As conservative Christians exegetes, we have spent the past century making our own bed, now we are being laid to rest in it. We have taught and advocated a strict grammatical-historical approach that boils Biblical interpretation down to a scientific method. Input a Scripture, run it through the schema–(1) exegete, (2) interpret, (3) apply–and output one specific meaning. Politely, we have insisted: “Only one meaning per verse, please.”
This hermeneutical method became the standard of conservative protestant preaching. A preacher’s objective was to determine the one meaning of any text and to preach that specific meaning. If a preacher saw something quite clearly in the words of a text, the burden of proof lie with him to prove that the original author would have intended that meaning. Otherwise it was off-limits, no matter how obvious it might be.
Besides producing a paralyzing fear of missing the one glaring main point of a text, it also resulted in a whole lot of digging behind the text. There was a great need to determine the psychology of an author and the context of his audience. Only after a heavy investigation of the “behind the text” history could a preacher or interpreter then read the actual words of the Bible correctly.
Conservatives insisted upon the grammatical-historical approach in response to the historical-critical approach–which assumed the Bible was a jumble of poorly stitched together folklore. More recently, they have clung to it to resist the post-modern reader-response hermeneutic.
As I said in the opening, conservatives have made their bed, now we are being laid to rest in it. In the past ten years, several writers and pastors have employed these very methods arguing contra orthodoxy–using a grammatical-historical approach to interpretation.
How can this be, one might ask? Consider Rob Bell’s writings. He is nothing if not grammatical-historical. He does a great job explaining the historical context behind Scripture passages (as he’s sussed it out). He’s also adept at explaining the context that shaped the meaning of key words in Scripture–how they would have sounded to the original audience. Evangelicals have had a difficult time explaining to common Christians why Bell’s interpretative methods are wrong–because he largely does the same thing they do, just with a different end result.
Even more troubling to evangelicals are writers like Matthew Vines. Many of them also employ a grammatical historical approach. Using the scientific hermeneutical method–(1) exegete, (2) interpret, (3) apply–they input one text and output one specific meaning. The problem is that the one meaning they output does not jibe with orthodoxy or conservative Evangelicals. What results is two camps fighting over which one meaning is actually intended by the author.
For example, in interpreting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, they will revisit the cultural context and structure of the story, interpret the passage accordingly, and find that the main point is about the devaluing of human life, not the condemnation of homosexuality. They champion this one meaning while most evangelicals cling to their approved orthodox interpretation.
It’s a fools game. We’ve set ourselves up. If every text has only one author-intended meaning, all that anyone has to do is prove that that one meaning is something different. Vines et al win when we insist that every passage has only one meaning. All that anyone must do to unravel orthodoxy is provide and prove one alternative meaning to supplant the commonly accepted meaning. When it’s your one interpretation vs. my one interpretation, everyone loses.
What we must realize is that no passage of Scripture can be boiled down to one meaning. God did not multiply words for simple rhetorical flourish. If a passage could be completely summarized in one sentence, that sentence would be Scripture and not the passage. When we insist that a story has only one meaning, we flatten Scripture, and we limit the Spirit. Here’s a novel thought: why can’t Sodom and Gomorrah be about homosexuality…and about the the devaluing of human life? Could it be that a story has two meanings? Three meanings? Four?
The thing about narrative is that it resists rigid summation. There is a reason 75% of the Bible is in narrative form. Stories are necessarily thick. The way to honor God’s Word is not to insist on a one passage/one meaning approach. It is to celebrate all of the meanings that arise from a careful reading of the actual words of Scripture. We must resist treating interpretation like a scientific method. The Spirit is not quantifiable. He worked in guiding the pens of the authors of Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21), and he works in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples to guide them to find God’s truth in those words (John 16:13-14).
As we read the words of Scripture, our objective is not to enter the mind of the original audience or the author, but to hear the authors as God speaks to us through them. We must allow the Spirit to fill our hearts and minds. Through the Word he works to incorporate us into that great cloud of witnesses. God is uniting all things to himself through Christ, and he knits together the body of Christ by allowing them to give and receive the Word of God with one another. Our main objective is not to mine a meaning from Scripture but to be drawn into the New Creation where the Spirit is magnifying the Risen Son to the glory of God the Father.
Orthodoxy is not about protecting long held interpretations, but about communing with saints of old. These saints beckon us through the Spirit to hold out hope for the day when faith will become sight and our Savior will return to unite all of his people with all of the heavens and earth forever.