Guess What: Your Presuppositions Don’t Automatically Make You a Better or Worse Interpreter of the Bible

A couple of weeks ago I posted on “3 ways I would like to see evangelical leaders stop defending the Bible.” The third way I was complaining about is the common claim that if one’s presuppositions are false, false conclusions are sure to follow.

I see this not only among evangelical leaders but also now and again among evangelical biblical scholars, especially with respect to inerrancy as the proper and necessary starting point–unless you begin there, you will not come to the proper interpretive conclusions. (See for example John Woodbridge’s foreword to the recent collection of essays defending inerrancy, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?)

People, of course, will draw their own conclusions. Today, I only want to point out an alternate point of view of the role of presuppositions in biblical interpretation that I was taught in the 1980s as a student at Westminster Theological Seminary.

I had many wonderful teachers in biblical studies, including Ray Dillard, Al Groves (both of blessed memory), Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman III, Dan McCartney, and Moises Silva. I learned from these teachers a very different way than the defensive posture that has become all too prevalent in recent years, and I am deeply thankful to God for this foundation.

Below are some quotes from Moises Silva, one of my New Tesament professors, in an essay, “The Place of Historical Reconstruction in New Testament Criticism.” The essay appeared in the 1986 volume  Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon edited by DA Carson and John Woodbridge (mentioned above).

To be clear, I am not suggesting Westminster of the 1980s is a lone voice in the evangelical wilderness (though Westminster itself certainly has undergone significant theological shifts since those days). Further, I disagree with many of the essays in that volume,  and, though my respect for Silva needs no elaboration, I cannot say I agree on all points of his essay either.

But that is entirely beside the point here. By posting these quotes, without comment, I only wish to pay it forward–to offer a model for a younger generation of students of a sincere, faithful  historical, academic study of Scripture that does not require people of faith to circumscribe their interpretive conclusions at the outset, which seems to be the growing default position.

Chime in and tell us what you think.

“One can hardly deny that a scholar’s fundamental assumptions about God will radically affect one’s handling of the biblical material. Unfortunately, there is seldom (never?) a one-to-one correspondence between those assumptions and the scholar’s historical reconstruction; therefore, to dismiss the reconstruction on the grounds that the basic world view is faulty does not solve our problem (particularly since the faulty presuppositions sometimes open up legitimate options that another scholar may resist due to ‘correct’ presuppositions…)” (p. 124).

“Lapses and inconsistencies of this sort [i.e., a historian talking as though s/he can be completely objective and without preconceptions], however, do not give us sufficient reason to doubt all of [that historian’s] conclusion, or to reject his method, or to abandon his goal” (p. 129).

“The only kind of objectivity that we can sink our teeth into is that which is recognized as such by the community of scholars who evaluate historical interpretations. Asking a scholar to be objective is not a demand that he or she adopt a particular psychological attitude or an acceptable step-by-step mental process. It does mean that the scholar should seek to persuade other scholars who scrutinize any new interpretation according to agreed-upon canons of historical persuasiveness. Such a community process does not guarantee that any one historian will be objective, but it is a compelling force in determining whether a particular reconstruction approaches objectivity” (130).

“Besides, highly idiosyncratic theories – obnoxious and harmful as they sometimes may be – force us to face new questions that can open productive new avenues of research” (130).

“Another item that requires further reflection is the by now commonplace plea for scholars to show a sharper awareness of their presuppositions. The truth is (strange as it may appear to some) that most biblical scholars are not fools; they know fell well there are limits to their objectivity, and their writings generally indicate some degree of self-consciousness as to what those limits are. We cannot give in to the temptation of simply dismissing what we don’t like on the grounds that ‘those liberals’ (or ‘those conservatives’!) are slaves to their presuppositions. Still, there is something to be said for the view that scholars should make a greater effort to identify those premises that provide their framework for selecting, interpreting, and synthesizing the data” (131).

  • Cameron

    I’m a current student of Dan McCartney, and I certainly appreciate his teaching in this area. Thanks for sharing those quotes.

  • Allen O’Brien

    It’s either admitting that good interpretation can germinate from not-yet-expected places or baptizing the slippery-slope argument; and I, for one, don’t enjoy slippy things.

  • Don Johnson

    I object in principle to pre-decided investigations, such is the road to intellectual suicide, but it seems that some have no problem doing that to themselves. But once one has committed intellectual suicide, the reports I see from there claim the water is just fine. I guess I am one of the weak ones that cannot go there.

  • John Hawthorne

    I particularly like the quote about the community of scholars. Over the years, I have posed the question as: “does a scholar have the academic freedom to write an incorrect book?”. The answer is clearly yes. But having written said book is the start of the dialogue. The academic community interacts with the ideas. It’s possible the presuppositions come into play in that interaction. But it’s also likely that in responding to the argument, the community of scholars finds that gaps in previously-thought-airtight explanations.

