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.
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.