Our Scriptural Presuppositions

Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, must admit that we come to Scripture with presuppositions and pre-understandings of what it communicates. Not only that, but if we are honest with ourselves and one another, we regularly happen upon verses or larger passages that are difficult to understand.

For some, these are reasons alone to not trust the biblical text and discard it all together. But I don’t believe that is the desired conclusion. I had (and still have) wrong presuppositions of what marriage would be like, but I’m not going to allow that to push me into a place of giving up all together. Nor do I perfectly understand the in’s and out’s of the female, but I still greatly desire my marriage to continue.

So the difficulty in interpreting, understanding and applying the Scripture (called hermeneutics) should not lead us to give up on the task at hand. We are called to persevere. Nonetheless, we also confess that optimism will not be the sole alleviation from these difficulties, especially the whole presuppositional problem.

And that is what I have been pondering this morning. God alone knows how much of the text we read through already prescribed lenses, lenses that were not given by Him but rather come to us due to our background, parenting, culture, church tradition and a whole host of other things. Again, let this not be a discouragement. But we should allow this to keep us honest and humble in our reading and studying (and teaching-preaching) of the biblical text.

One such great passage in which I carry a strong pre-understanding into the text is Romans 5:12-21. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll post it here, though it is somewhat long:

12Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

15But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Traditionally, I have viewed this text through a more reformed-Calvinistic lens. Therefore, I read into the text such doctrines like original sin and federal headship.

The doctrine of original sin basically teaches that all of humanity has come under the judgment and condemnation of God due to Adam’s first sin in the Garden. Even though actual sin might not be present in the life of a person (or infant), the person is still identified as sinner and under the judgment of God for Adam’s sin. Why?

Well, this is where the doctrine of federal headship comes in. Adam was our father, the father of all humanity, as the very first man. And, as the head of the human race, when Adam sinned, we all sinned with him. Verses like Romans 5:18 would be stressed in teaching this doctrine – Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

Those are two presuppositions already set within me and, whether good or bad, this directs me to read the text in a certain way. Now some might be quick to say, ‘Well, this is actually what the text teaches, Scott. It is not your own presuppositions that have led you to read the text this way, it is the actual teaching.’

Well, that might be true. But I want to definitely be open to the reality that Romans 5:12-21 does not teach the prescribed doctrines of original sin and federal headship from the reformed-Calvinistic perspective. And, in all honesty, I confess it is very hard for me to read that passage and not see those two doctrines within the text. Extremely hard!

What is one to do? For this happens across so many passages in the biblical text, from our understanding on the role of women, the work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of Scripture, our Christology, church leadership, whether the Christian is to be involved in politics, and the list could go on and on and on. Matter of fact, would the list stop?

It’s hard to acknowledge that I come to the text knowing what it already says. The text is, thus, not allowed to speak for itself and it puts a barrier in actually hearing the Holy Spirit speak from the text, which is majorly important for me.

How do we keep ourselves from such presuppositions and pre-understandings? Well, I think the first thing is simply confessing this reality in our lives. In this life, we shall never be free from such a setback in our interaction with Scripture. But confessing such in our lives can gently position us for the next important thing.

A willingness to change. Now, that’s easily said. Very easily said. But to practically change, well that’s a whole different story. Right? It’s not easy to change, especially when we are/were convinced of some position for quite a while. And change hurts, can even ostracize us from family and friends. This might be the normal situation at one’s new birth. So maybe that stands a foreshadowing of things that might come when change continues to take place in our lives.

Let me preempt the notion that I am an advocate of change just for change’s sake. That is not what I am communicating here. The point is not change, per se. Rather, the objective is faithfulness to the God who communicates and the Scripture that is one of His major ways of communicating. That is the goal we set our sights on.

Thus, being honest and humble about the preconceptions that we take into the text, will then allow us to be in a much better place for a change of theology-doctrine, if that is what is necessary in being faithful to God and the Scripture text.

Oh, yes, there are some other practical things to consider, like: 1) reading the passage in the larger context of a chapter or whole biblical book, 2) studying other passages with similar themes, 3) diving in to varying commentaries and study materials available, 4) discuss the passage with wise and studied leaders and friends. And I’m sure you can think of others.

