Trying all Things: The Importance of Experience in Scriptural Interpretation
In the modern world, many have assumed that the “ethicists” work this way: they articulate the propositions “all rational people agree” on, and then deduce “right and wrong” from those starting principles. But one day a graduate school professor suggested to us students that “ethics” is merely “a posteriori elucidation.” By this, he meant that “Christian ethics” is actually a much more modest endeavor: we Christians, through a great variety of experiences—arguments, unexamined convictions, shaming, blaming, praising—sort out best we can what is “right” and “wrong,” and then the ethicist comes along after the fact and gives an explanation of how or why we might have come to those conclusions, given the facts of scripture or theology or Christian tradition.
If this contention is true, then the ethicists—and theologians more generally—have a much more modest task than we typically like to ascribe to ourselves. We sort through our experiences, explaining how they might make sense (or not), given the other sort of convictions we presently hold to be true.
Paying attention to our experience(s) is, of course, no novel theological idea. The Catholics have always taken Christian tradition very seriously. The “Wesleyan quadrilateral” suggests that our interpretations must include “experience” alongside “scripture,” “tradition,” and “reason.” The (little ‘b’) baptist tradition insists, says the theologian Jim McClendon, upon “two constitutive rules” in the “struggle of theology.” One, a “principle of fallibility,” a forthright commitment to the notion that we may be wrong; and two, a willingness to “try all things,” which is to say that we test our notions against whatever else we come up against.
What, you might be asking, does that have to do with a BioLogos blog? For one, it means biography is inseparable from theology. And while working on our ECF grant for an upcoming Tokens Show episode on evolution, to be taped on location of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, I have had ample reason to revisit some of my own biographical theology that I think might be of some interest to the readers of this blog.
I was raised in a “Young Earth Creationist” church, complete with all the attendant convictions, taught as a matter of faith: that (a) the earth was much younger than the evolutionists said, say some 10,000 years; (b) Earth and its inhabitants were created in six 24 hour days, complete with something like the diversity of species we now witness in the world around us; (c) while we might observe “micro-evolutionary” change (say the effects of antibiotics upon bacterial populations), there has not been “macro-evolutionary” change; and that (d) humankind was most definitely not somehow related to monkeys.
I fell under the tutelage of my preacher and other folks with PhD’s who had given their careers to apologetics and arguments against evolutionists. Of course they took aim, perhaps understandably so, at atheistic evolutionists. But they also drummed the drum of fear against theistic evolutionists, too. The logic generally went like this: (a) The Bible clearly teaches that the world was created in six literal days. (“An evening and a morning…”) (b) If we abandon this truth-claim, then we undercut the whole authority of the Bible. (c) If we undercut the authority of the Bible, then we have nothing to stand on, and all is lost.
I dutifully began reading Henry Morris as an eighth grader, exegeting the Hebrew word yom (“day” in Genesis 1), delivering fiery eighth-grader sermons in my church (yes, frightening, regardless of the content) in which I employed my eighth-grade understanding of entropy and altruism as evidence against the evolutionists.
At school I drove my eighth grade science teacher nearly to madness (though, truth be told, she had a rather short fuse anyway, and we did all enjoy lighting that fuse). One day she returned our exam on which I had given, in response to the essay question, the answers she wanted, but had felt, in good conscience, compelled to point her toward a literal reading of the Genesis account. The day she returned the test, that nausea, that oh-my-it’s-hit-the-fan-now sickness, roiled in my stomach and ran up my esophagus, reading her long one and a half page diatribe written in an angry, sprawling hand with blue ball point pen. She was, umm, unhappy.
And on it went.
One of the odd things about this experience is that, over the next two decades, I never argued myself out of that strong set of convictions. They just vanished. Or, I should say more precisely, the need for that set of convictions simply vanished, and thus I no longer had to argue about them.
I suspect that the reason why relates to the fact that along with my Young Earth Creationism I had been taught a sort of fundamentalist-modernism. “Fundamentalist-modernism” sounds like an oxymoron, but it most certainly is not, as people like the historian George Marsden has taught us. The way we read the Bible had a certain modernist conceit to us: that if we lay aside our prejudicial conceits, our irrational commitments to our traditions, and read the Bible afresh using only the clear pure rationality which God has given us, we can all come to the same conclusions about anything that really matters in our reading of the Bible. We can boil it down to a number of indisputable facts that all rational people of good will can agree upon. Thence we can be one in Christ, evangelize the world, and well, then, the millennium will be upon us.
Well, yes, as a matter of fact, a few questions do remain: what does one do with the honest disagreement about the “facts” abstracted from the text? (The answer was: it’s not really honest disagreement; it’s prejudice.) What does one do with our various experiences which stand in tension with the “facts” abstracted from the text? (The answer was: you must not rebelliously assert your “experience” against the truth of God’s Word. If you start doing that, then next thing you know you’ll be either a pragmatist, or a Catholic, or a “holy-roller,” or some such…)
This sort of fundamentalist-modernism began to break down on a variety of fronts. Seminary days introduced me to the ways many of the conceits of modernism turned out to be ill-founded: that we cannot abstract our reason from tradition, and that our ways of reading texts are inescapably grounded in communal presuppositions (in my case, even the communal presupposition that we had no presuppositions when we read the Bible!).
This whole “paradigm shift,” as the philosophers called it, was intellectually shattering. But I slowly began to accept—to realize—that my reading of texts was inseparable from my, our, experience. It was both terrifying (at first) and liberating (later; but still frightening, given my deep need to be right).
All of a sudden, it was possible to grant a text deep authority (a “high view of scripture” we say) while discounting neither our own experience, nor the historical experience of those writing, compiling, editing that same text. To put it differently, all of a sudden, history mattered—the history of the text itself, and the history of our interpretations of a text. To acknowledge this did not undercut the authority of the text; to acknowledge this was simply to practice an honesty where there had previously either been naivete, or worse, denial.
To acknowledge this made space for new readings that still take scripture seriously, but are more, so I think, honest readings. What if, for example, the Pentateuch did take final shape in the Babylonian exile, and the Genesis 1 account is an in-your-face competing creation account to the violent and self-serving Babylonian creation myth? Or, what if, for example, the Genesis account is more concerned, as BioLogos participant John Walton has argued, about a story of the arranging of sacred space (that is more like the accounting of the making of a home) as opposed to a story about the building of the cosmos (that is, less like the account of building a house).
But it also opens us up to look at the history of our own interpretations. Many will be shocked to discover, for example, that the legendary Williams Jennings Bryan, the famed fundamentalist who represented the prosecution in the Scopes Trial, was a first-order socio-political liberal: two of the reasons he ardently feared the teaching of evolution in public schools was that “social Darwinism” was commonly seen as the philosophical underpinning of the German militarism and ruthless laissez-faire economics. If evolutionary theory continues to run its acidic course, then the moral underpinnings of any sort of world we would want to inhabit would be undone, he thought.
Clarence Darrow—the defense for the Scopes case—had himself just successfully kept two young men from getting the death penalty in a famous “trial of the century” a year prior to the Scopes Trial. Darrow had, in effect, employed behaviorist psychological observations, grounded in his convictions about evolution, for the purpose of removing full accountability for their grotesque thrill killing.
Turns out—fortunately—that both Bryan and Darrow were working with some notions of the implications of evolutionary theory that were discredited by the end of the century. In any case, Bryan’s history represents the very point: it is not by ignoring our own experiences, history, and tradition that undercuts the authority of scripture; it is the refusal to acknowledge the historical particularity of our own readings of the Bible that, in the end, is an assertion of our individualistic selves over the authority of scripture.
It will not do to ignore our experience, or the experience of others. It is only by “trying all things,” continuing to test and grapple and practice “a posteriori elucidation” that we can take scripture seriously; otherwise, we simply assert our own parochial, or particular, readings all while (naively, or delusionally) claiming to be taking scripture seriously, but really only letting our particular presuppositions have the final word.