Can we trust Scripture when there are so many interpretations?

 


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:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/making-sense-of-the-end-of-the-world-tickets-207768409907


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105 thoughts on “Can we trust Scripture when there are so many interpretations?”

  1. I had never heard of Gadamer, but this is very interesting. Thank you. But – “Is the Bible the word of God, or the thoughts of people?” Why not both?

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  2. I believe that the primary reason we are at sea now in the area of biblical interpretation is because we are ignorant of exactly what way we are opening the door to liberal interpretation. Liberal interpretation seeks to approach the bible completely unencumbered – as if God must prove his right to our lives every time we read – when our sin and God’s holiness and justice revealed to our hearts and in creation make that belief unjustifiable. We don’t have the right to first make judgements about the bible before it has the right to judge us.
    We haven’t noticed that often even those who call themselves evangelicals don’t have either of the following priorities BEFORE reading scripture:
    – We are supposed to look at a passage through the lens of the cross – since the cross is the event to which all of the Bible points – instead of interpret the cross by our own conclusions drawn from looking at all of scripture. The direction matters – only when biblical interpretation follows submission – instead of it having the opportunity to define what submission is – are we doing things in the right order – only the fear of God leads to wisdom.
    – We are supposed to look at a passage with the intention of identifying specifically what it says about the character of God – an aim which then leads to specifically changing one’s life to respond to that character (instead of for example just believing some piece of “theology” as if theology is something which is free not to relate directly to God’s character and plans written.
    When we don’t do either of these things we then become able to either deliberately or unintentionally look at a passage of scripture with a wrong ultimate aim.
    A simple example of what I am talking about it. Consider 1 Corinthians 13 – love is patient and kind, it does not envy or boast…
    If we take the preferred approach that I have just outlined we will reach conclusions which would otherwise be the furthest thing from our minds. So when reading this case we should conclude that the passage shows us that God – whose entire character is revealed in the cross – is in the cross revealing his patience and kindness, and his emptying himself instead of pushing himself forward. And we will realise that only in the cross is there power for us to exhibit these qualities. Whereas if we did not consider these things we might instead come away saying “I must try and be more patient and kind, and not boast and envy” which won’t do anything – there is absolutely now power to change separate from the cross. I listened to a lot of sermons early in my life which finished with “and so may we do X” as if the only thing we needed Christianity to give us was knowledge of right and wrong for us to be equipped to do right.
    And we might for example look at a supposedly controversial passage directed to either men or women and fail to ever bother asking how people’s sexuality reveals the character of God revealed in the cross – and instead only on what the passage says about who can sleep with who.

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    • So does (1) the cross trump the Bible, or does (2) the Bible trump the cross? I would go for (2) but I think Philip prefers (1). If someone prefers (1) but then appeals to the Bible to justify their view, this seems inconsistent.

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      • Hi Jamie,

        I love it how all it takes is for someone to prod and poke for others to be taken forward – in this case me. Thank you.

        We must allow no tension between Jesus the person and Jesus the word of God. It isn’t just me wanting to justifying being a conservative saying this – Jesus is specifically referred to as the word of God in John 1 – which tells us God’s character and plans should be considered entirely representable in words – and that every word of scripture should be examined with the specific intention of identifying and absorbing God’s character. Since the Bible says there is no tension between Jesus revealed in the cross and the word of God it is up to me to show how what I have said above does not create that tension.

        Before hearing the word of God we are prepared to receive it in God revealing to our hearts that there is a standard – and that we fall short of that standard – and also revealing in creation that he is merciful. And I put it to you that this specific preparation is deliberate – and covers all essentials – it’s all the preparation we need to receive Jesus in the cross. I also believe that it’s correct to say that substitutionary atonement is at the very bottom of the pile – it relies on nothing except the aspects of God’s character that I just mentioned are revealed pre-conversion for it’s being rightly understood. Of course without the word of God no-one knows the means by which God has shown them mercy. But a person is able to receive the central truth of the cross from the word of God because it requires nothing except submission – it doesn’t require the pre-converted person to make judgements about the relationship of particular truths. What we aren’t equipped to do without receiving the cross – without submitting to God – is to make judgements about how the rest of scripture is an expression of the cross or how it points to the cross – or see how it relates to ourselves and the world. The cross must first become experiential truth for that to be possible – I believe this is confirmed in our being told that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom – if this does not mean what I am saying it means I cannot see what else it could mean.

        We are supposed to be reading scripture with the in dwelling Spirit testifying to our spirit the fullness of what we read – when I say testifying I mean that God doesn’t just say “this is what this means” – his presence is also manifested in respect of what we are learning – and his power made available to fulfil it. We must only consider ourselves to believe something – to have confirmed something to be true – when it has become true in us. This is why for the person who is impatient to acquire knowledge exposure to a lot of intellectual truth can be unhelpful for their developing a one to one relationship with God in which they have growing faith in his ability to teach them authoritatively. To limit ourselves to only that which has been confirmed to our spirit is to initially make our tent smaller – and it is humbling to choose the right but slower path when others refuse to accept this path and seem to make quick progress – or attempt to buy their way into a position through theological education – but we will end up having authority! Jesus was and is God but his authority as a human being was gained as ours is – in being the best submitter to the Father there ever was or will be.

        I hope that helps.

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        • Philip, reading this (well skimming really) I’m left with the question, where does the resurrection fit into your scheme of things? The way you tell it, it seems rather unnecessary…

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          • Hi Bernard,

            I have written more than my fair share here – which no doubt makes it difficult to read everything I have said. On a different thread under this article I specifically said – in reply to Steven Robinson:

            “If your objection is based on the fact that I did not mention Jesus’ resurrection when mentioning his death it was my intention in referring to his death to include his resurrection”.

            Our hope is of course that we are united with Jesus in both is death and resurrection.

        • Philip, thanks for your reply to my previous question – for some reason the form is not letting me reply to it directly. If you’re asserting that Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection are two sides of the same coin, and that neither has meaning without the other, then I’d agree with you wholeheartedly. But from the tenor of your posts, with such a heavy emphasis on the Cross (and nary a mention of the Resurrection except implicitly) I’m left wondering what you think the point of the Resurrection was?

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          • Hi Bernard,
            I’m afraid I don’t understand your reply to my previous post. In my previous post I said – even if said in other words “you see everywhere I talked about the death of Jesus? It should have been understood to mean both his death and his resurrection”.
            I hope that you will fairly quickly grasp the point in order not to appear as one delighted to have found fault even when someone has explained their meaning.

        • OK. So by “cross” you mean “Passion and Resurrection”. Got you. Perhaps I’m labouring this too much, but it seems to me there is a danger for some Christians (not saying you’re necessarily guilty of such) of so emphasising our Lord’s death as the act that secured our redemption, that the Resurrection is reduced to an afterthought. I remember even as a child (in a good evangelical missionary home) thinking if Jesus’ death has secured all this for us, what was the need for the Resurrection? Whereas the truth of course is that if Jesus had not been raised his death would have availed nothing.

