Dr. Brian Huffling
Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.
When one thinks about apologetics, he usually thinks about such disciplines as philosophy, history, archaeology, etc. There is one area, however, that is relatively undeveloped in the practice of apologetics, and yet it is ripe for the work: literary studies. I am not talking about what genre the gospels happen to be, or if the saints in Matthew 27 were literally raised, or any such argument that has been popular as of late. I am talking about theories in English and literature that dramatically influence the field of hermeneutics (how we study the Bible). One of my majors in grad school was Biblical Studies, and I have taught Bible Study Methods at the BA level, and Hermeneutics and Advanced Hermeneutics at the grad level. In doing so, I have read many books on the issue of biblical interpretation and have scoured many resources for my classes. While there are many issues I could talk about, such as deconstructivism, postmodernism, etc., the issue that seems to come up a lot in standard textbooks is the role of the interpreter and how he either uncovers or imparts meaning to the biblical texts. In this article I will talk about two books that are standard for evangelical studies on biblical interpretation, and why I think they are undermining the objective meaning of the text.
The Books and Their Claims
The first book is Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, revised and updated edition, by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (There is a newer 3rd edition.) In general this is a very good book, which is why it is used by many Bible colleges and seminaries. I even use it. Many pastors have been taught using this book. The principles that the authors teach that we should use for interpreting our Bibles are very good. So what’s the problem?
The problem is what they say about the role of the interpreter and the nature of bias, presuppositions, and preunderstanding (the body of knowledge the reader brings to the text). They state:
“No one interprets anything without a set of underlying assumptions. When we presume to explain the meaning of the Bible, we do so with a set of preconceived ideas or presuppositions. These presuppositions may be examined and stated, or simply embraced unconsciously. But anyone who says that he or she has discarded all presuppositions and will only study the text objectively and inductively is either deceived or naïve.” (143)
It is certainly true that we all have biases, etc. However, the startling claim these authors make is since we have biases, we can’t study the Bible objectively. Unfortunately, and per usual for these kinds of books, the notion of “objectivity” is left undefined and unclear. They later deny that such biases leave the reader bereft of objectivity; however, they do not explain how he can be objective since they have seemingly taken it away via the role of biases and presuppositions. Such is especially the case given this statement:
“The preunderstanding and presuppositions of the interpreter contribute enormously to the results of the interpretive process. We might even say they determine the results.” (197)
If the preunderstanding and presuppositions determine the interpretive results, then it is not clear at all how the reader can be objective. We wouldn’t discover the truth or meaning of the text, we would determine it.
The other book is The Hermeneutical Spiral, revised and expanded, by Grant Osborne. Like the previous work, this book is generally very good when it comes to interpreting the Bible. However, in the appendix Osborne espouses a dangerous view, namely, the sociology of knowledge. He states:
“The sociology of knowledge recognizes the influence of societal values on all perceptions of reality. This is a critical factor in coming to grips with the place of preunderstanding in the interpretive process. Basically, sociology of knowledge states that no act of coming to understanding can escape the formative power of the background and the paradigm community to which an interpreter belongs.” (505)
Basically what this means is that one’s culture is “formative” in how one knows and it influences one’s “perceptions of reality.” In other words, the way in which one knows is at least somewhat determinedby his culture. Different cultures will produce different perceptions of reality. What does this mean for the biblical interpreter? He answers this question clearly:
“A close reading of the text cannot be done without a perspective provided by one’s preunderstandingas identified by a “sociology of knowledge” perspective. Reflection itself demands mental categories, and these are built on one’s presupposed worldview and by the faith or reading community to which one belongs. Since neutral exegesis is impossible, no necessarily ‘true’ or final interpretation is possible.” (516, emphasis added)
Some people will find this shocking while others will express agreement. Evangelicals who hold to the idea that we can (and must) be able to know absolute truth should find this kind of assertion by a leading evangelical very scary. If true, we would not be able to claim to know the truth or the meaning of the biblical text, if there even is any.
One wonders how the authors of these books think that their meaning can be grasped. If what they say is true, we could never know the meaning of their books! Such claims made by these authors are hopelessly self-defeating. Further, it is simply an assumption that biases are always necessarily wrong, or that subjectivity entails falsehood. But this has never been demonstrated. Presuppositions are not inherently bad or wrong, as the authors of Introduction to Biblical Interpretation seem to imply when they argue for a certain set of presuppositions in order to interpret the Bible, such as believing in the supernatural.
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation claims that we can still have an objective understanding of the text, but they don’t offer a method for giving that objectivity to the reader after they took it away in the name of bias, presuppositions, and preunderstandings. We are thus left in subjectivity. Or are we? While the above authors do not tell us how to overcome the interpretive problems brought on by the interpreter, there are ways of explaining how an interpreter can simultaneously be biased and objective. After all, aren’t the authors of the above books biased and yet trying to pass off their text as objective? Surely. So how can they do that?
In his Objectivity and Biblical Interpretation, Thomas A. Howe explains how this is possible. (See also my article on objectivity and historical knowledge.) As mentioned earlier, authors like those above rarely define what they mean by “objective.” I am in agreement with Howe that a proposition is objective if it can be verified or falsified by external, mind-independent evidence that is also based on (objective) first principles. In other words, something is objective when it is based on extra-mental evidence that by definition is not subjective, or merely in one’s mind. Further, propositions can be evaluated by the use of first principles, such as the principles of non-contradiction, identity, and excluded middle. (For more discussion on these, see my article on logic.) Such laws of logic are based in the being/existence of things in the external world. For example, the principle of non-contradiction says that something can’t simultaneously be and not-be. In other words, something can’t be a tree and not a tree at the same time and in the same sense. Such laws are not just made up. They are not just rational constructs. They are metaphysical and based in and reducible to existent things in reality. These principles are objective because they are based on objectively existing things in the world.
These principles can be applied to everyday issues, such as interpreting a written text. It is obvious that the authors of the cited works think that their readers can read books objectively. Otherwise, why write them? And why have principles to follow if there is really no use since we can’t be objective or know the true meaning of the text? Being an objective interpreter of the Bible is possible. We simply use language and interpretive principles according to our everyday, commonsense way. There is no great barrier to objectivity, whether it be bias, presuppositions, preunderstandings, or a sociology of knowledge. The very knowing process built into our human nature and the way we use language ensures that an objective understanding of the Bible is indeed possible.