Reading The Bible, Interpreting The Bible

February 20, 2018 by Scot McKnight

A friend of mine recommended that I read David Steinmetz’s well-known essay, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” in his book Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective

Here’s at least one of the problems: Bible reading intimidates many ordinary Bible readers, and one reason why is specialists — names not given — are so good at what they do, so insightful in what they teach, and so industrious in their efforts (footnotes galore, historical sources cited galore, knowledge galore) that the ordinary Bible reader has done two things: (1) read the work of specialists and (2) stopped reading the Bible for the sheer delight it brings.

The specialists are saturated with history so so much so that many of my friends see themselves as historians, not Bible readers. They see through the text to what happened (or didn’t happen) and spend their time reconstructing the history behind the text. Hans Frei tore into this approach years ago in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

That is, many scholars today care about one thing: the intention of the author in the author’s (reconstructed) historical context. Ah, but I care about this and we should care about this. The point is not to abandon historical undertakings but to realize it’s not the whole picture.

David Steinmetz blows this theory apart and advocates that medieval Bible reading was superior.

Here is what most are taught in Bible colleges and seminaries today: the author’s intention is the meaning of the text, and the author’s meaning is God’s meaning, and therefore, to talk of Paul or Peter or Isaiah is to talk of God. This is the historic approach:

In 1859 Benjamin Jowett, then Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, published a justly famous essay on the interpretation of scripture. Jowett argued that “Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it.” Scripture should be interpreted like any other book, and the later accretions and venerated traditions surrounding its interpretation should, for the most part, either be brushed asideor severely discounted. The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author. (3)

It’s still with us, in spades . . .



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