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          • Incidentally, I’m new to this blog, and it doesn’t seem to tell me when you’ve replied. So I only see your responses when I check back. Hence the long gaps…

      • Yes – the cross without the word of the cross is not revelation. Think how nearly everyone, except the dying criminal and the centurion got it totally wrong.

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        • The Pharisee is the word without Jesus:
          John 5:39 ESV
          You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

          And the liberal is Jesus without the word:
          John 14:15 ESV
          If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

          (I acknowledge that there were god fearing Pharisees – I am using the word in its negative sense).

          Reply
          • Often things come to us because a series of circumstances make it difficult to think of anything else. As is the case here – of late we have been talking about there being no difference between teaching (the word) and pastoring (the presence) – so you see it was not such a great achievement. But thank you for the generous words.

          • If a remnant in the UK church put the two together it’s all over red rover for the powers of darkness. Jesus is the light of the world. When we turn on a light does the darkness say “Oh ok then, you want to play that game? You’re on!” Of course not – the darkness is INSTANTLY destroyed. I see it as the mission of this forum to search for that until we find it – evidenced in our speaking it and living it – and to give encouragement where we see the other person moving nearer it.

    • The cross is the event to which all of the Bible points.
      I don’t believe this is a defensible assertion (even if it sounds good), but rather an example of a ‘prejudice’ in the negative sense.
      Owing to its length, I haven’t read your reply to Jamie, sorry.

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      • Hi Steven,

        Is your objection to this idea because of a belief that Jesus’ death should not be considered more pertinent than for example his incarnation – or his life?
        Jesus’ wouldn’t have died on the cross if not for the fact that he was incarnated.
        And he would not have been a perfect sacrifice on the cross if not for the fact that he had submitted to his Father in every way during his life.
        His death therefore encompasses these things.

        Or is your objection to this idea due to your disputing whether the Old Testament points to Jesus? A great deal of effort to show that it does is made in the videos at the link below (I’m not in pointing to them vouching for every word in them):
        https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLZ3iRMLYFlHsHyvMtfgOgSPU6zEnCvxUO

        As for the New Testament I don’t think that any defence is necessary on the question of whether the life of the early church points back to Jesus.

        My reply to Jamie showed that we see in the way in which God prepares us before we come to know him to receive him that the starting point and foundation of our salvation is Jesus’ death on the cross. I say foundation because everything which we learn about God and his ways is only able to be understood or fulfilled having expressed fear of God in submission at the cross. I acknowledge that we shouldn’t make the cross the central event of Christianity because it is our salvation – it is the central event because the gospel is about the glory of God and God is glorified no more greatly than in his sacrifice for us. God would be no less glorified if no person returned to him in Christ.

        Finally there are those that believe that the gospel can be narrowed in a way that is inappropriate in respect of failing to show how Jesus’ death is part of a wider story about the kingdom of God. I don’t accept this. I don’t because whilst Jesus’ death is an event in a larger story of the kingdom of God – and whilst we are not saved into an individual life with God but a corporate one – the ONLY starting point God gives us by which to enter his kingdom is by responding to our sin individually. Our preaching must reveal the kingdom of God – but our evangelism must start with our sin and his death and resurrection.

        If your objection is based on the fact that I did not mention Jesus’ resurrection when mentioning his death it was my intention in referring to his death to include his resurrection.

        I welcome your criticism Steven as much as I have appreciated your past encouragement. I consider your independence of mind a blessing. I initially was of the view that the onus was on you to substantiate your claim but with some thought I see that it is on me. And I have tried to respond. However if I have not done enough in your opinion I ask that you actively substantiate how you see things and take the time to show in what way I have erred in disagreeing with me instead of merely saying you believe me to be wrong.

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        • The cross is the event to which all of the Bible points
          Evidently referring to the Old Testament. I can think of only a few passages (a dozen pages or so) that point to the cross. Off the top of my head: Gen 3:15, Gen 22, Ex 12-15, Lev 16, Jos 3, Ps 22, Ps 31, Zech 12-13. No doubt I have missed some, but I suspect that still leaves 98% of the Hebrew Bible not pointing to the cross.

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          • I think I now see why we are at cross purposes (pun intended!). I am saying that one should interpret all of the Old Testament as if it looks forward to Jesus because of how the New Testament tells us that we should understand it – not because every part of the Old Testament speaks as if knowing the future.

  3. Thanks Ian and Andy, great interview, very helpful. It reminds me of my own research on Luke-Acts and the role of the reader in establishing a Lukan Pneumatology. I used the model of Umberto Eco to ‘follow’ the steps people make while reading and interpreting a text.

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  4. Thanks Andy. This a really interesting and helpful post. I too, had not heard of Gadamer. It all reminds me what physics researchers do when presenting their findings: First draw the curve – then fit the data.

    As for parking tickets, then I know of lot of people for whom they would be open for interpretation..

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    • As a result of Anthony Thiselton’s use of him, those who study hermeneutics and biblical studies draw on Gadamer (and Paul Ricoeur) deeply at the level of method. Thiselton’s summary phrase is that biblical interpretation is about the ‘fusion of the two horizons’ of reader and text.

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    • Why do you say that? I am a research physicist and it is not true. We all have our pet theories but we are open to having them disproved by the data. Of course you might be talking about using the data to estimate the parameters in a particular functional form, eg the coefficients in a polynomial form. Please clarify.

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          • The evidence so far is that that do not. Well, I’m a physicist as well and I find it funny at my expense, as do a large number of my physics colleagues. Seems to be lost on you however.

            I will try to provide a trigger warning for you next time Anton.

          • Guys….

            May I express my delight and gratitude at having two physicists on the forum – physics – a subject I attempted at school and which remained a foreign language to me. It’s good to know that between you we have that area covered…

          • Instead of trigger warnings, please just avoid using comments that (rightly) elicit amusement in physics symposia on a theological blog where the readership will not grasp the satire.

  5. I suggest that the believer reads the Bible to see what God is saying to all of his people. Nonbelievers do not take it as the word of the Creator to the creation. Also, there is plenty of prophecy into specific situations which are words for only those believers involved in that situation. Scripture is for all believers.

    Scripture is capable of challenging all presuppositions, as you might expect if it is the world of God. I agree that dialogue is vital – but dialogue among believers.

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    • How do you see dialogue helping Anton? I mean I see it as potentially helpful – not authoritatively helpful.
      In the same vein I rail against the view I hear expressed at times which considers that any time believers don’t adopt the counsel of others they are being sinful. I cannot see how the counsel of others is more reliably authoritative by the addition of more people – if God’s counsel to one person is not authoritative.

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      • By dialogue I mean no-holds-barred Bible studies among the faithful. I agree with the comment about reading Daniel in the interview; I do not hold with the Catholic view that its Magisterium’s opinion is as inerrant as scripture; and I
        long ago lost interest in dialogue with liberal theologians about the Bible, because their teaching is based on the phrase “Did God really say?” and I reckon it has the same source. That leaves no-holds-barred Bible studies among the faithful – which I reckon is what was going on among Israel’s faithful in Christ’s era.

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  6. Thank you for this. It is most helpful.

