Christ-followers are called to combat false ideas raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10). It seems there is an endless number of dangerous ideas always knocking on the door of the church. At our present point in history, however, there are three particular dangers currently facing evangelicals: the denial of objectivity, the adoption of “wokeness” ideology, and the weakening of biblical inerrancy. We only have space here to briefly examine the first of these dangers.
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). While there are many issues to address, such as deconstructivism, postmodernism, etc., the issue that seems to be most prevalent in standard hermeneutics 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, by William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. In general, this is a very good book, which is why it is used by many Bible colleges and seminaries. I even use it in my classes. The overall hermeneutical principles laid out in the book are very good. So what’s the problem?
The problem is what the authors 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 that, due to our 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 away that possibility 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. In the appendix, however, 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 determined by 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 preunderstanding as 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, or any text for that matter. These ideas also underlie the “standpoint epistemology” and experience-driven thinking of critical social justice that is infecting every aspect of our society.
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 after taking objectivity away in the name of bias, presuppositions, and preunderstandings, they don’t offer a method for giving it back to the reader. 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,Southern Evangelical Seminary professor 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 (i.e., 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 truths based in, and reducible to, existent things in reality. First 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 of interpretation if we are incapable of objectively interpreting a text?
Being an objective interpreter of the Bible (or any written work) 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 shared human nature, in addition to the way humans are able to use language, ensures that an objective understanding of the Bible (or any book) is indeed possible.
Thus, whether you are black, white, purple, or green, or whether you are a Christian or a skeptic, we are able to rise above our biases and have real, objective, communication with one another.
To learn more about this issue and the other two dangers mentioned above, please download our FREE ebook Three Dangers Currently Confronting Evangelicals. These are the types of issues that integrated training in theology, philosophy, and apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College can help you be equipped to engage. Whether you are looking for a full degree or a for-credit certificate, SES stands ready to help you more effectively proclaimthe Gospel, engagethe culture, and defendthe truth.