By David Domsch
Last fall an initial article lamented the fear that seems to drive far too much in the LCMS. A young pastor questioned how I could continue in the LCMS under the situation described. That led to a second article in the spring of 2012.
Although I had hoped to establish an ongoing dialog with this young pastor, that was not to be. Much of the difficulty we encountered centered on how the Word of God is interpreted. Many of the most contentious disagreements in the LCMS are issues of interpretation, so an attempt to explore the underlying approach to interpretation appears in order.
A basic premise: Interpretation flows from the assumptions and methods of the interpreter –no matter what approach the interpreter uses.
One interpretive approach posits that interpretation rests on 2 primary pillars: Literal and Self -referential . In this approach a literal interpretation is required unless the text itself clearly suggests otherwise (as in the use of the word “day”, neatly labeled with a “like” in the passage, “a day is like a thousand years in your sight”). That has been the default approach for a long time and is, If response to the last article is evidence, the only approach taught at our seminaries.
While I basically agree that a literal interpretation is the default position, there are clearly exceptions. The simplest is that the Bible contains many literary forms, not always labeled as such. We all accept the poetic language of the psalms is not always meant to be understood literally. The argument really comes down to whether 2 interpreters agree on whether a specific passage is literal or deserves to be treated in another way – which leads directly to the second pillar of the approach, self-reference.
This second major pillar is the idea that only the Bible itself is a valid source of interpretive insight. With only self-referential evidence allowed, nothing from any source outside the Bible can be used. An unfortunate corollary is that interpretation cannot change with new information – because any new information, by definition, comes from somewhere outside the text itself. A further corollary is that any change in interpretation suggested by other-than-biblical sources suggests that past understanding was wrong – which raises the fear that other areas could also be wrong – a psychological threat that cannot be tolerated. (Back to the basic premise that fear drives far too much in the LCMS) The only option is to dismiss any interpretation other than the one already held as meaningless, if not heretical.
But interpretations do change. Even the most literal interpreter no longer holds that the passage “the sun stood still” demands a Ptolemaic world view – though that was the position taught when my father attended St.Pauls in the 1920’s. Few even notice – or are willing to acknowledge – that this interpretation has changed. It changed because the public has learned a lot of cosmology over the last century. Similarly, Biblical acceptance of slavery is no longer defended as appropriate in our time – though strict literal interpretation of some passages would justify it. Information outside the Bible has always had an impact on how we interpret the Bible.
But if the Bible is not always interpreted literally – does that make it untrue? Not at all. The books were written to teach what the inspired writer wanted taught. They did that – and still do that for Christians today. I am not willing to simply accept that something once interpreted literally cannot be reinterpreted in light of new information – at least not in things that are not central to the gospel message, a category which includes many of the things that are so divisive in our church. (Fear generated attempts to make everything in interpretation and practice equally important – therefore equally central to the gospel are a very harmful corollary to literalist insistence.)
An alternative approach to interpretation accepts that everything that is written, including books of the Bible, is done in a context of time, culture, and knowledge available. It is important to understand that context and how it is different from the current one. This approach allows understanding to change in the light of new information from science or other sources, as well as changes in culture. This has happened regularly over the centuries since the books of the Bible were written and I believe it is legitimate. This approach recognizes that additional information and understanding can lead to a new interpretation of what the passage(s) mean in today’s context. Specifically, this approach accepts the reality that understanding of the natural world has advanced in many areas since the books were written – and that the role of women has changed markedly in the culture since biblical times. It allows inclusion of these changes in interpreting what the books say to Christians in our context. It does not claim that older understandings were “wrong”, only that the texts were written in ways that were appropriate to the context of their day. It would make no sense for a writer several thousand years ago to infuse a message with today’s scientific or cultural context – it wouldn’t fit – the message would not have gotten through. In the same way, sometimes the writer’s message is lost because it doesn’t mesh with today’s context. Insisting that those changes don’t matter keeps the message from reaching people today. That is the real shame.
Insisting on literalism and only self-referential insight too often reduces theological discussion of self-proclaimed “confessional” pastors to tautology.
I interpret the relevant passages in the only valid way
I will not accept any evidence from outside scripture that would support another interpretation
Therefore my interpretation is right (corollaries: other interpretations are obviously wrong – the matter is closed – there is no reason to even discuss it.)
It is horrid logic – and too often leads to horrid theology.
I really feel sorry for those whose fear of being wrong is so deep that they are driven to rely on tautology – and worse, believe they have proven their position with it. They miss out on the confidence available in the Gospel that though we are all wrong, we are all still right with God. This core rediscovery of the Lutheran Reformation is unfortunately lost to fear for far too many who claim to be Lutheran.