Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Picking and Choosing" and The Bible

If you follow debates between liberal and conservative evangelicals, you will often see an exchange come down to the conservative accusing the liberal of selectively reading scripture -- of ignoring or downplaying the parts he doesn't like, while accentuating the bits that he does. To which the liberal will often retort that selectivity is unavoidable. That "we all pick and choose." The upshot being that there is no extra-hermeneutical vantage to occupy, and that the meaning of scripture isn't entirely self-disclosing.

While it's true that our presuppositions and biases will inevitably affect how scripture is understood, and that there is no neutral, assumption-less space from which to view the Bible, it doesn't follow that "we all must pick and choose." This is only the case if you believe that the individual and his conscience is the ultimate authority with regard to the meaning of the text. While this approach is standard within Protestantism, it isn't the only option available to us. Rather than selectively reading the Bible according to our own biases, we can also choose to submit our understanding to the authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, and to whom was given the Holy Spirit to guide it "into all truth" (John 16:13).

What the conservative evangelical often doesn't realize is that he's wisely, but unconsciously, appealing to tradition in these arguments. Though he might deny it, he isn't appealing exclusively to the text itself, but to what he perceives to be the traditional understandings of the text. He (again, wisely) feels there's something unsettling about novel interpretations of scripture and has a visceral reaction against it, but can't really do anything about it if his only recourse is to the Bible itself, since the Bible itself can be twisted and manipulated, as the Bible itself warns. (2 Peter 3:16) And if it can, then who's to say who's doing the twisting and manipulating and who isn't?

Blessedly, Our Lord Jesus Christ didn't hand down a book to the Apostles that could be interpreted in various contradictory ways, nor did the Apostles hand one down to their followers. What was handed down was the gospel of Christ -- His life and His commandments -- and the Holy Spirit. This was transmitted by oral and written apostolic tradition (2 Thess. 2:15), with the written tradition eventually becoming the New Testament. But just as the New Testament was written, compiled, and canonized by the Church with the seal and guidance of the Holy Spirit, so must the New Testament be read, interpreted, and lived within the Church according to the Holy Spirit. If you adopt the Church as hermeneutic, the question is no longer "what do I think about this passage?", but "what does the Church teach that this passage means?"

Admittedly, this approach to the question somewhat short-circuits the entire dialogue. If evangelicals did this they wouldn't be evangelicals. Nevertheless, it's critical to point out that not all hermeneutical approaches leave us equally "picking and choosing" from the Bible.

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