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Authority, Hermeneutics, and Criticism

Posted by on Jan 29, 2009 in books, community, scripture, unity | 14 comments

One of the best books that I’ve read on topics related to New Testament interpretation is Interpreting the New Testament, edited by David Alan Black and David S. Dockery. I think I’ve read this book twice, and now I’m reading it again for my mentorship with Dave Black. We meet regularly to discuss the issues raised in the book.

This week, we discussed the first two chapters which deal with introductory and historical issues of interpretation. Primarily, in this post, I want to discuss the first chapter by Peter H. Davids: “Authority, Hermeneutics, and Criticism”.

First, discussing authority, Davids makes a distinction between the intrinsic authority of Scripture (the authority possessed by someone or something due to what they are – p. 3) and the extrinsic authority of Scripture (the authority that someone or something possesses because people ascribe authority to them). Davids suggests that discussions of the intrinsic authority of Scripture fall into the area of the doctrine of Scripture, while discussions of hermeneutics and interpretation deal with the concept of the extrinsic authority of Scripture. He says:

Given, then, that Scripture has God’s authority [i.e. intrinsic authority], there is still the issue of extrinsic authority. That is, from the human point of view, we first must recognize that Scripture is authoritative and then must understand and respond to it appropriately – with obedience… If there is no obedience, then all the discussions about authority are no more than abstractions. (3-4)

Moving on from authority, Davids discusses the relationship between authority and hermeneutics, pointing out that people who agree on the authority of Scripture will often disagree on its interpretation. We cannot assume that someone who interprets Scripture differently than us does so because they do not think that Scripture is authoritative.

He also addresses the issues of critical methodology (“higher criticism”) and how we often interpret Scripture based on what we want it say instead of what it actually says. Everyone (yes, including myself) can be guilty of this. How do we help ourselves and others avoid this error in interpretation?

Hermeneutical discussion assists one in discovering how one is interpreting Scripture and thus what one might be filtering out of [or adding to] Scripture… [O]ne further aid to biblical authority is helpful, and that is working with Christians in a variety of churches [traditions] and cultures. (16)

I think these points are difficult for many believers. I’ve heard from so many believers who attach interpretation to authority, such that, if your interpretation does not match theirs, then you do not believe that Scripture is authoritative. Similarly, I think the church has lost the ability to interpret in community with other believers. Oh, we listen to those who already agree with us. But, when we read or listen to the interpretation of someone with whom we disagree or who comes from a different tradition, we do not do so in order to learn, but in order to disparage or debate or disagree.

What do you think? Do we need to listen to brothers and sisters with different interpretations? Can we truly live in unity despite our differences of understanding? Is it possible to accept the objectivity of God’s communication [in Scripture, for instance] along with the subjectivity of our interpretation?


14 Comments

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  1. 1-29-2009

    I agree (roughly) with what you say. For my own part, I have grown up in a church that confesses the Bible to be the Word of God, infallible etc. But later I have discovered that for many evangelicals and fundamentalists, it seems to be more important to have the right view of the Bible, than to follow the teachings of Jesus. I also have come to the conviction that the Bible does not speak with one voice, but contains real differences and even contradictions. This has not lead me away from the faith or the Bible though, but rather to read the Bible together with others with a greater openness to its diversity.
    /Jonas Lundström
    http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188

  2. 1-29-2009

    Given Scripture is divinely inspired and incredibly deep in meaning, and given how we can fall to our own pride so easily, how can we not listen to others?

    It may clear up a misunderstanding or misinterpretation on our part, or the Spirit may move within us to solidify our own thoughts.

  3. 1-29-2009

    Alan,

    I was reminded yesterday in some reading of what Paul said in 1Co 1:10,

    “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

    He goes on in verse 12 do rebuke them for separating themselves and calling themselves “I am of Apollos, I am of etc…”

    I think it is pretty clear what we are to do. We need to receive one another according to Rom 15:7. Verses 5,6 tell us to “be likeminded one toward another”,and “with one mind and mouth, glorify God.”

    That is a pretty strong indictment of our denominational and sectarian ways. If we accepted one another in the Lord as He accepts us into the family of God, then maybe we would listen more to those we disagree with. We are all guilty. I

    If we truly loved one another as we are commanded to do, and prefered one another, and established that relationship with one another was more important than our doctrines, then they would truly “know us by our love for one another.”

    Is it easy? No. It requires us to die to ourselves and agenda. In the end, I don’t have to compromise my beliefs to love my brothers and sisters. Too many of us make our doctrinal beliefs more important than loving one another.

    BTW, We are starting a study in our home tonight, studying all of the “one another’s” in NT. I think we are going to find it is impossible to do these “one to anothers” in the context of only congregational settings. It going to take more relational time.

    Blessings and thanks for your work on this blog.

  4. 1-29-2009

    That is a slippery question. Can believers interpret issues in the Bible differently and still believe the Bible is authoritative? There is more to it than merely being authoritative, for example is the Bible sufficient, is it inerrant and what of perspicuity? Can someone say that the Bible is authoritative and yet deny the divinity of Christ? What of justification by faith? There are some questions that we certainly do have disagreements on: eschatology, baptism, church governance. The Bible is clear on some issues more than others.

  5. 1-29-2009

    Thank you Alan for this blog. You are a voice of reason. I appreciate your clear thinking and your topics.

    I have led weekly small groups for over twenty five years. We usually study the Bible. Why? Your sentence “I think the church has lost the ability to interpret in community with other believers” gets to the heart of it.

    Most of the people in every group come to the group expecting to be told what the Bible passage we are studying means, as in “here’s the correct interpretation of this passage”. They understand that to mean “this is how you are to believe”. This is how they’ve always been taught. Of course, it rarely engaged their intellect, alone their heart, and they had difficulty connecting to the Word in belief and life.

    The first question most people ask when joining the group is usually “What book are we using?” My answer – “The Bible”. Their response – “Of course, but which book are we using to study the Bible?” They expect a book that tells them the meaning of the Bible book we are studying. That is all they have ever known.

    I love to take half a dozen or a dozen “books” (commentaries and what have you), pick a passage, then read what each “book” says about the passage. Of course, the comments usually cover a broad spectrum, and some flatly contradict others. Then I ask, “which one is correct?” This proves to be an astounding revelation for many, and most cannot give an answer, unless it is “my pastor/church teaches…” or “whichever one of those books my pastor recommends would be the one with the correct interpretation”.

    We study the Word, using the Word, and other resources, such as original languages, Bible maps, dictionaries, writings of the church fathers, extra-biblical contemporary sources that help understand the culture and politics and so on of the time, etc., etc.

    This approach is entirely new to most people. I understand that some people do not agree with it, and believe that we should just allow the Word to speak to us. However, we use the approach of “how would the original audience have understood this passage”, and “what does it have to say to us today?”

    In our current group, everyone participates, by choice. They seem to have the idea that we do not all have to have the same interpretation of every passage. We are not looking for the “one, correct answer/interpretation”.

    I try to keep us away from regurgitating what someone taught us or what some book says, unless it is to discuss that interpretation. I think that this approach falls into the “interpreting in community with other believers” approach.

    I find that I can almost always discover where a person stands on this issue with the following statements: “I don’t have a problem if you don’t interpret/understand Scripture as I do at every point. Likewise, I hope you don’t have a problem if I don’t understand/interpret Scripture as you do at every point.”

    Some people can agree with this sentiment. Then there are those who indicate that they do not agree with me, but think I should agree with them, especially on certain issues (which vary from person to person), on which, of course, they have “the” correct interpretation.

    Can we have the grace to listen to brothers and sisters with other interpretations? – Perhaps we will learn something. Are we so self-righteous that we think we have the only true understanding of Scripture?

    But – Regardless of how “pure” our interpretation of Scripture may be, of what use is it to us if we do not respond to its message with obedience? Why waste our time interpreting? We might as well “eat, drink and be merry”, for that is all we will really have.

    My apologies for going long. The answer to your last two questions – based on what I have observed, yes, but obviously this has proven most difficult for many (as might be illustrated in the thousands of denominations we see).

  6. 1-29-2009

    Alan,

    I didn’t really answer your questions at the end of your post. I think the answer to all these is a resounding YES! We must.

    I believe we are commanded to. We have to look past ourselves, and to the heart of the people we are fellowshipping with. We can argue all day long about the meaning of certain scripture, but it seems pretty clear, we are to love one another and be of one mind.

    What else can you say to that?

  7. 1-29-2009

    Alan,

    Yes!

  8. 1-29-2009

    Alan,

    Man! Check this out brother. My first question is do we come to the bible to be right or to learn how to worship God. Here is what I mean brother. Many of the theological debates and discussions usually have very little to do with worshipping God correctly, they are more about abstract ideas and philosophical thought. So I think if we get rid of that we have more level ground to engage scripture from

    Next my problem comes into what is normative for the proper worship of God. It is not that I don’t believe what is says, it is more about is what I am reading describing or prescribing and if it is prescribing is it prescribing us today or was it a cultural issue or even a temporary command (women teaching, paying pastors salaries, modes of baptism).

    The next issue is what should I divide on. What are non-negotiables (I think we may have more non-negotiables than the bible calls for). Not that I am motivated to divide but that I don’t want to allow doctrine in that will harm the people of God. So are things like annihalationism and open-theism non-negotiables or can we disagree on these things. Can I say I am not sure about women pastors but still walk hand in hand or is that a non-negotiable.

    These are my daily struggles Alan and things that keep me up late a lot of the time. Because I don’t want to be a heritic (in the 1 Corinthians use of the word) and I don’t want to worship God incorrectly. I want to be loving and sincere but I also don’t want to allow damaging doctrine to come in to our fellowship. So that is where I wrestle and would love your insight

  9. 1-29-2009

    Jonas,

    You said, “I have discovered that for many evangelicals and fundamentalists, it seems to be more important to have the right view of the Bible, than to follow the teachings of Jesus.” Yes, that is why I appreciated Davids’ statement linking authority with obedience.

    Andy,

    I agree, although many would disagree – not in theory, but in practice. In fact, many disagree so vehemently that others are refused a voice in the discussion.

    Jack,

    Yes, it requires humility even in our interpretation of Scripture. Of course, its easier to lean on our own understanding of Scripture than to lean on God Himself.

    Arthur,

    If you looked through the various books of Scripture at the important concept of “salvation”, do you think you would find all the authors describing it in the same words and from the same perspectives? If not, then perhaps we can learn from others who come to this important topics from a different perspective. I am not suggesting that we deny the importance of salvation or justification or any of the other topics that you listed. I’m only suggested that we listen to others who are our brothers and sisters in Christ and yet have differing interpretation.

    By the way, I do think there are issues that we should not budge on, and I think these are listed in Scripture… but I also think there are only a few of these.

    Sam,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I wish I had more experiences like this.

    Lionel,

    I can’t answer all of your questions in a comment, but I do think you’ve hit on something key: do we come to Scripture for the right reasons. I think, like I said above, if we look at the examples of Scripture, there are very few reasons that we should actually separate from one another. Even with all the problems at Corinth, Paul never suggested that he might “dis-fellowship” with them.

    -Alan

  10. 1-29-2009

    For the most part, I agree with you. If we truly lived out what the Bible said about bearing with one another we would be able to look over some doctrinal differences.

    However, as Capt. Picard said in First Contact, there are times where “…the line must be drawn here. This far, no farther”. But I’m thinking there are not nearly as many of those situations as we’d like to convince ourselves there are sometimes.

  11. 1-29-2009

    Alan,

    If you are talking Calvinism/Arminianism I can agree that we can talk with one another about our differences. If the differences are between justification by faith alone and some blended justification, than I think we have strayed away from the heart of the Gospel and the cross and in that there can be no compromise.

  12. 1-29-2009

    Joe,

    I agree. The gospel is non-negotiable. I think, though, that we can even learn about the gospel from people who disagree with us.

    Arthur,

    I was recently talking with someone who I thought had strayed away from the heart of the gospel. Instead of dismissing them, I actually listened to them. It turns out, they had not strayed at all, but were simply emphasizing an aspect of the gospel that I did not normally emphasize. We both grew in our understanding of the gospel because of our willingness to talk to and listen to one another.

    -Alan

  13. 2-1-2009

    Alan,

    I definitely feel we need to listen to the brethren, for we see in part and prophecy in part. Did not Paul teach us that we only come into maturity, not being tossed about by every wind of doctrine, when each one supplies? Each one of us bears something unique of Christ, a facet of His infinite Person. Until I am built together with others I only see the small portion of Christ that I am able to express.

    Regarding unity, I do believe we can come to the place of having one mind, one heart and one revelation. Of course Paul encouraged us to pursue such a state when there was no bible in hand. So then maybe our theological efforts, to work out unity in the mind, is where we fail.

    Your last question is difficult to answer without getting into trouble. But I believe error ensues when scriptures are singled out (proof-texting) and old covenant laws are transposed into the new covenant. We must come to a greater understanding of the overall nature and character of God when interpreting difficult passages.

    Interestingly, it is those who are led by the Spirit of God who are called sons, not those led by the Word. Yet the Spirit and the Word agree.

  14. 2-1-2009

    Douglas,

    Yes. I think one of the reasons that we don’t find unity (i.e. the same mind) is because we don’t listen to one another with a view to learn from one another.

    -Alan

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  1. The Assembling of the Church | Community Hermeneutics in Action - [...] all able to exhort one another to faithfulness, obedience, and fruitfulness. (See my posts “Authority, Hermeneutics, and Criticism,” “Mutual …