Part of the Rightly Understanding God’s Word series by Craig S. Keener.
As appearing in Pneuma Review Spring 2006
The Reader’s “Social Location”
For those of us who embrace the Bible as God’s Word, our goal is always to hear what God was saying in Scripture. Because we believe God inspired the authors, we look for that meaning first of all in what God inspired the original writers to say to their original audiences. However else a text might be applied, it is the original meaning we can be sure was correct, and that provides us the model for how to apply Scripture in our own situations today.
Some students of literature have moved away from the question of what the author meant to the question of how a reader understands a text. Although we do not emphasize that question here (our primary goal for interpreting the Bible is understanding what the author meant, because we believe the Bible’s authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit), it is an interesting question and has some relevance. Different readers understand texts in different ways, and that is often because of the cultures and traditions we start with. Being sensitive to this issue can help us better understand why people interpret texts the way they do. Sometimes it can even expose our own prejudices or ideas we simply took for granted because we assumed that everyone thought the same way.
For example, a minister in a church that practices infant baptism may read about the baptism of the jailer’s “household” (Acts 16:33) and see a proof for infant baptism here. Someone who practices only believer’s baptism will object that we do not know that the jailer’s household included infants and that they all seem to have heard and believed (16:31-32). In modern biblical debates, everyone reads chosen passages in light of other passages they believe support their viewpoint. This is not to say that we should not try to make a better case for one position than another, but simply to observe that we most naturally incline to positions we have been taught. Recognizing the history of various lines of interpretation can help us guard against bias in the way we read the Bible. Church history is a very important safeguard in helping us put our own views in broader perspective. We can recognize the background of our own views and consider how this background influences us for good or ill. We can also challenge ourselves: how “obvious” is a view of a Bible passage if no one in history ever thought of it before? (This is not to say that majority views in church history are always correct, either. Sometimes those majorities simply reflect the cultures of those Christians writing down most of the interpretations! But church history does help us be more cautious.)
Recognizing different backgrounds (“social locations”) of various interpreters can also enrich the way we read the Bible. People in different settings ask different kinds of questions than people in other circumstances do, so we can sometimes learn from people who ask different questions as long as we follow the rules of context noted above. For example, Medieval European theologians focused on what the Bible says about issues like the nature of God, Christ, salvation, and angels. These questions are legitimate (and issues like Christ and salvation are central to the New Testament and to Christianity), but a believer who is beaten every day while working as a debt slave in Pakistan will also want to hear what the Bible says about justice, about suffering, and about comfort. The questions do not contradict one another, and both may come to legitimate conclusions; the Bible is big enough to address both kinds of issues.