Are Evangelicals Biblical?

Posted on 27 March 2008

Evangel 21:1 (Spring 2003)

Are Evangelicals Biblical?

Evangel 21:1 (Spring 2003)

Seldom does an editor have the benefit of being sent independently two articles on the same subject, which complement one another. Such however, was the case when Martin Woodier and Cohn Sedgwick submitted their own reflections on the current debate on conditional immortality. Both, by different routes, come to the (somewhat reluctant) conclusion that the traditional view on hell is essentially correct. However, they do raise significant challenges as to contemporary evangelical exegetical methodology. The same is true in my article on ‘Women in Church History’. Thus, it may be appropriate to ask here whether received canons of interpretation are adequate to faithfully interpret Scripture.

  Perhaps, then, I may be permitted to identify several areas in which evangelical hermeneutics requires greater nuancing. The first is its theory of language. Evangelical interpretation still generally proceeds by means of an approach that focuses upon the ‘meaning’ of words (often supported by etymological analyses) and careful examination of the grammatical syntactical relationship of words (where meaning is often supported by a mathematical argument based on usage). While such endeavours are laudable, they fail to recognize that specific meaning is essentially determined by the context and the latter can substantially revise or even overturn conclusions reached by lexical, grammatical and syntactical analyses.
 
  An additional rider here is that modern linguistics (especially pragmatics) has highlighted the existence both of ideolects (local variations in the use of language) and the fact that language does far more than simply provide prop 0-sitions. Consequently, I frequently read and hear interpretations of Scripture that fail to ask nuanced linguistic questions and, consequently, do not apparently ‘hear’ the text.
 
  The second area in need of attention is in the appeal to context. Here, even if undertaken, traditional approaches tend to privilege the literary context (or co-text). Yet the text has a number of contexts (not always easy to determine but) which, themselves, shape meaning. For example, biblical authors wrote within their own social and intellectual milieu and were shaped by their cultural context in the way they expressed themselves in writing. Failure to address this context cannot but distort the reading of the text.
 
  Thirdly, where appeal is sometimes made to historical and cultural context the analysis too often fails to reckon with the fact that the ‘past is a foreign country’ and the evidence it has left us is always partial and frequently skewed. The former difficulty (when unrecognized) leads to a reading of the past through our own concerns and a failure to really understand (while often, like the average British traveller, we think we have ‘grasped’ it). The latter raises the point of the authority of the primary sources cited. Most of the evidence from the ancient world that has come down to us is in the writings of a small elite of high born men. Do they accurately represent past reality?

This leads to a fourth challenge. This is the assumption that exegesis can be undertaken objectively: a view accompanied by the failure of the student to recognize their own locatedness. I have become increasingly aware that the fact I am a middle-aged, middle-class, married, white, male, Oxbridge-educated, Englishman affects the way I ‘read’ my world and the biblical text. I bring my presuppositions with me and my preferred exegetical method is inescapably affected by who I am. The confident assertions that I sometimes make (and hear) may have a lot more to do with bias than supposed objective analysis.

Should I, therefore, be pessimistic about access to the meaning of the Bible? Not at all. While access to infallible interpretation is, I recognize, impossible, a self-critical use of the range of exegetical tools offers the possibility of postulating a secure meaning. In doing this, I recognize that I must avoid short-cuts; the privileging of any one method over another. I also acknowledge that I need to adopt both a ‘bottom up’ (starting with the text) and a ‘top down’ (i.e. coming at the text from the wider contexts) approach. I need to view the various tools as a ‘basket’ of instruments where skilful choice and application leads to an interpretation that provides a ‘best fit’.

I suspect that while such an approach might lead to the challenging of some ‘clear’ interpretations of Scripture, an adequate methodology and application of them just might help resolve some of the questions that are ‘up in the air’ and reflected in the current journal. Certainly, the question of legitimate interpretation ought to be foregrounded in current evangelicalism.

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