An Extended Reflection on Biblical Truth

Both in the Epistle to the Galatians and that to the Romans Paul discusses Abraham who was declared to be righteous by God because he believed. In Galatians Paul is on the way toward the point that the gentiles also inherit the blessing of Abraham through faith. In Romans 4 he is focused upon the timing of when Abraham was declared righteous in that it occurred in the story of Genesis before the command of circumcision and thus righteousness cannot be a product of having been circumcised alone. In both cases Paul is making points that Genesis does not have in mind. That the Gentiles may enter into the promises made to Abraham through their faith in Christ, the “heir,” was certainly not in view. So far as we know there was never a time in the history of Israel that this interpretation was put forward until Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans 4 is not based upon a specific quotation of scripture so much as he makes use of the narrative structure found in Genesis and draws truth from that storyline. Abraham was declared to be righteous because he believed God before he was circumcised and therefore Paul concludes he was not declared righteous based upon works as some Jewish believers of Paul’s day wanted to make mandatory for all Christians. In establishing this truth Paul does not simply quote a scriptural text but rather he argues on the basis of narrative truth. Paul then finds an analogous relationship between the story of Abraham and the life of the Christian in the first century.
On the other hand, Western philosophy in the past 300 years has emphasized the propositional nature of truth. Truth is analyzed through making and examining propositions in terms of rules of logic and principles of rationality. However, in traditional societies truth is very much related to the character of the teller and ones relationship to them. When someone I know and trust tells me something I am likely to receive it as true whereas facts or ideas conveyed by those I do not know or have reason not to trust may not be accepted. In “modern” cultures truth is separated from the teller and as much as possible from the receiver. Truth has come to be “objectified” in the sense that it is separate from people and relationships and stands alone. This is largely the result of the manner in which truth and ideas are communicated. Printing brings with it a distancing of ideas from the writer in a way that conversation does not allow. This “objectivising” of truth causes the interpreter to interact with truth in a very different way than the process of hearing truth from another human being.
Principles of biblical inerpretation used today developed within a culture that has in many ways affected how the biblical truth is understood. Interacting with the scripture as the written word and separating truth from the teller and the hearer (objectivising truth) has significantly limited the range of acceptable interpretations. Further, this paper will argue that by separating truth from its narrative and relational context important aspects of biblical truth are lost. Illustration 1 provides a visualization of the process of biblical interpretation.

We notice that the scripture itself stands between the interpreter and the producer or writer of scripture. However, two worlds affect the project of biblical interpretation. There is a world behind the text made up of the intention of the writers as well as the language, culture and history, belief structure and worldview within which the scripture was produced. There is also a world in front of the text which is the world we live in. This world in front of the text is the culture, language, history, belief structure and worldview of the interpreter. In front of the text also lies the personal life experience, denominational traditions, spirituality and character of the interpreter. This paper will argue that it is not possible for the interpreter to find a position from which to view the scripture that is outside of these factors. There is no objective position to view scripture. In other words, the interpreter can only view the scriptures through their own eyes.
We approach the text as interpreters and immediately we are thrown into a difficulty, what is the meaning of this text? The Western cultural tradition would suggest that it is possible to remove the scripture from the situation illustrated in Figure 1 and to analyze the scripture as “eternal truth” separate from its context and from both the world behind the text and that in front. Conservative biblical scholars have not been happy with this approach and so have retained the world behind the text. Thus scholars came to utilize the idea of sitz im leben or “setting in life.” But we must ask, what is included in this “setting?” Is the authorial intent part of that setting? Is the understanding of those who would have received the message at the time important? What about the historical setting in terms of both scriptural history and that of the surrounding society? To what extent do cultural issues enter into the interpretive equation? These are all important issues that have been resolved in various ways.
If the intent of the author is determinative in some manner for the possible range of interpretations then we must enter into the mind of the writer to discover his or perhaps her intent. Is that possible? Or is it reasonable? Do biblical interpreters need to be mind readers? And what has become of that elusive objective viewpoint if we enter into such a discussion? What about the understanding of the hearers? It has become the tradition of theologians especially since the 19th century to create various imaginative scenarios for the setting in which scripture was produced. Such recreations are necessarily based upon some determination of authorship and dating. An example to consider is, If the documentary hypothesis (concerning the Pentateuch) is accepted we are then thrown into a position of a different sitz im leben from one verse to the next within the same chapter and in some cases from the one half of a verse to the next. How can interpretation proceed if the authorship and setting in life are different from one half of a verse to the other half? Or may we consider another issue, who wrote Matthew? Or who was the writer of Hebrews? At what date and under what circumstances? In what provenance were they created? A cursory examination of the literature is enough to convince anyone that there are nearly as many opinions on these matters as there are scholars who write about them. If the project of biblical interpretation is built upon this “objective” and scholarly foundation the resulting building project would be unstable at best.
Thus getting behind scripture is a thorny undertaking but what about the text itself. What if we take the approach of simply examining scripture itself without reference to such issues as authorial intent? Brevard Childs for one has suggested we need what he has termed a “canonical approach.” Let us forget all these debates about scholarship and dating and simply deal with the scripture as it is presented to us. But what does the scripture taken out of its historical and cultural context mean? Can we remove meaning from history, culture and language? Or is meaning indeed tied to these thorny issues in such a way that it cannot be extricated without losing something we consider precious? Any reading of scripture makes assumptions concerning the issue of context. It is well known and obvious that the same statement means something different when used in differing contexts. We can illustrate this simply by thinking of the various ways in which one’s mother can say the name of her child. With the same word she can mean: come, go, show approval or dissatisfaction, show pride or disappointment, warn, encourage, console, love, pity, correct, and so on. How then can we consider scripture in isolation, removed from a consideration of context and expect to have any hope of properly interpreting its meaning?
So we may take another approach, the meaning of scripture is located in the reader. This has become a popular approach in what has come to be called the “post-modern” era. If we cannot locate meaning in the author’s intent, the understanding of the hearers, or even the text itself divorced from context, we are left with meaning being located in the reader alone. In fact there is a strong argument that in the end whatever we mean by “meaning” must be located in the reader as it cannot be located anywhere else. But once again we are thrown into a quagmire of subjectivity. Does the scripture in this approach may mean whatever anyone reading it says it means? Some who have discussed this approach would argue that of course there are better and worse interpretations and each can be evaluated on a rational and reasonable basis and one preferred over another. But of course this is not an entirely satisfactory answer either. Why is reason the judge of scripture to begin with? Who sets the rules by which various interpretations are judged and of course who does the judging? So where does all this leave us? Seemingly we have questions but no answers.
But perhaps there is a way forward. What if we take a different approach to biblical truth informed both by non-Western cultures and the scripture itself? Every culture allows for shades of truth and encompasses variations of when it may be appropriate not to speak truthfully. Any husband knows that he should be careful how he answers his wife’s question, “Does this dress make me look fat?” But as I came to live in Ethiopia and among the various tribes of the Southern Region I found that many times truth had a very different definition than I was used to from my Western paradigm and what was considered quite normal and acceptable in this culture was to me simply telling a lie. But over time I have found that telling the truth in such a manner that a relationship is damaged is not being truthful at all in my current cultural context and that truth can be communicated in ways that are indirect as well as direct. I may say one thing but know that it will be understood by others in another way within the social context of the communication. As an outsider and a Westerner, I would evaluate a statement divorced from its setting and cultural context and find it to be untruthful, but within its setting and according to the understanding of those inside the communicational matrix of the statement itself, it may be entirely truthful.
How does this bring us to some understanding that may help me interpret the bible? Let us begin with what the scripture says about itself. Our starting point as Christians must be to consider Christ. He is called the “Word” or the “Message” of God in John 1. Thus he is the embodied communication of God to human beings. Therefore, while the graphe, or the written word testifies of Christ, the meaning of the graphe is not found in the text itself so much as it is found in the person of Christ. Truth is a person rather than a book. “Jesus said to him, “I am athe way, and bthe truth, and cthe life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Thus, Jesus is the embodiment of truth in His person and we must come to know the truth in relationship to Him. Contrary to this is the modern notion of biblical academics that the qualification to properly interpret scripture is a PhD in some relevant field. Thus the character of the interpreter, their personal devotion to Christ, and their spiritual life are all out of bounds as far as evaluating their work of interpretation. Those who demonstrate personal devotion and relationship to Christ (often termed mystics by academics if they are being seen in a positive light and heretics if not) are not respected as biblical interpreters because they are “unqualified” according to the Western academy. Let us consider one passage from the gospel of John. Jesus is speaking to the religious scholars of His day.
John 5:37-47 37 “And the Father who sent Me, aHe has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. 38 “You do not have aHis word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He bsent. 39 “1aYou search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is bthese that testify about Me; 40 and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. 41 “aI do not receive glory from men; 42 but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves. 43 “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; aif another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 “How can you believe, when you areceive 1glory from one another and you do not seek bthe 1glory that is from cthe one and only God? 45 “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is aMoses, in whom you have set your hope. 46 “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for ahe wrote about Me. 47 “But aif you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”
Here Jesus is speaking to the “academy” of His day and He raises several important points concerning the proper understanding of scripture. The reception of Christ and the proper understanding of the scripture are connected in several significant ways in this passage. First, the Father “testifies” of Jesus and they are accused of not “hearing” the voice of the Father. Notice first they are not accused of failing to read the scripture, they were certainly readers of the scripture as scholars of their day in Israel. But they did not “hear His voice.” “Reading the scripture” and “hearing His voice” are not identical issues. From the time of Martin Luther until today evangelical Christianity has emphasized the written scripture at the expense of hearing the “voice of God” or we may say, the work of the Holy Spirit, to reveal truth today. Indeed the scripture has taken the place of the Spirit in evangelical theology. Some examples are:

Scripture Evangelical Theology
John 16:13 – the Holy Spirit leads into truth Scholars determine truth
John 14:26 – The Holy Spirit is our teacher The scripture is our teacher
Eph. 5:13 – Be filled with the Spirit Know the scripture
Baptism in the Spirit Equals baptism in water
Ps 143:10 – the Spirit leads His people The scripture leads believers
Renewal is the work of the Spirit Renewal is the work of the scripture
John 16:8 – Conviction comes by the Spirit Conviction comes by the scripture
1 Cor. 12 – Gifts of the Spirit Not for today

In fact there is no active and practical role for the Spirit in Evangelical theology today because virtually all the roles and functions that are assigned to the Spirit in the New Testament have been reassigned to the scripture. The source of this error is that Martin Luther was attempting to separate himself from the traditions, personal interpretations and abuses found in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. Thus the cry of the reformation became solo scriptura! Which initially meant “only the scripture” rather than “church tradition” should have a role in determining true Christian theology and practice. Over time solo scriptura came to mean the removal of the Holy Spirit from the role of leading believers into truth and the replacement of the Holy Spirit with the written word of God. The notion that God may “speak” to believers (though active even in the life of Martin Luther himself) came to be associated with delusional mental states and therefore rejected by the evangelical church of the West. Modern, objectively thinking people could not countenance the idea that a person may actually hear the “voice” of God.
Modern Western theology subsumes the voice of God under the concept of the word of God or the scripture. God speaks through scripture, only. Thus there can be no prophecy today, no gifts of the Spirit, no healing, no miracles because the scripture has taken the place of all of these manifestations of God and now is His sole manifestation in the present age. Thus while evangelical theology affirms that God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that while He remains omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and eternal, he chooses not to manifest these characteristics because the scripture is now adequate to reveal and represent the fullness of God. Thus there is no “saying” by God but only the “said” of God and the church becomes a preserver of tradition rather than a living manifestation of a living God.
But the passage from John 5 also speaks directly of the belief or faith of the interpreter and somewhat more indirectly of the character of the interpreter. Jesus tells the scholars, “You do not have the word of God abiding in you because you do not believe in Me.” This is the source of their error. They do not believe in Christ and so cannot have the word of Christ abiding in them. What does it mean for the word to abide in a person other than he/she must apply that word actively to their life. If the word abides, we live in reference to the word by allowing the word of God to shape our values, priorities, attitudes and world view. If we do not do these things, if the word does not abide in us, then we cannot properly interpret the scripture and so although we think to find what we are searching for, for the Jewish scholars of Jesus day – life, we do not in fact find what we seek. Indeed, Jesus becomes more challenging yet, He says that such scholars receive glory from one another but remain unconcerned for the opinion of the One who should be the center of our life and concern.
Thus proper interpretation of the scripture is connected to the relationship of the interpreter to Christ and therefore to God on the one hand and to their character on the other. These are factors removed from the present teaching on hermeneutics for several reasons. For one thing, Western Christianity is uncomfortable judging the depth of another person’s faith. These are “private” matters that are not for others to pass judgment about. The nature of the person in the Western conception is that religious beliefs are really assigned to the private arena and are not to be judged by others unless they fall into an area considered cultish or perverse. Thus the belief’s of scholars and therefore their personal relationship to Christ and even their character is separated from their interpretation of scripture.
Yet Christ teaches us that believing the scripture and thus believing in Christ, more so than knowing the scripture or knowing about Christ, is the purpose of biblical study and the hermeneutical enterprise. Indeed truth is very much relational in nature. We come to know the truth in relationship to Christ (who is the truth) and in relationship to one another. As we live out the scripture and internalize its demands we find that the scripture is abiding in us. The principles of the word of God, the nature of Christ, the guidance of the Holy Spirit being on the inside of the interpreter are key to the success of the interpretive process.
Paul Ricoeur has written extensively on the topic of hermeneutics but his work has seldom been appreciated by conservative biblical scholars. Ricoeur emphasizes that the world “behind” the text, in the mind of the writer, the contemporaries of its production and even the cultural setting of its production are for the most part out of the reach of the interpreter. But there is also a world that can be found “in front of the text.” The world in front of the text is the world created by the text when I take it seriously. The text of the scripture puts demands upon my life, my character, and my actions. How must I live in light of the scriptural demands but more than the literal demands of scripture, what is the story it tells. That story tells of a world in which I may choose to live. It is a world defined and described by the narrative dimension of scripture. Indeed becoming a Christian can be understood as joining our personal story (identity) with the larger story of scripture and the plan of God. Thus there is a world in front of the scripture, the world defined by the scripture in which I may live. If I choose to live in this world, my thoughts, ideas, attitudes, values, priorities and worldview will be determined by the nature of that world. That world is accessible to me and in fact testifies of the truthfulness of scripture in the biblical sense of, “By their fruit you shall know them.” Proper interpretation of scripture is then known by its consistency or even continuity with the biblical narrative world that defines Christian life.
In this manner the relational nature of truth is preserved. We come to know Christ, the Truth, and we find the truth lived out in our relationships both to Him and to one another. Thus truth is lived and experienced and indeed the Holy Spirit “leads” us into truth (John 14:26). In walking with God in relationship and the active dimension of “hearing His voice” truth becomes real and active in our everyday life and is proven true in our relationships with others (1 John 3:19-24).

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