All of us at one time or another have been involved with a Bible study where after reading a passage, the leader looks up and asks the group, “What does that passage mean to you?” On the surface it may sound like a reasonable, amiable question, but is the purpose of Bible study to bounce around subjective ideas based on changing times? Would not the serious student of the Bible want to know an objective meaning that is true for all people and at all time, one that reveals the mind of the Author?
What is objectivity when it comes to studying the Bible? Objectivity in Bible study means that it is possible to know what the text of the Bible actually means, to have a correct interpretation of the Bible.
However, for many Bible scholars today, objectivity is thought to be a kind of neutrality, or an approach to the text and to reality that is determined by one’s own perspectives. According to these scholars, objectivity is rejected as a naïve approach that ignores what they believe is the all-important perspective of the interpreter. Their position is that Bible study involves interpretation, and interpretation involves everything that we think and everything we are, what we believe, our point of view, what we think is true and false, what is important to us, what we think about our world, our training, dispositions, opinions—all these factors that come together to form our personal world view. Our personal world view determines how we interpret the world. It is like having a set of glasses through which we look at and interpret our world. Since no two world views are exactly alike and since our world view determines the way we look at the world, they say it is not possible to have an objective understanding of the Bible. This is a belief held not only by those outside the Christian church, but also by almost all Evangelical scholars today.
There are two significant implications for Bible study that follow directly from these beliefs about objectivity. First, if objectivity is a kind of neutrality, then in order to be neutral, the reader must take off his glasses/world view. This creates a problem. It is our world view that makes understanding possible, and without your world view, you cannot understand or know anything. When you take off your glasses, you cannot see. So then, no one can study the Bible without looking through his own glasses/world view. But, it is this very world view that unavoidably influences your interpretation. So, every interpretation will necessarily be a product, to some degree, of your own world view, and this fact militates against the degree of certainty about having arrived at the correct interpretation.
The second implication that follows is that with the rejection of objectivity there would seem to be no grounds upon which to decide whose interpretation is the correct interpretation. If every interpretation is the product of your own world view, then there can be no single correct interpretation. James Smart identified how the rejection of objectivity makes it impossible to know what God says in His Word:
“The danger inherent in this development was that theological interpretations of Scripture would be its meaning for this or that theologian. Thus, theological exposition, instead of penetrating to the one word of God in Scripture that brings all Christians into fellowship with one another, would give each segment of the Christian community the license to read its own theological convictions out of the text of Scripture.”1
Once we reject the possibility of objectivity, we have lost the very Word of God.
Does this mean that it is impossible to know what God says? In fact, objectivity is possible even though each person has his or her own world view. How is it possible? This is because there are some things in the world that are the same for all people, all the time, no matter where or when they lived. These things are called first principles or truths that cannot be denied. First principles form the foundation of knowledge and make it possible for different people with different world views to connect with each other and communicate to each other.
Let me give you an example of a first principle: the law of non-contradiction (also often referred to as the law of contradiction). This law means that a statement cannot be both true and false in the same sense. So, if I make the statement, “God is good,” this statement cannot be both true and false in the same sense. Either God is good, or He is not. You cannot have it both ways. We know that this is a first principle because it cannot be denied. Anyone who says that the law of non-contradiction is not true must use the law in order to deny the law.2 Now, a statement can be both true and false, but not in the same sense. If I am living in Charlotte, North Carolina, I can say, “I live in Charlotte, North Carolina,” and this is a true statement. However, if I were to move to another city in another state, then the statement “I live in Charlotte, North Carolina” is no longer true. So, the statement can be both true and false, but not at the same time or in the same sense.
The law of non-contradiction was as true for the biblical authors as it is for us today. Because of these first principles, like the law of non-contradiction, when the Bible says that “God is good,” then we know that this statement was as true for the authors of the Bible as it is for us today. Because these first principles are the same for all people at all times and in every place, we have a connection with the Bible that is not affected by our own personal world view. These first principles form the foundation upon which truth rests. These first principles are true for everyone because that is the way God created the world, and because the first principles transcend our own world views, it is possible to have an objective interpretation, a correct interpretation, of the Bible. Let me apply this solution to the question of objectivity.
We do not deny the fact that everyone has his or her own world view. However, we disagree that a person’s world view makes objectivity impossible. The fact is, there are first principles that are common to all humans as part of the nature of humanity as God created it. For someone to say that there is no such thing as objectivity is to count on the objective meaning of this very claim. To deny objectivity while counting on objectivity is self-defeating. Indeed, any claim that denies first principles is ultimately self-defeating and false. Although everyone has his or her own world view, the foundation of any world view is the same for all people, at all times, in all cultures, regardless of language, background, training, world view, perspective, horizon, etc.
It is simply false to claim that no world view is universally valid. In fact, this very claim assumes its own universal validity. It is undeniably the case that there are aspects of every framework that are unavoidable, self-evident, and true. The basic laws of logic and the undeniability of truth are the same everywhere and at all times. Consequently, any claim that denies these foundational principles is self-defeating and false.
Not only is universal validity implied in the notion of objectivity, but it is also the very essence of objectivity. Anyone who attempts to deny neutrality assumes that his own claims are universally valid and therefore objective. To claim that there can be no neutrality assumes this very neutrality. All such claims are self-defeating and false.
To claim that no interpreter can be objective in his or her interpretation is both self-defeating and false. For anyone to claim that no interpreter can be objective assumes that the one making the claim has been objective in his interpretation of the question of objectivity. Regardless of the fact that interpreters do not always achieve the objectivity, the fact is that objectivity is possible.
Since objectivity is possible, then so is a “correct” interpretation. To claim that there is no correct interpretation assumes one’s own interpretation is the correct one. This too is self-defeating and false.
In spite of their denials of objectivity, some Evangelicals still think that it is possible to decide between interpretations. It is not only possible; it is unavoidable. Every act of understanding is, in one way or another, an act of deciding between interpretations. We hold one thing to be true and its contradiction to be false. We accept one view and reject its opposite. It is not necessary for Evangelicals to compromise on the notions of objectivity and truth in order to accept the undeniable fact that all understanding is mediated through one’s own world view. The fact of self-evident, undeniable first principles constitute a foundation upon which objectivity is based.
We believe that the God of the Christian Scriptures has created us after His image, and this insures the objectivity of truth and a correct interpretation of His Word is in fact possible.
1James D. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), 46.
2In other words, by saying the law of non-contradiction does not exist, one is saying things can be true and not true at the same time in the same sense. If you insist that you are right that the law of non-contradictions does not exist, then you are saying what you just said does not need to be true. But you are insisting that it is true, so you are agreeing with the law of non-contradiction.