    At the moment I’m working my way through Jonathan Sack’s “Covenant and Conversation” series. I think that it illustrates that the riches that are to be had in having Jewish Biblical interpretation as a conversation partner, particularly in regard to the Tanakh, but I guess also in considering the use of that in the NT.

    One thing one learns from this series very clearly is that Jewish interpretation of their scriptures consciously draws upon a history of interpretation over two thousand years. Also, one learns that much of this interpretation procedes by argument!

    One particular thing I read recently relates to the question of genre, although more broadly than for an individual text. The three sections of the Tanach are seen (at least by some) as follows:

    – The Torah (better ‘instruction’ than ‘law’) is seen as words from God
    – The Nevi’im (prophets) is seen as words from God through men [sic]
    – The Ketuvim (writings) is seen as words of men to God

    This last came out in something else I have read recently. A comment by a Jew on the use of a verse from one of the Psalms by Christians was: we don’t make law from poetry.

    Reply
  7. Is there any room in this interpretive paradigm for the adage that scripture interprets scripture, though I deduce that from Andy Judd’s paper on Acts, that there is? But there seems to be little reference to it in the interview.
    Similarly, is there any attempt to unify the genres into one cogent, biblical whole, with cross-cutting, themes and longitudinal canonical coherent completeness? Even more pointedly, the employment of the hermeneutic of Jesus on the Emmaus Road?
    Any room for the Holy Spirit?

    Reply
  8. (1) The multiplicity of interpretations does not decrease the chance of the correct one being there in the mix. That is a well known fallacy. It actually increases it.

    (2) The multiplicity of interpretations is a result of scholars being precise and nuanced. To the untrained eye the options advocated by the guild may not seem that different always.

    (3) Generally speaking there is a psychological element. Which there should not be – it is quite wrong. People like the interpretations they are used to, which they grew up with, which are personally congenial, which they first plumped for in their formative years, which appeared in the Bible introductions they read (a self-perpetuating process), which they have made their name on the back of, which their friends hold to, and so on. So no wonder there is a diversity. But that diversity has no truck with honesty or truth: a psychological base is fatal to those.

    (4) There is a vested interest in the guild in problems never actually getting solved. That too is not good, and is highly surprising to those who would have expected that we are in a scientific enterprise to some degree.

    Reply
    • (And of course there is a fear sometimes of not being in the majority, or of being perceived maverick. For years people ”had to” treat Bultmann or Kuemmel as orthodoxy, yet when someone challenged this, the response was sometimes ‘Yes, we’ve thought that for years.’.)

      Reply
      • Ah, yes Christopher, now there’s an idea, not new, but perpetuated; the guild, the guild of scholars, the guild of the academy.
        From one who was outside the guild of biblical scholasticism, higher/form criticism but recognised its traits fom within the academy, was a keenly observed, lecture, *The Inner Ring*, from CS Lewis.
        Those pesky concentric circles abound as identity markers, sometimes carrying a weight beyond merit, an authority beyond the scope of the narrowly ploughed specialist- interest furrow.
        Some years ago I came away from an extended weekend teaching from an internationally renowned NT scholar, hosted by a New Frontiers church, with two main responses:
        1 encouragement through the depth of and enthusiasm for biblical study that could result in easily articulated, understandable lectures that were both edifying and faith building- a gift to the church.
        2 a discomforting idea that the lecturer was seeking to make a name for themselves that would rank among the history of theologians. ( An excellent book on the topic was subsequently published).

        Reply
        • The Inner Ring is certainly a wonderful essay that articulates truths that Lewis had long identified, but in general I find scholars are fighting on the right side, or more so than most other professions. They are probably subject to guild-type pressures (need not to rock the boat; need to behave a certain way to those who might give one a job; need therefore not to appear too maverick) that I am blissfully unaware of.

          Reply
          • Slightly off the topic of the interview, Christopher, but ingeneral, in universities over the last few years there has been much to disturb the idea of integrity in reseach, in free speach through deplatforming, through hostility from colleagues. The recent resignation of a philosophy prof is but an example. She didn’t toe the line on LGBT…ideology. Noah Carl is another. Not forgetting Essex Uni. And Cambridge’s treatment of
            Jordan Peterson. Then there was the law prof at Ox/Cam and a history prof somewhere, but I forget where or who.
            Many unis have lost the plot, their reason for being, taken over some while ago by people of my Boomer generation, even as some have retired, expired.

          • Geoff
            Those concerned about the suppression of free speech in this country and elsewhere can lend their moral support to those resisting it by subscribing to the Free Speech Union, which campaigns, engages with offending institutions, and provides legal support to individuals who fall victim to the thought police.

          • Steven,
            Thanks for that. My concern is that this is a far deeper and darker matter, than generalised free speech. It related to the universities, how and what is taught, marking and grading. A Sheffield Uni Social Science student comes to mind, as does a Dundee Uni law student. While there are imposed boundaries on what to think, how to think and debate are simultaneously closed down and not taught.
            And when is science not science and research not research and interpretation thereof wide of the mark? This article goes against the flow of recently cited research as it weighs and evaluates the research, thereby undermining the journalist reporting. It is a hot topic – face masks. It is written by Simon Wood, prof of Stats at University of Edinburgh.
            https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/do-masks-really-halve-the-risk-of-covid-a-note-on-the-evidence?utm_medium=email&utm_source=CampaignMonitor_Editorial&utm_campaign=LNCH%20%2020211129%20%20Black%20Friday%20%20SM+CID_4ad53e24a591c11b5d6eec9febe4f330

            And sure, this has become highly politicised.

          • I called the Oxford University Offices to speak to the proctors to see what punishment was given to the people who destroyed the ”prolife” stall at Freshers’ Fair. They have not come back to me.

            When Cambridge withdrew their offer to Jordan Peterson, they misused the word ‘refute’ to mean ‘deny’.

            I live in hope.

          • Immediately after that, I now find that the receptionist has been instructed not to put anyone through to the proctors, who are corresponding by email only.

  9. What a fascinating & instructive article – thank you.
    My mind went on to think about horizons. Not many years ago astronomers took advantage of the Hubble Telescope, enabling them to see far distant galaxies, & go back to near the “big bang”. Now there is another telescope on its way into space. When that works we shall able to see further back in time – & that must lead to new ideas & new discoveries concerning
    creation, the universe and even God.

    The cry that is essential is widen your horizon. When I was a vicar I preached a series of Sermons to a Conservative Evangelical congregation based on “Honest to God”. I must admit to disagreeing with much of what Bishop John Robinson wrote, but I agree with Mervyn Stockwood who stated that this book was intended to be evangelistic. It helped me, & other Christians, listen & think outside the box – something that we Christians must always be prepared to do. We all need to widen our horizons – that will enable us to discover more of the truth – including the truths to be found in scripture.

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  10. “One of the most fruitful things 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.”

    While of interest in itself, I wonder how helpful this reception history is when looking for the original meaning of any biblical text in its context?

    There has been a huge surge in biblical theology over the last 50 years which has expanded the knowledge of the ancient Near East and its languages, and of Second Temple Judaism. The former impacting in particular the understanding of the Hebrew Bible and the latter the New Testament.

