Reading the Bible For All Its Worth: Protestants and sola Scriptura Against Wooden-Literalist Bible Reading Habits

I just recently had a discussion with someone I know, a pastor, who took pride in the fact that I labeled his approach to biblical interpretation as wooden-literal. I have written against this approach for many years, and so when it came down to this little exchange I was having with this pastor it became real;  it became real because he was arguing from such a literalist approach that holy_biblehe wouldn’t even admit a women could potentially teach a man, even as a prophetess of Yahweh (i.e. Huldah). He claimed that because the word ‘teach’ is never used with reference to what Huldah communicated hortatorily to King Josiah that this in itself could not be used to illustrate a woman teaching or even authoritatively communicating God’s Word to a man or men. This exchange left me somewhat dumbfounded although not totally surprised.

The questions though are these: Does the Protestant commitment to sola Scriptura (‘Scripture alone’) mean that Protestants, historically, are committed necessarily to a wooden-literal mode of interpreting the Scriptures? Does it mean that Protestants have no regard for the history of biblical interpretation, for the ecumenical councils of the church (i.e. like where we get our orthodox grammar for God as Triune, and for Chalcedonian two-natures one person Christology, etc.), and that we must simply be slavishly and rationalistically tied to the biblical words themselves; as if they have some sort of structural meaning inherent to themselves? No, nein! This is not what Protestants have been committed to in their reading practices of the Bible. This is not what sola Scriptura entails. Instead, what my pastor friend is actually working from, ironically, is what rose up out of the Enlightenment and 19th century biblical studies; a ‘de-confessionalized’  historical-critical approach to reading the Bible. Gerhard Hasel identifies when this way of reading the Bible happened, and who signaled it most decisively:

The late Neologist and rationalist Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who never wrote or even intended to write a Biblical theology, made a most decisive and far-reaching contribution to the development of the new discipline in his inaugural lecture at the University of Altdorf on March 30, 1787. This year marks the beginning of Biblical theology’s role as a purely historical discipline, completely independent from dogmatics. Gabler’s famous definition reads: “Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things….”[1]

It is this split between theological (i.e. dogmatics) or churchly (i.e. confessional) readings of the Bible that is informing my pastor friend’s understanding of reading the Bible in a wooden literalistic way. It is an overreaction, by some, to fear of being drawn back into the Roman Catholic church (which is my pastor friend’s fear directly, since this was his background) and having a magisterium tell you what the Bible means coupled with an enlightenment rationalizing mode towards reading the Bible in a way that might have any connection whatsoever to the historical interpretations of said texts found in Holy Writ. So it isn’t an outright appropriation of all of the 19th and 20th century accretions of the biblical studies ‘movement,’ instead it is a selective appropriation of that such that an emphasis on the rationale of the bible reader’s individualistic reading of the text of Scripture dominates in such a way that in extreme cases only the very words themselves (almost without reference to the broader canonical context either intertextually i.e. the whole of the canon or intrattextually i.e. particular books of the Bible being studied have any say in how various words, sentences, and paragraphs ought to be understood).

Angus Paddison helpfully describes this type of dilemma, and how the Protestant understanding of sola Scriptura itself militates against the mode of interpretation my pastor-friend finds himself deploying as he reads the Bible. Paddison here is talking about how Christology ought to implicate our reading of Scripture, how that impacts sola Scriptura, and how this even impacts John Calvin’s own reading of Scripture (hermeneutically and exegetically). Paddison writes at some length:

The prime responsibility of Christology is not first to be original but faithfully to read the ‘divine address’ that is Scripture. In order to fulfill this task, theology does of course need resources other than Scripture. This is to recognize with Robert Jenson that if we think sola Scriptura means understanding Scripture ‘”apart from creed, teaching office, or authoritative liturgy’” then we are resting on an ‘oxymoron’ (think of the obvious contradiction of the church that says it has no creed but the Bible). If the first responsibility of talking about Christ is to evince an attention to Scripture, we need to be more precise about the nature of doctrine and its relationship to Scripture.

Calvin himself, to alight upon a theologian firmly associated with a sola Scriptura approach, was keenly aware that theology always needed to deploy extra-canonical words and resources. That we use words and concepts not found in Scripture itself – in a bid to help us understand this same text – is not a sign that we have departed from the fabric of Scripture. Writing against his opponents Calvin writes that if

they call a foreign word one that cannot be shown to stand written syllable by syllable in Scripture, they are indeed imposing upon us an unjust law which condemns all interpretation not patched together out of the fabric of Scripture … [i]f anyone, then finds fault with the novelty of the words [Calvin is talking of such words as ‘Trinity’ and ‘Persons’] does he not deserve to be judged as bearing the light of truth unworthily, since he is finding fault with what renders the truth plain and clear.

When Calvin’s counsel is not heeded, sola Scriptura often mutates into biblical scholarship alone. Understanding the Bible in this way of thinking is wholly defined by reference to its (often putative) context of production. It is as if we are reading a text that has had no impact, a text without any subsequent readers. Writing more than 50 years ago G.E. Wright’s diagnosis (not espousal) of this mindset common among ‘biblical Christians’ drawn to biblical scholarship is still remarkably apposite:

When one has the Bible, what need is there for subtleties and sophistries of theology? In evangelical Christianity, the Bible is typically read with scant  regard for the long and intricate dialogue with the Bible that is the history of Christian theology. Many (most?) Protestant biblical scholars are attracted to the field in the first place by an evangelical piety of this kind – whatever else is abandoned under the notoriously destructive impact of so-called “historical-critical method” – the abstraction of the biblical texts from their theological Wirkungsgeschichte is tenaciously maintained.

Such endeavors help identify historical-criticism, the engine of much biblical scholarship, as the modern attempt to “start over” in a manner that left behind the gifts of the past’. Accordingly, historical criticism is notoriously restricted in what history it is interested in. Fundamentalism and historical criticism both presume that the church and the church’s teaching is an obstacle, not an aid, to reading Scripture well.[2]

Conclusion

We have surveyed how current day bible reading practices have come to be among both evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians alike. We have noted that for such readers, those who engage in this type of Bible reading, that it has more to do with Enlightenment rationalism, and a certain theory of linguistics and historicism than it does with the Protestant sola Scriptura principle and how Protestants ever since the 16th century have engaged in the reading and exegesis of Holy Scripture.

If the above is so, it would behoove my pastor-friend to reconsider how he is approaching Scripture. He might want to ask: “Am I reading the Bible in a way that fits better with Protestant confessional historical Christianity, or am I reading it from certain impulses that are actually antagonistic to that? The ultimate goal, of course, is to ‘read the bible for all its worth.’ I contend that confessional Christianity offers the best resources for doing that; particularly when it sees Christ as the rule and key for understanding all of Scripture. That said, I am not against paying attention to philology, semantics, literary realties in Scripture, history, so on and so forth; it’s just that appealing to that in slavish and rationalistic ways is not going to yield, in my view, the best exegetical conclusions.

 

 

[1] Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 21-2.

[2]Angus Paddison, Scripture a very Theological Proposal (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 66-7.

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