Andy Judd teaches Old Testament and hermeneutics at Ridley College, Melbourne, and a few years ago I heard him give a great paper at a conference on the Old Testament citations in Acts. He has just completed his doctoral research on Gadamer, Genre Theory and biblical hermeneutics, and I was able to ask him about his work.
IP: What have you been researching, and why were you drawn to this?
AJ: I’ve been fascinated for a long time by the question of what it means to read the Bible as Scripture. There’s lots of ways people can read the Bible – maybe for historical curiosity, or to appreciate the literary dimension, or even an oppressive text to be resisted. But it seems to me that to read the Bible as Scripture means you’re holding two things in tension. Here I have an authoritative text, but at the same time it is a text whose meaning is continually relevant to me in new ways. What’s more, we seem to have a great deal of difficulty agreeing on what the Bible actually says. My subject matter, hermeneutics, is about taking a step back and asking ‘What is going on here?’
I’m drawn to this topic because so many of our big issues and debates seem to boil down to different ways of reading the text. In my context, the Australian Anglican context, there are loads of issues on which people have spectacularly diverse views – from gender, to marriage and sexuality, to what will happen in the last days. How can the Bible be authoritative, and relevant, if we can’t even agree what it means a lot of the time?
IP: Why has there been such a proliferation of interpretative approaches to text in modern, Western thinking? Is this something to do with changes in culture, the intellectual landscape, or something else?
AJ: I think there’s a handful of reasons all at play. One is just about the numbers. The more people you have reading for themselves, you more approaches you’re going to get. In Margaret Atwood’s novels about the Gilead and the handmaids, how do they keep control of people’s understanding of passages like Judges 19? They lock it away! As soon as the handmaids can read for themselves and access the Bible the game is up, and new and subversive interpretative approaches threaten the whole regime. So, at one level, you can blame the Reformation and Bible translators and our stubborn Anglican belief that people should read the Bible for themselves!
The second is about the text. The more complex and powerful the text, and the more we are asking it fresh questions from within fresh new situations, the more scope there will be for different ways of looking at it. Some kinds of texts just invite us to explore deeper. Whole industries of people disagree about what Hamlet means, but nobody has much trouble interpreting a parking ticket. The Bible is powerful and authoritative, but it is also endlessly relevant to new situations. And that complexity requires us I think to do more work understanding what it means.
The third thing, though, which concerns the last few decades in particular, is an opening up of the rules of the game. Despite all the different ways Jews and Christians have read the Bible, for most of history there have been some ground rules that many, or even most people could agree on. They could often agree, some of them at least, on what game they were playing, and what an interpretive ‘win’ might look like – the best approach is the one that reveals the will of God, or is closest to what the author meant or might have meant given the historical situation, or whatever.
But there is a shift in the back half of the twentieth century to a playing field where we share much less agreement what a ‘win’ looks like. A century before people were trying to understand the mind of the author better than the author did…now some people are trying to explore intertextual links in the mind of the reader, or deliberately subvert the text to bring it in line with a particular ideology. So when I listen to a critical reading of a passage of Scripture, they’re not necessarily trying to persuade me that ‘this is what the author meant’ but it could be ‘here is an interpretation that I think is interesting, or more socially beneficial.’ The rules of the game are up in the air, so the ways people play the game are radically different.
IP: Why is this having a corrosive effect on the questions of Scripture’s authority? How have evangelicals/orthodox Christians been responding to this?
AJ: I think when the average layperson or clergyperson looks at the divergence of views on something as simple as ‘What does the Bible say about marriage?’ it is just overwhelming. If smart people can’t agree, then maybe the text can mean whatever we want it to mean? To point out the obvious: a text that can mean anything I want it to mean is hardly authoritative.
Evangelicals have responded in different ways to this. Some evangelicals have largely retreated and dug their heels in. There is a line drawn on the sand on a particular interpretation, or principle. Inerrancy. Creationism. Authorial intent. At its worst this becomes a kind of fearful anti-intellectualism or tribalism where we only read books by trusted authors.
But there is another tradition, particularly strong in some parts of English evangelicalism and in the Australian theological scene I grew up in, of engaging with these debates in a self-reflective way. We recognise the divergent interpretation but then we take a step back and ask – hang on, what is the source of these disagreements? What presuppositions are we, and they, bringing to the text? What can we learn from them, and where might we politely part company?
I remember reading a massive tome about sexuality in the New Testament by an author who was pro-same-sex marriage. I soon realised that, exegetically, he and I agreed on almost every passage … he just thought the apostle Paul was mistaken in his ethics! At that point we can say, ‘Oh okay, this disagreement is not about what the Bible says, it’s about what we think the Bible is!’ Is the Bible the word of God, or the thoughts of people?
IP: What do Gadamer and genre theory bring to this question? Why are they so helpful—and are there problems with such approaches?
AJ: I’ve talked a bit about why there has been such a proliferation of interpretations lately, but I guess we could also say that it’s not a totally new phenomenon. Humans have always been prone towards divergence in interpretation. There have always been different ways of approaching the Bible – just look at how the ancient Christian writers interpreted Proverbs 8, or the playful midrashim of the Rabbis, or the stiff moralising of 18th century Bible commentators!
This is because, Gadamer reminds us, we always start reading from within our own particular tradition – we can’t help it! Our horizon – what we can see from this point in history in this place and so on – is finite. What seems obvious to me, might not actually be obvious to everyone who has ever read the Bible. The proliferation of approaches we see today has a bit to do with us Westerners just being more aware of how, say, contemporary African scholars, or 19th century female commentators, or the early Eastern fathers, have interpreted the Bible.
For a long time before Gadamer, the goal was to develop some kind of scientific method for reading that would allow us to break out of the influence of tradition, and read in a ‘neutral’ way. But of course, that’s impossible. When I open the Bible, I already know it’s the Bible. I’m not looking up a phone number. I already have some kind of idea about God, or questions about life. I think I know how the genre of this passage works.
Gadamer calls all these ideas ‘prejudices’ – which makes them sound like a bad thing. But Gadamer’s point is that some prejudices are bad, but others a quite helpful. I have a prejudice that Hebrew is read Right to Left, and it is a very useful prejudice to have when reading the Hebrew Bible!
Here’s the catch though: nobody can know in advance which prejudices will enable understanding and which prejudices will get in the way. What we can do, however, is be open to new experiences, which might challenge some of our prejudices. When we read an old book, or take a class alongside people from another culture, our prejudices are brought to our attention, and tested. At this point I go a little beyond Gadamer and bring in genre theory. I think a big source of unexamined prejudices are our assumptions about the genre of the text – what kind of thing are we reading? What is our job as readers here? Is this the kind of text where we are meant to imitate what the characters do?
Gadamer thinks that it is in dialogue – with the past, and with each other – that we become better readers. Now, he is also a realist, he knows that sometimes we are just going to end up in confusion and self-interest and bad conversations. But he also is an optimist, in that he describes the circumstances in which the truth about a subject matter can emerge in through good dialogue. We go in with our assumptions, we put them at risk in engaging with the text (and with other people) and that helps us refine our assumptions… and so on, again and again. The process of understanding and dialogue is a productive circle.
So Gadamer I think helpfully critiques some of the extremes people take on this question of interpretation. On the one hand, people who think they are being scientific and objective in studying the Bible are just deluding themselves. Nobody can read the Bible totally objectively, in the sense that we all have skin in the game! On the other hand, some of the more radical postmodern perspectives which deny that there is any authority or stability to the Bible are, Gadamer would suggest, being overly sceptical. Reading need not always be about power plays and oppression and instability. We can in fact read a text and reach a better understanding of what the author is trying to say to us – especially when that author is, ultimately, God!
IP: Can you give an example of how this helps in practice?
AJ: One of the examples I use in my thesis on Gadamer and the Bible is to look at how people used the Bible to justify, or oppose, the slave trade in nineteenth-century America. A common reaction people have is to sort of throw their hands up in despair – some preachers in the North were against slavery, others in the south were for it, so maybe the Bible means whatever you want it to mean on this issue.
