I don’t believe most evangelicals self-consciously think about how they interpret Scripture. We often don’t have to consider how and why we do what we do.This means it’s always interesting when you’re forced to re-think your own assumptions. How can two people with a professed commitment to the Scriptures read the same material and come up with contradictory explanations? I recently wrote a critical review of a book penned by a gay Episcopal priest who advocates for loving, monogamous same-sex relationships in the Church. Here he is, arguing his case from Leviticus:1
The prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not about sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century. These prohibitions had to do with keeping a rigid and male-dominated society distinct from that which surrounded it: to clearly delineate roles and societal rules.
Much of sex and sexual relations as we understand them in the 21st Century are different from what was experienced and understood when Leviticus was written. Much of the sexual conduct was about taking, power, and what we would consider, in most instances today, rape. To utilize these verses as weapons of condemnation against people who have been made in God’s image is a disservice to the text, a misuse of the Torah and an insult to God’s word as it is made known to us. God’s word is not meant to be frozen in time [echoes of Webb, here], but heard anew today and looked at with fresh perspective and understanding based on the world that is hearing these words anew.
At the moment, I’m not interested in arguing with Dwyer. I’m interested in a conversation about why his approach is incorrect. I believe most evangelicals use some form of the principlizing approach advocated by Walter Kaiser, Henry Virkler, and J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. It looks like this:2
Our question here hinges on what to do with Step 2, above. How much should background context color our “principlizing bridge?” You see, the crux of the revisionist argument is that culture is the controlling factor in interpretation. If we understand the background culture, we can understand Leviticus. If we miss the context, we miss the point of the text. This is how Dwyer and others like him argue. Is Dwyer wrong? If so, why?
This is the question.
It’s hardly controversial that Scripture was given in a culture-bound context. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Application says:3
Universal truths about God and men in relation to each other have to be unshelled from the applications in which we find them encased when first we meet them, and reapplied in cultural contexts and within a flow of history quite different from anything exhibited by the biblical text.
The question is how to legitimately “unshell” this meaning. This leads to another intriguing question; where exactly is God’s revelation situated – in the words or in the ideas these words convey? Millard Erickson goes for the latter option and advocates a dynamic equivalent approach to cultural translation:4
The very words of Scripture are those intended by God to be written by the writer in order to convey the message He wished. The real locus of that revelation, however, is the ideas or concepts that the written words convey.5
It is important to bear in mind that the biblical passages were written to definite audiences at definite times and places. In other words, the expression of the message is already contextualized. It is therefore not enough to determine just what was said in the original passage. We must determine the lasting or uncontextualized version of that message.6
This makes good sense. If we believe God moved men to write exactly what He wanted, using a writer’s own unique style and personality on particular occasions in specific contexts, then there must be a difference between culture-bound expression,7 objective meaning,8 and interpretation.9
The question, again, is how to rightly “unshell” this objective meaning. How far is too far? Why, exactly, is Dwyer wrong to import secular culture into Moses’ mind and interpret Leviticus the way he does? This is not only a problem among so-called progressive Christians; conservatives do it all the time.
- Some interpreters, such as Walter Kaiser10 and William Webb,11 believe 1 Timothy 2:11-15 does not teach a role-based hierarchy by an appeal to the created order. Rather, Paul was accommodating to a culture where women were poorly educated. So, Paul was issuing a temporary command for an era when women were not equipped to be leaders. But, things are different now.
- Other commentators discount the traditional interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8 that there is a conflict between “weak” and “strong” Christians,12 and believe Paul was actually writing a polemic against syncretism with pagan idols.13 The traditional approach has a clear basis in the text and does some reasonable “mirror reading” of quotations. The other arguably goes beyond mirror reading to mind reading, relying heavily on Paul’s Jewish background, Acts 15:19, and (in Fee’s words) Paul’s “vigorous, combative” tone.
I suspect any interpreter (conservative or otherwise), if she looks hard enough, can analyze both Greco-Roman and Ancient Near-East culture and find “support” for anything she wants. Most rebuttals will degenerate into dueling historical citations from dead people few believers have ever read.
So, what to do? What are the guardrails? I won’t attempt to fully resolve these questions now. But, I’ll offer with some general observations to think about.
Scripture is clear
It’s important to understand the context that shaped Scripture. Not long ago, I read Michael Grant’s Herod the Great.14 It was a good book. Very helpful. I also recently read A.T. Robertson’s The Pharisees and Jesus.15 Great stuff.
But, if Scripture is sufficiently clear, then an ordinary person can understand it without help. We do not need a caste of interpretative priests to unveil the real meaning. As Robert Lethem has argued, “[i]f some other principle than Scripture were the key to its interpretation, it would not be the ultimate authority.”16 One confession proclaims, rightly (WCF 1.7):
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.
Culture adds color and depth to Scripture’s words, but it isn’t the lexicon that assigns meanings to those words. Teaching is either explicit or may “by good and necessary consequence … be deduced from Scripture,” (WCF 1.6). If the words themselves aren’t enough to give us the basic thrust of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 1 Corinthians 8, then Scripture is not clear. But, God says it is clear and it is useful for every Christian (1 Tim 3:16-17). If that means anything; it must at least mean that awareness of historical context is not the controlling factor in interpretation.
Tradition is important
Christians have lived and died for a long time. Many of them were smarter than you. Many of them have wrestled with the same questions. Think carefully before you dismiss the weight of the Church’s sustained interpretation on an issue. It’s true that sometimes the barnacles of tradition threaten the Church. In such times, God has raised up men like the prophets, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.
But, let’s be honest - you probably aren’t Zwingli.
Too many evangelicals live lives of faith divorced from the great tradition of the Church. Like cut flowers, they and their congregations sometimes exist as stagnant ponds separated from the river of Christian intellectual and devotional thought. They don’t know what they don’t know. They learn about the Trinity from YouTube, not from Gregory of Nazianzus or even Millard Erickson.
The Scriptures aren’t the only rule of faith and practice; they’re the only infallible rule – the “supreme standard,” (NHCF 1). Tradition is the soft guardrail that keeps us on the road. These guardrails should be a perichoresis of Spirit-led interpretive grids with Scripture as the norming norm, in descending order:
- The first six ecumenical creeds, from Nicaea to Constantinople III
- Ecclesiastical creeds and confessions
- Theologians and teachers of the church
We’re part of a great tradition, and we should be frightened if our interpretations often lead us to jettison the tradition of the Church.
Interpret Scripture with Scripture
Cultural context is helpful. But, some Christians are too quick to give this background context a controlling influence – even if the text is otherwise clear! And we have seen, even conservatives do it when it suits them. As Thomas Watson explained, “[t]he Scripture is to be its own interpreter, or rather the Spirit speaking in it.”17 When you’re faced with a difficult passage whose meaning is obscure, interpret it in light of similar passages (WCF 1.9):
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly
And, very importantly, form your doctrine from teaching passages about the issue in question. You shouldn’t hang your doctrine of atonement on 1 John 2:2; you should hang it on the Book of Hebrews.
Sometimes culture can’t be translated
God chose to use object lessons from a particular place and time to teach us about Christ through the sacrificial and ceremonial laws (cf. Heb 9:8-9). We can’t “translate” these motifs away. In a culture with no sheep, we aren’t free to recast Jesus as, say, “the pig of God that takes away the sins of the world.” Nor are we allowed to reimagine Christ as “dying for us in the electric chair.” David did not shoot Goliath in the head; he used a sling and a stone.
Sometimes we just shouldn’t translate the Bible into our culture; we must hop into the DeLorean and go back ourselves.
Of course, my remarks don’t answer the question of how to properly “unshell” the text. I leave that to the comment section! But, hopefully my brief reflections will spur some good discussion here.
1 John Dwyer, Those 7 References: A Study of 7 References to Homosexuality in the Bible (CreateSpace, 2007; Kindle ed.), pgs. 39-40, 40.
2 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 196.
3 Chicago Statement on Biblical Application (Dallas: DTS, 1986), pg. 9. Retrieved from https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_3.pdf. Emphases added.
4 Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 63-64. He fleshes this out in Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 122, 126-134.
5 Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 117. Emphasis added.
6 Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation, 68. Emphasis added.
7 That is, the culture-locked shape of the meaning.
8 That is, the truth intention of the Biblical writer.
9 That is, one’s understanding of the truth intention.
10 Walter Kaiser, “A Principalizing Model,” in Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009; Kindle ed.), pg. 35.
11 “The best solution, then, is not to discount the historical teaching of the church but to say that the social data has changed from Paul’s day to ours. The degree to which one is deceivable or gullible relates primarily to a combination of factors such as upbringing (sheltered or broad exposure), age, experience, intelligence, education, development of critical thinking, economic conditions and personality. Spanning centuries, whether in Paul’s or Isaiah’s culture, many of these factors functioned in an associative way to make women more easily deceived than men. In our culture, however, gender is simply not a viable explanation for this ‘greater deception’ phenomenon,” (William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove: IVP, 2001; Kindle ed.], pg. 292).
12 Representative examples are F.W. Grosheide (Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], 187f) and C.K. Barrett (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], 187f).
13 Both Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, in NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], 359f) and David Garland (1 Corinthians, in BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003], 353f) advocate this view.
14 Michael Grant, Herod the Great (New York: American Heritage, 1971).
15 A. T. Robertson, The Pharisees and Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920).
16 Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 247.
17 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (reprint; Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2016), 23.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?