Some Tricks of the Trade
I recently spent a few sessions helping a group of pastors to think through their position on a complex ethical issue. At the end of one of these sessions, one of the group came up to me and asked if something I had kept doing in the discussion was one my tricks. (He then realised what he had said and was very apologetic for using language which suggested I was engaging in some sort of trickery, which I thought was rather amusing.) His comment and the experience of wrestling with this topic over a number of weeks got me thinking about some tricks of the trade we should employ when doing such thinking. Two have stood out to me.
Understanding the ‘What?’ Before the ‘So What?’
I often find I am the awkward person in a discussion about the Bible’s teaching who is constantly asking the question, ‘But what does the text say?’ If the Bible really is our supreme authority (or better, if it’s the revelation given to us by our supreme authority), then the first and most important thing is to understand what it actually says.
This was the point which one of the group asked me about after our discussions. ‘Is one of your tricks that you focus on what the Bible says on its own before working out how to apply it?’, he asked. And he’d got it exactly! Before we ask how we apply a passage, we’ve got to first understand what it actually says. Bad Bible reading often results from a failure to separate out these two steps. We want to jump to the ‘So what?’ questions, before we’ve actually answered the ‘What?’ question. This is particularly easy to do when wrestling with biblical texts which are directly relevant to ethical issues. We are so aware of various situations in the lives of those around us and of the implications that a particular conclusion might have for people, that we skip over the meaning (the ‘What?’) to get to the application (the ‘So what?’). In the process we often end up giving our own spin to the text’s meaning or ignoring it completely.
In reality the separation between ‘What?’ and ‘So what?’ is overly simplistic. The two can’t be so completely separated all the way through the process. There has to come a point where you start asking about the application, and that may cause you to rethink your understanding of the meaning. But we should always start by working on the meaning alone for a while before jumping to the application. (In this particular case, I found that I sometimes had to apply my working thesis of the meaning of a passage to a hypothetical situation to be able to really think through whether my understanding of the text made sense of all of its details. But this ‘So what?’ came after I had done a lot of work on the ‘What?’)
Acknowledging Your Presuppositions and Preferences
As I continued to wrestle with the topic over a period of time, I noticed that the conclusions I was heading towards were different to those of several others in the group, and I also found that my preference for what the end conclusion would be was different to others in the group. I noticed that as I was wrestling with the Bible I was hoping to find evidence to support my view. At this point I realised that I needed to bring my presuppositions and my preferences into the light; I needed to bring my subconscious influences, as much as was in my power, into my conscious thinking.
Presuppositions are those things we already believe which have an effect on how we interpret a passage of Scripture, and preferences are simply what we want the text to say. Both are unavoidable, and both can be good or bad. It’s common to think that we want to interpret the Bible on its own terms, without the influence of our presuppositions and preferences, but this is impossible. Any reading of the biblical text will be affected by our presuppositions; the important question is whether they are the right presuppositions. Our preferences can also be a good thing, not necessarily because they help us find the meaning of the text, but because if we find the meaning of the text doesn’t match our preference, it can be revealing to consider why; perhaps there is some wrong thinking lying behind our preference.
If it’s impossible to interpret the Bible without presuppositions and preferences, then the way to ensure they have a good influence rather than a bad influence on our reading is to acknowledge them. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What am I already believing about this?’, and ‘What do I want this text to mean?’ It might be that our presuppositions are biblical and helpful, and it might be that our preference does line up with what the text says, but we won’t be able to test that until we bring them into the light.
As I thought about my presuppositions and preferences while wrestling with various biblical texts during this process, it didn’t cause me to change my mind, but it did challenge me to make sure that the text really was saying what I wanted it to, rather than just assuming it was. It challenged me to be able to make a good argument to support my view and to make sure I gave serious consideration to arguments for other views.
Interpreting the Bible can be a tricky process, especially when wrestling with a big ethical issue which could have huge real-life implications for people we know and love. But that tricky process can be helped by knowing and applying some of the tricks of the trade.