it appropriate that two different people embrace two different interpretations of the same text at the same time. That’s what the Bible is for—to be all things to all men. This relativization and subjectivization of the biblical text is naive; and it completely undermines the objective authority of the Bible.
  3. He will become completely disillusioned and conclude that the Bible has no determinative meaning at all. Hence, the Bible is worthless and irrelevant to us, for it has nothing definitive to say. This skeptical response is tragically wrong. The Bible does have something definitive to say.

If we cannot discern the single, unified, universal message of the Bible, the fault does not lie in the biblical text, but in us, the interpreters. It is our lack of character, skill, and discipline which has closed the Bible to us and sealed its message.[45] If we regret this loss (as we should), the appropriate response is to strive to recover that character and skill which is required. Only by acquiring the necessary skill and disposition can we hear the Bible speak to us decisively once again. Neither skepticism, relativism, nor dogmatism is an appropriate response to the present situation. We must respond with the hard work and discipline necessary to train ourselves to hear.

The Contribution of this Book

A fundamental purpose of this book is to point the reader in the direction of acquiring the needed interpretive skill. Interpretive skill, like any skill, cannot be taught in a book. It must be self-taught in the course of on-hands experience. But biblical interpretation is a skill which relies heavily on knowledge, information, and theory. By imparting the appropriate knowledge and information and by presenting a sound theory, one can prepare a seedbed out of which interpretive skill can grow. This is the contribution we hope to make through this book. We want to lay the groundwork for your developing your interpretive skill by 1) defending a sound theory of biblical interpretation (one which will not mislead you by confusing the issues and eclipsing your awareness of what is important and needed), 2) describing the process in a way that can give you a “feel” for sound, skillful interpretive practice, and 3) giving you information that will be useful to you in the course of developing that skill.

How Did We Get Here?

How did we get to where we are today? Why, after all these years of treasuring the Bible, are Christians totally incapable of understanding it? A large share of the blame, I think, rests on a fateful historical decision which has been ratified by every subsequent generation of Christians up to the present—a decision to abandon the hermeneutic of biblical authority in favor of the hermeneutic of orthodoxy. Under the hermeneutic of orthodoxy, skillful exegesis of the biblical text is not only superfluous, it is dangerous. It can lead to heresy. What is needed is responsible, orthodox exegesis. The hermeneutic of orthodoxy did nothing to encourage the development of interpretive skill. Instead, it suppressed it. Consequently, such skill has lain dormant, unused, and undeveloped for centuries.[46] The Reformation was a temporary exception. A whole generation returned briefly to the hermeneutic of biblical authority and changed history in the process. But subsequent generations of Protestants quickly returned to the hermeneutic of orthodoxy, having traded one brand of orthodoxy for another.[47]

What Should Be Done?

Are we, the community of believers, interested in working together toward a consensus on the one authoritative meaning of the biblical text? If so, we must return to the hermeneutic of biblical authority, practice it, and train ourselves in those critical skills necessary to understand the Bible. Furthermore, we need to get beyond orthodoxy as a way of life. We Christians, of all people, should place our love in the truth itself rather than the currently accepted standard of truth in my denomination.

There is no guarantee even then that a consensus is ultimately within reach. The Bible is a difficult book—too difficult for any one generation to unravel within its lifetime. But in theory a consensus is possible; and certainly great strides toward that consensus is possible. We have seen times in history where great strides have been made—the Reformation being the most shining example There is no good reason why we could not take up where they left off and press further.

All the practical problems aside, the nature of the authoritative biblical message is of such a genuinely objective nature that, in principle, it is possible for all skilled, conscientious, and sincere interpreters to agree on its meaning. The reason no such consensus is reality is not the fault of God’s revelation; it is the fault of us, the interpreters:

Anything that I, as an individual, can do to make myself a skilled interpreter of God’s word is a responsible and faithful response to the possession of this unique book.

We are poised at a critical moment in human history. On the one hand we have many advantages. The computer is putting at our fingertips more information about the biblical world and biblical languages than has ever been available to Bible students before. We are benefactors of great and rich theological traditions which have taught us much that is true about the message of God’s word. By standing on the shoulders of the reformers and other great Bible students of the past, we have a greater opportunity than ever before to get a clear and unconfused picture of the meaning of God’s revelation.

On the other hand, all the momentum is in the opposite direction. The momentum is against the hermeneutic of biblical authority and away from the hard work necessary to develop the needed interpretive skill and discipline. The “McDonald’s” generation is refusing to believe that God would make it any other way than easy. If God has revealed his word in the Bible, then it is there quick and easy. No work, no sweat, no expertise is required. One quick, casual reading should get us God’s word.

