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]


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.


‘What It Meant’ ‘What It Means’: Biblical Theology in Discussion

What the text of Scripture ‘meant’ and what it ‘means’ has been one rubric by which Biblical Theology (as a  movement) has sought to identify a working definition of what it means, in fact, to do Biblical Theology (especially in the 19th century and onward into the present). Without adequate attention to the history of this dialectic (between meant/means), we all too often can repeat history, and not appreciate the kind of material impact that uncritical acceptance of these kinds of formal questions can have on our own conditioned and particular interpretation of Scripture today. I have N.T. Wright in mind, but he is not the only one. What I want to consider further (and not much deeper than just posing a question and my own thoughts here), is if there has been thorough enough attention given to the someone like Wright’s own appropriation of his conditioned employment of past hermeneutical practice? In other words, I often hear many of Wright’s most vocal proponents repeating and building upon his material exegetical and historical conclusions; but I am just curious as to whether or not enough attention has been given to the actual methodology that Wright is indeed employing to come to the theological conclusions that he is coming to in his own project—as he attempts to mediate ‘what it meant’ with ‘what it means’?

My questions about Wright above could be applied to many contemporary Biblical Theologians of our day. I suppose I simply want to register my own hesitation in regard to whether or not enough critical self-reflection has been maintained among Wright’s & companies’ proposals in regard to bridging the gap between what it mean and what it means (and in fact if this gap ought to be bridged at all); and furthermore, whether or not this is indeed what Wright is attempting to do? And if so, how is he doing it? Does he have a well thought out prolegomenon (hermeneutical methodology) that indeed engages with these kinds of more formal questions; or is Wright & co. so focused on their material conclusions, that they simply presume upon a certain mode of: What it meant, must be what it means? This seems to me to be the mode that Wright & co. often operate in; a mode that does not attend strongly enough to some deeper and important methodological questions—I realize that I am generalizing quite heavily (esp. when I write Wright & co.), but I think some generalization here, at least in order to provide heuristic purchase, is necessary.

In light of some of these questions, I thought that I would do a series of posts that seek to engage with them a bit. Let me offer a quote from Gerhard Hasel as he offers something from D. H. Kelsey in regard to the dialectic of what it meant and what it means; Kelsey’s questions for this dialectic are meant to be critical, and in fact to problematize in such a way, that ‘what it meant’ ‘what it means’ is shown to be too reductionistic of way to attempt to relate meaning in the text of Scripture.

[I]t is evident that the distinction of modern times between “what it meant” and “what it means,” i.e., theological interpretation which is normative, is problematical in both its distinction and its task. D. H. Kelsey, for example, has stated succinctly that there are several ways in which both “what it meant” and “what it means” can be related to each other with varying results. First, it may be decided that the descriptive approach that seeks to determine “what it meant” by whatever methods of inquiry is considered to be identical with “what it means.” Second, it may be decided that “what it meant” contains propositions, ideas, etc. that are to be decoded and translated systematically and explicated and that this is “what it means,” even though those explications may never have occurred to the original authors and might have been rejected by them. Third, it may be decided that “what it meant” is an archaic way of speaking dependent upon its own culture and time that needs to be redescribed in contemporary ways of speaking of the same phenomena, and that this redescription is “what it means.” “This assumes that the theologian has access to the phenomena independent of scripture and ‘what it meant,’ so that he can check the archaic description and have a basis for his own.” Fourth, it may be decided that “what it meant” refers to the way in which early Christians used Biblical texts and that “what it means” is simply the way these are used by modern Christians. In this case there is a genetic relationship. Kelsey notes, “None of these decisions can itself be either validated or invalidated by exegetical study of the text, for what is at issue is precisely how exegetical study is related to doing theology.” If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” [Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues In The Current Debate, 37-8.]

Far from merely critiquing N. T. Wright, these questions take issue with all would be exegetes and theologues who see Scripture as something significant enough to take serious. And I am not trying to totally critique Wright by offering these questions; he is just the nearest, most public and popular and prominent Biblical Theologian of our day who makes himself readily available as foil for such considerations as I am offering in this post. My concern with Wright is what is asked by Hasel in the last clause above, “If this is the case, then one must ask on what grounds one makes a theological judgment in favor of one over the other of these or other ways of relating “what it meant” to “what it means.” I am not sure that Wright & co. attend themselves enough with this concern. It seems to me that he/they usually just presume upon whatever their theological predisposition is, and then act as if all they are doing is Biblical study; but then of course this begs the question that Hasel gives voice to.

I will continue this series of posts by following Hasel’s subsequent and developing thought in the directly subsequent paragraphs to the one I just shared. Stay tuned …