Reading and Citizenship

An old one from 2004.

Evangelical Christians of all people ought to be most committed to searching out and studying primary source material.

 

We believe that the authority of scripture necessarily implies an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to discover the meaning of a text in the Author’s intent and not in the reader’s response. It is not satisfied with secondary sources, but instead seeks to enter into the mind of its Author. The meaning of the text transcends its readers’ immediate thoughts and experience. It is something to which we aspire to attain, to comprehend, rather than something confined to our ready-made subjectivism. Study of the text requires painstaking, self-suspicious effort.

 

Beyond the Bible’s authority as the word of God, our call to pursue sanctification also demands a rigorously careful interpretation of scripture, and implies a specific philosophy of interpretation. “Unity in the faith,” that is, a common understanding of doctrine, is a measure of our Christ-likeness and is an important aspect of our growth in conformity into his image. Seeking doctrinal unity remains a constant duty for us as long as we live. There is just one right faith, not a multitude of equally valid “faiths,” and just one valid interpretation of scripture. If there were a number of “faiths” then we would be urged to unity in spite of faith and not in it. (see Eph 4:13 in context.)

 

But our sanctification is never complete in this life; neither is our understanding of scripture. Perfect agreement in the Church is unattainable. Nevertheless, our responsibility stands: we are called to devote ourselves to continual, earnest dialogue with others about the meaning of the text. This dialogue ought to characterize our interactions with each other in small groups and in worship services. It is an integral part of the body life of the Church. We are called, literally, to “truth it” with one another in love. (Eph 4:15, Greek)

 

Even though we can affirm some of the very same premises postmodernists use to argue for the “death of the author” and to posit a reader-response theory of the meaning of a text – the impossibility of perfect objectivity, our propensity toward self-justifying distortion, the problem of discerning another’s intent – we cannot follow them in their desperate abandonment to radical subjectivism. We believe the concept of divine revelation implies the efficacy of the Author’s communication. And we assert that the Holy Spirit guides us into the truth by enabling us to understand what is “out there” in the text and by progressively liberating us from the cognitive effects of our innate sinfulness.

 

Unfortunately, we are often, in our popular preaching and in our Bible study, in such a rush to apply scripture that we act as though the meaning of the text is “what it means to us, today,” that is, its meaning consists in its existential, subjective, contemporary significance rather than its objective, historical meaning. We skip the toil of studying grammar, idiom, rhetoric, historical and logical context, flow of argument, and so on, in order to make the text personally relevant, ignoring that this in itself often puts the lie to our confession of the unique authority of scripture. We define relevance for ourselves rather than letting scripture define it for us.

 

Christians are, in a sense, given a philosophy of the interpretation of texts: the importance of the author’s intent, the responsibility to interact with primary sources, the community’s role in continual refinement of our understanding, the assertion of the possibility of valid interpretation even though perfect interpretation is unattainable.

We ought to apply this philosophy of interpretation in our exercise of responsible citizenship, as well. All of us ought to read “The 9/11 Commission Report” and the Supreme Court’s opinions in “Lawrence v. Texas” before voting this year.

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