    • John Hawthorne

      “there are gaps”

  • Aaron

    There seems to be a widespread sentiment to the effect that having certain presuppositions is “safe” and not having them is “dangerous.” This makes no sense to me. There there is a risk in venturing into uncharted territory in that it could lead you into all sorts of error, and there is a risk in holding presuppositions in that they could be faulty.

    Perhaps it just depends on which type of risk you happen (or are predestined?) to prefer.

  • Chris

    I do believe presuppositions aid the process, but I pull those presuppositions from a more basic, existential source; that is, I try to understand what it is that we are doing when we use language. Language is a series of signs by which we ascribe a word to particular phenomenological experience of abstraction thereof. With that in mind, the language of a given text will reflect the experiences of the culture which produced it. The Bible is no different.

    This is a well-founded presupposition because it has as its basis the very experience of what we do when we use language. “Infallibility” comes from thin air and/or wishful thinking. If we stop pretending that the language of the Bible is something that it is not, then, even if we have presuppositions, we will come to better interpretive conclusions.

  • Marta L.

    This whole question reminds me of David Hume’s essay on aesthetics “Of the Standard of Taste,” where he talks about the good artistic judge. Among other things, this person must be unbiased, because he’s not just describing his own preferences, he’s trying to recommend the kind of thing a generic human would find beautiful. And (at least the way I read him) he realizes we all come with biases. I love fantasy and science fiction, so I’d probably prefer a mediocre Star Trek or Harry Potter flick or even *shudders* Twilight to a really well-done romantic comedy that’s objectively a better movie. That’s okay. The trick is, when I’m making recommendations for other people, when I’m trying to describe more than just what I personally would enjoy, I have to try to step outside my bias. To do that I first must recognize that I have a bias, and then I have to imagine whether someone without that bias would still find a particular poem or movie or whatever beautiful. That’s the best way to identify what’s really beautiful as opposed to just what tickles my fancy.

    I think the same issue is relevant here. We all have theological biases, whether it’s from our place in history or our character or what exactly. Even if the Bible is inerrant, we can’t help but bring some interpretational lens to the issue. And if you believe someone has biases, that may mean they have more to account for. But it doesn’t guarantee their conclusion will be wrong, by any means. The trick is to recognize something as a bias and account for it when thinking about whatever we’re studying.

    Ironically, the best way to recognize biases is probably to have as wide a range of scholars as possible. As Hume says, if you have lots of good judges in differnet periods, from different demographics (gender, race, social class, etc.) and they all agree the same piece is beautiful, that’s as good of evidence as we can hope for. And if all those different type of people agree you’re unbiased, that’s good evidence on that count as well. The more variety of people you have checking up on each other, the less likely they’ll all be biased in the same way – which is a good check for deciding whether we’re seeing the situation clearly or not.

    • Chris

      The diversity of critics is what makes science work as well as it does. But that’s just it: there are *critics*, not merely supporters. Science and other studies are just as interested in creating new ideas as they are in criticizing those which already exist. This latter part does not sit well with many evangelical interpreters; their presuppositions prevent them from doing so.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Thanks for the observations in this article; I think they are very useful.

    It seems to me that there’s an elephant in the room: Christian character / emotional maturity. A willingness to learn from others, to not be dismissive of those with whom you may strongly disagree, granting others the grace and freedom to be different from you, overcoming personal pride and tribal pride, maintaining a healthy sense of humor and human priorities, etc. It seems to me that those things would play a huge role in good scholarship.

    • Aaron

      Well said.

    • Derek

      I second that – well said J.L.

  • arty

    I’m very interested in the quote that begins with: ” The only kind of objectivity that we can sink…”.

    On my reading, there is an internal tension here, between arguing that 1. “Objectivity” consists in the agreed upon standards of the scholarly community, and arguing that 2. “Asking a scholar to be objective is not a demand that he or she adopt a particular psychological attitude or an acceptable step-by-step mental process.”

    If you back to Ranke (for example), there you have the privileging of archival sources as the proverbial “raw materials,” and so in the professional sense of objectivity that followed, you did indeed end up with a professional demand that one adopt a particular psychological attitude, etc…. (see Novick’s “That Noble Dream,” for instance)
    The basic problem, on my reading, is whether we take “objective” to be a matter of immanence or transcendence. If the historical profession gets to define what counts as objective, then fine, but many folks are then going to argue that this fails the test of what we want “objectivity” to accomplish, and there is every reason to assume that this will in fact entail adopting a particular sense of step by step process and psychological attitudes.

