Interpreting the Scriptures (Part 2)

The goal and method of biblical interpretation

[In Jewish communities,] biblical tensions and ambiguities are solved in multiple – even contradictory – ways, and these solutions are allowed to remain side by side in these authoritative canons of Jewish tradition. The stress seems to be not on solving the problems once and for all but on a community upholding conversation with Scripture with creative energy…As quite distinct from Jewish interpretation, the history of modern evangelical interpretation exhibits a strong degree of discomfort with the tensions and ambiguities of Scripture. The assumptions often made are that Scripture should have no tensions and that any such tensions are not real but introduced from the outside by scholarship hostile to evangelical Christianity. Whatever tensions remain are addressed either by posing some direct solution (however ingenious) or by moving the problem to the side (“We know it has to fit somehow; we just aren’t sure how”). – Peter Enns

The idea that the scriptures should be taken apart and analyzed logically came from Greek philosophy, the establishment of universities, and the Enlightenment. The scriptures, unlike how the Jews treated them, began to be treated like manuals for individuals instead of writings to corporate bodies, which is what they originally were. Those of us who grew up in the Western world inherited this post-enlightenment rationalistic mindset that assumes that the purpose of the scriptures is to communicate factual truth.

Early interpreters of the OT, the NT authors, and Jesus, however, treated biblical interpretation not as a means of discovering ancient meaning but of using the scriptures to validate their present understanding of the scriptures. Thus, they anchored their interpretation in what they believed to be right and manipulated the texts to suit their purposes.

It is precisely a dispassionate, unbiased, objective reading that is normally considered to constitute valid reading. But what may be considered valid today cannot be the determining factor for understanding what the apostles did. Another way of putting the problem is that apostolic hermeneutics violates what is considered to be a fundamental interpretive principle: don’t take things out of context. So, it is thought, we cannot have New Testament writers taking the Old Testament out of context. But we must learn to look at it differently. – Peter Enns

When the scriptures are considered to be the absolute truth, the act of interpretation, because it varies according to the subjective experiences of people, is in inherently divisive. Yet, as the Jews’ hermeneutic demonstrates, the scriptures do not have to be understood that way.


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