Evangelical Views of the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Evangelical views (plural) on the Bible actually tolerate quite a wide range of hermeneutical practices - far more than evangelicals used to think. For instance, in the olden days if a scholar was an evangelical with a high view of Scripture then you could guess where s/he would come down on various historical-critical issues (e.g., Moses wrote most of the Pentateuch, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, biblical histories are historically accurate). No longer. Evangelicals do still incline towards conservative judgements (e.g., biblical histories are broadly reliable, the traditions behind the Pentateuch ultimately go back to Moses even if they have been added to and developed) but one can no longer say that if someone is an evangelical then they must affirm certain narrowly prescribed historical-critical judgements.

A high view of Scripture tolerates more than we often think. Robert Gundry infamously showed this when he argued (correctly) that even those who subscribe to inerrancy can affirm that a gospel could contain what we might call 'historical fiction' (this was in the context of Gundry arguing that Matthew's gospel was a Midrash).

Even more recent hermeneutical bogey men such as reader-response theory now have strident evangelical defenders (at least the more moderate versions of reader response theory do).

But how hermeneutically open is an evangelical view of the Bible? Will it tolerate anything in terms of interpretation? Clearly not! But I have something more specific in mind. Can it tolerate the kind of ideological criticism that may conclude that the message of a particular text is not something that a Christian can affirm?

If, for instance, Ezekiel 16 is felt to have a fundamentally objectionable view of husbands and wives at the heart of its metaphorical message (i.e., that if a wife is unfaithful a husband, he is within his rights to publically strip her and humiliate her - perhaps even to allow others to rape her) can the evangelical reject a specific text in the name of the God revealed in the canon as a whole?

Ideological hermeneutics of suspicion seem to strike at the very heart of the traditional Christian hermeneutic of trust and submission to the biblical message. At face value such hermeneutical approaches seem obviously incompatible with an evangelical view of the Bible.

Now this is a genuine question: to what extent can evangelical views of Scripture take on board ideological hermeneutical approaches which read counter to the grain of the biblical texts?


Anonymous said…
This is an important question to me at the moment. I don't have an answer worked out yet. I have been reading a range of evangelical writers on the gender question (egalitarian vs complementarian views of women in ministry) since this topic has generated the most discussion. What I sense in some writers is that they read the big story of Scripture in a way that allows me to disagree with Paul's application of it to a specific question.
e.g. your example of Ezekiel, or Paul's reading of Genesis' creation story of man first.
I want to be honest and recognize the variations in Scripture and differences in perspective. But this overriding specifics because of a reading of the big picture does not feel right.
What are your thoughts?
Paul J
John Lyons said…
Perhaps the question here is whether evangelicalism has to relate to a Reformed tradition that sees all the texts positively rather than a Lutheran one that is prepared to see an internal critique going on within the texts (i.e. a sachkritik). A hermeneutic of suspicion does not have to be based on a ideology outside the text (though it might be). It could very easily be based on the ideology of certain parts of the text (e.g. Jesus classically, but also God's partiality towards the poor and so on.) And then we are back with Luther and some of the more radical Reformers.
I think the previous comment makes an important point, akin to what Delwin Brown's recent book (about what progressive Christians believe) says. If we acknowledge that there are divergent voices within the Bible, then the biblical thing to do will, at times, be to disagree with what Biblical authors have written!
Ranger said…
I'm evangelical but I have no problem admitting the various perspectives in Scripture. As such, I agree with James point above in that there are times when the original intent of the authors has been upended by Christ and we must interpret things afresh in light of a clearer perspective in Christ Jesus. In my tradition (Baptist) one of our confessions (1963 Baptist Faith & Message) added a line at the end of its section on Scripture saying, "The criterion by which the Bible must be interpreted is Jesus Christ." Whenever the denomination became more conservative they changed this line to something like "all Scripture points to Jesus Christ" but I think that misses the point of the 1963 confession. The change may appear subtle, but it's clearly not.
John O. said…
Robin, I agree that this is one of the questions with which Evangelicalism definitely need to grapple. I do wonder whether Ezekiel 16 is the best example though, considering that this passage is not a command or even an allowance but a metaphorical description of God's dealings with Israel. And of course we are hardly in a position to disapprove of God's actions.
The Pook said…
I agree with John O. Ezekiel 16 is not an example of what you say it is. It is entirely metaphorical. The point of it is that because Israel (Judah) has committed spiritual adultery with the gods of other nations, God will use those other nations as his instruments of wrath on them. It is not a command to a man to punish his unfaithful wife by allowing her lovers to rape her at all.

