A Defense of “Biblical” Against Interpretative Nihilism.

The recent controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evans’ book has fortuitously coincided with some close rereading of Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testamenta work that is simultaneously awe-inspiring for its scope and frustrating for its ambiguity.  The question it pursues is straightforward:  what are the conditions under which we can say a position is “biblical?”

I won’t take up Hays here, as fruitful as it might be.  Instead, I mention him to simply point out that the question itself is worth pursuing.  But notice how it is framed:  what are the conditions under which, rather than “is it possible at all?”

Over at CNN, in a distillation of her project, Rachel writes:

And yet evangelicals have grown so accustomed to talking about the Bible this way that we hardly realize we’re doing it anymore. We talk about “biblical families,” “biblical marriage,” “biblical economics,” “biblical politics,” “biblical values,” “biblical stewardship,” “biblical voting,” “biblical manhood,” “biblical womanhood,” even “biblical dating” to create the impression that the Bible has just one thing to say on each of these topics – that it offers a single prescriptive formula for how people of faith ought to respond to them.

But the Bible is not a position paper. The Bible is an ancient collection of letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories spanning multiple genres and assembled over thousands of years in cultures very different from our own.

When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick it in front of another loaded word, we tend to ignore or downplay the parts of the Bible that don’t quite fit our preferences and presuppositions. In an attempt to simplify, we force the Bible’s cacophony of voices into a single tone and turn a complicated, beautiful, and diverse holy text into a list of bullet points we can put in a manifesto or creed. More often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.

She closes by repeating a bit that I originally took issue with: “The fact of the matter is, we all pick and choose. We’re all selective in our interpretation and application of the biblical text. The better question to ask one another is why we pick and choose the way that we do, why we emphasis some passages and not others. This, I believe, will elevate the conversation so that we’re using the Bible, not as a blunt weapon, but as a starting point for dialogue.”

Rachel’s right to point out the way theology has become dominated by its adjectives, though the problem isn’t limited to “biblical.”  I bet if we used Trinitarian, missional, incarnational, biblical, Christological, and Gospel-centered (surely I’m missing some–help me out!) we’d have a massive list of books on a host of different subjects, all trying to bridge the gap between revelation and the world.

Now, those are all useful adjectives and I am in favor of keeping them around.  But it’s easy to allow their use to replace the work of an argument, as though adding a dash of Trinitarianism everywhere was somehow going to solve all the problems.  (The Trinity will–our Trinitarianism, though?)  In fact, I have sometimes wondered if rather than our endless attempts to connect theology with the world we might not be better off reviving our interest in first-order theological questions, like those now-arcane minutiae differentiating the proper relationship between Christ’s two natures that the early church thought important enough to spill massive amounts of ink over.

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, given this concern, I’d like to try to shore up a corresponding one that I raised in my review of Rachel’s book.  Because Scripture is a good deal more than the “starting place for dialogue.”  It happens to be the criterion by which that dialogue proceeds as well, through differentiating between those conclusions which are “biblical” and those which are not.  If it’s only dialogue that we want, or even dialogue that we want to emphasize, we shall have to own up to the fact that Plato simply does it better.  Socrates simply outquestions Jesus.  If Scripture is in the last analysis the starting point for dialogue, rather than the norm for faith and practice, then it doesn’t seem like it’s doing much for us other than providing a less-beautiful backdrop for our own cultural projections backwards into the text.  I suspect Rachel doesn’t want to go this route–and I haven’t read all her blog posts on the subject, so I’ll admit to postulating here only to make a broader point–but then the path toward interpretative nihilism is just as much of a temptation as that of treating Scripture as a bludgeon.  I am trying to answer her caution with a caution, in other words, just to clarify what’s at stake.

Let me put it this way.  Rachel has reminded the world of how troublesome “biblical” can be.  She did it in the context of womanhood, for reasons I understand even if I am not sold on.  But what of those non-womanhood areas where the Bible has something to say?  Shall we do away with biblical ethics, for instance, because its conclusions are just as contested?  Or what of biblical theology?  Or what of biblical economics, with its corresponding concern for the poor?  And how does this criterion get established in a non-arbitrary way?  We ought not prematurely land on a conclusion of what’s “biblical,” but we ought not to deny the possibility of getting there either.  The whole fun and drama of biblical interpretation is that being wrong is a possibility, but so is getting it right.  What’s more, our prophetic mode as Christians is contingent upon our accurately bearing witness to the divinely revealed Word.  It’s precisely those who wish to speak prophetically who should hold on to “biblical” the firmest.