We are at a crossroads. What we decide today will (short of miraculous intervention) determine the fate of the Christian faith for the next several generations, perhaps for the rest of human history. The question is this: will we take the Bible seriously enough to desire a true understanding of it? It is time to stop defending the Bible and to start studying it.

 

Appendix: Resisting the Influence of our Pre-understanding

We have seen how our pre-understanding (as valuable, positive, and inevitable as its influence usually is) can lead us astray. How can we work with our pre-understanding so as to minimize its potentially negative influence? The answer, I think, involves three practical steps:

  1. Every aspiring Bible student must make himself fully aware of all the various sources which work to unconsciously form his pre-understanding.
  2. Every aspiring Bible student must make himself fully aware of the full extent to which his pre-understanding influences his interpretation of the biblical text.
  3. Every aspiring Bible student must strive to develop qualities which counteract the seductive power of his pre-understanding.

I will elaborate on each of these in turn.

The Sources of our Pre-Understanding

A large variety of factors, in combination with one another, shape our pre-understanding. Here are some of the more important ones:

Theological Tradition

The theological tradition in which one has been trained is a very important factor in forming one’s pre-understanding. Whether the training has come from one’s parents, one’s church, one’s network of friends, or one’s schooling, the understanding of the Bible and the Christian faith in which one has been trained is the starting-point for one’s theological musings. I simply assume that the way my tradition sees it is the way it really is. I may not even be aware that there are alternatives.

Philosophical Tradition

Exactly the same thing can be said about the philosophical tradition in which one has been trained. Contrary to popular opinion, 1) everyone has received a basic training in important philosophical questions, and 2) the answers given to these philosophical questions are very influential in one’s interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, one’s pre-understanding is formed in part by the kind of philosophical tradition in which one has been trained.

Intellectual Currents

Certain intellectual currents, like fashions in clothing, are particularly influential at any given time of history. Intellectual currents (whether theological or philosophical) become part of the spirit of an age. Every Bible interpreter is prone to absorb those intellectual trends which happen to be fashionable at the time. When this happens, these intellectual trends become an important component of that interpreter’s pre-understanding.

Cultural Realities

Cultural realities are a very important contributor to the Bible student’s pre-understanding. The bare fact that the methods, institutions, technology, and worldview of my culture are the realities of that culture, combined with the fact that it is the only cultural reality I know, creates the psychological impression that my cultural realities are the only reality. If my cultural reality is so unmistakably real to me, it is easy to assume that my cultural reality is everyone’s reality (including the original readers and writers of the Bible). Consequently, my understanding of life and reality in my culture informs my pre-understanding of life and reality for everyone everywhere.

Personal Prejudices

Finally, personal prejudices—whatever their source—are an important component of one’s pre-understanding. If, independent of a living tradition, I have a value or a perspective on reality to which I am committed, then that will be an important aspect of my pre-understanding.


By being aware of all the different forces by which our pre-understanding can be shaped, we can be on our guard against beliefs which we have accepted uncritically. If I know why I have embraced a particular belief, I can reconsider whether I ought to embrace it. I can ask whether I have accepted it on adequate grounds. By being in a position to rethink my commitments in such a way, my pre-understanding is not so immovable. If I can gain control of my pre-understanding, then it does not control me. I am no longer a passive victim of my training and environment. If I am in a position to alter my pre-understanding, then I can do so in the light of what I see in the Scriptures.

Therefore, it is not a foregone conclusion that I will shape my biblical interpretation to fit my pre-understanding. I may actually shape my pre-understanding to fit the needs of my biblical interpretation. If I can get myself in a position to do so, I can guard against the uncritical acceptance of biblical interpretations which are informed by a faulty pre-understanding. For this reason, every aspiring Bible student must be ready to evaluate any and every belief which has been inherited from the theological or philosophical tradition he has been trained in, absorbed from his culture, or formed on the basis of unique subjective experiences.

The Extent of our Pre-Understanding’s Influence

The second step in counteracting the potential for negative influence from our pre-understanding is to realize the extent of its influence. It can affect one’s views on everything from the meaning of a word to the appropriate theological method. Here is a list of the more important aspects of Bible study affected by one’s pre-understanding:

Word Meanings (in English or in Greek)

Consider a word like dikaios>uny (justification). Many Christian traditions have worked out a particular way of understanding what this word means. Consequently, anyone raised in that tradition will enter into the interpretive task with a ready-made answer as to what the word “justification” means and what its implications are. If the tradition happens to be wrong, then a pre-understanding informed by that tradition will lead one astray.

Syntax (in English or in Greek)

Consider a syntactical phenomenon like the Greek aorist tense. A very popular misconception that has circulated among Bible teachers for years is the notion that the Greek aorist indicates an event that occurs once, not to be repeated —i.e., an event that happens once and for all. If one has been taught this perspective on the aorist tense, then one’s pre-understanding will lead him astray. This is an utterly wrong notion about the significance of the aorist tense.

