Fundamentalism and Biblical Interpretation
This article is excerpted from a much longer paper that Ron wrote for McKenzie Study Center’s Oktoberfuss 2002: Fundamentalism in Perspective.
Generalizing about Christian fundamentalism can be dangerous; fundamentalism is a multifaceted movement with many contributors, so exceptions can often be found to any generalizations. Yet at least one thing seems safe to say: Christian fundamentalism is characterized by its approach to the Bible….
At the root of Christian fundamentalism is this basic stance toward the Bible: the Bible is true. To higher critics who argued that biblical texts were filled with mistakes, the fundamentalist response was, “No, the Bible is true.” To liberal theologians who claimed that biblical teaching concerning the atoning death and bodily resurrection of Christ was only figurative, the fundamentalists responded, “No, the Bible is true.” To those followers of Darwin who suggested that human beings came about through random processes and natural selection, the fundamentalists replied, “No, the Bible is true.” Fundamentalism became known for its commitment to inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is without errors. The fundamentalist commitment to the truth of the Bible is, from my perspective, the very best thing about fundamentalism. Inerrancy is at the heart of what is right with how fundamentalism reads the Bible; ironically, however, it is also indirectly responsible for some of what is wrong….
The double-edged sword of inerrancy
Unfortunately, knowing that the Scriptures tell the truth is only one of the things we have to get right in order to understand the Bible. A sailboat certainly needs a sail; if, however, a sailor puts up the sail but has no seacraft, the wind will likely catch the sail and knock the boat over. In the same way, the student of the Bible, after having rightly concluded that the Bible is a true revelation from God, needs to know how to read it. The mistake that much of fundamentalism has passed down to us is the idea that a divinely inspired book reads differently than other books. Any book, no matter how true it is, will lead you astray if you approach it with faulty assumptions, or if you read it carelessly, or if you draw illegitimate conclusions from the truths you find there. That is as true for the Bible as for any other book.
In their zeal to defend the inspiration of the Bible, however, fundamentalists have taught us to read the Bible as if it is divinely inspired truthfulness turned it into something different than a book. I am not saying that all fundamentalists would necessarily describe the Bible in that way, although some would. But practically speaking, in the way many fundamentalists approach the Bible, its unique truthfulness has given them license to run wild. In their secret hearts they seem to be saying, “The Bible is so true that I don’t have to interpret it.” “The Bible is so true that each word is not just meaningful; it is super-meaningful.” “The Bible is so true that my theology is unquestionably right.”
What is needed to complete the picture, to balance the equation, is the idea that, although the Bible is completely true, its truths are communicated in normal human language. That being the case, therefore, I need to read the Bible with the same care and set of skills I would need to read any other difficult text. I need to understand verses in context. I need to evaluate the presuppositions I bring to the text when I read it. I need to think about the language and background of the author and his readers. I need to take the truths I find there and build them into a coherent worldview that gives my life direction….
The fundamentalists rightly critiqued the presuppositions that led modernism to reject the truth of the Bible, while neglecting to critique their own presuppositions about how the Bible communicates, what its message is, and how we apply those truths….
[Ron makes seven distinctions “essential to understanding the Bible, distinctions which all too often seem to have been lost on the fundamentalist movement and its heirs.” The final two distinctions are included in this excerpt.]
Distinction: applying a verse versus applying a worldview
In response to liberal theology, which often saw nothing more specific in the Bible than a vague admonition to do good, fundamentalism rightly responded by emphasizing the need to take seriously the teachings of the Bible and to apply them to our lives. Unfortunately, the zeal for applying the Bible’s teaching has not been matched by a zeal for learning how to apply it. For whatever reasons, fundamentalism has fostered an “I’ve got a verse” mentality that has deeply oversimplified and distorted the process of moving from what the Bible says to how we should then live.
The example of how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees ought to show how problematic simplistic proof-texting can be. The Pharisees were the biblical literalists of their day; they, too, had verses to defend their teaching. In each case, Jesus’ response to them was, “Haven’t you read…?” The Pharisees could prove that they were supposed to keep the Sabbath. OK, Jesus responded, but haven’t you read about how David ate the showbread? Haven’t you read about how the priests actually work on the Sabbath? Haven’t you read about how God wants mercy and not sacrifice? The Pharisees had a verse that proved divorce was an acceptable part of the law. OK, Jesus responded, but haven’t you read Genesis? How can you understand what Moses taught about divorce if you haven’t understood what God created marriage to be?
In each case Jesus was teaching the Pharisees that one cannot just apply a verse; one has to apply the biblical worldview that emerges when he considers all the parts of the Bible together. (I owe the language “applying a verse” vs. “applying a worldview” to David Crabtree, who has incredibly insightful things to say about the process of application.) Jesus was telling them that divorce had its role to play in Israel, but they cannot understand that role without understanding other parts of the Bible. The Sabbath had a place in God’s plans, but they cannot understand that place without understanding more of God’s character and purposes.
In a way, I think that the tendency toward proof-texting and shallow application of the Bible is one of the worst legacies of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the only culprit in this regard, but it is regrettable that a movement noted for defending the truth of the Bible did so little to promote sound application of that truth.
Conclusion: the crucial distinction
In conclusion I want to make one more distinction, a distinction that is perhaps at the heart of everything I have been trying to say. Fundamentalism has failed to distinguish between the truth of the Bible and the truth of my Bible. By the Bible I mean the words the biblical authors actually wrote and the ideas they were trying to communicate; by my Bible I mean the Bible I have on my shelf and the ideas that come into my head when I read it. The distinction between those two Bibles is crucial, and the difference between them can be profound.
The distinction I am making arises from two different perceptions of the purpose of the Bible. Fundamentalists and I agree on the inerrancy of the Bible. But why do I need a Bible without errors? In practice at least, fundamentalists seem to have answered the question in this way: I need an infallible owner’s manual for life. How do I find blessing? How do I avoid sin? How do I prosper? How can my ministry succeed? When is Jesus coming back? In the Bible I have the pure, straight access to the truth about everything I want to know. Now as everyone knows, in order for an owner’s manual to be of any use, it has to be fairly straightforward and transparent. Anyone who has ever tried to put together an appliance using an owner’s manual written by a non-native speaker knows what I mean. If the knowledge I gain from the Bible is the key to finding blessing and power, then getting access to that knowledge had better be pretty easy.
In contrast to that picture, I think the Bible serves a very different sort of role in the life of believers. God’s prophets and apostles recorded for us a divinely inspired revelation of God’s eternal purposes. They told us the meaning of history and the choice that all human beings must make about whether they will return to their God and find eternal life or keep away from Him and find judgment and condemnation. Everything the Bible says is true, but by no means is all of it easy to understand. It paints a very big picture that is meant to sustain God’s people over thousands of years. You have heard of an all-day sucker; the Bible is like a two-thousand-year-old sucker that the church has been working on slowly and steadily. What the biblical authors said is absolutely true, but there are many barriers to understanding—many hurdles we have to overcome:
• Textual questions provide a hurdle: although we have very good manuscript evidence for the Bible, a number of decisions still must be made among variant readings in the existing texts.
• Translations are a hurdle; every translation of the Bible cannot help making many interpretive decisions, and sometimes those decisions are wrong.
• A very big hurdle is the fact that the text must be interpreted; the very fact that there is so much disagreement about what the Bible says shows how necessary it is that we make interpretive decisions about what it says.
• Even if we infallibly interpret every verse, we are still left with the big hurdle of applying what we find there. How do we take the various statements in the Bible and build a biblical worldview? How do we know what we are supposed to do?
My perception is that fundamentalism and its heirs have largely tried to minimize the magnitude of the job of biblical interpretation. If the Bible is my own personal owner’s manual, God must have put the blessings right there on the surface, where I can just grab them as needed. It is no accident that many fundamentalists are doctrinaire about the King James Bible, since their commitment to the King James sweeps away textual and translation problems. Textual problems? There are no textual problems; the King James alone uses the right Greek manuscripts. Translation problems? There are no translation problems. Unlike every other English translation, they argue, the King James is a straight Greek-to-English translation untainted by the translators’ interpretive impositions. Other problems are dealt with just as easily. Interpreting the Bible? That is not a problem. Many fundamentalists in my experience deny that the Bible should be interpreted at all. “Don’t interpret it, just read it,” they say. Others, while not going that far, still want to say that the meaning of texts is a straightforward, commonsensical affair, almost scientific. Just apply a few commonsense rules to the words on the page and the meaning will fall into your lap. Application? That’s the simplest thing of all. Just read what it says and do it.
Thus the very great truth that the Scriptures are without error seems to have taken on a new slant in fundamentalism. The legacy of fundamentalism, at least practically speaking, has been that we think that every word in our particular translation of the Bible is absolutely true; that every idea that comes into our head when we read our Bible is absolutely true; that our own theology, which amazingly enough we find every time we open our Bibles, is absolutely true. The doctrine of inerrancy, which ought to leave us trembling with the thought that our world is going to be shaken by the truths the Bible contains, instead comforts us with the notion that everything we already think is true.
Fundamentalism, in the end, is a movement that defended the Bible honorably and then taught us to read it poorly. When our fundamentalist forefathers tell us that the Bible is true, we need to listen; when they tell us what the Bible says, we would do well to look again for ourselves.
Copyright November 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.