    On the other hand, if what we want is capital “O” objectivity, then you end up with commitments to presuppositions that themselves aren’t subject to falsification, and so will be subject to the argument that they aren’t really properly academic in nature.

    I’ve not read any of the scholars referenced here. Dr. Enns: I am I misreading the intention of the quote I’m considering? (Since I don’t have it in context).

  • rvs

    I find that some evangelicals use the term “objectivity” to mean something like this: if you don’t agree with what I’m saying, then I’m going to get upset. Unfortunately, I then must resist the temptation to say things like this: “well, it’s ‘objective’ to you.” My understanding is that the cult of objectivity really emerged alongside empirical science in the early modern period, and objectivity back then essentially involved those things that can be proven by the senses/experiment. Presuppositionalism strikes me as something more clearly rooted in a kind of mathematical rationalism, or some such. A big system. I’m pretty to these conversations/topics, and so perhaps I’ve missed something, but I’m not sure how presuppositionalism and objectivity are related.

    • arty

      The particularly historical-professional sense of “objectivity” is a creation of the 19th century, for the most part, and the argument is that since objectively true conclusions are inherent to the “data.” So if you read the historical evidence as empirical data, you don’t need any presuppositions (other than the basic rules of logic, presumably) because right conclusions are consist in the evidence.
      This is how I read the history of “objectivity” with the historical discipline, anyhow.

      • rvs

        Thanks for this. Semi-related: I’ve always liked Kierkegaard’s “Truth is subjectivity.”

  • Kenny

    Presuppositions don’t always lead to incorrect conclusions . A broken clock is right twice a day.
    when in comes to the Bible we should be reading ourselves and using commentaries and interpitations
    for expanded perspectives and come to our own conclusions as the Holy Spirit guides us.
    I think the scholarly Community pats itself on the back a little to much and tries to fix what is not broken. The Pharisees were all Scholars and did not see the Truth standing in front of them.

  • Larry S

    Kenny wrote “Presuppositions don’t always lead to incorrect conclusions . A broken clock is right twice a day.”

    the time is incomplete – what about a.m. and p.m.

  • Jeff Martin

    This reminds me of biblical theologians who simply dismiss one’s work for only one reason – that it is idiosyncratic. It is a common criticism of Martyn’s commentary on Galatians, but in fact he makes very cogent arguments

  • Ken Duncan

    It is true that some presuppositions do not guarantee a good or bad interpretation. It’s also true that objectivity is a myth, whether in biblical studies, science, anywhere. However, within the history of biblical studies, it is pretty easy to see that certain presuppositions practically require what I’d consider “bad” interpretations. For example, Rudolf Butlmann’s presupposition that no one who uses a wireless (radio) or other early 20th century technology can believe in the miracles in the gospels, is pretty well guaranteeing results that I would consider bad. Or when Dale Martin, who teaches New Testament at Yale, affirms his adherence to the views of the Yale School (of literary analysis), you can pretty readily predict he is not going to interpret things in ways I’d consider correct because I believe that texts do have both meanings and intentions. Or, when Martin asserts that no “critical scholars” accept the idea that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, that pretty much tells me that their readings of he New Testament are going to be invalid in my view–our presuppositions are totally at odds. The person who treats scientists as implicitly infallible, when coming to the biblical text, is going to have to follow principles of hermeneutics I would not consider valid. I acknowledge full-well that I have presuppositions here. One of them is that, since I believe that the Bible is inspired by God, his revelation to humans, if its assertions about God’s nature or deeds have to be read through Bultmann’s Hegelian existentialism, or J. Wellhausen’s anti-Semiticism, or Martin Deconstruction, then I might as well toss the Bible..Peter Enns can critique those who hold that Scripture provides truth that one can rely on all the time, but at least if I believe that the Bible is correct when it talks about God and his acts, and acknowledge that, I’m being consistent if I reject the interpretations of those who do not hold this view. I’d rather consider the Bible a reliable source of information about God, and struggle to deal with things in that seem problematic, than to cherry-pick from it the bits I want to affirm as matters of faith for no clear hermeneutical reason and dismiss the rest by some hermeneutic that gives me permission to offer interpretations that obviously its authors could not have had. If Evangelical views of the Bible are so despicable, Peter, why do you bother with them? If the Bible should not be treated as error-free, whether on matters of empirical fact nor “infallible” in its declarations about God and his deeds, why would I want to bother with it, except as a literary curiosity, much the same way that someone might specialize in Shakespeare? I, for one, don’t want a hermeneutic of convenience. I’m prepared to ask questions to wrestle with issues, but I don’t think the Bible offers truth, or if I have no idea when it is or is not doing so, it’s not much use to me. I certainly wouldn’t base anything important on it. Here’s a presupposition I hold that I think should be held and applied by everyone: You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

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