Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation

I am not totally sure what is happening to me tonight, but it is either conviction or an overly-sensitive conscience. I have been posting a lot on Karl Barth lately, and if not Barth my other usual suspects are Thomas Torrance and John Calvin. But I am really having a problem with all of this right now, and it is really bothering me. I am not confessing to some deep down angst about my reading of Barth, et al.; but what I am doing right now is being honest about something that has been bothering me for awhile. It is a personal thing really, and it involves some personal background snoopytheologyand history in order to provide the proper context for what I want to get off my chest.

As I have shared way too many times to count, in the past, the Lord got a hold of me in some pretty radical ways back in 1995 when I was 21. I grew up the son of a Baptist pastor, and became a Christian when I was a little kid; I even was a little evangelist leading my 5 year old friend to the Lord. I have always had a heart for Jesus, and a love for Him ever since He touched my heart at a young age (something like a Samuel experience—i.e. the way I came to Christ waking up in the middle of the night and wanting to ask Jesus into my heart, I went in and woke my parents up and they led me to the Lord at 3.5). And I grew up with that sensitive heart for him, and being involved in my dad’s pastoral ministry and evangelism from a young age into my teens. Out of high school I became lukewarm, but that was the point that the Lord got a hold of me again in some rough ways. It was during that time that I began to read through the Scriptures voraciously, memorizing books of the Bible, and feeling the need to tell every person I came into contact with about Jesus—in evangelical parlance I was “on fire for Jesus!” This led me into formal biblical and theological studies, and even to where I am with all of that today.

So here I am tonight (or early morning), and I have four books on my night stand about the theology of Karl Barth. I’ve already read untold books just like these ones over the last eleven years in particular; and the same can be said in regard to Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, and many other theologians (too many to be named). But what I am feeling really convicted about, if I should use that word, is a question that keeps haunting me with some intensity. The question is: who cares?! Who cares what Barth, or Torrance, or Calvin et al. thinks about what the Bible says? Isn’t the Bible itself capable of communicating what it means, in its own given context, without hearing from the theologians or even critical biblical exegetes? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going anti-intellectual on you all, but this is an honest question for me. What is keeping what I am doing from being a so called reader response hermeneutic? When I read Barth et al., yes he and they offer some very interesting, imaginative, and even provocative ways to read Scripture and its inner-theo-logical implications. But at what point does their influence cease being interesting, and instead act as a regulative way that governs the way that I am interpreting Holy Scripture? My question isn’t just for my narrow list of teachers, but it’s for all theologians and challenges whoever someone’s favorite theologian or interpretive tradition is.

When I really committed to reading and studying Scripture, before God, some twenty-one years ago, I committed to know Him through His Word. I want to make sure that I am not conflating someone else’s word with His Word; and I am sure Barth et al. would want to avoid this same thing! But it seems to me that us Protestants have our own popes, and our own interpretive magesterium. I do believe that theological exegesis is inevitable, and in itself is not a bad thing. But I want to always make sure that I am being self-critical enough to not be reading my favorite theologian’s opinions (theologoumena) into Scripture as if Scripture is not perspicuous enough (and that principle itself comes from Protestant theologians) to speak itself from its own literary and theological context.

It doesn’t matter if its Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Amandus Polanus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, John Webster, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Musculus, Junius, Arminius, Bullinger, Bucer, Baxter, Gill, Robert Jenson, Pannenberg, William Perkins, Francis Turretin, Vos, et al. et al. I don’t want to think that I am giving anyone the ability to fabricate or create meaning for Scripture that is not present in Scripture itself. Does this sound like I am being anxious? I think it does sound that way, because I actually am. I’ve studied too much at this point, and continue to study, and realize that it’s very possible to lose touch with the text of Scripture itself. Sure I can appeal to the reality of theological exegetical reality, and that we are finite human beings; as such we will always be fighting to know the depth dimension of Scripture deeper and higher than we do today. But in that process, again, I am really leery about getting too far removed in that rationalization, and allowing the theologians and critical biblical scholars too much voice, to the point that they are allowed to create meaning for Scripture that Scripture itself does not have in itself as it finds it reality in Jesus Christ (and this last clause comes from the impact that Barth and Torrance have had on me).

I just don’t want to lose my first love.

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9 Responses to Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation

  1. Kenneth Macari says:

    Bobby It is SO true!!!!!!!!!!! As pastor I am well aware! I appreciate your Blog as well as that of Jonathan Kleis–you young dudes stimulate the cobwebs in the crucible of pastoral leadership. On October I will be retiring/transitioning as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Edison, NJ. My wife and I will remain in our current house which we own ( with the bank) to seek new ways to serve the King. Blessings!

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Thanks, Kenneth. Yeah, I’m just venting in this post :-). Sounds like you have exciting things forthcoming! Jonathan is a good brother!

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  3. Bobby, thanks for this transparent and convicting post. It is vitally important to remind ourselves of these things from time to time.

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  4. Rein says:

    Hi Bobby
    You are not the only one in the predicament of where rational logic leaves off and interpretive freedom begins. However following Jesus as Lord fortunately implies and impels us to a theology of proximity first and last. The other adumbrations by the various cogniti are the pictures we hang around us on the wall or like the resonant theology- the tracks of music we adore that enliven the walk and which can energize the talk as well. Faith here always remains gift but as such a bequeathed gift that is in trust to be put to use.

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  5. Bobby, what if you instead thought of these authors as part (even if not the only) communion of the saints? We do not read scripture as individuals, but as the Church–of which these doctors of the Church are a gift (charism). The Protestant evangelical way of reading Scripture assumes perspecuity (clarity) available to all–that is its strength. But its weakness is that it too often has degenerated into a non-ecclesial way of reading scripture. It is precisely other voices that keeps us from hearing only the echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities imposed upon scripture. The problem, of course, is that we are too often too selective of the voices we listen to. The danger is not that we read Barth or Aquinas or Augustine, but that we are too apt ONLY to read Barth, Aquinas, or Augustine (or Calvin or Luther, etc. etc.) and thus keep reconfirming too often our own subjectivities and biases.

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  6. Bobby Grow says:

    David,

    I do think of them that way, and have written on that lot’s of times. I’m not struggling with how to think of them per se, but instead with the space certain voices are given in a way that I personally think has the potential to manufacture meaning for Scripture. I think this danger is present in any interpretive tradition or any faith community. Yes as Eph 4 says we are all working towards the attaining the unity of the one faith, and so that’s how I would biblically and even intellectually look at the diversity we see present in the history and heritage of the church (which I thank God for everyday). But again, my vent here was more personal than that; it’s that I am concerned that I’ve been given certain voices too much shrift, at points, when I read the Bible. That’s not to say I’m abandoning Barth or any of my teachers and brothers and sisters in the communion of the saints–God forbid it!–but I am saying that I want to keep perspective.

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  7. Bobby Grow says:

    Rein,

    See my comment to David.

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  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Thank you, Jonathan!

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  9. Pingback: Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers | The Evangelical Calvinist

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