A “greatest common denominator” approach to the Bible

I don’t have much invested in the debate over biblical “inerrancy.” It strikes me as largely an intra-evangelical debate, one driven in large part by a very conservative, Reformed strain of evangelicalism. But I do have something invested in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I think that a “liberal” view which regards the Bible as just one instance of great religious literature is inadequate for Christian faith.

So it’s no surprise that I appreciated this post from Ken Schenck, who is the dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He argues that much evangelical hermeneutics are driven by a “most difficult common denominator” approach. That is, individual difficult passages or verses are allowed to overturn the broader trajectory of the biblical message.

Schenck notes that in pre-modern times, “problem” verses were often interpreted in ways that were almost certainly contrary to the meaning intended by the original authors if they seemed to contradict more fundamental biblical principles.

He thus recommends viewing the Bible in a two-level fashion: there is the original, historical meaning of the individual books, passages, and verses; and there are the overarching themes and message as Christians have commonly understood them:

If we return to the sense of Scripture’s truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists, we look rather to the “greatest common denominator” of Scripture.  What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don’t know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.

Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an “unclear” tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don’t let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.

So, for example, the Canaanite genocide should not control our understanding of God’s nature, and an isolated verse in 1 Timothy shouldn’t determine our view about women in ministry.

One thing that sets Schenck’s proposal apart from a more strictly pre-modern approach is that he recognizes that we can’t go back to a pre-critical consciousness. Some of the Fathers may have thought that an allegorical interpretation of a particular passage provided the “true” meaning; but we now think that the original meaning of a text is its intended meaning in its historical setting. We may reinterpet it, set it aside, or just deem it unclear or irrelevant, but we at least need to acknowledge its original meaning (to the extent we can determine it).

It should be noted that the New Testament authors themselves often play fast and loose with the original meanings of the texts from the Hebrew scriptures that they quote or reference. It’s clear that, for them, God’s acts of salvation in Jesus provide the interpretive lens for understanding Scripture. And the Church Fathers had no apparent qualms about reinterpreting parts of the Bible if they seemed to contradict the Gospel.

In light of this, Schenck’s position seems more consonant with the mainstream Christian tradition than some modern forms of inerrancy. Christians have always regarded some parts of the Bible as more central or authoritative than others, no matter what their theory of biblical inspiration may say. The gospels and the Pauline letters are more central than the pastoral letters or Revelation; Isaiah and the Psalms are more central than 1 and 2 Chronicles or Obadiah, etc. And this priority is determined in part by a rule of faith, such as the creed, that provides a summary of the essentials of the Christian message.

This doesn’t mean that we can just ignore the parts of the Bible that we don’t like. But it does mean that our interpretation is shaped by the faith of the Christian community. A different rule of faith would undoubtedly result in some different interpretive choices (as modern Judaism demonstrates). But there’s really no getting around that. After all, the canon of Scripture itself was established in the light of such a rule.

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