Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Presuppositions and Biblical Interpretation

The comments by Chris Spinks to a recent post of mine and discussions in my PhD seminar on the history of NT research with Donald Hagner have prompted me to think about biblical interpretation and presuppositions. This is only going to be a small post in which I start thinking about this subject. With several new books on my shelf that might help hone my thinking on this subject, expect me to be blogging about this more and more.

So here are just some initial thoughts to get the cogs of my brain moving (and perhaps yours too!):

1. All of us have presuppositions. In line with postmodern thought, the idea of purely objective investigation of any sort is untenable.

2. We all need to admit our presuppositions openly. This means that we can't wait until we are pressed on an issue and then say "Well, that's because I am a Mennonite" or "That's because I'm a proponent of process theology" or "Of course it seems that way; I am a white, middle-class male after all." Wouldn't it be easier if we let people know up front?

3. Despite its elusiveness, we shouldn't give up the task of trying to find out what Paul or John or Matthew or even Jesus intended. Theoretically, Chris is right, if we were to find this intention then the historical-critical method would be kaput. But with new discoveries, new technologies, and new historical methods this isn't likely to happen.

4. Lastly, perhaps we should consciously try to read the text against our presuppositions and traditions. This could help prevent us from making Paul or Jesus sound exactly like us and instead may help each of us see past our own fields of vision.

So where should I start? Perhaps I'll take my own advice and admit some of my presuppositions here. I am a Christian who tends to be moderate, though sometimes a little right of the center. I am married with no kids and I am 28 years old. I'm white, I'm male, and I'm middle class. I was raised as a Southern Baptist, became a moderate Baptist, and now I don't attend a Baptist church at all. I am ordained but I am currently not on staff at a church. I do, however, teach a Sunday School class for adults each week, which influences the way I read the Bible. I tend to prefer grammatical, historical, lexical, semantic, and literary arguments over theological or ideological ones. I prefer historical theology to systematics. I believe that the Bible is authoritative because it contains our only reliable witnesses to the historical revelation of God, which climaxed in the person of Jesus. And, I am a dog lover!


Chris said...

1. Recognition of presuppositions is not a postmodern thing. Bultmann had much to say about it well before postmodernism was in vogue.

2. Yes! But, I think half the battle is acknowledging our interpretive locations to ourselves. We too often think our positions are the "normal" ones that need not be acknowledged because "that's the way every normal person reads texts." Historical critics were (and some still are) guilty of this for generations.

3. I've never believed we should "give up the task of trying to find out what Paul or John or Matthew or even Jesus intended." I'm just asking us to see these pursuits in proper perspective. They are not the end all to theological exegesis. They are not even the ultimate goal. It is truewe will have new discoveries, etc., but I wonder if "new discoveries, new technologies, and new historical methods" aren't sometimes developed for job protection (I'm thinking especially of new historical methods). Scholars have to find new ways to talk about the same subjects. I mean, how many historical methods can there be?

4. YES!!! The key word here is "consciously." We cannot consciously try to read over against our worldview, if we do not first recognize that we have a worldview. For instance, I would venture to guess that your inclination toward historical, grammatical, lexical conversations has much to do with your presupposition about the theological significance of such matters.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Chris, thanks for your comments as always!

1. My point about postmodernism is that it has finally killed objectivity (sure, it was on life support, but clearly only eulogies remain now!).

2. You hit all the nails on the head here!

3. Job protection comes into play here I guess, though I've not thought about that extensively. And I agree with you that trying to find meaning and intent is not the end; but, like I am sure you would agree, if we don't do thorough work at this point, then we may be led down roads that the text simply does not allow. Also, how else are we to judge readings of the text if not from the text itself?

4. You are right in your assessment of my favoritism. Since I think that these texts that we have are authoritative in some way, then I have to actually deal with them. For example, I prefer the arguments in the pistis christou debate that are based on grammar, context, semantics, etc, not the ones based on "the theology of Paul" (as if we can really find that from a few of his letters) or modern theological concerns.

Erin said...

Rowan Williams addressed this in his lectures ""The Bible: Reading and Hearing". It is a wonderful little synopsis of the role of scripture and community you might enjoy. It's at: