Why I Find Bible Study so Challenging

Since becoming a Christian I have loved the study of the Bible. I hated it before, but immediately fell in love with it after. This, I suggest, is the work of the Spirit. But I have to admit, several years into studying the Bible and it being the main passion of my life (in order to seek Jesus), I still find it thoroughly challenging.

I could mention that I find it challenging to follow its worldview in some ways, but that’s not where I’m going with these thoughts right now. I find it challenging to discern its meaning.

I’ve grown up holding two fairly conflicting worldviews in tension: that of a sort of ‘positivism’ and that of a sort of ‘postmodern deconstructionism.’ Positivism essentially means that I look at a text (say, the New Testament) and immediately gain a window onto objective reality and events as they really happened. There is the author and his or her intent and the events which he or she narrates and I can know them objectively. Postmodern deconstruction, on the other hand, essentially sees no authorial intent in the text but rather sees the text as a mirror reflecting back upon the reader their own viewpoints. Somehow I’ve subconsciously walked these two lines, contradictory though they are. Having not thought through them prior to becoming a Christian and a philosophy major, I’m sure I just unconsciously applied them at different times as it was convenient to do so.

It seems to me that there are Christians who fall into one of either camp (or both like I somehow did). On the positivist side, Christians sometimes think that the objective meaning of the events and author’s intent are simply there and easy to ascertain. On the postmodern side, Christians sometimes approach the text in terms of ‘what it means to me,’ never asking the historical question. What matters is the reader’s response.

But the reason I find Bible study so challenging is that meaning is not so simple. In fact, I think both sides have aspects of it right but have absolutized their position into falsehood. Indeed, Christians so often rail against postmodernism as an enemy (usually in favour of an equally non-Christian position, that of modernism) failing to recognize that it has developed in response to things that were left unaccounted for in the prior prevailing worldview (modernism). Yes the pendulum has swung too far to the other extreme, but postmodernism has helped us remember that there is in fact a reader in the reading process that must be taken into account. And that reader brings all sorts of presuppositions and viewpoints to the text they read. Postmodernism’s failure, however, is that it has lost any anchor, something a Christian should be very cautious about unless abandoning “God has spoken” is something desirable.

In responding to postmodernism as Christians, I believe we also need to be careful not to swing the pendulum back again and forget the reader in the process. I have seen, at least in popular discussion, this sort of thing happening.

Navigating these waters is not easy. That, or I’m just not that bright (entirely possible!). Or, I am sure someone will say I’m not allowing the Spirit to speak. Well, maybe, but when I look at 4 legitimate Christians and their take on the same text and the differences present, I am persuaded that our mind/thinking plays an important role in the interpretive process. That’s for another post, and there are good books out there that would show it biblically (both John Piper and Mark Noll have recently written books to this effect).

So, should I despair? No, I think there is a ‘middle ground’ or what have you, that doesn’t succumb to either positivism or deconstructionism. It recognizes there is a reader with presuppositions but it also recognizes that the reader can be shaped by the worldview of the text, produced with some intent that can be (to some degree) obtained. This itself is the content of whole books but it feels good to write some of this out, even if in broad-strokes and so preliminarily.

What do you think?

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One comment

  1. David Houser

    I happened to be writing to someone else about this very section in John’s Gospel and the interpretive process.
    “Perhaps the interpretive flow that you like in the Gospel to a large degree flows from sensitivity toward plot, not from pedantic exactitude: it comes from a desire to see, not a desire to count. There’s story there in the Gospels, story about Christ, and detail is story’s handmaiden. Story is all ebb and flow: story leads to plot, plot leads to motive, motive leads to decision, decision leads to consequence—and consequence leads to comparison (as the reader realizes he has been drawn in). Plot isn’t about getting into the mind of the author; it is about the author getting us into the mind of the characters. And, since details are at a premium, every detail is precious.”

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