    In other words, no matter what intellect and wisdom is to be found in these old commentaries I for myself would need to check with a more modern source before putting any weight on their interpretation.

    If Dr Judd was taking a seminar on the patriarchal narratives in Genesis perhaps he should have understood some of the intricacies of Old Testament marriage—and that it was polygyny that was practised, not as he suggests polygamy. Much can be learned about this from the Judaean desert documents discovered and published in the second half of the 20th century and addressed in recent scholarship—but unknown to much of reception history.

    I suggest keeping the reception history as a hobby!

    Reply
      • Geoff,

        I think it is called biblical theology. In contrast to systematic or historical theology. No one is more worthy than the other. But if you want to get at the text in its original context I suggest biblical theology is the best place to start. There are a great many examples beyond the I one have given.

        Reply
        • This is demonstrated in Dr Judd’s own example. In his class he was corrected by his student—I am sure Dr Judd’s erudition far exceeded that of his student but the context of marriage in ancient Israel is not that of the 21st century West. I imagine his student was either from Africa or perhaps an Islamic background.

          Reply
  11. I have just read ‘the scripture of truth’ by sidney collett, published in 1904.
    It makes me wonder what modern popular exegesis will look like in a few years time.

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      • When a thinker is that good, then one positively encourages him to get his fingers in many pies, for who knows where he will increase the light?

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        • Wisdom is so previous that Proverbs tells us to spend our entire selves to get it. It is therefore understandable that those who have wisdom find that it has wide application.

          One reason Jordan Peterson wasn’t welcome at Cambridge two years ago was people realised deep down that if he was let loose he would expose them. He is welcome now because there has been some pulling back. I’m not saying that Peterson’s ideas are all correct – I’m saying that some of them are so correct that they deserve our attention. An example of one that is not correct is in the famous interview with Cathy Newman – Peterson argues that women to be successful in the work place need to learn to act like men – when what they and men need to do is to be appropriately assertive and then submit to God – let him open and shut doors for them.

          As proof of his possessing some humility while having a wide reach I noticed in a recent video that Jordan Peterson doesn’t indulge himself when he has no answer. He was asked in one interview what he believed were the answers for climate change – something which it is not inappropriate for him to comment on from a psychological perspective. He thought for a while and simply said he had absolutely none – which for him (and many others) must be terrifying. His choosing not to answer increased my confidence in his integrity because as Christians we know that since he is not to this point a Christian – he doesn’t yet have an answer. The answer is God’s grace – that God will by his grace enable us to worship him instead of created things – that when we humble ourselves, and pray and seek his face and turn from our wicked ways, he will hear from heaven and will forgive our sin and heal our land.(2 Chron 7:14). And his grace also exists in the form of our having the ingenuity to find solutions.

          Here’s a thought – Jordan Peterson’s strength arises entirely from his compassion – when I listen to him I feel like someone who doesn’t care. Love finds a way – it seeks to understand.

          On the question of biblical interpretation (and having just watched the Jordan Peterson video linked here in which he shows the diagram of interconnection with scripture (which has been around for a number of years) we should think of the way in which scripture leads us to the right interpretation in the same we think about how difficult it is for a person to lie in court. It’s incredibly difficult – the tiniest inconsistencies in someone’s testimony begin to have nuclear reaction like fall out. The Bible’s being so extraordinarily interconnected is a reason to expect that it will lead us EXTREMELY ACCURATELY to the truth.

          The other day on this forum Steven Robinson was arguing for the idea that our being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) meant that we look physically like God. He believed that the fact that the word for image is used elsewhere in scripture in speaking about idols was supportive of his case. His view led me to wonder – what hope is there of being able to prove it one way or the other? I felt like we reached an end point. And then I open up my bible today and there it was – “Jesus is the image of THE INVISIBLE GOD” (Colossians 1:15). This verse will use a different word – Greek not Hebrew – but it shows that there is definitely a dimension to our being made in the image of God which is not physical. It is extraordinary how both authoritative and sophisticated the Bible is – dare I say BECAUSE GOD INSPIRED IT!

          Reply
          • Or if you prefer Romans 8:29 where the image we are predestined to conform to is not physical:
            ESV
            For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son..

          • Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman reproduced my own experience with liberals exactly. An average of one misunderstanding per sentence.

          • I like Cathy Newman.

            And I find people that argue with me a whole lot more interesting than those who are moved to say nothing at all. Her predisposition to disagree was revealed – but this is not a new thing in any of us. Notice though how she responded – with humility.

          • The image of the invisible God.!

            Amen

            Thanks Philip. I was chewing that bone too. Partly because Steven’s claim got me itching and partly because I’m making work of art depicting Jesus amongst the 7 lamp stands. It’s the first time I’ve tried to make an image of Jesus. A dangerously tricky thing to do. I’m using a waterfall to represent both His voice and His robe.

          • Yes. But note the content. On her side, slogans and cliches. On his, teasing away at the slogans and cliches to see if they actually hang together; together with empirical analysis.

            I too like some of Cathy Newman’s work. Some of it I do not like one bit. Look at that appalling Dispatches episode when she (very well paid) pursued the poor and humble pro-lifer down the street for the crime of standing up for young humans who would otherwise be killed. Look at the way her ‘expert’ gave a one-sided analysis of the link of abortion to breast cancer and was uncontactable later. (While in the mosque episode she was too quick to jump to conclusions about the entrance door and got the wrong end of the stick. All because of cliched presuppositions, which are of exactly the sort our schoolchildren are now being fed with.)

          • Cathy Newman did a good job of persisting in a street interview with John Smyth, but I consider that Jordan Peterson hit her for six.

          • I fear I have been misrepresented. Inasmuch as we are called and destined to be conformed into the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, the meaning is clearly spiritual – notwithstanding that the statement “Jesus is the image of the invisible God” itself draws attention to the fact that Jesus made visible the invisible God, i.e. made him physically visible. By the same token, we are not made in the image of God, because it is by the power of God released through his Holy Spirit that we become like him. If we were already made like him in a spiritual sense we would not need to become like him spiritually. The statement “we are made in the image of God” can only legitimately be with reference to the original physical creation of Adam, from whom we all descend. It’s non-biblical, atheistic evolutionism that teaches a different view. Genesis 1 is plain. It’s entirely about the physical creation, and as regards humanity Gen 1:26-27 emphasises the point by saying God (1) made man ‘after our likeness’ – cf. Gen 5:1-3, where Seth is in Adam’s likeness in the same way as Adam is in God’s likeness – and (2) created them ‘male and female’. Male and female in a physical sense, so that they could be fruitful and multiply.

            Why would the Genesis text use the word ‘image’ at all if it intended the modern interpretation placed upon it? A contemporary of Moses would certainly have understood the word in the way I have suggested.

            Evidently one can be impressed by introducing Gadamer into theoretical ruminations about how to read Scripture and still not ‘get it’. Personally, I don’t see anything very helpful or novel in bringing him in, but will judge its value by the fruits, should it so happen that theologians now, with a sense of indebtedness, invoke him from time to time.

          • Hi Steven,
            I think it’s helpful that we have clarified that you support every part of the commonly held belief that God intends that we be transformed into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirt – that image in this sense is spiritual not physical. And presumably you also believe that in being made perfect in Genesis we were also fully in the image of God in the spiritual sense.
            The only point on which you differ then is whether Gen 1:27 is about being made in the image of God spiritually. On that key point you say “It’s non-biblical, atheistic evolutionism that teaches a different view”. I’m afraid that I am not able to understand that statement on its own – and since it appears to be the pertinent one in respect of how you see Genesis 1:27 I’d appreciate it if you could flesh it out.

          • I am concerned that there is a wrong understanding of how to view those who don’t know God in the comments expressed here about Cathy Newman. And I suspect that this is also evidence of our not understanding how God views our sin as believers.

            I have become convinced that the biblical position is that nowhere in scripture is God recorded to hate all sin. There are two kinds of sin – there is sin which is the result of the flesh – actions which are the inevitable consequence of weakness. And then there is sin which is the result of the will – and when I say the will I don’t’ mean the choice to sin – I mean actions which are the inevitable consequence of our specific choice in relation to God’s love revealed. I believe that God is shown to hate everyone and every thing that arises from the latter – that in these circumstances God actually hates not just the person’s sin but the person themselves. This is why he will not grieve for those in hell for eternity – because those who refuse his love are making the choice to be WHOLLY given over to evil – they are still human but they are indistinguishable from the devil himself (this incidentally is how Calvinists see all pagans which will – I believe I have shown here – will inevitably lead to a failure of compassion – and to feelings of superiority). This refusal to accept God’s love is translated at least in some places as evil doing (see for example Psalm 5:4-6 and Psalm 26:5, Romans 12:9) – God is recorded to hate it and the latter two verses show that we should too. Whilst I believe I must be close to right if not right on this issue I don’t have it all sorted because I see the word evil used in scripture to refer to sin which is the consequence of weakness. There may be different words in the original languages or we may be required to simply understand in what sense the word is being used.

            No-one will be in hell for simply being a sinner – they will also have had to choose to have committed contempt for God’s love revealed in either creation – or Jesus – or both (see 2 Thessalonians 1:8 for both groups).

            So then – God’s hatred/grief is confined to:
            – the CONSEQUENCES arising from such sin (our sin may open the door to evil having a hold) and
            – sin which arises from people’s refusal to turn to him after he has revealed himself in creation or in the cross.

            I believe that to hold people to the letter of the law while refusing to recognise that the person is distant from Jesus is to be a Pharisee. If we judge those who don’t believe in this way we very much need to change our attitude. We are by behaving in this way considering any righteousness we have to be to our credit – a state of living which is inconsistent with being reliant on God’s mercy and grace.

            So then is there no means of judging the character of someone like Cathy Newman – who as far as I know doesn’t claim to know God? Yes there is. The key thing to look for – both with believers and unbelievers – is how people respond to God’s holiness, justice, mercy and grace when it is revealed to them. I commented here that Cathy Newman responds well to having her disposition to find fault in him revealed – to justice. As an illustration of what spiritual life looks like pre-conversion I love the events leading up to the conversion of Nicky Cruz – who pre-conversion was a leader of a New York gang in the 1950’s and was converted through the ministry of David Wilkerson. His autobiography is Run Baby Run – and the book written about the events concerning him by David Wilkerson is called The Cross and The Switchblade. Anyway Cruz grows up in an environment where there is no love – or if there was he was in a state of mind and heart which prevented him from seeing it. He gradually descends into a rage – that rage – time would reveal – was really him saying “You’re wrong, I am worth something – and I will show you I am!” This is not a wrong belief – and actions which arise from that belief are not evil no matter how severe. He is a violent person who mistreats women when he is confronted with undeserved love by David Wilkerson – accompanied by the words that he simply couldn’t cope with – “Jesus loves you”. He couldn’t cope with them because when it came to those who had never shown him love he was able to be scornful – but when it came to mercy and grace he was completely undone. The most famous example of this being reflected in his life is when Wilkerson – as if completely mad – decides to hold an event for all the New York gangs. The gangs think it is hilarious – they will just turn up – end up in a fight – and trash the place. Nicky Cruz is asked to take the offering (one would wonder why there is an offering – but time shows that it is a test of people’s attitude toward God). When at the event it is announced that Nicky will be taking the offering the gangs again just laugh – they presume that he will simply steal the money and leave. However when the moment comes he simply cannot – his heart is bound by the love shown him by Wilkerson. He shows that whatever love is shown to him will change him. And he is shocked by the fact that he is bound to do right and feels the joy of doing good. And that very day he and some other members of his gang are converted.

            This is what we should look for in seeking to understand if there is spiritual life in our church or in those we seek to evangelise. If we condemn all sin we are a Pharisee. And if we persist even when there is no response to God’s love from those around us we are a liberal – we are remaining committed to relationships when we should have moved on.

          • I also find Wilkerson and Cruz paradigmatic. But funnily enough I find the ‘I love you’ approach potentially an easy and facile one to take. I say potentially. At other times (as with Wilkerson) it is genuine, and therefore floors people, and can often bring about lasting change. But it is hard to get one’s head around – so often people’s real objection to God is nothing but a projection of their own unloved-feeling psychology. Thus children who are not loved by their elders are likely to see God in the image of their elders. Their acceptance of God is bound up with their degree of security. Why, I don’t know. Did their elders make the universe? Also, saying ‘I love you’, something 100% good in itself when it is genuine, does not solve any of the substantive issues. I would also question whether CN’s motivation is always pure. Together with A Graystone there is an element of wanting to bring down the element that is perceived as anti-LGBT, as they frame it. I do not believe that anyone who could treat poor Jusztyna like that in the Dispatches programme is, in that instance, purely motivated. They sound more like someone who wants to shout very loudly and put their fingers in their ears to avoid the truth that young humans are being killed. Even working for Channel 4 with its track record is something questionable.

          • Presumably you also believe that in being made perfect in Genesis we were also fully in the image of God in the spiritual sense.
            I’m sorry that I still have not made myself sufficiently clear. Or maybe the idea that we are made in the image of God in a biblically spiritual sense is so ingrained that people read what I have set out in the clearest terms and still cannot understand.

            To repeat: ‘We are not made in the image of God, because it is by the power of God released through his Holy Spirit that we become like him. If we were already made like him in a spiritual sense we would not need to become like him spiritually.’

            Your understanding is nothing less than a contradiction of the gospel, common though it is. Genesis says that we were not made spiritually like God. It was only after eating from the tree that man became spiritually like God (Gen 3:22), and then only in a sense that left him alienated from him. Unfaithful, or at least unthinking, Christians say we were made physically in the image of apes and spiritually in the image of God. The Bible says we (in Adam) were made physically in the image of God and spiritually became unworthy of that image, so that we died and became men of dust. The gospel says, the only way to be like God spiritually is to become like Christ spiritually, and that means dying to oneself and being created anew. The gospel is set out in Romans, culminating with Rom 8:29-30.

            We shall be conformed to the image of the Son in every way, bodily as well as spiritually. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we who are born again, from above, will [future] also bear the image of the man of heaven (I Cor 15:49). The contrast here is between a physical body and a spiritual body. We shall be made new spiritually and new bodily (Rev 21:5).

