Issues In Biblical Interpretation

How is the Bible to be interpreted? This unavoidable question lies at the heart of Protestantism. In virtually every debate that takes place within the Protestant community of faith—whether concerning the origins of humanity, the ministry of women, the nature of the end times, or the legitimacy of abortion—all sides will make an appeal to the Bible. One side will accentuate one set of texts and the other side another set, or both will appeal to the same basic texts yet interpret them differently.34 The outcome is a range of interpretations of the Bible. Some issues on which Protestants have offered—and continue to offer—significantly different readings of the Bible include:

1. Should infants be baptized?

2. Is Jesus Christ really present in the bread and wine?

3. Does baptism effect or signify the forgiveness of sins?

4. Should women exercise leadership roles in churches?

5. Was the world created in six periods of twenty-four hours?

6. Should Christians fight in wars?

7. What is the most authentically "biblical" form of worship?

8. Are Catholics Christians?

Other issues can easily be added to this list, which is clearly illustrative, not exhaustive.

The vast majority of Protestant theologians do not regard this diversity of biblically based beliefs and practices as compromising the prin ciple of the perspicuity of scripture. The essential point made by this principle is that, at any given point in the church's history, scripture is both clear and sufficient in all things that are necessary to salvation. As early as the 1520s, irenic Protestant theologians, such as Martin Bucer, were stressing the importance of learning to live in a community that was producing important differences of biblical interpretation and thus different conclusions drawn from the same foundational document.

In part, the issue has to do with the identity of Protestantism itself. It is not difficult to identify specific groups within Protestantism according to their relatively well-defined and well-defended—yet different—ways of interpreting the Bible. In the United States on the eve of the First World War, for example, relatively coherent and distinctive belief systems, each rigorously based on the Bible, were associated with Presbyterianism, Methodism, the Southern Baptist Convention, Epis-copalianism, and Lutheranism. Reinforced by dedicated seminaries, denominational theological textbooks, and preachers, each group defended its specific reading of the Bible against the alternatives.

The difficulty emerges if one imagines that there exists a universal category called "Protestantism" that is embodied in each of these groups. The reality is that Protestantism has always been a somewhat diffuse notion, whereas each of the individual religious groupings just named— to which others, such as Pentecostalism, could easily be added—are living social realities. Sociologically, it is easy to show that Americans in the years immediately before the First World War may have been vaguely committed to the greater, overarching notion of "Protestantism" but defined themselves primarily in terms of their own denominations. Even as late as 1960, most Americans had serious misgivings about worshiping at Protestant denominations other than their own, feeling that this compromised their religious identities. Their loyalty was primar-ily—and in many cases exclusively—to the specific beliefs, structure, and life of a particular denomination. If the category of "Protestantism" is proposed as the primary category of identification, a significant degree of diversity on such matters as church order, doctrinal standards, and sacramental practice arises, precisely on account of the different historical traditions that make up the greater category of "Protestantism."

In practice, this has not troubled most Protestants, who are sufficiently historically literate, on the one hand, to realize the inevitability of this problem and sufficiently tolerant, on the other, to cope with the varieties of beliefs and practices that arise from this situation. Such limited diversity has been present from the outset within Protestantism and is arguably the inevitable outcome of its shared commitment to the authority of the Bible and its special place in Christian life and thought.

The same phenomenon arises within Islamic interpretation of the Qu'ran, which shows important parallels to—with equally important divergences from—Protestantism's engagement with the Bible. Although there are some shared assumptions that govern Qu'ranic interpretation within Islam, this has not led to anything approaching uniformity within the movement. Is the Qu'ran a document of its own age that must be interpreted within that historical context? Or is it a timeless document, liberated from the specifics of its history?35 To what extent can one break with traditional interpretations of the Qu'ran in facing new contexts and challenges?36 Islam, like Protestantism, faces increasing diversification as new contexts and issues emerge, demanding new interpretations of the Qu'ran and placing older, traditional interpretations under increasing conceptual and ethical strain.37

Yet this historical diversity of biblical interpretation has been the cause for some concern and even distress for those who believe that Protestantism ought to be characterized by a homogeneous, monolithic belief system. Mistakenly believing that even a modest diversity of biblical interpretation compromises the notion of the "clarity of scripture," they have sought ways of securing and enforcing a single, unambiguous interpretation of the Bible at every point. In effect, the equivalent of a "Protestant papacy" has been proposed, by which the correct interpretation of the Bible might be laid down by decree. Such efforts have not proved successful, for two main reasons. First, they involve the imposition of single meanings on clusters of core passages, but it is clear that a diversity of interpretations has existed throughout Protestant history. Second, the nature of Protestantism is such than no one has the right or authority to speak for Protestantism in this way. Indeed, the Reformation itself, by insisting on the right of all believers to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, can be seen as a revolt against this quasi-papal centralization of authority.

One strategy of particular interest emerged during the 1980s, when some conservative Protestants, particularly in the United States, began increasingly to characterize the Bible as "infallible" or "inerrant."38 In doing so, they were picking up some themes from the nineteenth-century writings of Benjamin Warfield, while giving them a new and significant emphasis. Yet this claim did not, as some had hoped, solve the problem of multiple interpretations. It is perfectly possible for an inerrant text to be interpreted incorrectly. Asserting the infallibility of a text merely accentuates the importance of the interpreter of that text. Unless the interpreter is also to be thought of as infallible—a view that Protestantism has rejected, associating it with Catholic views of the church or papacy—the issue of determining the "right" meaning of the Bible is not settled, or even addressed, by declaring that the sacred text is infallible. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, regard the Bible as infallible, yet interpret core passages in a way that most Protestants find unacceptable, especially in relation to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Debates about biblical interpretation take place in every Christian community, not merely Protestant ones. What distinguishes Protestantism at this point is its principled refusal to allow any authority above scripture, such as a pope or council. This principle is often affirmed using the Latin slogan Scriptura ipsius interpres ("Scripture is its own interpreter"). Whereas Catholicism resolves such tensions through magisterial pronouncements on the part of the teaching authority of the church, Protestantism recognizes no such authority above scripture. Such tensions must be resolved by means that will command support within Protestantism on account of their intrinsic merits, including their intellectual plausibility and their consonance with the biblical witness as a whole.

The classic Protestant approach has been well defended in recent years by J. I. Packer, an Oxford-educated theologian who spent the most significant part of his career teaching at Regent College in Vancouver. Packer argues that two principles are essential to a Protestant approach to the interpretation of the Bible:

Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others.39

Packer emphasizes that the "natural" or "plain" sense of a passage depends on whether that passage was intended to be read as history, prophecy, poetry, narrative, or teaching. Not every biblical passage can be forced into the same preconceived mold; each must be interpreted on its own terms.

So what are the issues that arise in biblical interpretation? How do these affect the beliefs, values, and actions of Protestants, whether as individuals or as communities? The best way of dealing with such questions is to explore some general issues that arise in biblical interpretation and then see how these relate to contemporary or classic debates. Here we look at four issues. There are others—including how to resolve apparent conflicts between biblical texts—that fully deserve to be discussed but have been omitted simply on account of space constraints.

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