How should we approach the Bible? It’s become increasingly clear that the approach taken by post-Reformation conservative Protestantism—the approach many of us were taught—is a dead end. I would count the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy (https://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/) as the beginning of the end for that approach, although it will be a long time with us. Already by the time of the Statements (1978-86), the world of biblical interpretation was changing, even among the fundamentalist churches and the schools that the Statements represent and address.
The essence of this post-Reformation approach to the Bible is well summarized in the Chicago statements, particularly their Statement on Hermeneutics. These statements were adopted by a coalition of evangelical leaders at their Chicago conferences—hence the name—and have been signed on to by many others since their publication (the statements, along with the history of the movement, can be accessed at https://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/).
The important sixth assertion in the Statement on Hermeneutics sets the direction taken by the authors: “WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God’s truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute.” What’s interesting about this statement is that it appears to distinguish between “biblical truth” and the actual text of the Bible. “Biblical truth” is in this way of thinking a product, a product of a certain way of reading the Bible. The Bible must be processed to produce “biblical truth.” This truth is what the statement claims to be “objective and absolute.” This, then, becomes the goal of biblical interpretation: the production of objective and absolute truth statements.
But the Bible isn’t in fact like this. It contains poetry and myth and story and, turning to the New Testament, collections of the sayings and actions of Jesus (gospels) and the early church, letters from a variety of sources written to a variety of situations, and a long, arcane and still controversial apocalypse to top it off. None of this goes easily into what the writers of Chicago Statement on Hermenuetics call “biblical truth.,” let alone “objective and absolute” propositions.
The writers of the Chicago statements know this. In the very next affirmation in the hermeneutics statement, they add: “WE AFFIRM that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.” It’s hard to know what this would mean for, say, the Jacob story, which reads on many different levels, but it’s what they have to say to protect the idea that the Bible is mainly a source of absolute doctrinal and ethical truth. They are not so much interested in the Bible as the Bible but in what can be produced from the Bible by their methods, their “biblical truth.”
It’s just this that the recent Christian Reformed study committee on human sexuality went in search of. The committee was charged to “articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” For the synod that so charged the committee (2016), no thought was given to the possibility that the Bible may say many and different things about human sexuality and that these different things may not add up to a single truth. The Bible is not a single book written from a single point of view but a conversation over a long period of time reflecting on human life and our relationship with our maker. It’s a much more complex document than this approach to interpretation can take account of. For this reason and others, the post-Reformation Protestant approach to the Bible increasingly appears to be a dead end. It’s not how the Bible works, and for that matter, it’s not how the church has traditionally used the Bible.
In contemporary evangelical churches, perhaps for some of these reasons, there has been a distinct movement away from the Bible. Go to your local evangelical megachurch, and you won’t hear much of the Bible being read. The preacher may quote a text or two or even more, but these biblical quotations are merely apothegms designed to bolster the preacher’s point, and the preacher’s point may diverge widely from what is thought to be biblical. I once heard a preacher defend building fighter jets in a church named for the cross of the one who died rather than take up the sword. I suspect Jesus would not be amused.
In her anthropological studies of Vineyard Churches (see especially her prize-winning book, When God Talks Back (2012), T.H. Luhrmann describes how the Bible has come to be used in contemporary evangelical Christianity. In this approach, the Bible is no longer used to fund doctrine as it was in the past (those propositions that the Chicago statement talks about) but as an imaginative background for direct conversation with God. You imagine yourself into a biblical story, and in and through this exercise, God speaks directly with you. As Luhrmann notes, this way of interpreting the Bible reduces revelation to personal experience, and by doing so, avoids the cultural critique of the approach fundamentalist and evangelical churches used to take to the Bible.
This amounts to a clever strategy: claim the Bible as the Word of God but don’t actually use it much, but is there a better way? I think so, a way not only better but more rooted in the way the Bible has read in the church from the beginning. I call this approach to the Bible “informed imagination.” I came to this way of construing biblical interpretation after finishing the Hilary Mantel series on the life of Thomas Cromwell known collectively as the Wolf Hall Trilogy. Perhaps a short introduction and a bit of explanation is in order.
First, Cromwell. From 1534-40, Thomas Cromwell was the chief advisor to Henry VIII, and second to Henry, the most powerful man in the kingdom. A blacksmith’s son and so a commoner, he rose in that highly stratified society to the rank of Earl—an unusual ascent. Mantel portrays Cromwell as brilliant, ruthless, tender-hearted, relentlessly ambitious, and a steady if sometimes pragmatic advocate for the Protestant gospel. He defended the English Reformation, refusing to allow Henry or the kingdom to return to Rome and the Pope. He sponsored with his own money the creation of the Great Bible, the first officially authorized English translation. He accomplished much else, instituting far-reaching reforms in how the kingdom was administered, putting the finances of the kingdom in order, and skillfully maintaining the independence of England against both France and the Holy Roman Empire. In doing so, he made many enemies, particularly among the nobility, to whom he remained a blacksmith’s son. In the summer of 1540, Henry turned against him, and he was beheaded—an act that Henry soon came to regret.
For all that, we know far less than we would like about Thomas Cromwell. For many years, historians thought of him as a bit player in Henry VIII’s court. Only quite recently, beginning with the publication of Geoffrey Elton’s The Tudor Revolution (1953), did historians recognize his importance both for his own time and for the long-term development of England as a world power. The tantalizing combination of Cromwell’s power and influence with the gaps in what we know of him gives Mantel the space to create an imaginative portrait of Cromwell. She doesn’t create her Cromwell out of whole cloth as would ordinarily be the case for a novel but out of the fragments of historical fact and evidence that remains of the man. We should be clear: her novels are an attempt at truth: a true picture of the man.
