My undergrads often comment on how strange Scripture seems to them when they read it. They can’t make sense of a lot of it. They’re like the Eunuch in the chariot saying, “how can I understand what I’m reading unless someone helps me!”
But they’re not alone. There are obstacles to all of us understanding Scripture.
A big one is the historical gap that separates us from those who wrote and first read Scripture. We live in a very different world from them and that can make some things in Scripture hard to understand. This also means that Scripture doesn’t anticipate many of the realities of our world. Sometimes we have to do some bridge work to bring these two worlds into meaningful dialogue.
But an even bigger gap exists because we are broken people who tend to read out of our own self-interest. We are sinners reading a sacred text. So, we read selectively, highlighting those parts that reinforce the way we see the world and downplaying those things that don’t.
The recent history of interpretation has tended to collapse the second problem into the first. That is, we all bring presuppositions to the text that keeps us from seeing the text clearly. To this way of thinking, tradition gets in the way of reading the Bible on its own terms. What is necessary to overcome our presuppositions is to determine what these texts meant to the authors. And we do that, supposedly, by using a scientific method that cuts through tradition and overcomes our prejudices.
As an undergrad Bible major, I drank the kool-aid, believing that my knowledge of Greek and understanding of historical backgrounds could render an objective reading of the text. That changed one day at a conference when two scholars using the same method came to different conclusions that supported the doctrinal biases they began with. In this case, method did not render them more objective, but buried their presuppositions deeper behind a false sense of objectivity.
Interpreters of Scripture before the era of historical-critical scholarship were also aware of the historical gap that existed between themselves and the world of the text. But they were more impressed with the spiritual gap. What would make you a better reader of Scripture ultimately was to be on the same spiritual plane as the text. Better lives produce better readings.
I like this a lot and try to incorporate some element of this into all my teaching. Still, often the problem of reading out of the text what I read into it remains. Piety can be just as much a veneer as confidence in an objective method. If I really prayed over my reading of the text, then I must have the correct reading.
So, what to do about this problem of perspective? Two observations from my friend Gadamer.
The first is to own your perspective and realize that it may make clear as much as it obscures. In other words, the circumstances and perspectives that you bring to a text just might be fruitful. Gadamer recognized this. None of us, he suggested, understand anything apart from the understandings we already have or possess. Pre-understanding or prejudices are necessary for any new understanding. While prejudices may be unfruitful, blocking us from seeing or understanding some things, other prejudices are fruitful, allowing us an angle of vision that allows new and richer understanding.
Second, the presence of the other is often the thing that overcomes my limited ability to see. Gadamer used the image of a horizon to describe this. All of us have a horizon of understanding that kind of holds our understanding. It’s when we encounter another horizon of understanding that we have to rework ours. Gadamer called this a fusion of horizons, resulting in a new horizon.
When it comes to understanding a text, I find method is often a weak tool in overcoming my pre-understandings. Much more powerful, I believe, is the face of an other. I can more easily assimilate information into my horizon of understanding than I can the reality of another person who is irreducibly other than me. So, the most important reading habit for those of us seeking greater understanding, I believe, is to read with others.
If sin is ultimately rooted in our self-centeredness, then the presence of an other might very well be the way to a more redemptive reality. This is how sinners read texts.
When I retired from teaching school, I joined a bible study with other retired teachers. We are all from different denominational backgrounds. We began reading good books together alongside our bible study and have had rich discussions over the past two years. As we have learned to love and trust one another with our life stories, we have grown spiritually. God continues to stretch our horizon of understanding. Our fusions of horizons have been such a blessing from God. Your article describes what we have experienced so well. Thank you.
This is fantastic! I appreciate so much the humility present in this post. I believe that we have lost touch with the value of truly seeking for community, as our present self-centeredness and partitioned lives, rarely leave room for developing a truly Christ-oriented Body existence. Thank you for reminding us of the value of both good methodology, and more important Christ-like existence in our search for the eternal Word lived out in our lives today.
I feel, reading it now, mostly frustrated – frustrated at what it doesn’t speak to, frustrated at the problems it creates, frustrated that everybody who reads it thinks they’re a freakin’ expert. At the same time, I’m tied to that tradition so much that I’m not willing to abandon it – so much that it then washes back over me, taking a great deal of that frustration with it, leaving more of a mystery that reveals itself in seeing it lived out among us, in the little pocket of the world I at least inhabit. I’m now more in the camp defined from The Simpsons’ Movie, where Marge hands Homer a Bible in an emergency and, quickly fanning through it, he exclaims, “This book doesn’t have any answers!”
Thanks Mark, this reminds me of one of my favourite moments in worship at Tintern last year. A newish/recovering Christian was scheduled to read from Is 9:2-7. Public speaking is a real struggle for him and he gets very nervous. I have never seen him as nervous as he was that day. For whatever reason he shook behind the pulpit with his voice trembling and barely above a whisper. He felt ashamed afterward, like he had done a poor job but I don’t think I have ever heard Isaiah read better. He didn’t provide any cultural context or exegete the Hebrew original but I don’t think I have ever seen someone capture the essence of a text as well. I will never forget it.
Thank you very much Mark! I will share this with my Bikers For Christ group. I agree that reading scripture with the other is the way to go. In any Bible study it always amazes me how the other will come up with something new that brings greater meaning to the text – creating that new horizon you mentioned. We must be open to the new horizon – that is where meaningful change can come from.
Yeah, I get it. Kind of like Ouija Board Hermeneutics. You and me and space for the spirit in the middle.
I suggest we all read “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes” by Richards. Excellent!
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