Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Letting the scriptures shape us

Another lenghty post, brace yourself...

“What one already believes tends to make one disposed to accept what agrees with it or to reject what conflicts with it” [1], such is the nature of understanding. We can only understand events and objects in relation to other events and objects. Thus when confronted with new sensory experience or cognitive information, we attempt to fit it into what we already believe, specifically about other events and objects we deem relevant. Understanding is ‘assimilation’; we assimilate new information into our already existing belief system in order to make sense of it. If however we find that the new piece of data cannot fit adequately within our prior understanding, it may be arrogantly rejected or it may call aspects of our prior understanding into question. It may have to be reshaped to make adequate sense of the new data.

If a new piece of information (including experience) does not agree with what I already believe, there are two moves I can make: (1) I can reject it as false, or (2) Accept it as true. If I make the first move, (a) I can either just plain reject it cause I don’t want to believe it, (b) reject it on the basis of my confidence in the strength of my prior beliefs, or (c) reject it because I believe it is a misunderstanding, this is effectively to deny that the aspect or passage in question is actually making a claim at all.

When it comes to an aspect to text such as the Bible, we must adjust the two moves slightly, (1) rejecting that is has a claim on me, and (2) accepting that it has a claim on me, and acting accordingly. The Christian who wishes to be guided and shaped by Scripture is not likely to reject a certain aspect it on the basis of (a) alone. One may call (b) in for support, but even to do this leaves questions unanswered and would be inadequate for someone who is strongly set on of living by the Bible. Thus option (c) appears to be the only adequate option.

There is however a fourth option when the Bible is concerned, (d) account for it within my already existing set of beliefs. For this all manner of hermeneutical or interpretive moves can be made. I may claim that God no longer requires this sort of action (e.g. OT purity regulations), possibly appealing to a subsequent passage. I may consider a command to be specific to a culture or a situation that is not the case for me now (e.g. Paul’s command that women not be permitted to speak in church), or that subsequent scientific findings have shown a belief or attitude to be grounded in misconception (e.g. commands against homosexual practice).

(c) is problematic however when (a) is the motivation behind it. I may simply select the interpretation of the passage that effectively neutralizes the threat it poses to my prior belief and action. The only solution to this is a transformation of my character and understanding of Scripture. I must develop intellectual integrity, a desire to live by truth and not settle with anything else, and I must not see Scripture as a “threat” to myself, but as a gracious gift designed to bless. (d) can also fall to the same problem as (c). Numerous hermeneutical strategies are invented to justify the rejection of aspects of Scripture.

The impetus of course does not always come from a desire to reject; findings from biblical studies have shown that previous interpretation have been mistaken, and that certain commands do seem to be closely tied to the cultural context. Much fruitful work has no doubt been produced because of a dislike for a particular aspect of Scripture, but for the Christian who seeks to be shaped and guided by Scripture, a dislike should never motivate one to reject it or explore different interpretations. Any hermeneutical strategy must be developed with the desire to be faithful to God and what he has given us in Scripture.

But we are not to make move (2) naively. We are not t accept everything in Scripture at its face value. We need the careful, honest work of interpretation to discover what is actually being said and desired. We must also develop hermeneutical strategies, a flat agreeing with everything it says and doing everything it says to do does not work, nor is it appropriate to the nature of Scripture. Thus move (2) can be made in two ways. (a) Unquestioningly assent to the action or belief, or (b) through careful exegetical and hermeneutical work, establish what is said and in what sense it has or has not a claim on us here today, in our situations and contexts.

No comments: