The Role of ‘Patience and Trust’ in Biblical Interpretation. Advice from two Johns [Webster and Calvin]

I have been talking a lot about biblical interpretation lately, especially with reference to how we ought to interpret the Old Testament. Continuing within the_magdalene_reading-largethat theme, in this post, I want to briefly highlight the role that waiting and trusting God ought to play in our engagement with the text of Scripture.

I do not believe that the Bible can ultimately be interpreted apart of from a posture of faith. This springs from my belief that the Bible is a book for God’s people, and that in order to properly understand it, and wrestle with it, that we need to have ‘hearts of flesh’ that have been and are being transformed from glory to glory by the Holy Spirit. As we approach bible reading and interpretation in this way we will, by posture, be set up in a way where we are willing to ‘talk things out’ with the God who gave us the Bible; we will be doing dialogical biblical exegesis, understanding that God has spoken and continues to speak by the Holy Spirit into our lives from the pages of his written Word, from within the context of his eternal living Word, Jesus Christ. In this spirit let me share two points offered to us by theologian John Webster on how this might look as we approach scripture through this kind of theological interpretive mode (these are the last two points of five that Webster has been sharing on what theological interpretation of the Bible might look like and entail):

Fourth: theological work, including theological interpretation, requires the exercise of patience. This is because in theology things go slowly. We are temporal creatures, we do not receive revelation in a single moment; and we are sinful creatures whose idolatry and inattention are only gradually overcome. It would be a poor conception of theological interpretation which presumed to have acquired Scripture’s meaning in a final way which cut out the need for ever-renewed listening and learning. ‘My soul languishes for thy salvation’, says the psalmist, ‘I hope in thy word. My eyes fail for watching for thy salvation’ (Ps. 119.81f.) We must be patient, suffering God’s works, looking for the coming of the Spirit to instruct us in the truth of the Word. But we must also be patient with others. Augustine, again, considered the activities of biblical interpretation as an exercise of charity through mutual learning, as what he called a ‘way for love, which ties people together in the bonds of unity, to make souls overflow and as it were intermingle with each other.’

Fifth: a prayer from Calvin:

Grant, Almighty God, that as nothing is better for us or more necessary for our chief happiness, than to depend on thy word, for that is a sure pledge of thy good will towards us, – O grant, that as thou hast favoured us with so singular a benefit, which thou manifestest to us daily, we may be attentive to hear thee and submit ourselves to thee in true fear, meekness, and humility, so that we may be prepared in the spirit of meekness to receive whatever proceeds from thee, and that thus thy word may not only be precious to us, but also sweet and delightful, until we shall enjoy the perfection of that life, which thine only-begotten Son has procured for us by his own blood.[1]

I think both of these insights represent wonderful advice for the way that we should approach biblical interpretation. I am afraid that all too often we do not start from this posture before the Lord of the Word, and thus hastily rush to interpretive conclusions that come more from our desire to have a satisfactory answer to almost ‘everything’ rather than conclusions that come from careful and patient and prayerful waiting upon the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sometimes waiting might mean we never get a satisfactory answer to our interpretive questions until we have beatific vision of God in Christ; when we no longer walk by faith but sight (so to speak). I think this is the prudent and advisable way to go, rather than many of the more rationalist approaches to biblical studies and interpretation that we see happening today.

[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark. A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 31.

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4 comments

  1. Seems like just yesterday we were talking about this. Oh wait… 😜

    Seriously, though, this is all too right. Good food for thought when interpreting Scripture.

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  2. It seems like the impatience stems in part from forgetting that Biblical interpretation (like all theology) is done in via, and wanting the eschatological fulness before God has been pleased to bring it to pass.

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  3. in via in deed! And yet, there are certain fundamental things, clear things, that God has communicated. They only become muddy when we don’t like what he has communicated clearly for us now (Deut 29.29)

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