I came to seminary excited to get answers; I left with far more questions than I even suspected existed.
This may sound cliché, but it is nevertheless the best way to summarize my seminary journey. As I reflect on my four years at DTS the most remarkable thing, in my opinion, is the difference between the person who walked across the Georgetown stage in May 2009 and the one walking across the DTS stage this weekend. Even limiting my thoughts to the way that my theology has evolved during my time (often more from my response to things I’ve been taught rather than what I’ve been taught itself) here, I could still list dozens, if not hundreds, of examples. But, for the sake of having a manageable topic to write on, I’ll pick the change that has been the most profound, having fundamentally re-oriented my entire apporach to doing theology: my rejection of so-called “biblicism” in favor of a thoroughly Christ-centered reading of Scripture.
In his highly readable book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Christian Smith defines “biblicism” as a particular (and peculiarly modernist, individualistic, and Western) approach to understanding and using the Bible that basically says that all of Christian life and doctrine is based on the clear, consistent teaching of Scripture, and nothing else. It’s the attitude that says “all I need is me and my Bible (and my inductive grammatical-historical method, perhaps) – and it doesn’t matter what the creeds, the church, or anyone else has to say!” Smith, however, identifies “pervasive interpretive pluralism” as the death knell for this view. Experience shows us, unequivocally and without a shred of doubt, that smart, spiritual, and passionate followers of Jesus Christ are convinced that the Bible teaches things that are wildly different, even contradictory, from what others believe. In other words, if the Bible is so clear, why do we have so many denominations? So much division? About practically everything?
The seeds of these questions were actually actually planted during my senior year at Georgetown, when I read Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, which traced the history of the Reformation and its implications. McGrath’s basic contention, as I recall it, was that the Reformers’ belief that individuals should be able to read and interpret Scripture for themselves was both the necessary impetus for Christianity’s global expansion as well as a Pandora’s Box of problems; if everyone is free to interpret the Bible as they wish (which was not at all what the Reformers intended), how then can we say whose interpretation is “correct” or “valid”? Luther and Calvin both believed that catechesis was the prerequisite for actually reading the Bible on one’s own, and never imagined our modern-day version of sola scriptura. The Bible was always to be read in light of the Great Tradition, even when it parted ways from some of it.
But I get ahead of myself. I came to Seminary with the more-or-less biblicist belief that I could in fact learn the “correct” interpretation of Scripture by following the “correct” exegetical method. That is to say, by properly observing the “rules” for interpreting Scripture (e.g., the historical-grammatical method at the basis of most inductive Bible study and evangelical exegetical literature), by simply “following the steps” (see, most egregiously, the DTS intro textbook Methodical Bible Study by Robert A. Traina), we can objectively arrive at the single original meaning of the biblical text. As for the church’s history of interpretation, we really have no need for that (after all, ancient people were stupid): just a plain reading of the Bible is enough to solve all of our theological questions.
There is, however, one problem with this idea: it’s simply not true. A moment’s reflection surfaces an incredibly disheartening reality: Christians, using the same hermeneutic, the same method, and the same assumptions about the Bible (inspiration, inerrancy, etc.), fail to agree on pretty much anything. Consider just the subjects available in those “four views” or “five views” books: the nature of the atonement, baptism, church government, hell, divorce and remarriage, eternal security, predestination and free will, the millennium, the Lord’s Supper, the NT use of the OT, the interpretation of Genesis 1-2, women in ministry. And again, these are debates among committed Christians ostensibly using the same method and using the same presuppositions! The idea that, on almost every important issue, the Bible can be clearly understood simply by following a particular, objective method is a lie.