The Meaning of a Verse

Christian traditions often pass down standardized interpretations of certain proof-texts. If one, by his tradition or training, is pre-disposed to understand a particular verse in a particular way, and if that tradition has misinterpreted the verse, then his pre-understanding has led him astray.

The Argument or Structure of a Book (or passage)

Traditional understandings of the structure of a biblical book or passage can sometimes develop. In my earlier years, for example, I learned from many different sources the literary structure of the book of Romans: the first section addressed the question of justification, the second the question of sanctification, and the third the question of glorification. In subsequent years I learned how utterly wrong and misleading such an understanding of its structure was. So long as I had uncritically accepted that outline of the book, my understanding of the book and its argument was skewed in a wrong direction.

A Theological or Biblical Concept

Take, for example, the concept of Jesus’ “sonship.” What does it mean for Jesus to be the “Son of God”? It would be a rare Christian who opens his Bible without a prior notion of what is being claimed in the title “Son of God”. If one’s pre-understanding of this concept corresponds to what the biblical authors actually meant by it, great. If not, then one’s pre-understanding is not a help, but a hindrance to true understanding.

Doctrine

This is perhaps too obvious to mention. When we think of a Christian tradition, one of the first things we envision is a set of doctrines. Second-hand theology is, for the most part, a great boon to the interpreter. It gives him a grid which allows him to process what he is gleaning from his Bible study. The extent to which it is helpful, however, ultimately depends on the extent to which it is accurate. If my tradition is filled with doctrines which are not consistent with the Bible’s actual teaching, then my tradition will tend to sabotage my efforts to come to an accurate understanding of the Scriptures.

Methods of Interpretation & Philosophy of Language

The kinds of arguments one is likely to use in defending his interpretation of the Bible are often a function of one’s training. One learns, in the context of his own tradition, which kinds of arguments are persuasive to his peers and which are not. Consequently, one comes to the task of interpretation with a pre-understanding of what are and are not valid reasons for adopting a particular interpretation. Implicit within what one considers to be valid reasons for adopting an interpretation is a particular philosophy of language. Hence, included in one’s pre-understanding is a particular philosophy of language[48] which he has absorbed unconsciously from his previous training and experience. If one’s pre-understanding happens to include fallacious interpretive methods and exclude sound methods, it would once again sabotage one’s efforts to reach a correct understanding of the Bible.

Theological Method

Even if one has a correct understanding of interpretation, he may have an incorrect notion as to how to form doctrinal conclusions on the basis of the text. One may rightly understand the passage in I Corinthians 11 to mean that Paul is forbidding the first-century Corinthian women to pray or prophesy without a head covering. Yet, he may be mistaken in thinking that the Bible, thereby, teaches women in every time and place to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy. The way one makes such decisions—i.e., decisions as to what the Bible is actually teaching as universal truth—is usually taught to one by the community of Christians which has trained him in the faith. It is often a part of one’s pre-understanding. One must take great care, therefore, to critically appraise his theological method. Do I embrace the theological method I do because it is reasonable and valid? Or do I embrace it because I have unconsciously absorbed it in the course of my training? The pre-understanding has a negative affect if an unreasonable and invalid theological method has been absorbed unconsciously through one’s training.

Counteracting the Potential for a Negative Affect: Essential Qualities

The last and most important step toward ensuring that our pre-understanding does not hinder us from reaching a true understanding of the Bible is to develop three important qualities: intellectual integrity, interpretive skill, and intellectual discipline.

(1) Intellectual Integrity

Intellectual integrity involves the moral character to embrace truth at all costs. All too often other considerations are allowed to carry more weight than the question, “Is it true?” Too often, we would rather believe what is comfortable, desirable, expedient, political, or profitable than what is true. This is particularly a problem in our quest to understand the Bible. In the midst of a Christian community, it is often acceptance by the group rather than truth which determines what I will believe.

In addition to simple peer pressure, we all feel that perverse attraction to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is comfortable and secure whereas openness to truth is frightening. Orthodoxy is comfortable, for in orthodoxy it is a foregone conclusion that my beliefs are right. But if I am committed to following truth, even at the cost of becoming heretical, then I experience none of the security which orthodoxy has to offer.

Orthodoxy is a conspiracy, a secret compact. It works because of a mutual agreement among the orthodox: “If you will tell me that I am right to believe what we do, then I will tell you that you are right to believe what you do, and neither of us will have to face the frightening possibility that we might actually be wrong.”

