“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (16): Jeannine Brown

Jeannine BrownAfter a 2 week break (my daughter had the audacity of getting married in the middle of one of my blog series), we are back today with the 16th “aha” moment, this one by Jeannine K. Brown (Ph.D., Luther Seminary, MDiv, Bethel Seminary), Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, San Diego and St. Paul. She is author of Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Baker, 2007) and Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation (Baker, 2011, with Dahl and Corbin Reuschling). She was associate editor of the revision of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (InterVarsity, 2013) and is the author of the forthcoming Matthew volume in the Teach the Text commentary series (Baker, 2015). In addition to her love of studying and teaching the Gospels, Jeannine enjoys collaborative teaching and writing projects. Her forthcoming Matthew commentary in the Two Horizons series (Eerdmans) is being co-written by Dr. Kyle Roberts, a theologian at United Seminary of the Twin Cities. Brown and her husband, Tim, live in San Diego and have two adult daughters.

My ‘Aha’ Moment with the Bible: A Tale of Hermeneutics

I grew up in a Bible-loving family and church, and I am grateful they taught me that the Bible was to shape who I was and how I thought.

And I was always thinking, thinking about faith, about the Bible, about church.

This is how I am wired. And I had questions, lots of questions about the Bible and faith, although I didn’t always feel safe asking these questions aloud.

Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, early on in my journey I discerned a tension between the Bible and what I can now refer to as my call to ministry. [Sidebar: “Call” language has never particularly fit my experience since my movement into ministry, seminary, and the biblical studies guild felt more like a gentle pushing from behind than “a voice” leading from up ahead.]

This tension with my call centered on what the Bible said about women in ministry. And since we were a Bible-believing church, everything we believed must be based in what the Bible said, right?

I had a very clear sense from a young age that women could only do three things in ministry, and there was no question that these limitations must be grounded in God’s Word. The three options were (1) teach in Sunday school (we were Lutheran, so this didn’t include teaching adults, who had “adult forums” not “Sunday school”); (2) lead the choir; or (3) be a missionary.

I remember seriously entertaining the first—we were asked in Sunday school one morning what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said a Sunday school teacher and got a big laugh from my peers.

Everyone knew this wasn’t a career choice! Yet my sense of how God had wired me was strong enough, even at the age of twelve, to name the thing that is closest to what I do today.

Today, I teach the New Testament to seminary students.  I love doing this. And it took me years to figure out that I could and should do so.

So my biggest “aha” moment about the Bible was when the light bulb came on and illuminated the space between presuppositions about the Bible and the Bible itself.

When I realized that my church tradition might be wrong about its highly restrictive views on women in ministry, it opened up that space between the Bible and my community of faith for exploration and for critique.

I’ve come to understand that the problem with the claim “we just follow what the Bible says” is not so much about holding a set of shared convictions. It has more to do with the ignorance about that space between the Bible and us.

When we simplistically think that our views are equal to what “the Bible says,” we limit our capacity to critique ourselves and our churches—we ignore the opportunity for self-reflection.

Trevor Hart helpfully describes this brand of Christianity. It is the we-don’t-have-any-tradition wing of the church.

Simple appeals to ‘what the Bible says’ are always the sign of (no doubt unconscious) subservience to an interpretive tradition, not liberation from it. That which we mistakenly think we have escaped from is in reality free to exercise all the more influence over us, and is therefore all the more potentially dangerous. (Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology, 167)

This brand of Christianity is particularly lively in our American individualistic context. This individualism encourages us to think that our interpretations have come to us directly from the Bible without the help of the church across two millennia.

But back to my story. It was through prying apart the Bible from my own tradition’s “what-the-Bible-says”  assumptions that gave me the courage to go to seminary, with all my questions in tow. And it was at seminary that the worlds of the biblical authors were opened up to me.

I learned in specific ways that the first-century world was quite different from my own and so careful thinking and self-reflection was needed to bridge the Bible’s messages between these contexts. In other words, hermeneutics—the interpretation of interpretation itselfwas essential.

And this is my passion still: to help my students read the Bible on its own terms, in line with the world in which the text was written, so that they can think carefully about what it means to recontextualize its messages today.

I want them to be self-reflective and avoid perpetuating the simplistic message, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”—a message that confuses interpretive assumptions with the Bible itself.

It is not easy to remain faithful to self-reflective journeying with the Bible, since it means being ready and willing to critique my own readings of Scripture and not only the views of others. But the alternative is scarier still—to give myself license to use the Bible to perpetuate my own pet ideas.

A hermeneutic of self-reflection will ideally produce a hermeneutic of humility, one in which we can hold our ideas with conviction all the while reminding ourselves that we could be wrong. Such a perspective puts human knowing in proper context.

Supposing that we can see from God’s vantage point contradicts our finite perspective. We are located. . .[w]e see and understand from a limited point of view, and so we were created to be. (Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation)

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  • Rick

    “And this is my passion still: to help my students read the Bible on its own terms, in line with the world in which the text was written, so that they can think carefully about what it means to recontextualize its messages today. I want them to be self-reflective and avoid perpetuating the simplistic message, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”—a message that confuses interpretive assumptions with the Bible itself.”
    Are you also stressing to them that they need to relay that concept to their congregations (or disciples, depending on their type of ministry)?

    • Todd

      As a former student of hers….yes, she has stressed that importance.

      • Jeannine

        Rick,

        Thanks for your question.

        I do raise these questions in my courses at Bethel, both in terms of discussions and sometimes assignments in which students think through what it means to address ‘hermeneutics’ in congregations (without using that language necessarily) and in case dilemmas we use that illustrate examples of churches having a difficult time seeing the space between the text and interpretation.

        Todd, thanks for weighing in….

        Jeannine

        • Rick

          Thanks for your encouraging reply, the sharing of your story, and your work.

      • Rick

        That is great to hear (read). Thanks

  • Brandy Watson

    Love it! Thanks for sharing! 😀

    • Jeannine

      Thanks, Brandy.

  • Mark K

    Putting two of your lines together really nails something I’ve been struggling to articulate for some time: Identifying the space between presuppositions about the Bible and the Bible itself–hermeneutics—the interpretation of interpretation itself—was essential.

    Thanks for sharing your years of reflection on hermeneutics.

    • Jeannine

      Mark, Nice to know this was helpful. Hearing others share their stories has been a key way I’ve learned about this ‘space between.’ Glad I could share mine.

      Jeannine

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    This is a very frightening balance–to discard a traditional understanding of what the Bible says and means and, at the same time, to guard against using the Bible to perpetuate our own pet ideas.

    • John

      I don’t really look at it as “discarding”. As I grew up, my understanding of stories like “Noah’s Ark” or “Crossing the Red Sea” changed. To me, the whole process is just maturing in my thinking and refining my own understanding and obedience.

      • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

        John, for me it was a lot of discarding because so much of those things were tied to inerrancy and to truth in my religious community.

        My understanding did change, but it was more involved than mere changing. In fact, I experience more than a year of deep spiritual crisis over it.

        • John

          Wow, it sounds like you have had quite a journey! It sounds like my own path has been different. Let me encourage you to keep it up, though.

          • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

            John, it has been quite a journey. But I have been able to unload a lot of religious baggage and follow Jesus. Now I blog about Jesus without baggage to help others on their journeys.

  • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

    Thanks! Well put thoughts. For me, it’s nice to know a little about one of the prof’s from Bethel in San Diego… I live in N. SD County and it is the only seminary (Protestant) I’m aware of in the county besides Westminster in my town. I’ve wondered what Bethel is like these days. It’s good to see they have a woman in the Biblical Studies area!

    • Jeannine

      Thanks for your post, Howard. Come visit us soon at Bethel!

      Jeannine

      • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

        Thanks. I’d love to visit but rarely go your direction… tho it’s only 30 miles, I find it hard to work such a visit into my obligations, etc. But I will look for an opportunity. It’s possible I’ll be in SD for the AAR/SBL convention, but it appears finances are in the way. However, I may be down to meet a friend or two.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Aha, yours may be the most subtle yet incisively insightful, shall we say ‘momentous’ (?) “aha” process of those I’ve read so far. Lots of the text specific stories have been instructive and enlightening, but abstracting the basic postural perspective or “hermeneutic” move behind them all is the most helpful. Others have no doubt mentioned this too, but not in the prominent way done by Brown.

    • Jeannine

      Thanks for your kind comment.

      Jeannine

  • Daniel Fisher

    Ma’am,
    Very much appreciate the thoughts – both about embracing a “hermeneutic of humility,” and especially the warning about giving one’s self “license to use the Bible to perpetuate my own pet ideas.” This I also perceive is a constant danger. But I am curious, from your perspective: is it then possible for the Bible to genuinely inform any of us about these particular items and issues of ultimate truth?

    For example – when you said, “I realized that my church tradition might be wrong about its highly restrictive views on women in ministry”…. I’m assuming (based on what you wrote about the hermeneutic of humility) that you would with equal force say that your current church tradition might be wrong about its highly *accepting* views on women in ministry (assuming it is)?

    But, then, are we stuck existing in equal doubt about the rightness or wrongness of either view? That the tradition that allows women in ministry should be just as dubious about its correctness as the tradition that restricts women in ministry? But if not, then on what basis is anyone justified in holding a conviction one way or the other?

    • Jeannine

      Great question, with at least a few layers to it. One resource that has been an encouragement to me as I’ve wrestled with this question is Kevin Vanhoozer’s work (Is There Meaning in This Text? and First Theology). He speaks of holding together a hermeneutic of conviction with a hermeneutic of humility. This is certainly a dialectic. And I’ve seen it work out in practice, in part when people emphasize relational connection at the same time as holding their convictions.

      A second layer to your question, it seems to me, rests in the words, “justified in holding a conviction.” What do you mean by justified? If you mean, can we hold a view with epistemic certainty, I’d be hesitant to grant the category. We are finite; created and located. This is why I prefer the language of convictions. I believe we can hold convictions deeply and with great trust in the God who has chosen to reveal. But certainty, it seems to me, falls outside human knowing. I love Paul’s words in 1 Cor 8:1-3 in this regard. He presses for the priority of love over knowledge (without denigrating the latter). It seems a relational move on his part.

      I’m interested to know if I’ve missed what you were asking in using the language of justified in holding a conviction. Let me know.

      Jeannine

      • Daniel Fisher

        Ma’am, thanks much – the balance of humility and conviction probably answers much of my question. Vanhoozer’s work sounds very useful and interesting, I’ll have to look that up.

        If I may, let me toss out an example that may illustrate my confusion about how to balance this hermeneutic of humility with conviction (and please forgive the length):

        I had grown up in a relatively moderate-to-liberal Christian home without any particular convictions about issues of women in ministry (my mother attended an Episcopal church with a female pastor), I supported it when I first discovered any debate/discussion of the idea in college – but in response to a friend’s challenge to study the Bible on the topic, changed my views on that (and numerous other topics), all (I very much like to hope) based on what I read and grew to understood the Bible to teach.

        (N.B., my reading of the Bible completely supports and will defend most fiercely women in research/training/teaching roles as your own, I see it not unlike the Priscilla example in the Bible).

        Now, all that being said (and here’s the example I’m getting to): I’ve had friends in seminary who disagreed with me on the topic, but for whom, I could tell, their genuine attempt was to follow Scripture (not simply cultural or contemporary wisdom), and with whom, while I disagreed, I appreciated their desire to pursue what Scripture said.

        But I contrast that with a few conservative Lutheran and Baptist pastors I have known, and have overheard them make very disparaging, downright sexist, statements about women in general – and I find, although I superficially agree with them about the particular topic of women as pastors, I do NOT find that their conviction on that topic to simply be derived from a pursuit of Scripture (otherwise, I imagine, they would follow the Bible’s example better and show far more respect for both genders of the image of God), it seems more like they have this view of women as their starting point and, as you mentioned, simply align their view to “what the Bible says,” and they superficially use the various passages not as tools for further accurate understanding, but to prop up their previously existing sexism.

        My own impression was that these pastors I had witnessed had missed that humility, but simultaneously, they had missed that attempt to have their own thoughts and attitudes corrected *by the Bible*. If they had, in humility, subjected all their thoughts and attitudes to Scripture, they might not have changed their conviction about women in the pastorate, but I cannot help but think that their general attitude toward woman might be different, corrected by such concepts as the image bearers of God, of Christ’s more faithful disciples, as some of the authors of the words of Scripture, of those in whom in Christ is neither male nor female, etc.

        Getting to my basic point, though – I fear I would have been poorly prepared to criticize these former colleagues if I was armed only with a “hermeneutic of humility” alone – i.e., I would only be able to say, “well, my own more respectful attitudes of women may be wrong, and their sexism may be right… who knows?”
        But that humility combined with a conviction that the Bible speaks absolute (dare I say unerring) truth about the value of women as bearing the image of God, that we can and should be pursuing more of the Bible’s truth in this just as in all areas, is what I believe has armed me against falling in with the crowd in such attitudes… I feel like I am justified in having a conviction which is more respectful of women BECAUSE I really do think my view of the truth, derived from the Bible, is more accurate, true, etc., than theirs in this area. I am trying to conform my perspective, attitudes, etc., to the Bible, and I think I have some basis for saying that my (hopefully) respectful attitude does in fact conform more closely to that of the Bible, and therefore to the true perspective of God himself, than that of my sexist coworkers.

        Bottom line, in what way does a hermeneutic of humility help me hold the conviction that my colleagues’ sexist attitudes were genuinely *wrong* – not simply different, than mine? My first impression is that such a hermeneutic, in and of itself, only equips me to say, “my colleagues’ sexist attitudes are different than mine, but hey, I might be wrong, they might be right, who knows? It would be arrogant to say that my view is right and theirs is wrong…”

        At the same time, I realize that without a hermeneutic of humility that acknowledges I may be wrong, then I myself would never have anything new to learn from the Scripture!

        • Jeannine

          I might reply, briefly, that the balance between humility and conviction is important in this regard. Conviction, in my estimation, should be built on solid arguments from the biblical text in its historical setting and literary context.

  • http://www.godconversations.com/ Tania Harris

    Thanks Jeannine, one of my aha moments came the same way!