The breakthrough for me came from learning about and adopting critical realism as my method for understanding how we gain knowledge. Against both modernist positivism (the biblicist goal of “objectively” following a scientific method of study to interpret the Bible) and postmodern phenomenalism (no truth exists outside of my own mind and interpretation), critical realism sees a “hermeneutical spiral” between the knower and the thing known, between the objective and subjective elements of knowing. At the center of critical realism is the insight that all knowledge of particulars takes place with respect to larger frameworks of understanding. In other words, no one can read the Bible objectively; instead, everyone comes to the text not only with their own life experiences and presuppositions, but they come to the text with a larger framework in mind by which details will be interpreted. These frameworks might be Reformed, dispensational, feminist, etc. It is largely these frameworks that dictate how the Bible is read in all of its details, and it is this which explains why there is no agreement on how the Bible is to be understood. For instance, Calvinists and Arminians can both summon a great deal of verses to support their arguments; ultimately, however, the question is which framework as a whole is superior.
So: all knowledge of particulars take place with respect to larger frameworks of understanding. “Objective” interpretation of Scripture is impossible; we must seek recourse to some larger “hypothesis” for understanding the whole if we are to make sense of the details. But which framework/hypothesis? This is the question that has captured my interest over the last year or two in particular. To summarize a long journey, I have come to believe that what matters for Christian theology and practice is not Scripture in and of itself, but Scripture properly understood in accordance with the rule of faith. Reading with the “rule of faith” is, I believe, not some abstract scholarly way of reading the Bible but should in fact be at the center of every Christian’s private reading of Scripture.
As described elsewhere on my blog, the early fathers understood that their opponents appealed to Scripture just as they did; what mattered to them was that Scripture was interpreted with reference to the rule of faith, the body of tradition handed down from the apostles themselves. This rule of faith is more of a web of related ideas than something that can be precisely summarized, but at its heart, I believe, is the belief that Scripture is christocentric, christotelic, and christological. That is, a truly Christian reading of Scripture is one that sees Jesus Christ as the center, end, and organizing principle of the Bible.
Many Christians, churches, and seminaries profess to believe this, but it seems to me that quite often a christocentric interpretation of Scripture is subverted by a rigid commitment to a literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic which is seen as necessary to preserve one view of inerrancy. “Not reading NT theology in the OT” may be good historical-grammatical work, but it is not christocentric. Opposition to typological and allegorical readings may make for a comfortable, consistent way of literally interpreting Scripture, but it is not christocentric. The literal, historical-grammatical hermeneutic is simply not the way the church has traditionally read the OT, much less the Bible as a whole. And so bibliological presuppositions become more important than seeing the face of the Savior on every page of sacred Scripture.
To look at this from another way: Christian theology does not start with the Bible. It starts with Jesus, with his death and resurrection, to whom His church and His word testify. As Dan Wallace has impressed on me dozens of times, the Bible is not the foundation of the Christian faith – Christ is. Anything less is to have a foundation of sinking sand. The alternative is to presuppose a bibliology that may or may not ultimately be tenable and make that the “unshakable” basis for one’s faith.
What, then, is the Bible? It is NOT a collection of abstract theological ideas, a handbook for living (“7 Steps to Biblical Marriage”), or a collection of interesting moral anecdotes. It is, instead, a narrative about God’s redemptive history. The challenge that confronts us is to discern how to live out God’s Story in our day and context. Again, to take this from the abstract to the personal, what this means for each of us as readers of Scripture is that we are to read it not so much as a “user’s manual for life” or as a textbook of any stripe (theological, scientific, etc.), but to better understand the character and actions of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We would do well to not falsely pretend to read the Bible without presuppositions, but instead seek to bring the right presuppositions to the text, to read it in light of the historic confessions of the church (the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). We have 2,000 of years of church history, of examples of both great successes and disastrous failures, from which we can learn. Even the smallest amount of knowledge about church history can be enormously effective in guiding our reading of Scripture in this christocentric, Trinitarian fashion.
I don’t pretend for a moment that my shift from a modernist, historical-grammatical hermeneutic to a critical realist, christocentric one solves every theological question. Far from it. But I do think it is a more distinctively Christian method of looking at the Bible, it more accurately accounts for the polyvalency and theological diversity within the Scriptures, and it gives proper weight to the creeds and our faith heritage. And I am convinced that Christology must be placed before Bibliology, and not vice versa. Even if the ramifications for my entire theology are still yet to be fully felt, I am grateful that my seminary journey has led me to this conclusion. Soli Deo gloria!