But the way of orthodoxy is not the way of biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity is a way of reason and truth, of discovery and growth, and of failure and sin. The point of biblical Christianity is not that I am now perfect in character and understanding, but that I will be perfect in character and understanding one day. In the meantime, I struggle and fail—both in my actions and in my understanding. The security of the biblical Christian is not the false security which comes from the illusion of perfect understanding, it is the security of knowing that I am in God’s hands. He has promised me life and understanding. If I lack it right now, yet I am even now progressing toward it. If I am to achieve it, then I must move and change .

To get stuck in a static orthodoxy can only work at cross purposes to God’s leading me into true knowledge. As sinners, we are rebels against the truth by nature. Our restoration to true understanding is not so easily attained as by our simply subscribing to an orthodox creed—one which has itself been hammered out by rebels against truth. It makes no sense to think that it is. Restoration to truth is a slow and hard-fought process which spans the whole length of our spiritual maturation.

Orthodoxy, therefore, is not the guardian of truth that it pretends to be. It is a cheap counterfeit for truth that stunts our intellectual growth and thwarts our own deepest desires. It is an idol, a drug, which sidetracks us from our first responsibility. As creatures who have entrusted ourselves to the God of Truth, we must, first and foremost, desire to embrace only what is true even if it is not orthodox.

The tragedy is this: there are believers today that, if given a clear and unmistakable choice between embracing what is true and embracing what is perceived by them to be orthodox, would choose orthodoxy over truth. This ought not be!

Two Hallmarks of Intellectual Integrity:

When it comes to biblical interpretation, I have already highlighted two important hallmarks of intellectual integrity. The Bible student with intellectual integrity will have 1) a low tolerance for rational dissonance, and 2) a low tolerance for textual resistance.

The Bible student with intellectual integrity will not let illogical and contradictory doctrines or biblical interpretations pass. He recognizes that in God’s creation, the God of Reason (ho logoq), has so constructed human knowing that rationality is a hallmark of truth. To be committed to what is true, therefore, is to be committed to what is rational. He realizes that it is morally reprehensible to embrace something he knows to be illogical or contradictory. The modern habit Christians have adopted of justifying the logical inconsistency in their theology and biblical interpretation by appealing to the mysterious nature of God and truth[49] and asserting that logic and reason do not apply when it comes to divine truths is not only absurd, but perverse and diabolical. As others have pointed out, if we abandon reason, we are abandoning truth. And to abandon truth is to rebel against God.

Similarly, the Bible student with intellectual integrity will not let an interpretation of the Bible pass which has obviously been forced onto the text and does not construe it in a manner which is “natural” to the language of the text. He recognizes the potential for making a text say anything one wants it to say if one allows enough “force” to be used. If the question is a question of what the Bible was actually intended to say (rather than what I can manage to force the Bible to say), then the only responsible way to interpret it involves rejecting all “forced” interpretations.

The issue of what exactly is and is not a “forced” interpretation is, of course, a difficult one to answer. In many respects, the whole point of this book is to begin to answer that question. In the final analysis, however, being able to recognize whether an interpretation is “natural” or “forced” is a skill which must be learned. It is a skill which can only be learned through practice and experience. This brings us to the second vital quality for the Bible student—interpretive skill.

(2) Interpretive Skill

Interpretive skill, as I have already mentioned, is primarily the ability to discern 1) when a proposed interpretation is being resisted by the text, and 2) when a proposed interpretation (or conclusion of theological reasoning) is being resisted by sound reason. A skilled interpreter will have a high sensitivity to textual resistance and to rational dissonance—i.e., he will have a finely-tuned sense for detecting their presence. Lying behind such skill, implicitly, is a sound working understanding of logic and semantics. A working understanding of semantics is essential to the ability to discern textual resistance, while a working understanding of logic is essential to the ability to discern rational dissonance.

(3) Intellectual Discipline

If one is lazy, having intellectual integrity and interpretive skill are of little value. It takes hard, thorough work to guarantee that one’s understanding of the Bible is the true one. A good Bible interpreter manifests intellectual discipline. Intellectual discipline is an uncompromising commitment to being thorough in one’s research and deliberations, to being careful to employ sound interpretive and theological methods, to being critical of one’s own reasonings and conclusions, to being self-conscious of one’s own pre-understanding so far as it is possible, and to being diligent. Intellectual discipline refuses to take short-cuts where there is any danger that they might prove misleading. In short, intellectual discipline is the quality of being conscientious to do the best job of interpretation one can in accordance with sound, rational principles of interpretation.

These three qualities, then, are absolutely essential to sound biblical interpretation. We sorely need Bible interpreters today who evidence all three. Without them, all of our Bible interpretation will be little more than a reflection of our own pre-understandings.

 


Footnotes

[1] At least, it would appear that such a fundamental difference exists. Sometimes after the positions of each side have been qualified with a list of disclaimers it is difficult to know whether any real differences remain. For our purpose here, I will assume that a real difference does exist along the lines mentioned here. (Back to text)

[2] The pliability of the Bible’s meaning is a favorite weapon of the unbeliever in his intellectual attack against biblical Christianity. Biblical Christianity is defined by its insistence that one’s entire life be directed by and conform to the objective teaching of the Bible. But if experience shows that the Bible has no objective teaching, then there can be no such thing as biblical Christianity. Every different group of Bible-believing Christians will have a different interpretation of the standards of Christian living. Of whose version of the “truth of the Bible” is the unbeliever to be persuaded? In the light of so many conflicting versions of “absolute truth,” it seems easier to the unbeliever to simply conclude that biblical truth is an illusion. There is no absolute truth objectively revealed in the Bible. All we have is a vague, ambiguous book with hundreds of different theological traditions which all claim the Bible as their justification. The Bible does not shape what each tradition believes. Rather, what each tradition believes shapes how that tradition will understand the Bible. So ascribing authority to the Bible is ultimately just a pretense—a way to invoke divine authority for one’s own beliefs. The real authority lies in the tradition itself. The extent to which the unbeliever is right in these sentiments will be discussed throughout the course of this chapter. (Back to text)

[3] That being the case, I must not fail to see that if other’s personal inadequacies may exist without being obvious, then my own may exist without being obvious as well. Just because my interpretive conclusions appear to be unflawed does not make them so. (Back to text)

[4] The label is in some respects an unfortunate one and can be somewhat confusing. I use it simply because, in theological and philosophical circles, it has become the conventional way of denoting the set of those beliefs which one takes with him into the interpretive task. (Back to text)

[5] As an illustration of this, note the utter absurdity of answering the question “Why do you believe that?” with “Oh, because I doubt if it is true!” (Back to text)

[6] Obviously, no one knows with any certainty what the newborn infant’s perceptual experience actually is like. None of us remember it, and no newborn infant is in a position to report on his experience. Consequently, my description here is clearly speculative. As speculations go, however, I think it is a reasonable and plausible one. (Back to text)

[7] It is important that the reader not get distracted by the absurdity of this little thought experiment. This is not a serious suggestion as to what an infant actually experiences. Obviously, an infant who begins with no knowledge whatsoever is not going to have any thoughts running through his mind. Putting thoughts in this infant’s mind is simply a literary device to show what logically must follow from the total absence of knowledge. I am not suggesting that any such thought processes actually occur or would actually occur under the stated conditions. Any such “reasoning” which does actually occur must occur at an unconscious, inarticulate level and will not occur in the form of articulate thought. (Back to text)

[8] Read-Only-Memory (ROM) is the permanent unalterable memory built into a computer. It is information built into the very physical structure of the machine. ROM is accessed and used by the computer, but unlike RAM (Random-Access-Memory, the computer memory which stores user data) it cannot be changed, altered, or erased by the computer during its normal operations. (Back to text)

[9] This applies only to the committed atheist—to one who is not at all open to theism. My point is this: if one is not open to theism to begin with, then the resurrection will be of little or no value in convincing him of theism, for he would rather change his views on anything else (rules of evidence, for example) before capitulating to theism. If the atheist in question is not really a committed atheist, then, of course, the resurrection can have significant value in challenging his atheistic perspective. (Back to text)

[10] To simplify things I speak of a Catholic interpretation and of a Protestant one. It is probably obvious that there are, in fact, various different Protestant interpretations as undoubtedly there are various different Catholic ones. (Back to text)

[11] I.e., it is an authoritative understanding precisely because it is a divinely-inspired understanding. (Back to text)

[12] The difference here may seem subtle but is nonetheless critical. For the Protestant, Peter’s authority pertains only insofar as he speaks in harmony with his inspired understanding. If he were, for some strange reason, to speak in contradiction to his inspired understanding, his words would have no authority. For the Catholic, Peter’s authority pertains as long as he speaks out of his office as pope. So long as he is speaking as Christ’s representative, it would make no difference what the content of his declaration might be, it would be authoritative. According to the Protestant, Peter must say, with Paul, “if I should preach a gospel other than the one we apostles already preached to you, let me be accursed.” (cf. Galatians 1:8) But to the Catholic, Peter could not say that. Peter, as Pope, has the authority, in principle, to rescind any aspect of the apostolic teaching he wants to when he speaks out of the authority of his office. (Back to text)

[13] As we will see later, we are not hopelessly locked into the interpretation which our pre-understanding suggests. But the influence of our pre-understanding is so compelling that it takes a concerted and disciplined effort to interpret contrary to its influence. In the absence of such an effort, our pre-understanding is determinative. (Back to text)