I believe the principles set down in the reformed creeds such as the 39 Articles and the Westminster Confession are correct, that no part of Scripture ought to be interpreted in such a way that it it denies another part of Scripture. For me that is a non-negotiable part of Evangelical tradition.
M Slater said…
"no part of Scripture ought to be interpreted in such a way that it it denies another part of Scripture."

Fair enough, but I think this often turns into people looking at a verse that they do not understand, and forcing it to mean something it does not, based on a verse the person thinks they do understand, if that follows.
I understand where these traditions are coming from, but unless we are quite carful is not this herminutic something that very easily could turn into a tool for us to make our own personal idea of what the Bible means reinforce itself?
I think the statement that nothing in Scripture should be interpreted as going against what Scripture says elsewhere is extremely dangerous. What this means in essence is that one picks something found in the Bible and identifies that as "What the Bible teaches" on the subject in question, and then this is understood to grant a license to ignore all statements and evidence to the contrary. In essence, this silences the diversity of Scripture in a way that shows it the utmost disrespect.
James Pate said…
But if we're going to accept the diversity of Scripture, we should try to acknolwedge all of the different parts somehow--either by bringing them together into a bigger picture, or by saying that each message communicates something valuable. Otherwise, what's our basis for accepting one part and not another? That it conforms to a "progressive" agenda (to use an example)?
N. Dan Smith said…
I have often wondered if Paul was "the weaker brother" on the complementarian/egalitarian issue.

A good place to start for forming our hermeneutics would be to see how the NT writers used the OT. This can range from prophesy-fulfillment to analogy to allegory. Sometimes in using the OT the NT author was not even necessarily interpreting the passage - rather just using it for rhetorical purposes. Although perhaps we have moved beyond proper interpretation into proper use of scriptures.
Robin Parry said…
I guess that I am in the same 'place' as Paul (anonymous). I wish to allow for the real diversity of the Bible (something James helpfully will not allow us to lose sight of) but am not sure what to do when that diversity seems to run into outright theological contradiction (which is actually quite rare).

One trend is to read with the grain of the metanarrative and against the grain of some parts of it. (As John Lyons helpfully points out, the ideology in light of which specific parts of the Bible are critiqued could very well be a biblical ideology). I am cautiously open to such options but do not feel over-happy with them (not Lutheran enough, eh?). I think, 'There must be a better way'

I just feel very awkward saying that Paul, for instance, was not being biblical when he said, 'X'! (though I suppose that carefully explained and qualified such a claim is not as daft as it sounds).

I agree with ranger that everything must be read in the light of Christ and that this will reconfigure various scriptural texts. Indeed, I think that in terms of the life of the Church biblical texts are only authoritative when situated in canonical context and mediated via Christ. So biblical passages function authoritatively only when rightly situated.

I guess that my hesitation boils down to a reluctance to see such re-frameing and canonical-mediating of texts as sometimes leading me to say, 'this biblical author was simply wrong in this passage and we cannot affirm what he said as mediating God's word in their own day let alone our own.'

m slater identifies a genuine danger of any approach to this issue - traditional evangelical hermeneutics is always in danger of forcing awkward texts to mean nice things that are consistent with our theology but more 'critical' hermeneutics is in danger of not sitting 'under' the divine word in submission - we simply cut out the parts that make us feel uncomfortable.

Of course, it is possible to avoid both dangers but it is not always easy. I am sure we have all come across those who have fallen down on both sides of the tightrope.
Robin Parry said…
John o and the pook

I think that you have misunderstood the root of my discomfort with Ezekiel 16. It is indeed a metaphor and not a command.

My problem is this: God compares himself to a husband who, upon discovering the infidelity of his wife, treats her in ways that we would consider abusive. Imagine that a man in your church behaved in that way. Would you say, 'Well, treating her like that is the right thing to do because she did deserve it.' We'd probably say, 'She behaved terribly but you cannot treat women like that.'

Now, of course, the oracle is not about marriage and is not giving instructions about marriage. However, the metaphor presupposes an implied audience who will agree that 'as it is appropriate for a man to treat his wife that way so too it is appropriate for God to treat Judah that way'.

So my problem is that the metaphor presupposes the legitimacy of what we would consider abusive behaviour. Why would God endorse such marital behaviour?

But I do not want to say that Ezekiel 16 does not communicate the word of the Lord. I want to find a way of embracing the message that God is communicating in Ezekile 16 whilst not embracing the legitimacy of the way that the wife is treated. The big question is this: how does one do that?

A place to start is to recognize that all metaphors have their limits and when pushed beyond those limits metaphors break down and become dangerous. But that is just a start - a full answer requires something far more sophisticated.

A very helpful artic;e on Ezekiel 16 is

Andrew Sloan,
"Aberrant Textuality? The Case of Ezekiel the (Porno) Prophet"
Tyndale Bulletin 59.1, 2008, pp. 53-76.
The Pook said…
No I still disagree. I don't think it does presuppose the legitimacy of what we would consider abusive behaviour, or an implied audience who will agree that it is appropriate for a man to treat his wife that way. I don't believe such a thing would be literally acceptable to Ezekiel's culture any more than to ours. But I don't see it as being based on a literal case. The spiritual reality takes over in the middle of the metaphor so that it doesn't completely line up with a real situation. No way would a literal cuckolded husband have the ability to make all his wife's lovers abuse her. It's not meant to imply or copy a real life scenario. I don't see any problem with the chapter.
The Pook said…
James McGrath said "I think the statement that nothing in Scripture should be interpreted as going against what Scripture says elsewhere is extremely dangerous."

No it's not, it's extremely safe. It's what the 39 Articles says and it's true. Article XX says that the Church may not “expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” The diversity of the bible is acknowleged in Reformed and Evangelical theology, but not at the expense of its unity. Diversity does not imply inconsistency. The bible is not the word of man about God it is the Word of God. Not in a mechanical, dictation theory sense, but nevertheless it is the plenary, inspired Word of God. It is the liberal position that is dangerous and leads to theological anarchy.
M Slater said…
Whatever else you might say about interpreting the Bible, it is far from 'safe' unless we have improperly tamed the Word.
Well of course if the 39 Articles says it then there is no longer anything to be discussed...

[Do I need to add any additional words here to ensure that readers understand that I am being ironic?]
Ken Smith said…
I don't have much of an answer for this question, either. I think that Evangelicals as a whole are making some reasonable progress on the issue, in that (as you say) there's more acceptance of a diversity of perspectives within Scripture, and that inerrancy/infallibility/pickyourility doesn't necessarily imply conservative/traditional views on authorship.

But the big question, as various folks here have pointed out, has to do with authority. Someone who accepts a naive understanding of Scriptural authority -- "God said it, I believe it" -- doesn't have to spend a lot of time arguing about homosexuality, but they certainly have a lot of other (unrecognized?) problems. But the more sophisticated alternatives to a naive view of Scriptural authority are subtle, complicated, and seem quite difficult to preach or teach to a typical congregation. Richard Hays really has something going for him, but try explaining to your Tuesday morning Bible study how "a reading shaped by the focal images of community, cross and new creation" should affect their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.
The Pook said…
James is perhaps confusing irony with sarcasm.

I'm not saying it's right or indisputable because the Articles or any other confessional statement says it is.

I'm not denying the diversity of Scripture. Nor am I denying the need for genre distinctions, literary criticism, or intra-Canonical hermeneutics to be applied. Nothing I said implies "picking something found in the Bible and identifying that as "What the Bible teaches" on the subject in question." That would be to do what any number of sects and cults do - take a verse here or there out of context and build an upside down pyramid of doctrine on it.

Yes you have to consider everything the bible says about a particular issue. Yes there is some dialectical progression throughout, as for example in the Wisdom literature: Job and Ecclesiastes being critical correctives to the optimistic generalisations of Proverbs. Yes you have to ask hermeneutical Biblical Theology questions like where does the writer stand in relation to the cross and resurrection, or what stage of redemptive history are we at here and so on. But what Robin is suggesting seems to be going beyond that to removing inspired status from parts of the bible.

Can we, because of our supposedly superior enlightened modern mores, reason, and social progress, stand as moral judges over the bible? Can we excise those parts we regard as culturally offensive to us, regarding their authors as not at that point being "carried along by the Holy Spirit as they wrote" (2 Pet 1:21). If we do that, then how are we different from Marcion? How are we different from the Greek Fathers who allegorised certain parts of scripture to make them less earthy and more ethereal because they didn't fit in with the Hellenistic aversion to matter? How are we different from Luther who wanted to get rid of James as "that straw epistle" because his ecclesiological and polemical situation made him interpret it as unsupportive of justification by faith?

If we want to say that Ezekiel was not speaking from God when he wrote chapter 16, then we'll have to say that of 2 Peter as well, which says "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."

If it's not all the Word of God, then you can't be sure that any of it is.
John Lyons said…
"If it's not all the Word of God, then you can't be sure that any of it is."

Man, I hate slippery slope arguments :)

Well Robin, this all seems to define evangelicalism as being reformed in some way. Which simply begs the question of the value of the term itself. Why not come out of the closet and admit it, your are not an evangelical at all, but a reformed theologian. Is it not simply arrogance to assume that evangelical is a term that is owned by those of your theological persuasion?

Perhaps the unstated question here relates to the impact of your view of scripture on your salvation.

Does it really matter that Luther could quite easily descriminate between the biblical texts as to what was for him and what was not?
I'm not sure your doctrine of Scripture can do justice to 2 Corinthians 11:17. But be that as it may, I think you seem to be starting with what you need the Bible to be, and then arguing from that basis. If the Bible does not speak with a single voice and give us absolute certainty, perhaps this is not the disaster you imply, but shows us that God wants us to think for ourselves, learn to draw our own conclusions and take responsibility from them.
The Pook said…
I agree with John Lyons that the term 'Evangelical' is perhaps past its use by date, since it has become so broad as to be almost meaningless. He asks "Is it not simply arrogance to assume that evangelical is a term that is owned by those of your theological persuasion?" Perhaps, but it is those at the liberal end of the spectrum who have appropriated it to themselves over the years, not the other way round. On the other hand, 'Evangelical' ought to be distinguished from 'Fundamentalist.' I do not claim to be the latter.

Regarding 2 Cor 11:17, you have to take that verse in the context of Paul's whole argument in those chapters, which is an argument FOR his apostolic authority to speak from God. He uses irony, humour, and other elements of Greek rhetoric to parody the speaking methods of the 'hyperapostles' he is contending with. The verse is not saying some parts of Scripture are not inspired.

I'm not starting with what I need the bible to be, but am trying to understand and accept what the bible itself claims to be. Nothing more nothing less. That is why I am neither an Inerrantist Fundamentalist on the one hand nor a Liberal, Barthian, or Errantist on the other.

If the bible says that all scripture is inspired, how can we say that it is not, unless, along with the bits we don't like, we also reject the parts that claim that it is all inspired, such as 2 Pet 1:20-21 and 2 Tim 3:15-17? That is not a slippery slope argument, it's simple reason. There is no basis for saying that one part is not God's Word without allowing that any other part might not be either, including the parts we DO like or that DO back up our theological biases.

The bible does speak with many voices, but all those voices agree, like the members of a choir. Some of them when taken separately may seem discordant, but when put together form a harmony that communicates God's infallible message to humanity about His Son.

I believe God wants us to think His thoughts after Him. I have a fallen, finite mind that veers away from the Truth very easily. Why would I want to think for myself? That's in the context of us and God of course. If you mean by think for ourself rely on what God says rather than on what our church traditions or academic theologians tell us, then by all means lets think for ourselves - with our bibles open and our minds open to God's Word. Anything else is human arrogance and putting human reason above God's authority.
Paul said…
The Pook:
This is the important question.
"The bible does speak with many voices, but all those voices agree, like the members of a choir. Some of them when taken separately may seem discordant, but when put together form a harmony that communicates God's infallible message to humanity about His Son."

Let's assume that the Spirit enables us to desire to enter into the world of the Bible, rather than make the Bible speak like our world. So assume no bias (in theory).

The question is - do I see the harmony of the different Biblical voices? And how do I know that my understanding of this harmony is valid? There is a wide gap between stating that there is harmony and finding the harmony. I don’t see consensus in the current evangelical scholars.

I don’t think we should see this as an individual task. This search can only be done within the whole church, listening to the consensus of the gifted teachers of the people of God. Since the church no longer can have ecumenical councils, because of our divisions, we end up seeking this harmony in a sub-group of the larger church. The above references to the Westminster principle of “the analogy of Scripture” and the for/against feelings about this show the difficulty in getting the sub-groups to work together to listen to the Spirit and to submit to the Spirit’s correction of our methods.

Paul J
Robin Parry said…

I think that you intended to direct your last comment to 'the pook' and not to me.

Robin Parry said…
the pook

I did not think that I had suggested that Ezekiel was not inspired by God (I mentioned that as a view but not one that I was proposing). I did, of course, raise a problem for those of us who maintain that Ezekiel was inspired by God and I did not propose an answer.

For me Ezekiel 16 is Christian scripture. Full stop. That is a fact that we must work with. I also believe that it is inspired by God (though I am open to nuanced ways of understanding that) but there are serious ethical problems with the text (as there are with others such as the herem texts) and I want to face them full on. I want to ask whether we can (and, if so, how we can) take theose problems seriously whilst maintaining the divine inspiration of the oracle.

I don't know how but I thought it would be worth a discussion. Looks like I was right.

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