“Interpretation occurs in the expectation that, at certain points, one will be able to say what has not yet been said.”[i] New Testament scholar Francis Watson writes this sentence in his 1997 monograph Text and Truth. He’s specifically thinking of the interpretation of scripture, but what he says could apply to how commentators interpret events, scholars interpret history, or how scientists interpret history. I am interested in his statement because my church is dealing with an issue of the interpretation of scripture and of sexual and institutional ethics right now. Implied in Watson’s statement is the idea that the interpreter adds something to the meaning of a written word or account of an event. The interpreter might even create meaning as much as the original author did.
I pastor a small Baptist Church (125-150 people) in the United States. One of the major issues everyone living in America in the first quarter of the 21st century is dealing with is same sex marriage and other LGBTQ-related questions. Should churches and pastors preside over same-sex weddings? Can a church have an openly, actively gay person serve as an ordained deacon or pastor and remain faithful to the teachings of the Bible?
Baptists typically answer such questions by asking a very specific question: what does the Bible say? However, Watson’s thought suggests we don’t just react to the Bible, but to interpretations of it. The generative nature of interpretation is particularly interesting in light of theological controversy as it relates to church practice. This is true no matter what the actual issue is. It could be homosexuality or violence or race relations or worship style. American church members have sparred with one another over all these issues and many more. Whatever the controversy of the day is, it is faced with the same query. What does the Bible say? And, whose interpretation holds sway in the church?
Interestingly, again regardless of the specific issue, both sides (and it always cast as binary, even when more than two perspectives are present) firmly believe that what they read in scripture affirms the position they already hold. If their position is a radical departure from the church’s traditional stance, then Watson’s assertion rings true. The Bible interpreter clarifies, adds meaning, or changes meaning; the interpreter says what has not yet been said.
My intention here is not to add comments to the ongoing conversations on homosexuality currently being held in churches across America, or to cast new light in the ongoing conversation in my own church. Rather, I want to simply ask, can we trust ourselves when we read the Bible? Can we trust our pastors when they read the Bible? Can we trust our favorite authors when we read what they write about the Bible? Should someone say things about the Bible “that have not yet been said?” Is it legitimate to read and interpret in such a way that new revelations come from a 2000-year-old text?
To develop his own exploration of the practice and effect of the interpretation of texts, Watson considers Frank Kermode’s 1975 book The Classic. Kermode’s idea is that there is a “radical indeterminacy within the text,” so that a “text in which one voice seems to speak is in fact inhabited by many voices.”[ii] Finding the meaning, or even the primary meaning in a text, say the Gospel of Mark, is impossible in this radical indeterminacy approach. Watson goes on to say, “from the standpoint of Christian faith and theology, it is clear that such a reading of mark is untenable.”[iii]
I agree. I don’t have the answer for how to reach “the right” interpretation or how to discern whether someone has reached it. I have real trouble trusting Bible readers who overconfidently insist that their interpretation is the interpretation. What I propose is grace and humility before the text.
As an example, take the issue of predetermination verses open theism (free will).[iv] I am reasonably confident when I reject John Calvin’s notion of predeterminism[v] in soteriology (theology of salvation). I don’t believe anyone’s eternal destiny is determined so that they have no opportunity to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation. I don’t know what God knows about the future or how the future, something that hasn’t happened yet, can be known. However, I trust the Bible’s consistent presentation of God’s merciful love. So I trust that people can meet God the Holy Spirit, receive grace, repent, and be saved. No one’s story is written before it is written. I am confident of this.
However, I know that I have come to this conclusion by way of God’s grace. I know that my own theology is imperfect, hole-filled on my best days, and those days don’t come around often enough. So, when I debate a committed Calvinist, the “debate” is light-hearted discussion, judgment-free, and carried out in love. At least that’s how I hope those conversations go. That’s my intent. I have received such grace and friendship from many a Calvinist who ardently disagreed with me. And in the end, I don’t know I am right. I think I am, but I don’t know.
I believe that humble interpretation creates space for the Holy Spirit to lead the reader/preacher to the true meaning of God’s word. The Bible becomes word of God when it is preached, read, and lived. I have heard people say that a creative interpreter can make a passage “say anything.” As Watson said in critique of Kermode, I respond “such a statement is untenable.” No, the Bible cannot and does not mean anything we want it to mean or make it mean. The Holy Spirit speaking through the words of scripture is the source of meaning, not the creative interpreter.
The story in the Bible expresses a single, true message, not an indefinable, variegated ideological patchwork. Sin, self-absorption, and short-sightedness make it impossible for any reader to claim knowledge of the single, true message of scripture. However, standing in grace, reading in grace, and approaching the text humbly, all the while seeking the Spirit’s guidance opens the way for the reader to draw neat the true message. When the reader is before the Word in grace and humility, God speaks and is heard. More important than saying what have never been said, that reader may hear from God what he has never before heard.
[i] Francis Watson (1997), Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p. 71.
[ii] Watson, p.71.
[iii] Watson, p.72
[iv] I am intentionally using an issue other than the homosexuality issue for my example because that issue is wrought with emotional toxicity for the American church in general and my own church in particular. It is a toxicity the church can handle, but only carefully.
[v] Most Calvinists used the term ‘predestination’ incorrectly; they say ‘predestination,’ but they mean ‘predetermined.’