The presupposition dance: our tango with Scripture and systems

reading-the-BibleI got into a couple of interesting threads the other day on Facebook that got me thinking about this post I did a few years ago, The Myth of Non-theology and Neutrality. One of the discussions involved limited atonement. I recounted how I too once struggled with the concept until I started asking different questions. Now these questions went beyond the typical identification of cherry picked proof texts, but were derived from a more systematized approach to Scripture that naturally arises from it. In other words, it wasn’t enough for me to rest on the passages I believed communicated a universal atonement but to ask what the whole counsel of Scripture has communicated about the nature and application of the atonement. I posted this article here as a succinct summary.

Well, sure enough, one of the rebuttals was that it seemed that the position was being derived because of doctrine or rather, a doctrinal system was being imposed on the text. Because the article itself didn’t deal with any particular passages. On the surface, I think this kind of conclusion might sound like a good corrective. I mean, we do want Scripture to speak for itself. However, my retort was in line with what I wrote a few years ago regarding the myth of neutrality. There is a dance between our exegesis, i.e., letting Scripture speak for itself and our presuppositions that are formed from making decisions on how the whole of the 66 books form a complete picture. This also presumes that we all bring presuppositions into the text, hence the myth of neutrality. The issue is not whether we do or not, but what is informing the presuppositions. I wrote;

But his main point must be duly noted. It’s naive to think that we can have no method of interpretation and just approach the text with neutrality. We all have some kind of influence that we bring to the text and especially those we learn from who help us shape our ideas about Christianity. There is no such thing as just being biblical because it is necessary to have some type of methodology to interpret Scripture. The idea that we just pick up the Bible and read often ends up in what I call Scattegory Hermeneutics, a hodge-podge of interpretative methods that either over-emphasize some areas than others and/or produce inconsistencies with the complete witness of Scripture and faithfulness to historic Christianity.  When coupled with pragmatism and experience that is so prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism, interpretation becomes its hostage bending to the will of expediency.

Now this may raise an obvious question and concern. Does this mean we impose theology unto the text? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there is a set of presuppositions that are the sina que non of Christianity. Meaning, there certain things we must believe to be true about the tenets of the Christian faith, without which Christianity does not exist. That’s why its important to have teachers, who themselves have taken the time to study the depth and breadth of Scripture, church history and the discipline of theology. This helps in knowing have or have not been faithful to the historic witness of Christianity.

If we are serious about understanding the whole story of the Bible in relation to the work and character of the triune God, it is only natural to ask questions that arise out schematic perspective. We are, or should be, be inclined to consider what the whole counsel of Scripture communicates about how the holistic nature of Scripture, in essence, what is this Bible about? But that means, we have to do more than just lift out a set of passages to prove our points, but consider what those passages mean in context of the author’s purpose, linguistic considerations, genre, the relationship of the book to the whole of Scripture, etc. While it may seem that we are being biblical by just saying for Scripture to speak for itself, there is an extent that we have to take a 20,000 foot view and make decisions about what the Bible in toto is communicating.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a pretty good example of the presuppositions that are formed because it naturally arises from the text. The early church had to go beyond Scripture to ask theological questions about the nature of God and so laid some sound groundwork for Christian orthodoxy. But I think we can push the dance a bit further in relationship to our interpretive methods that leads to some legitimate disagreements within the bounds of orthodox Christianity (Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology for example). In a good sense, yes we impose presuppositions on to the text based on whatever system or structure we have applied to how the 66 books fit together based on that interpretive method. I myself have moved towards a redemptive-historical model, which fits with my embracing Covenant Theology, which is the framework that I read Scripture. But that decision was derived from asking important questions about the nature, structure and the themes of Scripture and yes, letting Scripture speak for itself. Of course, this forms my theology and there is a bit of a dance when doing exegesis.

book-cover_moving-beyond-bibleIn Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, a book comprising 4 views of hermeneutical systems, Gary Meadors writes in the introduction;

When our interpretive methods require that we appeal to our theological assumptions in order to explain a text, we have gone beyond the plain statements of the text in order to solve our theological issue. This is an inevitable and necessary part of doing theology. If we claim exegesis has solved the problem while equally competent scholars disagree about the exegetical products, we have deceived ourselves and perhaps deified our own interpretive judgments. For whatever reasons, God has not made the process simple or final in the human interpretive arena.

Going beyond the immediate contexts and claiming that there are larger implications that teach us in those contexts, especially when a series of texts is evaluated, is a noble task.

Hear what he is saying. If we simply appeal to proof texting a selected group of passages to prove whatever point we want, we deceive ourselves. For even in that choosing, we make decisions about what those passages mean in consideration of what the the whole Bible is about and what that book means in relationship to the whole of Scripture. (Ironically, the other conversation involved the nature of OT fulfillment and the church/Israel issue but I believed revealed the same thing about simply going to a set of passages to prove points.) It’s precisely why there are 4 interpretive models the book deals with because of decisions that are made on how all the puzzle pieces fit together. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a natural recourse to studying Scripture and a noble task. We should not be fooled that our theology won’t be formed from that.

He then goes on to say that the viewing the Bible consists of three levels,

  1. Direct teaching: teaching that best represents what the original author intended the original audience to understand from the text
  2. Implied teaching: teaching that seems reasonably clear by examining how texts speak; for example, Paul’s speaking to Philemon about Onesimus, while never directly stating a view on manumission, implies a softer approach to an indentured servant
  3. Creative constructs: theologically constructed views that interpreters argue best represent the totality of the Bible

It is this last level that leads us to impose our theology that is derived from interpretive methods upon what we read in the text. As I wrote about in the Myth of Non-Theology, it is dishonest to say we don’t have method by which interpret. Even the Scattegory Hermeneutic will reveal it’s own inconsistencies. So let’s be careful in allegations that someone arrives at a position simply because they are imposing theology on the text. We all do that, as the early church has demonstrated.



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