Reason and Scripture
I have often heard conversations on biblical interpretation that placed reason and Scripture in opposition. Generally, I see this as an attempt to keep at bay the influence of modernist rationalism, which aims to make human reason the final arbiter of knowledge.
Rationalism fits best in a deistic religious framework, in which the existence of God is accepted, but his Being is regarded as too remote from humanity to entertain communication and a relationship. Placing reason above everything is the core mark of a humanistic worldview, in which reason, apart from God, is deemed able to determine truth from error and the pure nature of reality.
Contrary to deists, theists accept not only the existence of God, but also His immanence–the idea that God enters history and maintains a relationship with us through veiled, yet dynamic and genuine communication.
Scripture and Jesus are God’s special means of communicating with us, both meant to reveal God’s character, while nature, history, and reason, are God’s general revelation to humanity–fragmented avenues of knowing God.
From the Adventist Church’s point of view, the relation between these methods of knowing God subjects the general revelation to the special revelation. In other words, we must interpret our knowledge of God arising from nature, history, and reason, through our knowledge of God arising from Scripture and Jesus—the Scripture being a pointer to the ultimate divine revelation, Jesus Christ.
Of course, the conundrum only thickens when we put all these together, leading to apparent circular reasoning: if we are a broken avenue for the knowledge of God and must subject our reason to Scripture, how can we do so when in fact we use our reason to interpret Scripture?
I would liken this dilemma to the question “Which came first: the egg, or the chicken?” In appearance, the circular logic dismisses the entire structure of thought regarding divine revelation. Before seeking to explain this conundrum, I will interject a few thoughts about criticism.
Criticism and Biblical Interpretation
First, it is important to mention that there is a difference between biblical higher criticism, criticism in general, and critical thinking. In daily life, criticism is perceived as something negative, and for good reason; life around critical people is not pleasant. In this context, criticism implies a constant nagging and putting-down by people who think they know better.
This is different from critical thinking, a term employed most often in academia which refers to training the mind to think–to look at situations, problems, and circumstances from different perspectives in order to get a better understanding, which in turns engenders good decisions.
Critical thinking is yet different from biblical higher criticism, which generally implies a view of Scripture that denies its supernatural nature and seeks to explain it only on the basis of historical evidence and rationalistic humanistic logic.
When Christians (including theologians and biblical scholars), who consider themselves theists, deny the divine inspiration of Scripture and reject or interpret symbolically the parts of the Bible recounting miracles (such as the virgin birth of Jesus, the creation story, and the miracles of Jesus), their interpretation of Scripture resembles more closely that of a deist.
Thus, by nature of its anthropological and theological presuppositions, biblical higher criticism typically has a rationalistic view of reason, regarding the human beings as independent from God and capable of arriving at objective conclusions about reality (including Scripture and God).
Not all theologians and biblical scholars adopt these anthropological and theological presuppositions though. In biblical interpretation, the method that openly accepts the divine origins of the Bible and regards the supernatural events of Scripture as God’s involvement in history is usually identified as the historical-grammatical method.
Evidently, reason is also at work in the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, but the view of reason is different than the practice of the historical-critical method implies: human reason is corrupted since the fall of humankind, and yet still capable of some understanding of self, others, and God. On this view, God is part of a Christian’s daily life, and the decisions are made through a reason that accepts its limitations and depends on God for understanding.
Thus, whatever method we apply, reason is never absent from interpretation, for as human beings we cannot function without it. Yet the different view of reason makes a significant difference. Having established that using reason in understanding Scripture is not only not wrong, but indispensable, let us return to the apparent problem of circularity: if we need to subject our reason to Scripture and at the same time we need to use reason to interpret Scripture, where do we begin?
Circularity and Finitude
When we understand that we are created beings endowed with reason (corrupted since the fall into sin), we recognize both our finitude and our capacity, our limitations and our power. We are able to understand, for God made us able to, but we are not able to understand clearly apart from our Creator. Because of sin, even our best relationship with God cannot yield perfectly accurate understanding, for our vision is still dim while we journey on this earth. Even so, God calls us to reason, to search, and to understand, and He is available always to help us.
Circularity is the mark of finitude, and as noted above, human beings are finite by virtue of being created. This means that something/someone else was there before us. Indeed, when we entered the sphere of existence at creation, we were brought into a context already in place, including a world and our God. In other words, our beginning involves the presence of a background independent of us (God and the created world).
Through birth, new human beings also join our world in a context, a family, a linguistic, cultural, economic and political community that inevitably shapes our character, our thinking, and our approach to life. The background changes constantly as we move through life, but we can never escape it; we can never be without a background. Consequently, we will always be influenced by our background in everything we do, including interpreting the Bible.
Background: Friend, or Foe?
Our personal background, which is the sum of all our presuppositions, is a prerequisite for our relationship with God and the space in which this relationship is formed. It is partly the uniqueness of each of us that makes possible a uniquely personal relationship with our Creator and Savior. He alone knows and loves us fully, and on this basis, reaches out to us in unique ways often beyond our grasp. The mystery in this process by no means undermines the effectiveness of God’s approach to us.
Furthermore, our unique background enables each and every one of us to have a voice in the conversation, to bring something to the table. This is one reason why community is far from becoming irrelevant in postmodernism, notwithstanding the focus on individualism.
The richness of our personal experiences can help each other grasp more deeply God’s unfathomable love for us. As we pit thought against thought, together we paint the story of redemption with freshness and depth, with nuances unreachable in isolation. We must humbly recognize the need for one another and value each other’s personal background as we seek to grow spiritually. Thus, our background is certainly a friend.
Personal background, however, can also be a foe. Our presuppositions can blind us to further understanding and lock us into a worldview without the possibility to change for the better. They can prevent us from grasping the nature and character of God and humanity. This is why being open with each other is so vital to the possibility of growing and learning. It is essential that our communities provide a safe space where we can share our views and keep each other accountable, where together we can grow not farther from God, but into a deeper understanding of Him and His purpose for us.
Thus, our personal background is both a friend and a foe, and both attributes warrant the relevance of community. We need community in order to enhance our personal and communal growing understanding of God, and we need community in order to safeguard us from a misguided understanding of God.
Community alone, however, cannot adequately ensure a correct understanding of the Bible. It is possible that even large communities of sincere believers may be misguided concerning certain teachings of the Bible simply because of the presuppositions they hold. Most religions develop within a faith tradition, and these traditions have a long-lasting effect upon the Christians within that faith tradition (the way we do things, the way we read Scripture, worship style, core doctrines, etc.)
In short, these traditions become presuppositions (assumptions we take as true without seeking to prove them) and influence how we interpret Scripture. Thus, for Seventh-day Adventists, the historically developed beliefs, including the Creation-Redemption-Recreation metanarrative of Scripture are pillar assumptions in our biblical interpretation.
It is within these pillars of knowledge that we place our study while integrating depth acquired from other branches of knowledge, as we continue researching and growing in our knowledge and understanding. This is not a matter of right or wrong, it is simply how things work, for, once again, we cannot function outside of a background given our creaturehood.
Biblical Interpretation and Circularity
Back to our problem again. We have not resolved the apparent circularity, have we? Instead, I have only another layer added to it. In fact, hermeneutics, or biblical interpretation is circular in two significant ways:
- on the one hand, the reader moves constantly between the text under analysis and its broader context;
- on the other hand, the reader is in constant mental and spiritual movement between the text and reason, which is informed by her or his ever-changing background.
We can also refer to both these aspects as the movement between the parts and the whole. Circularity is part and parcel of our creaturehood, and instead of fighting it and fearing it, we need to embrace it and seek the value it offers us–the doors it opens, not the ones it closes.
Where then, do we begin with our study of Scripture? Simply put, we begin where we are. A favorite text that illustrates this is Acts 8:26-40 where Philip reached the Ethiopian Eunuch and began to minister to him right where he was: along the road going down from Jerusalem to Gaza, in his chariot, reading Isaiah 53.
The same is with us. God reaches us where we are, and from there invites us on a journey of spiritual growth through a better and deeper understanding of His divine message recorded in Scripture.
The more we study the Bible and the closer to God we come, the clearer our understanding of the Bible becomes. Our finitude has not placed us in a position of neutrality, but one where our entire being is part of an interpretive process that can help us on our journey towards a better life, in the presence of our infinitely loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing Creator.