But in all, we have got to stay in the humble place of recognising that we bring presuppositions to the text. It’s part and parcel to this life, with even some possibly suggesting it’s a consequence of original sin. 🙂 Therefore, this means that we will not always come to a true and faithful conclusion about what the Scripture text is teaching. But, I believe that, staying in such a humble place of confession will allow us to be in a better place of willingness to change if we are wrong.

Let us stay humble, let us stay open, and let us ask the Spirit to reveal the truth of the text to our eyes and hearts.

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9 thoughts on “Our Scriptural Presuppositions

  1. Scott, you write like a pastor. And I mean that as the utmost compliment =). I think all theologians need to be churchmen.

    Scott, this is an outstanding article. You hit on a lot of the core themes and sensitivities that continental philosophy is also bringing to the table! But the chief takeaway is the need for epistemic humility with regard to what we “KNOW” about scripture. Great article, my friend.

    “The text is, thus, not allowed to speak for itself and it [interpretation] puts a barrier in actually hearing the Holy Spirit speak from the text, which is majorly important for me.”

    I think this is all of our gut reaction as well, that we must escape our interpretations and get to the “true” meaning of the text. But perhaps these two options aren’t as mutually exclusive as we think. We believe in an incarnational God — a God who puts on flesh, a God who speaks his message in Koine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit also speaks incarnationally *THROUGH* our interpretations, rather than forcing us to try and escape them. Because honestly, your conclusion is completely dead-on accurate: we can never escape our presuppositions, it’s part and parcel to this life.

    “But in all, we have got to stay in the humble place of recognising that we bring presuppositions to the text. It’s part and parcel to this life, with even some possibly suggesting it’s a consequence of original sin.”

    We can definitely pin down why we are necessarily stuck in a cycle of interpretations, and it’s not original sin: it’s creaturely finitude. If we were infinite beings, we could have all perspectives at all times, and not be “subjective” to our own perspective. But because we are spacio-temporally-bound creatures with finite limits, we necessarily have perspective.

    I was pleased to see John Piper make a related point to this that was dead-on. He talked about life necessarily being a “risk-taking” endeavor. He pointed out that the only time you have risk is when you have ignorance — that is, we only have to take risks when we don’t know an outcome. If we know an outcome will happen for certain, there’s no risk involved whatsoever. But because we are finite creatures and don’t have all knowledge, we necessarily will have to take risks. It is only the position of God to not have to take risks due to his omniscience. And similarly, it is only God who can hold hermeneutical “objectivity,” and not be bound by perspective and subjectivity.

  2. Thanks, Chach. I do appreciate your comments.

    I think this is all of our gut reaction as well, that we must escape our interpretations and get to the “true” meaning of the text. But perhaps these two options aren’t as mutually exclusive as we think. We believe in an incarnational God — a God who puts on flesh, a God who speaks his message in Koine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit also speaks incarnationally *THROUGH* our interpretations, rather than forcing us to try and escape them. Because honestly, your conclusion is completely dead-on accurate: we can never escape our presuppositions, it’s part and parcel to this life.

    I agree completely. I am not saying we should escape interpretations altogether, nor even escape our current interpretations in an almost dualistic sense of separating God from our personal (or community) human interpretations. But I do want to be open to the reality that the conclusion(s) I have come to are wrong and need to change and move into more appropriate interpretations, all that we might better understand our incarnational God.

  3. “But I do want to be open to the reality that the conclusion(s) I have come to are wrong and need to change and move into more appropriate interpretations, all that we might better understand our incarnational God.”

    Yup =). This is what makes me very appreciative of other Christian traditions like the Anabaptists, Anglo-Catholics, Orthodox, etc. (Everyone except Baptists, that is ;-).) We all have a different take, and we can sharpen each other.

    Scott, you would like the book by Merold Wesphal, “Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Christian Church,” or some such title. It’s a very thin paperback (hooray for thinness!) introducing philosophical hermeneutics from Gadamer, and in service of the church. I’m only a couple chapters in, but it’s been great thus far.

  4. Hey Scott, good thoughts about presuppositions and hermeneutical endeavors. Not a lot of people admit to having presuppositions — which means they get sabotaged by them. It is an interesting circle. One of my own goals is to get people reading as if in conversation with the author. It can be very liberating and exhilarating, and done properly, it drives us back into text and context.

