No Interpretation Needed: Deliverance from a Naive Approach to Biblical Interpretation

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We have all, most likely, encountered believers who insist that they neither adhere to this or that theological position: they are, simply, “biblicists” (i.e., what opponents of this theory call naïve realism1). Such believers “don’t follow a man’s teaching,” they “just read their Bible.” On one level, there is an admirable simplicity in such a confession. On another level, however, such an approach to biblical interpretation is not only naïve but is fallacious and self-deceptive because it neglects the fact that we all read Scripture from cultural and personal presuppositions already in place.

Sincere believers and followers of Christ Jesus differ in their interpretations of many passages of the biblical text and on many topics. In itself, that should indicate to us all that “just reading the Bible” does not mean that one will conclude with a proper interpretation. If we could all “just read our Bibles” and rightly determine the author’s original intent — the proper interpretation of the author’s intended purpose for writing — then we should all read the exact same texts and conclude with the exact same interpretations.

The fact that we have hundreds of different interpretations among us, however, demonstrates that “just reading our Bible” is a naïve approach to biblical interpretation. In other words, what such a suggestion neglects is that not one among us approaches the text of Scripture in a neutral state of mind. By the time we open our Bible we already have in mind certain beliefs that affect our interpretation; our respective culture and already-developed worldview affects our interpretation.

Let me offer some examples. That men and women think differently is not a novel discovery. Should we not, then, consider that when a man encounters a text of Scripture, he will also think differently about what is read than would a woman? I am not suggesting that either will come to completely different or contradictory conclusions about what a given text offers merely because of gender (though, indeed, they may). But I do think that both will view the text from differing perspectives.

The same is true of varying cultures. I agree with Randall C. Bailey, of the Interdenominational Theological Center, who in his article, “The Bible as a Text of Cultures,” writes, “One of the difficulties in approaching the Bible is that we have been conditioned to look at it as ‘the Word of God,’ which gives it a sense of universalism and timelessness, and elevates it as a reality above culture.”2 He is not suggesting that Scripture is not the Word of God, but that we should not approach biblical interpretation as though culture or worldview will not affect our various interpretations. The Bible is a universal text in the sense that God gave it to all people for all time. But its people, stories, authors and various messages exists within a culture, in various ages, and must be examined in such contexts. Bailey writes:

This way of viewing the Bible has helped in transporting it from one culture to another; it has also made it easier for people to read the Bible as though their own cultural biases were embodied in the text itself. The sense that there is but one way to view the text and only one way to interpret it has been reinforced by a view that “our way of doing it is the right way.” Too often we have failed to look at the biblical text as a cultural production within its own time and geographical location, and we have not recognized that our interpretations of the biblical text have been prodded and shaped by our own cultural understandings and time.3

This is true not only of people reading Scripture from various cultural backgrounds, but even of those in the same culture, and of the same theological persuasion. For example, Calvinists disagree with other Calvinists over the same passage of Scripture; Arminians disagree with other Arminians over the same passage of Scripture. Even within one theological tradition there will exist a multitude of interpretations of the same text. We cannot — we must not — ignore the affect which culture and worldview has on our respective interpretations. Bailey concludes, as would I, that doing so has “robbed us, as readers, of the rich textures of the text and, ironically, has inflated the importance of our own readings to equal the high status we have attributed to the Bible itself.”4

I am not convinced that we cannot know truths in Scripture, nor do I think that truth is relative or subjective, which will be the subject of the following post. But I would appreciate a less naïve approach to biblical interpretation among Bible scholars who insist that their interpretation alone is right on secondary and tertiary matters, considering all other interpretations of such absolutely inviable. Such dogmatism belongs in the Dark Ages.

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1 Merold Westphal explains: “Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century. This tradition is called ‘naïve realism’ in one of its forms. It is called naïve both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.” See M. Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church, series editor James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 18.

2 Randall C. Bailey, “The Bible as a Text of Cultures,” in The People’s Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 13.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.