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.