Three Bad Bible-Study Questions
In many ways, the prevailing (and dramatic) shifts in western culture during the past few centuries all center on a single issue: truth—and how we learn it (if we can). To Christians, who worship the One who claimed to be Truth (John 14:6), these cultural shifts prove exceedingly relevant. If we are not mindful of our culture’s changing views of truth, we will imbibe the spirit of the age unwittingly. This is especially evident in how we pursue truth, specifically in our engagement with the (true) Word of God.
In order to illustrate (briefly) the major cultural shifts on truth, and to enjoin a particular approach to it (including our pursuit of truth in studying holy scripture), I would like to share three bad (but ever so common) Bible-study questions, and then a much better one.
Three Bad Questions
- What does the text mean? Now, I’m quite confident I’ll get some objection to this one, because we should absolutely be seeking to understand what the text actually means. In fact, I would suggest that discerning the authors’ (both human and divine) original intent is the primary goal of Bible study. My quibble with the way this question is framed springs from its lack of humility. I believe it represents the “modern” or “Enlightenment” view that human reason can apprehend truth absolutely; that is, applying some form of scientific method (a historical, grammatical approach to the words of scripture) will lead to absolute understanding of truth. However, given humanity’s finiteness, fallibility, and fallen nature (which has corrupted our good minds), I am not sure we possess this ability any longer. Our relationship with truth, as others have said before me, is asymptotic at best: we may get closer and closer to an absolute understanding, but will never quite reach it. This question lacks the requisite humility in human reasoning abilities.
- What does the text mean to you? At this point we’ve moved from modernity to post-modernity (or late-modernity, depending on your bent). This question addresses all my concerns with the last approach, but reacts so extremely against modernity’s hubris that it makes the opposite mistake. I am reminded of one of C.S. Lewis’ lovely quips (of which he has many): “For my own part I hate and distrust reactions not only in religion but in everything. Luther surely spoke very good sense when he compared humanity to a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on the right, falls off it next time on the left.” If modernity (wrongly) assumed we could have perfect knowledge, post-modernity (wrongly) assumes we can’t have any real (or objective) knowledge at all. As a result, this question relocates the center of interpretation from the object (the text) to the subject (the reader). Unsurprisingly, then, we are left with little more than a subjective impression. Authority now rests with the interpreter, not the text, which leads inevitably to a human-centered gospel, and a human-made god fashioned in each person’s own image. This is an incredibly dangerous approach.
- What do you think the text means? Committed not to fall off the horse on either side, this question has gotten us much closer to a helpful framework for Bible study than the last two. While rejecting modernity’s confidence in absolute knowledge, it also rejects post-modernity’s insistence that we can have no objective knowledge at all. And if our (hypothetical) Bible-study leader had no inflection when reading the question, I might even be tempted to accept it as is. However, if the emphasis falls on the wrong syllable (as in the italicized “you”), we’ve probably still succumbed to the postmodern temptation. My objection here is that the question, as inflected, suggests all interpretations are equally valid. You may think the text means x, while I maintain the text means y (never mind Sally, who had the audacity to suggest it means z). Whence now? How shall we decide which interpretation is best? If our pursuit of truth (and a true understanding of God’s Word) should be asymptotic—spiraling ever closer to the actual truth, as generations of Christ’s disciples grapple with the original languages, historical and literary context, et cetera—my opinion (or yours, for that matter) matters very little. But if we change the inflection just slightly, we might make some real progress.
And One Much Better Question
- What do you think the text means? Inflected thus, here is a question that combines subjective humility with objective It rejects modernity’s hubris, by reminding us that our take on the text just might be wrong still, and thus invites correction and improvement. But it also rejects post-modernity’s subjectivism by maintain a text-centered approach. It is, to borrow Kevin Vanhoozer’s lovely phrase, a “hermeneutics of humility and conviction.” It assumes that, while we might not be able to have absolute knowledge, we can still have adequate knowledge. The asymptote is real, and in humility and conviction we can draw nearer the axis of divine revelation together.