I recall a time in high school when I really wanted to know the truth about something. The issue was baptism. Many of my friends were a part of a church (that I started going to later in high school) that taught that baptism was the primary point at which one became a Christian, rather than the usual Evangelical approach (which I had grown up with) that a person is “saved” when they pray something usually known as “the sinner’s prayer” (something oddly absent from the Scriptures) where one confesses that they are sinful, that they believe in Jesus’ salvation, and that they intend to follow him with their whole life. So there I was, poring over the New Testament and all the passages I could find about baptism, trying to read it objectively, the way someone would read it if they had no preconceived ideas or biases or pre-knowledge, just the bible and what it said. Needless to say, my quest for objective, unbiased knowledge came up short. While I eventually came to have a higher view of baptism, there certainly wasn’t a slam dunk case for the one view over the other. Some verses seemed to support one side, while others had to be explained away, and the other view had their verses and explained away the others. But it seemed that one could honestly hold either view based on the Bible, and not just because one side was biased by their preconceived ideas and doctrinal biases.
Fast forward several years to when I found myself attending a Christian college, taking class after class on the Bible. I began to realize that with enough creativity and rhetorical flourish, one could make the Bible say just about anything you wanted. Systematic theology became frustrating to endure as I saw how verses and passages were employed to support points their authors would have never intended to make. It’s not that those who used the Bible this way were intending to twist it, but that if you take the Bible as a series of self-standing propositional truths and view systematic theology as the practice of organizing these truths the way a scientist organizes empirical data into categories and theories, then you can end up using the Bible with little concern for its literary, historical contexts. When you use the Bible this way, to support certain doctrinal ideas with “proof texts” (Bible verses used to support a point whether or not that was the biblical author’s intent), you end up with opposing ideas, all supposedly supported by the Bible, as was the case with my example of baptism from high school.
As I went on in school I began to learn more solid interpretive methods that appreciated the historical, literary, cultural, and linguistic contexts of the author, and learned rules like “A passage can never mean something now that it didn’t to its original audience.” All of these approaches distanced me from the proof-texting and “creative” use of Scripture found in some systematic theology and poorly prepared sermons. This approach, which centers on learning what the human author of Scripture intended, I came to learn, is called the grammatical-historical method. It was the foundation of all sound biblical interpretation. This at times created some tension with previously held views, like how can the Prophets be speaking of Jesus if they were speaking to issues of their own day and had no idea their writings would be used the way they were to apply to Jesus. Over time, I began to see that this approach, consistently applied, made my previously held Evangelical views of Scripture seem untenable, naive, unrealistic. Seeing so clearly the very human dimension of Scripture made it difficult at times to see where the divine element came into play, especially since I knew it couldn’t be the way that my old Evangelical way of seeing things (inerrancy) that severely downplayed the human element.
This is not, you may be able to tell, a true part one in a multi-part series; this is the first half of a really long blog that I cut in half. Why would I cut it in half? Because people don’t read long blogs. Also because Jeff Spiehs always complains about it when my blogs are long. So I will soon post the second half for you all to enjoy. You better be happy, Jeff, you better be happy.