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  • Writer's pictureNick McDonald

Biblical Interpretations vs. biblical interpretations

If you want to spiral into a depression that lasts for days, weeks, or maybe even years, I highly recommend to you “exegetical threads on twitter”. Although I block most of these theobros, I can’t help but occasionally run across them. When I do, it can be discouraging, mainly because these threads specialize in looking/sounding like they’re honoring to the church and the scriptures, but the assumptions these threads - and those who read them - are making don’t really hold water.

So for the next few weeks, I’d like to look at a few of those assumptions. The first is this:

All Interpretations are Equal.

The first common assumption I see is that all interpretations should be given equal consideration. As wonderfully democratic as that sounds, the church is not, actually, a democratic society (unless you’re a congregationalist, I guess). In order to confess the Apostles’ Creed - “I believe in one, holy, catholic church” - we’re actually pledging our allegiance to the global, worldwide boundaries established for interpretation in the creeds, confessions, and universal statements of the church.

If you read Calvin, Luther, Bavinck, Augustine, etc. you’ll find a prologue to almost every section of their work, describing how the view they’re promoting (or denouncing) has been “attested” through church history. That’s because early protestants saw themselves as catholic, though not roman catholic. To belong to the church, one needed to listen, learn, receive and confess what the worldwide, historic church has received and confessed. And so, these early reformers made theological points using a historical "1-4" score scale:

1. Universally attested.

Creeds and confessions would, essentially, take a worldwide counsel to overturn, which has never been done. No individual has the right to disagree with a creed/confession and call themselves part of the church.

2. Majority Attested

The goal of most reformer theology was to show first that their views were majority attested, before scriptural proof. It was understood scripture was still needed to prove the point, but Calvin/Luther/Bavinck's first argument is that their views are majority attested.

3. Minority Attested.

If a reformer couldn't prove majority attestation, it was understood it would take monumental, undeniable biblical proof for this position to be viable. Even then, it could never be seen as a test of dogma, but more of a conscientious objection

4. Condemned.

If the global, historic church universally condemns a position, no reformer would have tried to "out-scripture" orthodoxy. It is unprovable if one wants to say they are in any sense part of the church.

When the theobros say “Christians disagree on this issue,” what they often mean is that their interpretation should be given equal weight to the interpretation of the global/historic church, when in fact, many (in fact most I read on twitter threads) are actually category four interpretations, which would have to be so compelling in their exegesis and insight that we’d be willing to stop confessing the Apostles’ Creed to believe them. They are tweeting various interpretations of scripture, claiming to be faithful to it, but not bothering to name whether it is a category 1-4 belief. That means people are reading arguments for "category 4" and "category 3" interpretations, weighing them as though they are on par with "category 1 and 2" interpretations.

My goal isn’t for all of us to plug our ears to other people’s insights. But I do think we’d do well to follow in the Reformers footsteps, and at least ask the question: “What category of interpretation is this?” before we consider any given interpretation, so that we aren't “tossed to and fro by every wave and wind of doctrine”.

That might look something like this:

Universal Interpretations - Scripture as Corroboration. We’re looking to scripture, essentially, to “corroborate” these creeds. No individual Christian should be laying the Trinity out on the table for examination as though we, ourselves, from our own vantage point and our own context, can reconsider whether this is a true and right interpretation. But we can seek scripture’s corroboration of this truth, ask “Why do we believe this? Do I understand it? What does it mean? Where do we find it?” Things like Creeds/Confessions go here.

Majority Interpretations - Scripture as a Proof. These interpretations are “innocent until proven guilty.” It’s still important to examine the scriptural proof for these things, but we need to realize that to overturn these categories, we would need a clear, compelling and overwhelming case to do so. An example here would be the second coming of Jesus, which many fathers understood to be imminent.

Minority Interpretations - Scripture as a Fence. GK Chesterton once famously said we shouldn’t be allowed to tear down fences until we can explain exactly why they were built. In order to take a minority interpretation of scripture, we still need to show that there is a strand of the church that holds to this (take adult baptism, for example). Then, we need to be able to explain exactly why the fathers held this as a majority interpretation. Then - with great trepidation and care - we can state why we agree with the minority.

Condemned Interpretations - Scripture as Corroboration. If something is universally condemned in the church, again, we only need scripture as a corroborative witness. This does NOT mean, “Don’t ask why, it just is.” It means we ask, “How is it that something I believe/feel is so out of step with the church? Do I correctly understand scriptural/church vision? How is it that scripture and the church see the world differently than I do? Where are my blindspots/spaces for repentance?” For us Americans, we’re going to struggle with the historic/orthodox view of gender and sexuality, but many of these issues are clearly, universally attested through church history, so what we need is scripture to corroborate those views and call us to repentance.

If this all sounds like an overwhelming task, that’s okay. But if it’s something you’re interested in, I highly recommend reading older theologians like Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Bavinck. These men model the kind of thing I’m describing above, so you don’t have to do all that work yourself.

P.S. If this sounds Roman Catholic to you, I assure you it is very different. The RC church puts all of its own interpretations into the "universally attested" category, wanting each of its views - down to every piece of morally casuistry it offers - to be treated like a global, historic viewpoint. It claims all of its views are universally and historically attested, but the reformers showed this claim was, in fact, false. The Roman Catholic church is actually a very western manifestation of the global, historic church, and its dogma/decrees reflect this.

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