    Blessings,
    Gary
    http://cwpblog.wordpress.com/
    http://www.biblestudytips.com

  5. Hey Scott,

    Another good article from but I have a question – do you think that there needs to be caution in such a view when dealing with newer believers?

    Obviously I agree that we all bring baggage, presuppositions included, to the reading of scripture and as such I would concur that no flawed human can read it and entirely grasp its meaning. However there are definitely wrong interpretations of scripture.

    Do you think that early on in a believers walk with God it is important to be pointing them towards the right ideas in scripture (even if we acknowledge the specific doctrines or perspectives are not the definitive answer) and away from the definitely incorrect interpretations (which I would hope you agree there are).

    It also raises some difficult pastoral challenges when you find yourself needed to bring encouragement / instruction / rebuke and the other person believes their position is consistent with their presuppositions. Does it not risk becoming relativism?

    I am aware of my own presuppositions when reading scripture and even a desire to see my own view reinforced (more towards a reformed-Calvinistic view) and an ‘arguing away’ of those that seem against it. I also know that there is an spiritual immaturity in me that fears finding out that something I believe is wrong, unless it undermines everything else I hold true. It is good to be reminded of it so we can be aware of it and pray for help form the Spirit in our studies.

  6. Paul –

    Very good thoughts, something that must be considered pastorally as we approach all believers, not just new believers, since most believers are not aware of all the varying views on particular Scripture passages and topics. But this whole thing is a journey and process, and it takes time to develop healthy theology. And this might be something to lay out from the beginning so that we don’t get overwhelmed with charting it all out on paper. I used to love systematic theological text books (like a Grudem). But now, I have moved a little more towards the middle, recognising other valuable methods of study and growth.

    So it calls for wisdom all across the board, but yes, definitely with new believers.

    What I would suggest doing with new believers is grounding them in the basics-essentials. Yes, that normally would mean things like Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, etc. But I also think there are other more ‘practical’ essentials to lay foundations with – what it means to walk with God, learning to listen to God, the practical reality of new life expressed in water baptism, identity in Christ, what is the kingdom of God, what is church. Those are more practical basics whereas we might consider the former as more theoretical basics (though I don’t discard those).

    So the more theological-secondary topics of original sin, federal headship, varying eschatological views, etc, might be put on hold in the early days. Smaller, practical, foundational steps must be laid first.

  7. Paul, I think you’ve just nailed the elephant in the room.

    On the one hand, I think any appreciation for presuppositions and the necessity of interpretation will necessarily lead to a mild form of relativism. But it’s not relativism in the strong, postmodern wishy-washy sense. But it definitely does entail a relativism that there is no one “objective” interpretation, but rather many “subjective” interpretations. But the most important point to note is that even though we only have interpretations, there are still GOOD and BAD interpretations(or right and wrong ones), even though they are subjective and not objective.

    So Christians have two choices when faced with this somewhat-relativity:
    1) Give in to the wishy-washy, and have a wishy-washy Christianity. This is the path of Peter Rollins and John Caputo.
    2) Embrace interpretation, but err on the side of tradition. Since interpretation is necessarily in community rather than isolation (people’s presupositions they bring to scripture are formed by their community and background, not solely themselves), we can celebrate 2,000 years of rich Christian consensus on our interpretations (orthodoxy).

    I fall into the second camp, and I think the first camp is silly. But the problem with this is that it is radically counter-Protestant. In Protestantism, we maintain a hard “sola scriptura,” where we eschew tradition in favor of only believing what the word of God “truly, objectively” teaches. I still think we need to be the church “always reforming,” but we can be strongly guided by tradition (both Protestant and Orthodox/Catholic).

    So, I think we can counsel the new believer by teaching them about Christian orthodox interpretations, and also instructing them about historical un-orthodox interpretations.

  8. I was typing at the same time as Scott and didn’t see his response until just now, hehe =D.

    Yup, I think Scott is dead-on as well. Teach fundamentals of orthodoxy, and also orthoPRAXY. Scott nailed that part I forgot: Christian discipleship is of utmost importance. Christianity is ultimately a life of discipleship, not a complex matrix of propositional doctrines.

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