[14] The term “pre-understanding” as I use it in the remainder of this chapter must be slightly qualified. Until now, I have spoken of the pre-understanding of the biblical author as everything the biblical author believed as he undertakes the writing of the biblical text. But from now on I will narrow the meaning slightly. The pre-understanding of the biblical author is to be understood as everything the biblical author believed which had any significant impact on the intended meaning of the biblical text he composed. The biblical author may very well have known that he was out of olive oil at the time he was writing his text while that knowledge had no consequence for the intended meaning of his text. The interpreter, to understand the biblical author’s text, need not reconstruct the entirety of the biblical author’s pre-understanding (as previously defined). For example, he need not come to the realization that the author was out of olive oil. He need only reconstruct that portion of the author’s pre-understanding which is relevant to and had an impact on the objective meaning of the text. From now on, when I refer to the biblical author’s pre-understanding, this is what I have in mind: that portion of the author’s pre-understanding which was relevant to the objective meaning of his text. (Back to text)

[15] More accurately, that portion of his pre-understanding which is relevant to the meaning of what he wrote. Cf. note above. (Back to text)

[16] By the ability to remain “open,” I mean the ability to empathize with another view of reality. To be “closed” would mean to be unwilling to empathize with another view of reality—i.e., to keep it at arm’s length and to keep it alien from oneself. Even if one were to imagine another view of reality, to be “closed” to it would be to keep from imagining oneself as holding that other view. If one remains “closed” to another pre-understanding, then he is indeed unable to interpret a biblical text in the light of it. But though human interpreters can be and often are closed to alien pre-understandings, they do not have to be. They have the intellectual ability and creative imagination to be “open.” To be “open,” it is not enough to remain “neutral” toward an alien pre-understanding. One cannot interpret a text in the light of some pre-understanding if one does not understand it sympathetically. One is automatically sympathetic with one’s own pre-understanding. Hence, the task of the modern interpreter is to acquire a sympathetic understanding of the biblical author’s pre-understanding. This task, as I am suggesting here, is within the reach of human intelligence and imagination. (Back to text)

[17] What one might identify as one’s first-order assumptions is not arbitrary. To be a first-order assumption, it must, in fact, be a beginning, foundational assumption behind all human reasoning. Hence, it must be an inevitable, undeniable assumption from which all human reasoning begins. It is not what is cited as foundational to human reasoning in someone’s theory of human reasoning; it is what is, in fact, foundational to human reasoning as it is actually practiced. In other words, when men are not self-conscious of their reasonings and are simply doing them, what do they, in fact, take for granted as true in order to even reason at all? (Back to text)

[18] I.e., these are incapable of being justified by logical reasoning from prior beliefs. They are however “justified” in another sense. They are justified by virtue of their being absolutely necessary for reasoning itself. To reject these first-order assumptions is to reject the possibility of reason itself. To do that is totally unjustified! Our experience as human beings amply demonstrates both the necessity and the reliability of sound reasoning and the first-order commonsensical assumptions upon which it is grounded. (Back to text)

[19] How can we reconcile the fact that such assumptions are “built into the very structure of human intelligence by God himself” with the fact that skeptics can reject such assumptions? If a skeptic can reject it, then how can it be said to be “built-in”? There is no real conflict, for skeptics do not and cannot really reject the foundational assumptions. Skepticism rejects the foundational assumptions at the level of theoretical speculation, but that is the only level at which they are rejected. When it comes to living in reality, no skeptic can even begin to successfully reject the foundational assumptions of intelligence. He is forced to make them in practice in spite of himself. For this reason, this point is closely related to the earlier point that skepticism is insincere. (Back to text)

[20] Skepticism is both totally devastating and yet very compelling to people at the same time. This explains why this is so. Skepticism seems compelling because of a kind of philosophical sleight-of-hand. It makes an argument which is perfectly legitimate when applied in one context and transports it to a completely different context where it no longer applies. Specifically, it argues that one cannot legitimately embrace a belief which is incapable of rational justification. Since the first-order beliefs which skepticism targets are, by their very nature, incapable of rational justification, this is a devastating attack. But the fallacy in this skeptical position is its failure to notice that the principle being applied does not apply in the context of first-order beliefs. It is true of all other beliefs that they should not be embraced if they cannot be rationally justified. But this is simply not true of first-order beliefs. It is legitimate to embrace first-order beliefs given us by God precisely because it would be an outrage against our own intelligence and a rebellion against my own created being not to. One who is not wary and fails to notice that first-order beliefs are an important exception to the principle to which skepticism appeals will find skepticism seductively appealing. (Back to text)

[21] Sometimes I can find such information in another biblical or extra-biblical text which is equally in need of interpretation (and, hence, which is equally in need of a prior understanding of the author’s pre-understanding in order to interpret it.) (Back to text)

[22] “Hermeneutics” is a term used to describe a theory of the principles of interpretation. “Biblical Hermeneutics,” therefore, would designate a theory of the principles of biblical interpretation. Hermeneutics is the theory for which interpretation is the practice. (Back to text)

[23] The “hermeneutical circle” is a term commonly used in modern discussions of biblical (and other) hermeneutics. Unfortunately it is not always used to refer to exactly the same problem or phenomenon. When I use the term, it will always be used with reference to this particular problem. It is referred to as the hermeneutical circle because it is that circle into which one must gain entry if he is to ever interpret a biblical passage. It is referred to as the hermeneutical circle because it involves an impasse which results from the need to find answers to a pair of questions whose answers are dependent upon one another in a logically circular fashion. (Back to text)

[24] I discuss these various theoretical approaches to biblical hermeneutics below. Cf. section entitled “The Hermeneutic of Biblical Authority.” (Back to text)

[25] For a full defense of this see the prior discussion of skepticism. (Back to text)

[26] Cf. Polanyi, Michael, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Harper & Row, New York, 1964, Harper Torchbook Edition), pp. 78-80 for a discussion of this. (Back to text)

[27] One must keep in mind the narrower sense of the biblical author’s pre-understanding which is in view here. Strictly speaking, what I am attempting to reconstruct is the biblical author’s pre-understanding insofar as it has influenced his intended meaning in the text I am interpreting. Any other aspect of his pre-understanding need not concern me. (Back to text)

[28] In most cases, this is not a particularly self-conscious process. It usually happens without the interpreter even being aware that it is happening. To the extent that this process can be made conscious there are important things to be said about this step. The purpose of Chapter 3 is essentially to explore this step in more depth. (Back to text)

[29] Assuming, of course, that his pre-understanding is a plausible one to begin with. (Back to text)

[30] And this, as we have seen, is when it encounters the least textual resistance. (Back to text)

[31] I am using “plausible” in a specific sense here. There are undoubtedly other kinds of “plausibility” besides the kind I am discussing here, but they are not presently of concern to me. (Back to text)

[32] My use of “hermeneutic” in this section needs to be explained. Earlier I defined “hermeneutics” as the theory of interpretation. In this book, we assume that interpretation is the task of grasping the author’s intended meaning of a text. We distinguish biblical interpretation (so defined) from the task of building a theology and from the task of applying that theology. We view the three as distinct sub-tasks within the larger task of Bible study. Many approaches to Bible study, however, are philosophically opposed to making this distinction between 1) interpretation (finding the author’s intent), 2) building one’s theology, and 3) applying that theology in one’s own context. Consequently, whereas for us “interpretation” is but one distinct aspect of the Bible study process, these others are prone to consider “interpretation” to be the larger overall task of what we would call Bible study—i.e., “interpretation” is the whole process whereby one decides what the Bible implies for his own personal situation. Consequently, for these people, hermeneutics (being the theory of “interpretation”) is the theory of those principles for deciding what the Bible means to me in my situation. It is not (as for us) the theory of those principles for deciding the intent of the biblical author. Consequently, there is confusion in what the word “hermeneutics” denotes. In the narrower sense, it can denote the principles for deciding the intent of the biblical author. In the broader sense, it can denote the theory as to how one comes to understand what the Bible is saying to me in my present situation. In this section, I speak of “hermeneutics” in this broader sense, whereas, throughout the major portion of the book, we are concerned with “hermeneutics” in the narrower sense (for reasons which should become clear in the argument of this section). I have tried to faithfully distinguish the broader sense from the narrower sense by using the singular “hermeneutic” when I mean it in the broader sense, and the plural “hermeneutics” when I mean it in the narrower sense. (Back to text)

[33] This sort of limited, focused neutrality is both possible and desirable at times. (Back to text)

[34] By calling it the traditional view I am suggesting that the Protestant view of authority, in contrast to the Catholic one, was not a novel view of authority, but a return to an original, apostolic view of Biblical authority. The Catholic view which had interposed itself was the novel view—one which was logically necessitated by the hermeneutic of orthodoxy which had been adopted. (Back to text)

[35] This is a somewhat controversial claim. There are those modern scholars who would take issue with this being the goal of interpretation. Nevertheless, in our view authorial intent, being the only possible goal of biblical interpretation, is also the most reasonable and natural goal in the interpretation of other literature. Cf. Hirsch, E.D., Jr., Validity in Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1967). (Back to text)

[36] So, for example, Plato may ask an important question which I have never thought to ask. His answer may be transparently wrong and, therefore, unhelpful; but he has nevertheless helped me by teaching me that there is a question which needs to be answered. At another time, Plato’s answer itself may be right. I do not believe it is right simply on the grounds that Plato said it. But I can have independent reasons for being compelled by Plato’s answer. Finally, Plato may simply express some insight which, because it corresponds to an insight I have already had, I know to be true. In such a case, what I am reading will immediately ring true. “Yes! That’s right, Plato. I’ve thought that, too. Only you’ve said it so much better and more clearly than I ever could.” (Back to text)

