A Look Behind Interpretation

A Look Behind Interpretation

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Published:
May 4, 2020

“Why is interpretation needed?” Lesson 6 answers this question very well, advocating for the correct interpretation of the Bible. I am amazed at the ways in which God has led individuals and groups throughout history to interpret the Bible in new ways, further revealing His character, His plans, and His will for humans like you and me.  

It is amazing how people, such as the Waldensians, were willing to risk their lives to get a few pages of the Bible to read, make hand-made copies of, and pass on; how Jan Hus presented interpretations of key topics in scripture that differed from the church at large and, as a result, was burned at the stake; how other prominent figures made profound discoveries during the Reformation, bringing new light to and better understanding of God’s Word. It is clear that God was working as the Bible was printed in ever-increasing numbers and was made available to common people, and as early Adventist pioneers were driven to discover the full truth, without bias or hidden agenda. We must be forever grateful for the countless hours spent praying, comparing, and synthesizing the Bible over the centuries so that we can, today, both understand the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ and experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It is possible that we take for granted that scripture makes sense to us, that we are able to put the dots together to see the beautiful picture of God: God the Creator, God the Savior, and God the Comforter, who opens our eyes of our heart to what God wants to reveal to us (John 16:13), who fills us with love, producing a Christ-like character (Gal. 5:22–23), and who gives hope by bestowing the gifts of the Spirit upon us (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; Rom. 12).

I consider it a miracle that a farmer named William Miller, and then a small group of pioneers in the post-disappointment period, were driven by the conviction that they could understand God’s truths hidden in scripture, objectively and thoroughly. Without their strong convictions, the solid foundation for our current understanding of the prophetic books, as well as our understanding of events yet to come, would hardly exist.  Their work shaped our interpretation of God’s character, as well as our understanding of our place in the Great Controversy (i.e., our understanding of what must happen for God to be vindicated before the whole universe).

It is likely that the early Adventists did not know that “total neutrality, or absolute objectivity, cannot be achieved.”[1] In those days, it was not yet recognized that “Bible study and theological reflection always happen against the background of prepositions about the nature of the world and the nature of God.”[2] No one had told them that “interpreters of the Bible cannot completely divest themselves from their own past, their experiences, resident ideas, and preconceived notions and options.”[3] Ellen G. White advised, “In your study of the word, lay at the door of investigation your preconceived opinions and your hereditary and cultivated ideas. You will never reach the truth if your study the scriptures to vindicate your own ideas.”[4] That is what she and her fellow pioneers believed. Praise God that we can still draw from the fruits of their labor today!

Differing Interpretations Regarding the Law

During my studies, I have explored different interpretations of the law in Galatians 3:19–25. By reviewing the different treatments of this passage by more than twenty scholars, some patterns emerged in their interpretations. Those who were more conservative uphold a positive view of the law, and the passage in question supports their view. Those who were more liberal hold a negative view of the law and use this same text to validate their views, as well. It is clear that scholars’ views on any given text are connected with their assumptions about scripture.[5]

Interpreters who adhere to different kinds of criticism (textual, historical, literary, reduction, canon, social scientific, etc.), along with their low view of scripture and secular norms of interpretation, tend to have a more negative view of the law. From their perspective, Paul downplayed the law by taking an unreservedly hostile attitude towards it; they act as if the Old Testament was a failure when contrasted with Christ and the gospel. Thus, I saw the connection between presuppositions and their conclusions, as well as appreciated the value of “guided biblical interpretations.”[6]

Theologians who have a high view of scripture (that is, a belief that all scripture is inspired by God [2 Tim. 3:16–17]) tend to have a different hermeneutical orientation. Those who believe that scripture provides the explanation for itself will interpret the Bible differently from those who do not. For example, if I believe that the Sabbath is still the same seventh day of the week (Saturday) that God sanctified and blessed at the end of creation week (Gen. 2:3), I will interpret the 192 references to the Sabbath in the Bible in a different way than if I do not.[7]

Beyond Cognitive Assumptions

During my tent-making years, I met with two men for a Bible study. One of them was a Bible-believing Christian who led his friend to Christ, but his friend had questions from the Bible that he did not know how to answer. When we met, we discussed life and studied the Bible together; one could see the excitement in the new convert as he dove deeper into the teachings of the scripture. His Christian friend rejoiced, too. For myself, I looked forward to our discussion about the deeper meaning of Sabbath. However, when we studied this topic, I could see that the Christian friend was somehow blocked against the biblical teaching. Although he could see the logic, it did not touch his heart at all.

Later, I realized that the Christian friend was part of a “new” brand of the Christian movement which rose after the communist regime fell in the Czech Republic. I learned that the founders of this movement were engaged in Bible studies with Seventh-day Adventists and were interested in the biblical teaching about Sabbath. However, they took a more Pharisee-like approach towards Sabbath and, after heated discussions and prayers, they rejected the Seventh-day Adventist teaching about Sabbath. They perceived this teaching to be out of harmony with the teachings of Jesus. What struck me about this particular case was how this person, although very friendly and open, was blocked at the emotional level. It was as if he assumed that accepting the seventh-day Sabbath would inevitably lead him towards legalism and, thus, towards rejecting Jesus.

Ellen White rightly urged believers not to read the “word in the light of former opinions; but, with a mind free from prejudice, search it carefully and prayerfully. If, as you read, conviction comes, and you see that your cherished opinions are not in harmony with the word, do not try to make the word fit these opinions.”[8] However, it is not so easy, particularly when it comes to our personal, cultural values, and/or worldview assumptions—even those experienced on a subconscious level.

Do Correct Hermeneutics Ensure Doctrinal Unity?

A hermeneutical debate regarding women’s ordination emerged among Seventh-day Adventist scholars in the aftermath of the 1995 General Conference (GC) in Utrecht. In spite of the debate on hermeneutics, published in Ministry magazine in March and April 1999, there was a concerted effort by Adventist scholars to articulate the issues and move towards unity. Yet, in spite of these efforts, this issue has not been settled to this day.

Angel Rodriguez described the theological tensions between the two camps, which he called conservative and liberal (or historical and progressive), and appealed to both sides of the debate to put aside their personal convictions and preferences in order “to preserve the unity, the message, and the mission of the church.”[9] William Johnsson provided nine well-balanced foundational principles/rules for Adventist hermeneutics as a possible solution to the controversy.[10]

Despite the ongoing debate, the issue was never settled, as was evidenced twenty years later at the 2015 GC meetings in San Antonio. In an effort to solve the representing topic of the debate (women’s ordination), relentless efforts were made, a significant amount of financial means invested, and much time was spent on the topic. Theological committees worked in all thirteen divisions, and the international Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) met a number of times; books, articles, and reports were published. However, the outcome has not produced the desired “unity”—at least not in the way most people define the word.

It seems that agreeing on the correct hermeneutics does not necessarily ensure doctrinal unity. Adventist scholars have a high view of scripture, and yet they disagree on biblical teaching. One ponders about the argument that “we rarely read the Bible to discover the truth; more often, we wish to harmonize it with our belief system and we see its meaning in light of our preconceived theological system.”[11] Are there any other possible factors that form our pre-understanding on the subconscious level that we should account for?

Unspoken Factors Influencing our Interpretation

As a brief answer, I would like to mention two factors. Johnson speaks about brain physiology. The function of the mind may well be one factor that influences our interpretation of scripture. A person who has a rebellious nature will respond to scripture different than a person who is unquestioning and compliant. In both cases, “the real meaning could be distorted by an unconscious transference relationship.”[12] If someone has anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or any other issue that impacts their brain functions, it also affects his spiritual life, his perception of the world, and his perception of God.[13]

Another factor worth mentioning is that of psychophysiological coherence. Scientists have observed that the heart communicates with the brain in ways that significantly affect a person’s perception (i.e., one’s interpretation). They claim that “numerous experiments have demonstrated that the messages the heart sends the brain affect our perceptions, mental processes, feeling states and performance in profound ways.”[14] The state of someone’s heart makes a big difference in interpreting the scripture!

Although there is no specific doctrine or a comprehensive teaching on the heart, there are more than 800 biblical occurrences of the word “heart,” with almost 300 unique phrases in the Bible.[15] The word “heart” is often used in the Bible in reference to invisible layer of thoughts and emotions. For example, Michal, the daughter of Saul, despised David in her heart (2 Sam. 6:16; 1 Chron. 15:29); that is, she despised him inside (even if it was not obvious on the surface). We learn that Amaziah became a king as a young adult, and he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, yet not with a whole heart” (2 Chron. 25:2). He did not care wholeheartedly, although this was not necessarily obvious on surface. It seems that we can speak or act one way to others, but feel completely differently in our hearts (Jer. 9:8). The Bible tells us that there are secrets of the heart that only God knows (Ps. 44:21; 139:23–24). God not only knows our hidden thoughts, but He also understands motives that we may not even be aware of (Prov. 24:12). He is able to do all this because His Spirit searches our hearts (Rom. 8:27).[16]

Studying Without Prejudice or Bias?

This points our attention to the fact that there may be hidden elements that can alter our interpretation of the scriptures, even though we adhere to the correct hermeneutics. When Ellen White urges us to study scripture with a mind free from prejudice, it may involve our hearts more than we realize. For too long, we have relied on reasoning/cognition only and pushed back, denying the role of emotions in the process.

Interpreting scripture has an impact on our beliefs. Deep beliefs come from our hearts. Psychologists agree that belief is “a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than anything else.”[17] The condition of our heart has a more powerful impact on our mind and our perception than we like to admit.[18] It takes all our heart and all our mind, filled by the Holy Spirit, to study scripture without prejudice or bias. To use current scientific vocabulary, sustained positive emotions, a high degree of mental and emotional stability, as well as constructive integration of the cognitive and emotional systems, may be of great help in creating an open heart and mind.

In the changing context of the world in which we live, with new needs, trends, and problems constantly emerging, we need to study and search the Bible with a new rigor to find answers to the new and pressing questions. God does not change, nor does His Word, but our perceptions change and differ. Every serious student of the Word should admit that cultural and other biases have structured and organized his/her understanding of the scriptures.[19]

As students of God’s Word, we must evaluate ourselves in order to understand our own biases and presuppositions, as well as all possible factors that form our preunderstanding, to be able to remove biases that may stand between us and the text.[20] Yes, we need correct interpretation, but we also need to be prayerfully mindful of the hidden factors within our minds and hearts that may lead to conflicting views on important issues. Acceptable solutions can come only by the Spirit working both in our minds and hearts.



[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 77.

[5] Petr Činčala, Views of the Law in the Epistle to the Galatians 3:19-25 Based on Different Hermeneutical Perspectives (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1997).

[6] Chinedu Adolphus Amadi-Azuogu, Paul and the Law in the Arguments of Galatians (Athenaum: Beltz, 1996), 352.

[7] Petr Činčala, “Making Hermeneutics Do Its Job: Impact of Interdisciplinary Factors on Interpreting the Bible,” Journal of Adventist Mission Studies 12, no. 1 (2016): 114–128, https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/jams/vol12/iss1/8.

[8]  Ellen G. White, Messages to Young People (Ellen G. White Estate, Inc.: Silver Spring, MD, 2014), 236.

[9] Angel Manuel Rodriguez, “Wrestling with Theological Differences,” Ministry, April 1999: 9.

[10] Johnsson, William. “Nine Foundations for and Adventist Hermeneutic.” Ministry, March 1999: 13–16.

[11] Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 29.

[12] Cedric B. Johnson, The Psychology of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 49.

[13] Daniel G. Amen, Healing the Hardware of the Soul: How Making the Brain Soul Connection Can Optimize Your Life, Love, and Spiritual Growth (New York: Free Press, 2002), 26.

[14] HeartMath Research Center, Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance (2001), 4–8, https://www.heartmath.org/assets/uploads/2015/01/science-of-the-heart.pdf.

[15] Research/search of Bible keywords conducted by author.

[16] Petr Činčala, Worldview as a Life Software (LifeApp), (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 2018).

[17] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol. II, (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1890), 284.

[18] HeartMath Research Center, Science of the Heart: Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance, 4–8.

[19] David J. Cranmer and Brian E. Eck, “God Said It: Psychology and Biblical Interpretation, How Text and Reader Interact Through the Glass Darkly,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 22, no. 3 (1994): 207–208.

[20] Edward Hindson, “The Sociology of Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation,” Theologia Evangelica 17, no. 2 (1984): 35, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=sor_fac_pubs.

 

Petr Činčala is director of the Institute of Church Ministry and director of the Doctor of Missiology Program at Andrews University.

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

 

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