Dunn on interpretation (Scripture Series)
Previously in this series I looked at the complicated question of how to define inerrancy. It’s all very well to say that the Bible contains no errors, but even Sproul seemed confused about whether that means the Bible is a scientific authority. Furthermore, how we interpret the Bible may have implications for its inerrancy and James Dunn picks up on this in The Living Word.
Any time you make a move from the original language, idioms and thought-forms of a text, you make an interpretative leap. Simply deciding whether Genesis is science or poetry will affect how you interpret the text, and what you consider to be inerrant about it. But we make other interpretative leaps as well. For example, what makes a Christian reading of Scripture a Christian reading is that we read the Old Testament in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In a way, we work with a canon within a canon, at times choosing a New Testament implication over a clear Old Testament command (take the Sabbath, for instance). And that’s OK, but Dunn says, if we do that (and we all do) blanket inerrancy becomes nonsensical.
The problem, according to Dunn, is that evangelicals have arrived at this commitment to inerrancy by reason, not biblical exegesis. It’s the classic, “God is true; the Bible is God’s word; therefore the Bible is true; therefore the Bible is inerrant” line of reasoning. Yet, says Dunn, there is nothing, even in the four ‘pillar texts’ of inerrancy (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:20-21, John 10:35, Matt 5:18) that provides sufficient grounds for that. In fact, he says, to claim that would be 1) legalistic, 2) bibliolatry and 3) pastorally disastrous (p.84-85). The second of these struck me in particular as I’ve been accused of it in the past. Dunn argues that in claiming that the Bible is indefectible, we assign to it the honor due only to the Father, Son and Spirit. He doesn’t like Barth, who argued that being a human document, the Bible must be in error. But he does ask how we expect to see the human factors in the Bible, including the possibility that God, working in human culture, may have chosen not to “preserve the writers of scripture from … scientific and historical inaccuracy” of their time. So it’s OK for the Bible to be limited by history and culture, and we need not be embarrassed by that or try to cover it up with claims to inerrancy, “because the substance of the Bible’s message is clear, if not the ‘technical details’” (p.81). In fact, if we become caught up on the details, we may become Pharisaic in our approach, perhaps even stifling “the life of the Spirit by concentrating on the incidental forms through which he speaks” (p.84; Dunn cites Rom 7:6 and 2 Cor 3:6).
It’s this emphasis on the Spirit that I’ve found particularly interesting. Whereas Sproul and the rest place their emphasis on an objective word of God, Dunn places his on the interpreted word of God, that is, interpreted by the Spirit. Thus, he says, the word of God in the Old Testament meant something different to its original readers, than, say in Jesus’ or the apostles’ time, for they seemed to use some passages in a completely different way from their original meaning (for example, Jesus’ use of Is 61:1 in Luke 4:18f where Jesus neatly omits the judgement bit; or Jesus’ reinterpretation of the whole eye for eye thing in Matt 5:38-39). Now Dunn is clear that we don’t have the same interpretative authority that Jesus or the Bible writers had, but he takes ‘guidelines’ from Jesus’ use of Scripture to say that evangelical hermeneutics must mean both understanding the text in its original context and then working out how it speaks today. He emphasises that these two steps must not be taken in isolation from one another. If you only discover the original intention or meaning of a text, the word of God is relegated to the remote past; on the other hand if you ignore the original intention or message of the text, you run the risk of “uncontrolled prophetism, of abandoning the word of God for the inspiration of the moment” (p.104).
The brief case study mentioned is the experience of C.T. Studd who heard Psalm 2:8 speak directly to him, without any apology for applying a messianic prophecy to himself. Evangelicals love Studd! He was one of the Cambridge Seven! Yet he seems to have completely misunderstood Psalm 2:8. Or did he? Dunn says:
We must recognise that a scripture can function as word of God with a sense or application different from that intended… To recognise this is simply to confess faith in the Spirit as the living power of God still abroad, in the church and in the believer – to confess faith in the interpreter Spirit whose work it is precisely to bring home that scripture as a word of God directly to the soul… There is plenty of precedent for such a hermeneutic in scripture itself.
I think it’s a reasonably compelling argument. And in Studd’s case, his ‘misreading’ led him to become a missionary, so the fruit of his life probably validates his reading as the Spirit’s work. But it also makes me nervous.
Perhaps this is me trying to control a God who doesn’t fit in a box, but there seems to be a messiness here, and one that allows for parts of the Bible to be ripped out of context. On one hand, I have no doubt that the Spirit can work through that (as in the case of Studd, and, I’ll admit, my own experience); on the other, I’ve seen pretty massive damage done by misusing Scripture. Judging by the fruit, one ‘misuse’ is not a misuse, but rather given by the Spirit; and the other is a complete misuse, given by Satan. But you may only be able to tell that some years later. So where does that leave us? I think there are some pretty big implications, first of all for how we discern the word of God, but secondly, for anyone in ministry, it’s personal. I want to be open to the Spirit, but I want to make sure that it’s him I’m following, not my own hobbyhorses. As much as I fear that others may teach God’s people falsely, I’m also aware of my own heart’s capacity for deception.
So help me out here. When it comes to the word of God, do you reckon Dunn’s on the money?