[37] But, of course, it does not alter the method of determining the author’s intent. I am not suggesting that the hermeneutic of dialogue involves a different approach to discovering the author’s intent from that utilized in the hermeneutic of biblical authority. It does not (at least, it should not). There is but one approach to discovering the author’s intent—the one outlined in this book—whether the author is Plato or the apostle Paul. The difference between the hermeneutic of dialogue and the hermeneutic of biblical authority is their different perspective on the value, importance, and urgency of reaching the author’s intended meaning. (Back to text)

[38] Many educated Bible students today are claiming that they can reconcile a belief in biblical authority with a hermeneutic of dialogue. Taking their lead from the Hegelian philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (esp. his book Truth and Method), they define the “meaning” of the Bible as that understanding which emerges from my dialogue or conversation with the biblical text. Since the meaning of the Bible is what is divinely authoritative and inspired, the locus of inspiration and authority, then, must be this “meaning” which emerges as I dialogue with the text. This view is, of course, theoretically possible. But in this view, the locus of authority is not the biblical text per se. It is the subjective revelation which results from my interaction with the text. Consequently, disguised though it is by its high level of sophistication, this view is really just a more refined version of the hermeneutic of subjectivity which I have already criticized above. (Back to text)

[39] At least, I am not aware of any relevant discoveries on the nature of this practice. (Back to text)

[40] Granted, a text may be obscure to me because my personal knowledge of the necessary background is lacking. But a genuinely obscure text is one where the background knowledge essential to making sense out of it does not exist anywhere in modern knowledge. It is not simply a matter of me, the interpreter, lacking the knowledge. No source in contemporary culture has the knowledge. Most biblical texts, though they often present difficult interpretive challenges, are not genuinely obscure in this sense. (Back to text)

[41] In the case of a biblical text which is not ambiguous, this is precisely what does happen. The text does eliminate all untrue interpretations and the pre-understandings which underlie them. (Back to text)

[42] In fact, it is equally problematic to assume that you could use the pre-understanding reflected in one of my written works (written during one part of my life) to better understand a work written during another part of my life. People change their minds. Hence, it would be presuming too much to assume that a human being, in the normal case, must necessarily reflect the same view of reality in everything he writes. (Back to text)

[43] Only on the basis of just such an assumption can my understanding of reality legitimately be said to be knowledge of reality. On any other assumption, my understanding of reality is just my subjective reconstruction imposed on reality. It does not discover what reality truly is, it creates reality after its own fashion. (Back to text)

[44] For some Christians today, the statement “The Bible is the only source of truth” has become a slogan. It is clearly misleading. Although it could capture an important truth—namely, that the Bible is the only authoritative and infallible teaching about reality—it usually is used to warn people against seeking to understand their experience using reason and commonsense. There are two obvious problems with this approach: 1) How do they, then, justify their implicit trust in their own reason and commonsense which they have when they are dealing with mundane matters which the Bible does not address? (e.g., how to tie one’s shoe), and 2) This view loses sight of the fact that they had to initially trust their reason and commonsense in order to come to grant absolute authority to the Bible in the first place. (And for that matter, in order to trust Christ in the first place.) (Back to text)

[45] Although this has always been the case to one degree or another, it has not always been true to the degree that it is today. There are certain periods of history (e.g., the Reformation) which should offer us hope. Although no period of history has seen the degree of unanimity that we would like to see, and no period of history has seen the necessary interpretive skills present on the wide scale that is needed, it does not follow that such unanimity and widespread interpretive skill is totally out of reach. Among other advantages, we are in the advantageous position of being able to build on the good interpretive work which has already been done during the Reformation and some of the other better periods of the history of the church. We do not have to remain so closed to the biblical message as we are today. With sufficient motivation, the Christian community can, on a large scale, be restored to the kind of character and skill necessary to once again hear the Bible and obey it. (Back to text)

[46] Obviously I am over-generalizing. Throughout history there have been some notable exceptions to the lack of practiced skill in interpretation. (Back to text)

[47] Admittedly, the newer orthodoxy was, for the most part, superior to the latter. (Back to text)

[48] It is not unusual for this philosophy of language to be strictly a philosophy of Biblical language—i.e., it is not unusual to find a Bible student working under the unconscious assumption that the biblical language is an utterly different sort of language than normal human language and, hence, operates according to a different set of rules. But this is wrong! The Bible is written in normal human language like anything else we read. (Back to text)

[49] There is indeed a valid sense in which God and divine truths are a mystery, but not in the sense that God is above and beyond reason. Contradiction and nonsense should never be exalted in the name of mystery. (Back to text)

Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree