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?