But when you look closely at the way that interpreters on both sides of the issue used the Bible, it becomes clear that their interpretations rested on different prejudices. They had different assumptions about the ancient world (some of which are more accurate than others). They had different assumptions about the genre of the biblical texts they are reading (some which are more consistent with the way the Bible seems to present itself). And they were of course motivated by different payoffs (including the very obvious economic payoff of not having to free their slaves!).
So looking back at the history of people reading these passages, we can say in a meaningful sense that ‘this interpretive approach is better’ and ‘this approach is worse.’ (Spoiler alert: I think the abolitionists better interpret the Bible!) By ‘better’ here we are referring to the assumptions that we make when we set about reading the Bible as Scripture: how well it understands the ancient world, how consistent it is with the rest of the canon, how well it adheres with the genre of the text, and so on.
IP: What impact does your research have on the local church, and the ‘ordinary’ reading of scripture by Christians? Can they still have confidence in the authority of Scripture? Does your study raise issues for the training and equipping of leaders, and how we nurture people as disciples?
AJ: I think the deepest insight Gadamer has to offer us is that we need other people in order to read well. We are at our best as readers when we are in dialogue – dialogue with the ancient text, with long-dead interpreters, with other cultures, and with those nearby.
Connected with this is the idea of a cautious respect for authority. Gadamer talks about the rehabilitation of authority as a proper concept. The person you’re talking to might know more about the subject matter than you do! The Enlightenment thought you should do your own research and never rely on authority. But of course there is always a point that we have to rely on the expertise or knowledge of others.
I think in our training of leaders we need to make sure we don’t accidentally encourage people to distrust of the very idea of authority with our Reformation rhetoric (‘don’t trust the preacher, open your Bibles and see for yourself!’). Now, I’m all for making the Bible our primary authority, and encouraging biblical literacy from the pews. But there are people in the world who know things I don’t know, and I can learn from them! And when you reject the wisdom of your elders and teachers you don’t actually dispense with authority, you actually just end up listening to unaccountable authorities. Reading Daniel without input from capable Bible scholars is a sure way to end up on a YouTube channel with your very own doomsday cult.
IP: How has your work shaped your own approach to and reading of Scripture?
AJ: One of the most fruitful thing for me has been rediscovering the history. As part of my work I spent a lot of time reading through old interpretations of Bible passages. At one point, for example, I looked at every interpreter I could find on Judges 19. It was horrific – even worse than the story itself, which is saying something. But it was so useful, because it showed how all of us are shaped by our historical context in ways that are hard to isolate. It also showed how a bad idea can take root in the commentaries and be passed from generation to generation. I’m much more aware too of thinking outside the normal genres of commentary – some of the best readings of that text I found in a satirical poem, a women’s rights pamphlet and a series of Bible illustrations.
The other has been a renewed appreciation for the value of conversation across cultures. It’s hard work but it’s great. I remember one seminar I was running on the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and I expressed some dismay that Abram hadn’t gotten involved in the dispute between Hagar and Sara. One of my students shared that, as someone from a family where polygamy was practised, it made total sense – it would be incredibly inappropriate for men to get involved in the disputes between the wives. I found that suggestion fascinating – I had made assumptions that I didn’t even know I was making! To paraphrase Gadamer, the more we keep talking, the more one or both of us might learn something.
IP: Thanks very much Andy—that’s really fascinating. And I look forward to seeing your thesis in print in due course!
Revd Dr Andy Judd has recently completed a PhD in Gadamer, Genre Theory and biblical hermeneutics at the University of Sydney. During the week he changes nappies, and teaches Old Testament and hermeneutics at Ridley College in Melbourne. He attends City on a Hill Melbourne with his wife Stephanie (also an ordained Anglican minister) and their two Juddlets.
As we start Advent, how do we make sense of the language in the New Testament about the ‘end of the world’? Why is it pastorally important to get this right? Is all the language about ‘rapture’, ’tribulation’ and ‘millennium’ helpful—or a distracting fiction?
Come and find out at Ian Paul’s Zoom teaching morning on Saturday 4th December: