Reading Scripture with the Communion of Saints

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There has been some controversy recently about the dangers of “standpoint epistemology.” I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with this exact term until I started seeing it all over the place on social media and other places online. Even though I teach hermeneutics and have read my fair share of philosophical treatments of the topic, my training is in systematic theology and New Testament, not in feminist theory, where the notion of standpoint epistemology shows up most prominently. My expertise is in the history of doctrine and, in particular, how Christians have appealed to Scripture in Christological controversies. So, I’ve got to be honest: my familiarity (and interest level, to be frank) is pretty low when it comes to contemporary feminist philosophy.

But what seems to be bothering folks is simpler than all that. The idea that has been criticized so fiercely of late is the notion that Christians can be helped in understanding the meaning of Scripture by listening to fellow Christians with different cultural perspectives and life experiences. The idea that white Christians might need black Christians or men might need women in order to discern the full meaning of Scripture is taken as a threat to the Bible’s objective meaning and as evidence of nefarious secular ideologies infiltrating the ranks of evangelicalism. The alternative approach is that Christians, regardless of their social or cultural location, when using the right interpretive tools, are perfectly capable of arriving at the text’s objective meaning. In this understanding, hermeneutics is seen as a science, like chemistry or physics, in which cultural perspectives are irrelevant; they give you no advantage or disadvantage in determining the singular, objective meaning of Scripture.

To be sure, there is some validity to these kinds of warnings. If someone is suggesting that differing cultural perspectives determine the meaning of Scripture or that the text of Scripture has no determinate meaning or that any particular culture is incapable of discerning the clear teaching of Scripture, then all orthodox Christians should oppose such a notion. But what I get from the evangelicals I have gleaned from hermeneutically (D. A. Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Todd Billings, Jeannine Brown, among others) and what I myself teach is something much different than those things. Instead, what I would suggest is that listening to different Christian perspectives–including those from different social and cultural locations–is a sign of hermeneutical humility. I don’t know whether or how others might use this term, but here’s what I mean by it: the truth of Scripture is inerrant and infallible and determined by the Divine Author who inspired it, but my interpretations are none of those things. The meaning of Scripture is objective, but my reading of it–not just the answers I provide but the questions I even think to ask or the elements that I emphasize–is always shaped by my own subjective perspective. None of us comes to Scripture as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. No, all of us have certain presuppositions and preunderstandings that shape how we read and what we see. That doesn’t mean we are stuck in a rut of our own presuppositions; we can approach the truth of Scripture with greater and greater clarity the more we study, the more we pray, the more we seek wisdom (D. A. Carson compares this increase in interpretive faithfulness to an asymptote in mathematics: a line that gets closer and closer to a curved function without ever touching it). This dynamic between the reader and the text and between its parts and the whole has been called the hermeneutic circle, or perhaps better, the hermeneutical spiral. But this is all old hat. It’s not evidence of some novel, acronymic ideology. Every evangelical textbook on hermeneutics of which I am aware acknowledges the role of presuppositions in the interpretive task.

So, because my perspective is limited, I am helped by listening to the perspectives of others: my pastor, my wife, my friends, my community group, good books and commentaries, the church’s creeds and confessions, the great theologians and exegetes of church history, and so on. As inheritors of Enlightenment philosophy, moderns tend to view interpretation as an individual endeavor. Pietism has often doubled down on this and spiritualized it: “All I need is the Holy Spirit!” But the historic Christian position is that interpretation is a communal practice: we read Scripture most properly in the context of the church and the communion of saints across place and time. The reading and hearing of the Word of God is, after all, one of the ordinary means of grace that we receive principally in the body of Christ. As Christian orthodoxy was being discerned in the early centuries of the church, there was a concern that interpretation and doctrine be ecumenical in the older sense of the word: worldwide, not local or regional, but universal, East and West.

But it’s not just different Christian individuals who can help us; it’s also those with different life experiences. It is not difficult to imagine that a person who has experienced a debilitating disease might read Jesus’ healings in a different light than someone who hasn’t. Or that a woman might read the story of Mary and Martha in a unique light. Or that an enslaved person in the antebellum South might have read the story of the exodus in a different light than his enslaver. Or that a Christian experiencing severe persecution might read the imprecatory psalms in a different light. In his excellent book, The Word of God for the People of God, Reformed theologian Todd Billings tells the story of teaching in Ethiopia and noticing how the Old Testament dietary laws struck his students there in a different way, given their cultural experiences, than they typically do Westerners. Different cultural perspectives and life experiences don’t create new meanings in the text; rather, they help us to see what is really there that we may have missed. Scripture’s meaning is determinate, but it is not flatly singular. Like all good literature, Scripture’s meaning is rich and thick, not meager and thin. Other perspectives aid us in discerning that richness.

None of this means that experience determines meaning or that a lack of experience puts up an impenetrable barrier to communication. But it does mean that our perspectives, even after careful study, are still finite and limited (not to mention fallen and biased). Reading widely and listening sympathetically to how Scripture has been read at different times and in different cultures can help to correct our blind spots and enrich our own encounter with Christ in Scripture. Most fundamentally, we read the Bible not as isolated individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. In this body, each member has its own unique gift to bear to the whole; and in the historic and global church, we have an embarrassment of interpretive riches. Different perspectives don’t produce their own discrete treasures; but they do give us distinct vantages on the one multi-faceted diamond that is the truth of Scripture. In short, I don’t believe in standpoint epistemology. “I believe in the communion of saints.”

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