            Attend – if it makes any difference – to what Dr Judd is saying. The first question when reading Genesis is to determine what the author meant, not what interpretation conforms with the modern world-view. We must beware of ‘reading from within our own particular tradition’ and instead try to read from within the particular tradition/culture of the original author – in this case, a world entirely given over to polytheism and adultery, where ‘image’ could only mean one thing, viz. the bodily representation of the invisible God.

          • Steven,

            You know when you really understand a biblical passage you also feel as if you deeply understand why the writer is writing what he wrote? Well I simply don’t have that feeling about the part of 1 Corinthians 15 you quote from – so I am all the more open to having the truth click more firmly into place. And I appreciate the detail with which you have shared your view – and I don’t mind at all being told I don’t understand the gospel in some way when told by someone who then proceeds to explain why.

            What you are telling me – and what I don’t understand about 1 Corinthians – combine to leave me with many questions. I’m just going to start with one. If as believers we relate to God now Spirit to spirit – not for example mind to mind – not flesh to flesh – (not in the sense of sin – only in the sense of earthly body) how do you imagine that Adam relates to God before the fall? Because he clearly does.

            The other thing I am thinking about is that God’s ultimate plan – devised before creation and not in response to sin – is that everything be united with God in and through Christ. How then do you see creation – the state or human beings with God pre-fall – relating to that? If Eden is not spiritual – and God’s ultimate plan is spiritual – what is Eden? If we are supposed to be spiritual and in Christ what place does our being non-spiritual have in the overall story and plan of God? A question arising from that is – do you believe that anyone who lives a perfect life can go to heaven? I do because creation is spiritual and made through Christ – and also that people can be made right with God in Christ. How do you see these things?

          • Christopher, you seem to have completely missed my point – or you disagree with it. I mean to say – I thought I had already – that the very thing you raise in respect of Cathy Newman’s behaviour – her motives in a particular situation – are not a basis for judging her attitude towards God. Yet you raise it as a reason for not considering her possibly open to God – as if God only saves people with good motives. If we looked at Nicky Cruz before he was converted we could easily say that his motives were to trash anything and everyone who came within range of him. But this would be an inadequate understanding of him. I believe that we can only draw definitive conclusions about people when we remove the barriers we purposely place between us and them so we can choose to know only some of someone else – so we can exclude them. People are only making conclusive decisions when given an opportunity to respond to holy, just, merciful and gracious love – to the gospel. Even when they respond positively we will need wisdom to see it. They may go from someone who screams hatred toward God to someone who goes strangely silent but is otherwise unmoved. It’s too easy in any other situation to say – ignorant of the pressures on people – “well I wouldn’t act that way if I was in that situation”.

            Why do you say that Cruz and Wilkerson are paradigmatic? When I explained exactly why Cruz’s conversion is not? They are the words of someone who sounds eager to find any means possible of undermining the beauty of the character of the God who allows a range of people to enter into the kingdom. And why the small minded comments about “God loves you”? You say “Also, saying ‘I love you’, something 100% good in itself when it is genuine, does not solve any of the substantive issues”. Why not? The gospel is about the love of God – nothing else. Saying “God loves you” works perfectly well when – as you refuse to admit because you wish it wasn’t true – the creator wishes for it to do so. The words “God loves you” spoken from the mouth of a person who is holy, just, merciful and gracious – self-giving – are a perfectly good summary of the gospel. Is there anything left for you to focus on in respect of these events except the greatness of God revealed in them? I cannot think of anything. Why don’t you just reply with the word no in order not to give any other impression?

            I visited Time Square Church’s website this week and became aware of the fact that Time Square Church – now in an extremely wealthy part of Manhattan – was started in a location which was the venue for many neglected and broken people and Wilkerson cried out to God that he would make it possible for him to help them. A clue to how we might be guaranteed to get God’s attention.

          • I think you are making many points not one. But I disagree with your view of whether and where nonChristians are culpable, and agree with Romans 1 that they are culpable in respect of what they must already know.

            Yes, we visited Times Square Church in 2008. A remarkable turn around in the area from what you say. The Brooklyn Tabernacle has a similar and similarly praisworthy ministry. I see Wilkerson and Cruz as paradigmatic because from their story we see peculiarly clearly the mechanics of how the gospel has effect. Each of the stages of D Wilkerson’s life, including the middle stage when he ran Teen Challenge (a remarkable organisation) is worthy of study.

          • The culpability spoken about in Romans 1 is a lower form of culpability. We should from our perspective only consider this culpability fully formed when a person dies without responding adequately to God. If we think that a person’s culpability is the same before and after hearing the gospel our understanding must be flawed – if we thought that there would be no reason to preach the gospel. We also have no idea what an adequate response is – the Bible doesn’t spell that out – a person who hasn’t heard the gospel cannot for example become a “knowing” Christian.

            With these things in mind we aren’t entitled to look at the sin of any non-believer and draw ANY conclusions about it from the perspective of someone’s relationship with God – except in very specific circumstances – and even then we should only draw limited conclusions (more on that below). We can of course make conclusions about the nature of someone’s character as for example any employer does when interviewing someone for a job – but this isn’t a process of separating the spiritually alive from the spiritually dead.

            So when can we draw conclusions – and what conclusions can we reach? We should only come to some conclusions about the nature of someone’s CURRENT response to the gospel (which may be different from their response to God for reasons we cannot see) when we have the means to know that they have been shown the love of God in word and deed and shown contempt for it. If they don’t respond positively we conclude only that there is nothing we can do AT THAT MOMENT to save them. I’m not saying that people change in the way they respond to grace – they don’t – I’m saying that we should act only as those who to the best of our judgement believe that someone is responding negatively FOR SOME REASON.

            The way in which God’s nature is revealed in our hearts and in creation means that we are without excuse (v20) but we aren’t told exactly what we are expected to have done – it isn’t for example a level of culpability which makes the slightest evidence of sin in our lives a sign that we should have turned to God – at least I hope not – because I didn’t turn to God until I heard the gospel. And I have sinned since doing so. Paul indicates that God has mercy on him despite his behaviour towards Christians before being saved because he acted ignorantly. I’m not about to tell him that he should still have known how to act because of Romans 1! So it’s clear that we cannot use the extremity of someone’s wrongdoing to put them under Romans 1 culpability. The only people who will be in hell are those whose response to God’s love in creation is judged BY HIM – not us – to be inadequate – and those who specifically refuse Gods’ love in the gospel. Even when someone says out loud they wish to refuse the gospel we EVEN THEN cannot conclude that they are not saved – they may for example be mistaken in their understanding of what they are rejecting.

            We may in some situations conclude that someone with whom we have no direct contact is a person who is not going to respond – FOR WHATEVER REASON – to the truth. I don’t think that there are many who have thought that they were failing Hitler if they did not tell him the gospel. What about Donald Trump? Or the Taliban? I don’t know – and if I don’t know and I don’t immediately need to know there should be no reason why I should want to know.
            I therefore return to my point – that we should not in almost every situation not be in the business of deciding who has or has not made what is in your mind a response to God’s love which should affect how we respond to them – believer or unbeliever. We can draw conclusions about someone’s character but this is different (or should be) from allowing conclusions about their character to be conclusions about their response to God.

