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Jul  2015 10
Nurturing Responsible Interpreters

Nurturing leaders logo showing two hands holding a sapling in a bit of dirt.Scripture: Mark 12:28-31

In the seminary’s mission statement, we say we want to learn and teach how to be responsible biblical and theological interpreters. For the Phillips faculty, the word “responsible” named an element that is missing from many of the louder public voices that catch media attention.

It is easy to find examples of irresponsible interpretation. Here are a few I’d group into the category of “irresponsible”:

  • From a website devoted to the subject of oil under the country of Israel: Isaiah 45:3,4 “And I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.”
  • Who was responsible for 9/11? The late fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell on a talk show said: “[T]he pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America….I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
  • Former Arkansas governor and current presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s Facebook post after the SCOTUS marriage ruling: “My thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: ‘Jesus wept.’ 5 people in robes said they are bigger than the voters of California and Congress combined. And bigger than God. May He forgive us all.” [The post was liked over 47,000 times and shared over 11,500 times.]

How Christians interpret the Bible and think theologically matters. A lot. Christian interpretations of the Bible have contributed to some of the great accomplishments of history, and to some of the terrible nightmares of history.

In my opinion, here are seven criteria for responsible biblical and theological interpretation. I invite you to think of your own.

1. We read and interpret within a community of faith. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation were adamant that everyone read the Bible, not just the clergy (many of whom were illiterate when the Reformation began). And they were equally adamant that reading and interpretation were community activities.

2. Interpretation is responsible to a tradition or to traditions of interpretation. I don’t believe an interpreter must agree with the authorities of the past. But ignorance of the authorities could mean either one is repeating a mistake or missing out on a creative or transformative idea.

3. We read with a community of scholars. Now, there are multiple responsible communities of scholarly interpreters.

The way revelation, evidence, and truth claims are handled in traditions that work within confessional boundaries or with an identified teaching authority (magisterium) is different from a liberal arts method (which is what we use at Phillips) in which conversation, following the arguments where they lead, and a mutually critical dialogue between theology and the social sciences may lead to conclusions that fall outside of creedal boundaries and official doctrine.

Regardless of the school one follows, we should pay attention to the scholars who devote their lives to understanding the scripture’s context.

4. We make our own moral assumptions, value commitments, and point of view as clear as we can. No one can speak for or to everyone, as if there is a universal standing point, a God’s eye point of view from which to see and speak that transcends every cultural boundary. This stance also means…

5. My community cannot have access to the whole truth or be right all the time, for everyone. This means either we listen to responsible others with whom we disagree or we will confuse our angle of vision with God’s omnidirectional vision. If no one else other than my group is “responsible,” that is also a problem!

6. We risk a core theological hermeneutic or interpretive standard. This is a “God is” or a “God does” or a “God attends to” standard.

The Bible itself is a book of books, written over hundreds of year, in which many authors risked interpreting the life of their community in light of how they understood what God was doing.

While there are themes that run throughout scripture, authors disagree and argue with other authors. I love that about scripture, and about much Jewish theologizing in general. The arguments and disagreements are part of the record. But the fact of disagreements also begs the question of how a particular individual or community interprets competing scriptures in one’s own day.

For me, my core hermeneutic is “God is love.” This core principle leads me to ask questions such as, “Is that what a loving God would do or say? If God loves people in that way, what does that mean about how I should love my neighbor? How does God’s love differ from how a human being can love, or how does a particular story about what God’s love means affect my definition and practice of love?”

7. We both follow the evidence where it leads and pray each step along the way. For religious leaders, fearless scholarship and deep prayer should always companion one another.

If you’re thinking “Hey, all that looks like a commercial for the value of graduate seminaries,” my reply is: “I am happy to say I am guilty of writing words that could be used as a commercial.”

The most transformative work that happens at seminary is around how students interpret the Bible. Can you think of a discipline that is more significant for the life of those who claim to follow Jesus than how we interpret what we think God is doing and wants us to do?

 PRAYER: God of all truth, help us to be clear about what we know, and what we don’t.




Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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