Just because we “tend to” ignore countervailing evidence within the text when we use “biblical” doesn’t mean that we have to.  And the only way to get rid of one bad use of “biblical” is to rehabilitate it and replace it with a better.  I suspect that the danger of a biblical nihilism that repudiates and rejects the possibility of finding genuine coherence and meaning is more subtle and corrosive than it appears, because it will always sound so inclusive and nice.  The deconstructive work of skepticism turns out to be not terribly hard at all.  It’s pointing toward the text and saying “This, this is the way we must go” that proves to be a challenge.  Yet if we as Christians are to offer the world more than what it already has on offer, we must not so problematize “biblical” that we leave it behind altogether.  For where else shall we go?  There, in the authorized witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–there are the words of life.

(And see also my good friend Matt Milliner’s typically provocative pointing toward visual exegesis.)

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  • http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/ Alastair Roberts

    The thing that most strikes me in many of these debates is that suspicion tends to be directed primarily towards the clarity and consistency of Scripture, rather than towards our reliability as its interpreters.

    This leads to an impatience with and premature judgments concerning the text and a hardening of the skin of our cultural prejudices. To approach the study of Scriptures with receptive minds and to tarry with them, wrestling through the darkness until the interpretative dawn, requires a certain humility with regard to the reliability of our preconceptions and trust in God’s faithfulness.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Fighting off a cold so I’m behind on everything (also, it’s the last week of term!) but I do think that you’re right about the suspicion. That’s one thing that bothered me about Hays, actually. He asserts a lack of prima facie unity without argumentation at all.

  • http://thereforeiambic.blogspot.com/ Elena Johnston

    I can’t help but think that the Sermon on the Mount might be a good starting place in sorting all this out. How can we think about the Bible the way that Jesus thought about the Bible? Amid all the thousands of possible ways to judge according to appearances, how do we judge with just judgment?

  • http://twitter.com/sometimesalight hannah anderson

    There is also a bit of Protestant dilemma happening in this whole conversation–given evangelicals’ strong adherence to the doctrine of the priesthood of believers, Scriptural interpretation has become the right of the masses despite a widespread lack of literary, philosophical, or theological training. As a result, many people do not even possess the skills necessary to determine what is “biblical” and this has resulted in some the nihilism you describe. I do not believe that interpretation is the exclusive right of the Church, but there must be a humility and respect toward those who are professionals in the field. My opinions as an hobby theologian simply aren’t as legitimate as those who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of Scriptural interpretation.

    • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

      The theme of Mark Noll’s short book “Very Short Introduction to Protestantism” is basically this, that when you tell people that their reading of scripture is primary, then you end up with a lot of denominations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ryan.t.fouts Ryan Fouts

    The question of what is “Biblical” ultimately gets back to fundamental hermeneutics. One could say it is “biblical” to cast our women outside of the city during that “time of the month,” but that would miss a greater and more fundamental “biblical” reality. I think we’ve done wrong (and my own Lutheran tradition, via Martin Chemnitz, contributed to this) to trying to sort out differences of “law” in terms of moral, ceremonial, etc. In reality, I prefer Luther’s insight that all “law” is reflective of natural law — the “blueprint” of the created order. Revealed law reflects natural law contextually — sometimes revealed law is universal, sometimes it is conciliatory (i.e. the law of Moses that permits divorce) in attempt to approximate original righteousness, and sometimes it is so wedded to a particular context that it simply cannot be immediately transposed to our day and age without putting some “elbow grease” into the text and trying to understand it in it’s own terms.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I think your conclusion is right, that the only way to rehabilitate the word is by proper use of it. But also I think by moving around where it is used helps. When I was a student at Wheaton, I chaffed against the label Evangelical. When I was a student of University of Chicago Divinity School, I embraced it. Because at U of C I was able to rehabilitate the word, not for me, but for many around me that had not known any Evangelicals.

    It is a lot easier to rehabilitate a word among those that have only tangential relationship to it. It is a lot harder to rehabilitate a word among people that strongly hold to it, but have different meanings for it.

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