          • One final point I didn’t mention – someone who doesn’t know God will likely use methods of doing what they believe to be the right thing – the end justifies the means – which would if done by a Christian be more culpable. If for example I believed that Jordan Peterson was a bully (not recognising that in the way I confronted him I was also being a bully) I might therefore believe that the only way to do what is right is by pursuing the rules of the street. But is anyone going to tell a person who doesn’t know God – and behaves in that way as part of pursuing what they believe to be justice – that such actions are proof that the person will never love God?

          • It strikes me that many of the people you speak of would have known perfectly well at/since the age of 8-12 what the appropriate attitude was, and that therefore they are already in possession of that knowledge but have wilfully rejected it.

            After all, one did not see them acting in equally rebellious ways at that earlier age, so that can only be something that crept in later, as a worsening process.

          • That’s possible – but God doesn’t ask us to relate to people on the basis of what is possible – in order to exclude them if we possibly can. We are supposed to include them if we possibly can.

          • Well I simply don’t have that feeling about the part of 1 Corinthians 15 you quote from.
            You’re giving me the impression that exegesis is all about feeling. And of course I note that this is the limit of engagement regarding the actual words of the passage.

            If as believers we relate to God now Spirit to spirit – not for example mind to mind – not flesh to flesh – (not in the sense of sin – only in the sense of earthly body) how do you imagine that Adam relates to God before the fall? Because he clearly does.
            A big ‘if’, surely. See I Cor 2:16, Rom 8:6-7. We get to know God primarily through reading and meditating upon Scripture, and that involves the mind.

            Adam did not ‘relate to God’ before his transgression. The only words attributed to him are those at Gen 2:23, and they do not tell us anything about his relationship with God. Adam’s relationship was that of a morally responsible creature to his Creator, who blessed him, gave him certain instructions (Gen 1:28, 2:16) and then left him to follow those instructions. Woman was created on the sixth day, the couple enjoyed the garden and each other on the seventh, and interrupted God’s rest on the eighth. The Father and the Son have been working ever since. On that eighth day the couple’s relationship with their Maker was changed. I won’t say broken, since right sacrifice still enabled man to have some relationship with his Maker.

            The other thing I am thinking about is that God’s ultimate plan – devised before creation and not in response to sin – is that everything be united with God in and through Christ. How then do you see creation – the state or human beings with God pre-fall – relating to that?
            God foresaw man’s transgression, and indeed set him up for it. Those whom God foreordained for salvation before the foundation of the world were always saved in and through Christ, and therefore Christ’s saving sacrifice was foreordained ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Rev 13:8, the Greek putting the phrase at the end of the sentence, after ‘the Lamb who was slain’).

            What is Eden?
            Eden is where God planted a garden of fruit-trees on the third day and lived throughout the pre-Cataclysm (-Flood) period.

            Do you believe that anyone who lives a perfect life can go to heaven? I do because creation is spiritual and made through Christ – and also that people can be made right with God in Christ. How do you see these things?
            I regard that as unorthodox. In the biblical view (e.g. Hebrews) only one man ever lived a perfect life. Even after we are made right with God, we still sin (surely you don’t need a biblical reference for that?) and need to be washed.

          • He has never claimed to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ and those professors are therefore critiquing him out of their field.

          • Why are you acting as if I am attacking you Steven? I hope you realise that wanting to understand – and wanting to attack you – share the common characteristic of asking questions and making criticisms. I came to you confessing to not have an understanding of 1 Corinthians 15 which satisfied me – and you interpret that as me relying on my feelings. No it’s not. It’s me not being satisfied that I have a clear reason for why Paul is addressing the issues he is in 1 Corinthians 15. I was giving you an understanding of that because I was open to your helping me with that.

            You say – in response to my saying that we relate to God Spirit to spirit – “We get to know God primarily through reading and meditating upon Scripture, and that involves the mind”.

            You say primarily? How else do we get to know God? I don’t see how mind to mind – database to database – is relationship. Thinking thoughts about God – even thoughts that God puts in our minds – doesn’t amount to relating to God. The mind is unable to experience God’s presence. To have any view of God which receives him as word but not in spirit amounts to being a Pharisee. The word without Jesus – John 5:39

            And you say “Adam did not ‘relate to God’ before his transgression”.

            He related to God enough that when he turned from God God knew that he had gone away and sought him out. We don’t need to be privy to conversations between God and Adam and Eve to see this.

            You say about the fall – “I won’t say broken, since right sacrifice still enabled man to have some relationship with his Maker”.

            Well no, you can’t say broken because you just argued there was no relationship between God and Adam and Eve before the fall. There was nothing that could be broken.

            Because I wanted to see how you understood its place I asked you – “What is Eden?” meaning “what is Eden’s place in your doctrine?” and you answered:

            “Eden is where God planted a garden of fruit-trees on the third day and lived throughout the pre-Cataclysm (-Flood) period”.

            And finally I asked you about how you viewed the possibility – a theoretical one – of a man living a perfect life – because as far as I could tell you seemed to be suggesting that knowing God was only in Christ and not also in creation despite what is revealed for example in the listing of the two groups in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 – those who don’t know God – and those who don’t obey the gospel – and your reaction is to ask me “Do I have to tell you we are all sinners?”.

            If we didn’t know God in creation – and if we didn’t therefore break relationship with him in the fall – what is the place of the death of Jesus? I say it relates to broken relationship but logically – if I continue the beliefs I have ascertained of yours about how things began – you would have to believe that the purpose of the death of Jesus is not to reunited us with God – but to start a relationship with God that never started – to make us spiritual. Not that I can understand what that would be because you say that you don’t accept that we relate to God by any means other than our minds. You would surely acknowledge that your views leave you with much work to do. You must redefine everything that arises from your view of creation – all of scripture – all of biblical history. Even with this being the case consider my interactions with you as me inviting you to do exactly that.

        • And following in the footsteps of Jung’s metaphysical take on Christianity Peterson may be seen to be as much of a biblical scholar as any other unbelieving biblical scholar. What is more, his interpretation, from his world-view perspective and understanding of human nature, from his professional position, is as valid as theirs, by their own criteria of perspectivism.
          From what I’ve read and heard from and about him, he is much exercised by the crucifixion of Jesus.
          He seems to be so near yet so far.
          It would have been interesting to have been able to hear a discussion between him and CS Lewis.

          Reply
        • I wonder why middle-aged white men are so invested in Peterson?
          He’s a poor scholar even in his own field. Completely out of his depth in biblical scholarship and can’t even command respect on Question Time

          Reply
          • Some may see that more as a self- revealing comment about you, Penelope, than about Peterson, especially as you’ve not seen fit to make any substantive comment on the clip posted by Anton, and the points he draws out. You choose to respond, how?
            Maybe, you are unable/unwilling to do so and concede that he is correct in the substantive points he makes. Those points have nothing to do with skin colour, age, or biological sex. You may need to think beyond those categories.

          • Should this confession be required I confess to being middle-aged and white. Guilty in both respects. I have neither managed to reverse the reality of time and its effects – nor changed my skin colour since it was imposed upon me.
            On a more serious note I confess to having the same tendency to lump people into groups as a way of avoiding facing what God is seeking to show me as any liberal I have ever encountered.

          • How would you know he was a poor scholar in his own field if that field is not your field?

            How has he achieved the rank that he has, then? How does that compare with you and me?

            My interest is that the chat with Cathy Newman is a parable for our time: analysis versus cliches and slogans. I.e. he can *think* logically to a good degree. I doubt that this is more the case for him than for many others who are less well known.

          • Anton

            Perhaps because, like proffesors of Church History at Oxford and of Theology at Durham, we see that he is a charlatan.

          • More self-revelation Penelope, reverting to type, with a high-hand scholarly change of tack, if not from defamatory tat, moving from interpretion and postmodernism, the subject of the Peterson clip, on which you deign to make no comment, to a category of Church History specialist.
            Maybe, if the denunciation of white skinned and male is followed through to tracing the tap -roots of post – modernism it would lead to the topling of their colonised icons, such as the Frankfurt school, Foucault et al, in the academy, and theological training. It would also unstick the adherence to higher – historical biblical criticism, which is also left -behind, on the wrong side of history, in a rapid shift of gears from the enlightnment to post modernism to the new categorical power-play
            absolutism of post-postmodernism.

          • Great word salad Geoff. I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re on about. Except post modernism and Foucault appear, so it must be bad!

          • I agree with Penelope.
            Stop sprouting forth Geoff – your words communicating nothing but your self-admiration, and behave like someone who proves his longing for the heart of God by communicating in a way that shows a desire to win people to the truth. The truth being more than a set of principles – it is principles with a right heart.

          • This exchange reads as rather unedifying to me. I have made frequent comments, and made my guidelines more explicit. Cannot these exchanges actually be respectful? Is that simply impossible for you (pl)?

  12. With reference to part of Andy’s response to Ian’s 6th question: ” I think in our training of leaders, we need to make sure we don’t accidentally encourage people to distrust the very idea of authority with our Reformation rhetoric (“don’t trust the preacher, open your Bibles and see for yourself”.
    I don’t actually recognise the gist of this citation in the Reformation Anglicanism I’ve adhered to since childhood. Article 20 of the 39 Articles affirms *the secondary authority of the Church* but in relation to the *primary authority of Scripture* (“God’s Word written”). However different the Reformers understanding of “Church” might be from contemporary perceptions, they at least tried to avoid the individualistic propenstites of those who believed that that only the Bible would suffice ; playing down in many instances the “secondary ” issues of an authoritative eldership and teaching ministry.
    There is another factor that emerges from this: the primary authority of the Word (at least in the Anglican perspective) was applied directly to the Church. Granted that in the 16th century, a coalescence existed between Church and World; something that clearly no longer exists. Nevertheless we are still living in a tension between the primary and the secondary; between *Book and people*.
    Andy continues by affirming his commitment to the primacy of “The Book!” Then he proceeds to draw attention to the importance of gaining insights from others, especially those who have expertise in areas relating to biblical interpretation; in other words, the secondary “sources”.
    However this raises one particular question that is in danger of being overlooked in the present context: what if the secondary authorities are lukewarm, uncertain of or even downright hostile to Scripture as the primary source of understanding and application of the Christian Faith? Is it possible, for instance, for someone whose basic beliefs and presuppositions are at variance with or even uncertain about the teaching of Scripture to act as a mentor and guide to those for whom Scripture is central? And what of those who use Scripture to bolster certain deeply-held beliefs while refusing to countenance other passages? By what epistemological basis do they accept some and refuse others? Issues of Biblical interpretation and Biblical authority cannot be easily severed!

    Reply
    • Hello Colin,
      While it has been said with such tedious repetition by some who have commented on Ian Paul’s different blog articles that it is all subjective reader interpretation, by some who are or have been in prominent positions in the CoE could it be suggested that there is a severance from scripture that goes beyond primary and secondary sources, that even renders those categories redundant when those very same voices deny, for example, that Jesus even said the words recorded in scripture, by those rooted in past historical secondary sources as Robinson and Bultmann, et al, and post-modern categories of discourse analysis.
      The gulf is unbridgeable.

      Reply
      • Hi Geoff You say – ‘it has been said with such tedious repetition by some who have commented on Ian Paul’s different blog articles that it is all subjective reader interpretation’. Can you find me an actual example of this being said so I can be clearer what you mean here? Thanks.

        Reply
      • Geoff, That may well be the case. I was contributing on the basis that the general readership of this blogsite would be well aware of the significance of the primary source. However I am also aware that there will be those contributors who think scholars such as Robinson and Bultmann *would* qualify as secondary sources.

        Reply
  13. Geoff, That may well be the case. I was contributing on the basis that the general readership of this blogsite would be well aware of the significance of the primary source. However I am also aware that there will be those contributors who think scholars such as Robinson and Bultmann *would* qualify as secondary sources.

    Reply
  14. I recall a comment made to me while I was teaching doctrine to a final year theological class. One student stated, ‘Don’t talk to us about the Bible! You can make it mean whatever you want.’ This was generally affirmed by the other students present.
    Further discussion suggested that the teaching they had received on different aspects of and approaches to biblical interpretation had been taught as alternatives (or more probably simply in isolation) rather than as complementary aspects or application to different social contexts. There seemed to have been no attempt to elicit critical thinking about these approaches or to seek to integrate them into a useful whole. The result in these students, who were mostly going on to some form of licensed ministry, was the view that scripture is of no practical use in the church and that one might just as well read Paddington stories as the basis for sermons as the Bible. (Nothing against Paddington is implied by this last comment.)
    In teaching on biblical interpretation, or indeed any other topic, we need to consider not only what is being taught, but what is being caught, and also what is the overall message that will be heard in the wider context of the students’ learning.

    Reply
  15. I find the interview very interesting and helpful but I don’t feel it answers the title of the piece. It possibly doesn’t exactly say this but seems to be saying that liberal / postmodern interpretation muddy the water and if we took them away then more conservative approaches would end up with a single interpretation so the problem would go away – we would still have to work towards that single interpretation but we could get there. My experience is that people limiting themselves to good conservative techniques of interpretation still end up with different results and I don’t see them resolving these differences so, for me, the question raised in the title still stands and significantly affects my faith, raising doubts about interpretations that some Churches claim are authoritative

    Reply
    • Andrew
      Starting with the presupposition that the Bible is wholly trustworthy (including the fact that God and Christ did say and do, are saying and doing, will say and do all that the Bible asserts) we end up, in my view, with the conviction that God and Christ are both terrible and wonderful. Terrible in holiness, majesty, righteousness, wrath against sinners, sovereignty; wonderful in grace, love, mercy, patience, pity, salvation (from eternal death to eternal life) for all who repent and submit in repentance and faith to Christ in his atoning death and glorious resurrection. It would surprise me if many ‘conservatives’ did not agree with this conviction.

      Phil Almond

      Reply

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