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Approaches To Biblical Interpretation


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Approaches to Biblical Interpretation:


(Take Ephesians 5:22-24 and try them out!)


The Jesus School of "All this and More" or "You’ve heard this… but I say…"

"In every instance takes us to a new plain of being like Christ; i.e. it radicalizes the previously held traditional understanding. In this case, it might be read as either making even more explicit the notion that women should be submissive to men; or (if you read it in context with vs. 25-8) it could be seen as saying, "Yes, women are to submit, but what’s more, men are to do likewise to women!" So, the passage really promotes radical egalitarianism.


The Markan School


Is this Midrash? (A rabbinic commentary of Scripture?) A word by word interpretation using creative, imaginative expression, e.g. "This passage means for us to have right loving relationships with each other ASAP!"


The Pauline School of "Redefinition" or "Reapplication of Meaning"


Redefine the terms to match a new understanding, e.g. in this case, references to spouses are really about all people in society in all relationships! (Again, in this view, the passages promotes radical egalitarianism).


The After-the-Fact School of Selective Application (a.k.a. "Proof-texting")


Choosing preferred bits of Scripture to apply broadly, generalize about, and prove their point, while ignoring passages which contradict them, e.g. "Women shouldn’t be ordained or be leaders in their families because of what it says here.. here…and here…," etc.




Seeking out a perceived "hidden meaning" under the story or event; e.g. The Song of Songs/Song of Solomon equated to a story about the relationship between Christ (the groom) and the Church (His bride), or in this case, husbands and wives may really be referring to certain roles in the Church (deacons and elders, laity and clergy, etc.) [This is probably a stretch in this case however…]


The "It’s OK if.." School of Ignored Law or "Rationalization"


Helpful when the community is already doing something that isapparently forbidden, but you can’t stop them (some would say this in regard to ordaining women; being tolerant of homosexuality, being affirming of the American doctrine of wealth and success, etc.)


The "If-it-suits-our-need-to-remain-in-power" School


Used when a power structure perceives it’s being threatened, e.g. "Men must’ve been feeling that their power and status were beingthreatened by some of Jesus’ teachings/followers and in response, these verses were written to help preserve patriarchal domination."


The "In-light-of-new-information" School of Scientific Application


For when the earth is discovered to be round, that we aren’t the only planet, and Heaven isn’t necessarily "up" and Hell "down," etc., e.g. "Back then, the culture warranted wives being submissive as a strategy to convert their fragile-egoed husbands, but now (with relationships being more egalitarian and women being more empowered than they were back then), we know this perception isn’t helpful." So, in this case, "Well, back then patriarchy was the norm for society, but now it isn’t, so these verses simply don’t apply anymore."


The Liberation Theory that we can't go-on-oppressing-this class-of people-no-matter-what-the-Bible-says" School


Employed during Women’s Suffrage, Abolition, Civil Rights, and Gay rights. This tact is quite willing to argue against, and even ignore, certain passages of scripture as being "more human than Godly."


The Fundamentalist "Its True! Its all true!" School


The Bible is taken to be literally true (i.e. "historically factual!" - a modern concept invented no earlier than the 1400’s CE) in all instances! Of course, even those that hold this view tend to employ liberal interpretations at times - otherwise they’d have to agree with these statements:


* The communion bread really is the actual body of Jesus (Mark 14:22)


* Jesus really is a lamb (John 1:29) (or that we are either sheep or goats!)


* God really is a He/male person who is confined to a human body


* Eating shellfish, pork, wearing clothing of mixed materials, etc. is wrong, (Leviticus)


* A man named Jonah really was really swallowed by a giant fish,(Jonah)


* The only way women are saved is via their pain in giving birth to a child.


* Children are to be disciplined by hitting them with a rod. (Pr.13:24)


* Those early Hebrews actually lived to be 2-900 years of age! (Genesis)


* And in this case, wives should act as soldiers do toward their drill sergeants, i.e., if a husband says "Jump!," his wife should say "How high!?" as she’s jumping!


The Jesus Seminar "We’ll-vote-on-whether-we-believe-it-or-not" School


Could lead to anarchy, free for all, can actually become a form of fundamentalism!, e.g. 32 out of 50 scholars feel that this passage is (or is not) accurate/true/authoritative or believed as being "The actual Word of God."


The "Tiered Authority" or "Canon within the Canon" School


e.g. The Gospels might be given greatest weight and authority, then Paul’s letters, then other New Testament letters, and then Old Testament writings are given the least authority.


So, in this case, since this passage is from one of Paul’s letters, it’s of a lessor degree of authority than are the teachings within the Gospels, and since Jesus nowhere says anything like this, Paul must be off track in saying this!


For instance, many liberal Christians give highest preference to the Gospel of Luke, the Beatitudes, the second half of Matthew 25; the letter of James, and the prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah; while Popular/Evangelical Christians tend to give greatest authority to John, the Pauline and General Epistles, and the parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that liberals don't.


A Jewish form of this is also widely practiced. The Torah (first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible) are given greater authority than the prophets and the other Hebrew writings.


Fundamentalists often defend against this approach citing 2 Timothy 3:16-17:


"All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."


And so, they’d argue that one can’t "pick and choose" what one prefers from among the Scriptures. And there’s truth to this insight. But then they’re stuck with having to resolve what to do with all of the inconsistencies and discrepancies within the Bible (e.g. the various presentations of Christ’s resurrection story among the different Gospels) and they’re also stuck with how they "explain away" as "no longer applicable" certain passages about what to wear or not wear, what to eat or not eat, how many wives a man can have, etc. Ironically, they’d also have to admit, in spite of their belief that women shouldn’t be preachers, that it was Jesus’ female disciples who were the first preachers of the good news of the risen Christ! They’d also have to admit that Paul utilized several women as deacons! (Romans 16:1-3) And even Fundamentalists have to admit that the Song of Songs/Solomon is an interpretive metaphor for describing God’s relationship with humanity rather than a literal factual account, otherwise they’d have to conclude that the Bible contains National Enquiereresque reports of erotic pornography!


In reality, all Christian groups, including those that claim to be "Fundamentalist" (even though they wouldn’t agree with this) actually employ liberal interpretation in their approach to Scripture - they just simply pick and choose different things to read literally. For example, in reality the Southern Baptists are no where near as fundamentalist as are conservative Mennonites (a denomination often viewed as "liberal"), as the conservative Mennonites and Amish (and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans) are actually much more consistent in taking the Bible literally, e.g. their women don’t speak in church; they don’t hold church offices; they have to wear head coverings; their men have to grow facial hair; they refuse to vote, run for office, serve in the military, file lawsuits, or purchase insurance.


Most fundamentalists wouldn’t dream of not being able to file lawsuits, and they tend to skip past the passages that appear to speak in favor of honoring the authority of Church tradition; as well as those which seem to speak against judging others, greed, the exploitation of the poor, the death penalty, or serving in the military.


Ultimately, all Christians practice some form of scriptural interpretation that includes reading it interpretively (not just literally) - its just that not all of us are able to admit this!

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Re: "Where did I get that?"


A fellow United Methodist pastor from Minnesota (Dean Wolf) created the original version of this several years ago and I have modified and added to it since then.


Feel free to generate others!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Well, I did appreciate reading that... LOL. However, I have found that all interpretative lenses fit under one of three umbrellas.


1. the literal-factual approach


a.k.a. fundamentalism. Everything is taken as literally as possible even when the context does not permit this. For example, taking Revelation literally even the book was written as an epistle, a prophecy and an apocalypse (which is anything but literal). although the approach has conservative appeal, it often misses the point of the text. the tendency is to make the Bible only God's word.


2. the critical-metaphorical approach


i.e. Bultmannian approach. everything is questioned (historical criticism) and much of the Bible is taken as metaphor, or as Borg would say "the finger that points to the moon". this has appeal mainly to those who have been damaged by the previous view and hence find fundamentalism acceptable. however, this view taken to the extreme can cause problems where the Bible can mean anything or where it loses meaning all together (what can or should we really believe? anything?) the tendency is to make the Bible only man's word.


3. the historical-grammatical approach


the text speaks for itself. history and grammar are used to come to the meaning of the text. for example, we may apply the JEDP theory to the Torah but at the end of the day what we have is the Torah in completed form which the final redactor produced for a reason. this is the view i hold, as i believe the Bible is as much the word of man as it is the word of God and likewise it is as much the word of God as it is the word of man.

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