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The future of biblical interpretation

This photograph shows the inside of a Bible in Javanese script (Aksara Jawa). Javanese is one of the languages spoken in Indonesia where there are three Mennonite national churches. Photo: Ezra Wirabumi, Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa Semarang
Release date: 
Monday, 20 November 2017

In Europe, when we speak of the future, it can seem a bit bleak. The economic crisis, lack of political vision and religious situation leave little room for hope. Secularization seems to have prevailed over the national churches; alternatively, some anticipate a future in which Islam will be the majority religion on the continent. Talking of the future of biblical interpretation can seem almost senseless.

One could think that everything has already been said about the ways in which Scripture can be interpreted. Furthermore, secularization tends to set the Bible aside as a text that is barely noteworthy, nothing more than a way to learn about religious forms that are already outdated.

This decline in the authority of Scripture is not merely a fruit of secularization. The dynamics of traditional biblical interpretation have contributed to this process. In the classic Catholic perspective, the biblical text is the basis for church authorities’ construction of dogma. Over the course of centuries, new layers of knowledge are produced and their authority is added to the original text.

In the liberal Protestant perspective, authority does not belong to biblical text either. Instead, it is turned over to historical criticism. Authority belongs to cultural and theoretical constructs that judge the text. Over time, contemporary relevance displaces the text and, in the process, negates itself.

In this context, the “fundamentalist” solution does not offer much hope for the future. It seems to demand a type of intellectual sacrifice, where the “true” believers must break with the scientific culture. The fundamentalist alternative ignores its own process of biblical interpretation. It confuses the Anselmian idea of redemption, or the Arminian concept of grace, or 19th-century opposition to Darwin, or modern speculations regarding the millennium with doctrines that have always existed in Scripture, independent of the context in which they were conceived.

Of course, some people will always prefer the interpretations offered by religious authorities at the cost of their own responsibility in the interpretive process. Others, disillusioned with religious abuse, reject authoritarianism, reconciling with the dominant culture that itself becomes held in higher regard than Scripture. And, there will always be a fundamentalist niche, because it is human nature to confuse temporary human doctrines with that which it is hoped the biblical text said for once and all.

However, niches are just that: recesses carved in walls or tombs. They are not places where biblical interpretation can open ways for the future.

How can we then look toward the future? From my perspective, some of the ways the Anabaptists initially approached Scripture can offer us methods that are worth exploring. We can explore them as relatively new paths, because though often prescribed, they have rarely been practiced.

Authority of the Word

Above all, we would do well to remember that, from an Anabaptist perspective, interpretive authority is not primarily an ecclesial authority nor the authority of a “Paper Pope,” as Karl Barth said. Authority is from the Word: the Word made flesh, Jesus himself, the Messiah. Biblical interpretation presupposes not a type of blind acceptance, nor merely cultural or pseudo-scientific acceptance, of the authority of certain texts. Biblical interpretation presupposes the occurrence of an encounter between the believer and his or her Lord, and a confession that this Lord is Jesus.

Here is revealed the primary character of Scripture as relative: Scripture is relative to the Lord Jesus, and not that the Lord is relative to Scripture.

And this is what the early Anabaptists of the 16th century said: Scripture is the wineskin, not the wine itself. If Scripture is not the wine itself, its writings are not a timeless doctrinal manual, nor do they need to be replaced by another timeless doctrine. Rather, all doctrine contained within Scripture is ultimately a reference to the Lord, who is the Word par excellence, the authority who bestows upon Scripture the character of the Word.

The reference of the Word

The reference or relativity of Scripture concerning Christ Jesus implies yet another essential element of the hermeneutic of the future. We can call this its historical-practical character. The encounter with the risen Lord and the recognition of his authority leads to use of Scripture as a function of following this Lord. You cannot know the Lord if you do not follow him in your life, say the Anabaptists. Scripture, before being a book of theology, is an instruction manual for following the Lord. This is not to deny the doctrinal or worldview dimensions that can be found in Scripture, but to recognize that those dimensions are always in reference to following Jesus. And this is a practical process, historically situated, in which all interpretation takes place.

Of course, identifying the practical character of all interpretation implies a dose of humility that is necessarily for the unity of the body of Christ. In following Jesus, our interpretations are linked to a specific context. And that context is always layered with significance. Be it the local church context, the broader cultural context or the context of cultural periods, the texts always take on meaning in relation to that context. Recognizing this contextual connection does not mean ignoring the spiritual elements that are present in the interpretive process. It is simply a recognition that the Spirit, in guiding us to Truth, does so via historical means, through people, contexts and concrete situation. If it were not this way, maybe we would not even need a Holy Spirit: it would be enough to have an eternal doctrinal manual, valid for all times.

The Spirit and the Word

Of course, biblical interpretation is inevitably a spiritual process. This is easily forgotten when Scripture is confused with a system of doctrine, or when Scripture is evaluated on the basis of more “modern” doctrines.

The Spirit blows wherever it pleases. Of course this “spiritual” freedom is the same freedom we find in the concrete ways in which Jesus, Paul, and John read the Old Testament. Far from seeking definitive meaning, located in the past, the Holy Spirit opens up new meanings, depending on new contexts, converting dead text into the living Word.

The process of interpretation

This means then that the interpretive process is always an open process. Even in the Catholic perspective, which is open to assuming “definitive” interpretations, these same interpretations are submitted to a necessary revision process throughout history. Even in a fundamentalist perspective that identifies Scripture with fixed doctrines, it is impossible to avoid revision or enrichment of past interpretations. And this means that no interpretation can claim to be definitive.

“Tomorrow, we will have more light,” said the early Anabaptists. And precisely because of this, it is not possible for Scripture to be concealed under a continuous accumulation of new layers of interpretive sediment. The openness of all interpretation relativizes the interpretations of the past, because not one is definitive. And this relativity allows for the transparency of all historical experience, however important, with respect to an original event. However, this original event is not the composition and compilation of the texts that make up Scripture. The original event is Christ himself, the authentic and definitive Word of God.

The absolute criterion

For this reason, the openness of the interpretive process does not lead to chaos. All biblical interpretation has an “absolute” criterion for the believer: Jesus himself is the definitive Word of God. Biblical interpretation cannot be reduced to personal interpretation. It is the same Lord whom believers have encountered and met. It is the same Spirit who guides their interpretation.

The process of biblical interpretation therefore is a communal process, as the Anabaptists well understood. It is not something that can be turned over to a definitive authority. Neither is it a process that can be delegated to official theologians on the payroll of the national church or the state (or new interpretations on the internet).

The communal ideal

In the face of all of these perspectives, the Anabaptist ideal of a communal interpretation enjoys enormous relevance for the future. Communal interpretation understands the local church as a hermeneutic agent of the first order, and helps to relativize all human or ecclesial authority as dependent on the definitive authority of the Messiah. Communal interpretation – precisely because it is the interpretation of a concrete community – knows its own historicity and fragility, at least it knows more about them than popes, pastors, and theologians tend to know. Communal interpretation knows in a way that is not definitive, because of its need to always be learning more.

It also knows its own need for the Spirit, so that whatever interpretation is not converted into an intellectual exercise or a mere struggle for influence. When this interpretation arduously looks for complete agreement within the community, as was the case with the early Anabaptist, the interpretive processes are transformed into an open path, something the future desperately needs. Processes that can open up broader horizons in the ecumenical context, but that do not overlook the truth that following Jesus is walking humbly together with our God.

—Antonio González Fernandez is a member of the MWC Peace Commission, a pastor in the Brethren in Christ church in Spain and a teacher at Centro Teológico Koinonía.

He spoke at Renewal 2027 – Transformed by the Word: Reading Scripture in Anabaptist Perspectives in Augsburg, Germany 12 February 2017. This paper been adapted from his presentation.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2017