The novels are, therefore, works of informed imagination: they are an imaginative portrayal of Thomas Cromwell but at the same time one disciplined by what information about him is available. Mantel’s trilogy can and should be critiqued not only in terms of its literary qualities but in terms of its take on history. Does she get Cromwell right? Does her portrait of him hold up? Does she honor what we know of him? These are some of the relevant questions.
I’ll not answer those questions for Mantel’s work; I’m not a scholar of the Tudor era in England. But it occurs to me that it’s something like this that we are doing when we read the Bible as Christians or better, as church. We are creating a portrayal of God, God as manifested in Jesus Christ. Our portrayal of God (and of what it means to be human) is an act of informed imagination.
It is informed by Scriptures. This is part of what it means for the Bible to be canon. “Canon” means a rule, in this case a rule for life and faith. In this, I agree with the writers of the Chicago statements. But it does not mean that the Bible can be reduced to a set of propositions—statements about, say, human sexuality. The Bible is much more various and complex than that. It means that whatever we say about these things, about faith and life, it must “fit” with the Bible. But what does “fit” mean?
This is where the “imagination” part of informed imagination comes in. “Imagination” is what Hilary Mantel does with Thomas Cromwell. She imagines a man who fits the known facts about the historical figure of Cromwell. In doing so, she fills out what is known of him. But then her portrayal of Cromwell must be tested against what we know of him. Are there other, better imaginative accounts of the man? In a more complex way, this is what the church does with the Bible.
Consider Jesus. What we know of Jesus is almost entirely contained in the gospels, not excluding for the moment the non-canonical gospels, supplemented by references here and there in the rest of the New Testament and in other Christian literature. As historical information goes, it’s both a lot and not nearly enough. And it doesn’t fit easily together. To take one example, the portrayal of Jesus in John differs significantly from the portrayal of Jesus in the other gospels, let alone the portrayal of Jesus in, say, the Gospel of Thomas.
The developing church had to decide who Jesus was and is: how to imaginatively portray him. We are still deciding. Is he, for example, divine or human or both, and if both, what does both mean? Various theologians and church movements over the centuries have produced portrayals of Jesus. Some have framed his life in terms of his humanity; others in terms of his divinity. When forced to decide (by the Roman emperor), the church decided not so much to decide as to put parameters around any portrayal of who Jesus is and was. The parameters, memorialized in the Nicene Creed, say that any portrayal of Jesus can compromise neither the connection between Jesus and the Father nor the connection between Jesus and humanity. Within these bounds, one can portray Jesus in different ways.
And we do. The discussion of who Jesus is continues apace. (See, for example, the enormous study of Jesus in the second and third volumes of N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series.) But our theologies, which are our imaginative portraits of the Christ, have to be tested against the Bible and, not only the Bible, but against the history of the church’s conversation about who Jesus is and was. They are acts of informed imagination.
I could extend this to much else in the Bible. Our interpretations are acts of imagination, imagination constrained by information from the Bible itself and from the history of the interpretation of the Bible in the church. This way of construing biblical interpretation honors both the creativity of interpretation and the way the Bible disciplines what we do. Not every interpretation is an equally good fit with the material of the Bible.
Another way to name this dynamic in biblical interpretation comes from Stephen Fowl. In his 1998 book, Engaging Scripture, Fowl calls it “underdetermined interpretation.” He distinguishes three kind of biblical interpretation: “determinate interpretation,” “anti-determinate interpretation,” and “underdetermined interpretation.” The middle one of these, “anti-determinate interpretation,” has to do with mostly with a certain kind of French philosophy and the scholarship derived from it, and it need not detain us here. Probably no one reading this blog is anti-determinate in their biblical interpretation.
What Fowl calls “determinate interpretation” is interpretation along the lines that I described above, the sort of interpretation you and I learned in church or in school. Those who approach the Bible in this determinate way suppose that what the preacher is saying is just what the Bible is saying. As the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics has it, “the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.” In reading the responses to the human sexuality report I mentioned earlier, I have noted that some of respondents (those who want the report adopted and made creedal) substitute “God” for “study committee.” Referring to the study committee’s interpretations of, say, the texts on homosexuality in Leviticus, these responses don’t say “the committee claims” or “one interpretation of these texts alleges” but rather, “God says.” They believe that this interpretation is determinate, once for all.
In contrast to determinate interpretation, Fowl suggests that interpretation is always “underdetermined.” The adjective is perhaps not well chosen; who wants to be “underdetermined” in interpretation or anything else? But what Fowl means by “underdetermined” is interpretative humility. Our interpretations are and should be informed by many things—the text, the history of the text, how the text has been read in the church, how it has been read in the scholarly world, these and more—and none of them is by itself determinative. There is always more to know. And more to consider. Our readings of the text are always “underdetermined:” there is room for disagreement and difference.
And this is the bottom line. We are in a struggle in the church between those who claim that their interpretations are determinate: determinate not only for them but for you and me. They claim that their readings are just what the Bible says. But this is not the case. Our best interpretations are acts of informed imagination—our attempts to get the Bible right. They always contain a mixture of the Bible and our own thoughts and experiences. They are or should be informed and imaginative. It’s what makes interpretation such an interesting, compelling, and humbling activity.