Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The disciplines of theology and biblical studies should serve each other, and should serve both the church and the academy together. But the relationship between them is often marked by misunderstandings. This essay is excerpted from the author's forthcoming book Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew. In a companion volume, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew, biblical scholar Scot McKnight reflects on what theologians should know about biblical studies. 

When I speak with colleagues in biblical studies, I often find myself defending the notion that we need to search for Christ in all of Scripture (which is my polite way of saying we should read the Bible allegorically). In these discussions, I repeatedly encounter the objection, “But you wouldn’t treat any other text that way!” Whether consciously or not, the comment echoes Benjamin Jowett’s claim, made in 1860, that the interpreter’s “object is to read Scripture like any other book.” Jowett, of course, was not the first to promote a strictly non-theological reading of Scripture. Historicist exegesis had its first advocates in the seventeenth century, in Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. But Jowett’s essay “On the Interpretation of Scripture” caused waves at least partly because of the direct and unequivocal manner in which he articulated his convictions.

Those who argue for reading the Bible “like any other book” typically assume that general hermeneutics should override special or theological hermeneutics: To put it another way, they assume that we should begin with rules for reading in general before asking how we interpret Scripture in particular. But why that assumption? The starting point for biblical exegesis is not general but special hermeneutics. God’s self-revelation in Christ is his final and definitive speech: “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). Divine providence has taken flesh in Christ, and it is this unique event in God’s providential economy that forms the starting point for biblical exegesis. This doesn’t mean that general hermeneutics has no bearing on biblical interpretation. In some ways, we do read the Bible like any other book. But this observation comes after the recognition of God’s providential economy in Christ. The supernatural end of providence precedes the shared natural and historical exigencies of everyday life. For this reason, historical exegesis plays a legitimate, but subservient and secondary role in relation to the sacramental role that Scripture plays within the divine economy.

Reading the Bible like any other book—to the degree that this is a legitimate exercise—does not mean that the literal or the historical meaning is a strictly objective datum, waiting to be discovered through scientific means. The emphasis on “method” in biblical scholarship is often overdone. True, knowledge of ancient Near Eastern history, an eye for grammatical constructs, biblical theological study of key themes of particular biblical books, and consultation of concordances and word studies are all helpful as we acquaint ourselves with a particular biblical passage. It is also true, I think, that historical investigation yields genuine insights (though they are always partial and approximate). But Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960) has made clear that general hermeneutics involves a dialogic process, for which the methodology of the natural sciences does not offer an adequate paradigm. In the humanities, and particularly when it comes to interpreting religious texts, the reader’s own presuppositions invariably come into play, so that meaning occurs when the horizons of the text and those of the interpreter come together (Horizontverschmelzung).

Andrew Louth, drawing on Gadamer for a spirited defense of allegorical exegesis, writes in Discerning the Mystery

The historical-critical method is, on the analogy of the scientific method, a way of reaching objective truth, that is, truth that inheres in the object, independently of the one who knows this truth. It is necessary, then, to locate the objectivity that it is the purpose of the method to reach. This is done by ascribing to the object of study, which in the humanities focuses on the writings of men, a “meaning” which is there independently of any understanding of it, an objective meaning which the historical-critical method attempts to discover. 

Louth’s comments apply not only to historical criticism (which is very much on the wane anyway) but also to many other biblical scholars who regard it as their primary task to establish the original meaning of the text. Such scholarship too often takes on the mantle of a naturalist scientific methodology, and as such insufficiently appreciates that the results of historical exegesis are not just partial and approximate but also perspectival: The questions asked and the mode of investigation depend on the historian’s own standpoint, and they shape the exegetical results.

Two sermons on the same text are rarely identical, even with regard to the historical exegesis that undergirds them. This is not a shortcoming but a proper reflection of the infinitely varying personal horizons of the preachers. It is not just the move to the spiritual level, therefore, that leads to polyvalent meanings; polyvalence characterizes literal readings of Scripture as well. To be sure, in a postmodern context, polyvalence will often be tied to identity politics and relativism; but the proper response is not a lapse into modern historicism and objectivism. Instead, we may trust that from within the unique, particular location in which God places each one of us, we discern something of the divinely intended meaning of the text.

Such an approach does not make human experience or context normative; we remain answerable to the divine Word that speaks to us. But by acknowledging our limited human horizons in interpretation, we recognize that historical investigation draws on the imagination as much as on analytical skill. Therefore, even when we come to Scripture with questions of history and authorial intent prominently in mind (and to that extent read it like any other book), we still should not expect a God’s-eye view. Attempts to arrive at such a perspective are a practical denial of human finitude and subjectivity.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. Copyright © 2021 by Hans Boersma. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles