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Trying all Things: The Importance of Experience in Scriptural Interpretation

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January 13, 2014 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Christian Unity, Education, Evolution & Christian Faith project

Today's entry was written by Lee C. Camp. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Simple.

Questions anyone?

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.

 


Lee C. Camp is professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, and is the host and creator of the Tokens Show, a “theological variety show” which Sojourners said might be what one gets if Garrison Keillor were to go to seminary. Lee and his band of merry musicians and radio actors taped a Tokens episode July 17, 2014 on location in Dayton, Tennessee. For more information on the show, including a weekly podcast, visit TokensShow.com.


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beaglelady - #84144

January 13th 2014

Great post! Tokens sounds like an interesting show.  Please be sure to give us a heads up when the segment on evolution is online. 


camplc - #84177

January 14th 2014

Hi BeagleLady,

Indeed, will do.  If you’re in the south-east, come join us for the taping of the show in Dayton.  Ed Larson, Pulitzer prize winner for his book on the Scopes trial, will be one of the special guests.  July 17, 2014.  Also check out our podcast at podcast.TokensShow.com. 


Merv - #84157

January 13th 2014

As a teacher I have to ask ...  is there anything your eighth grade teacher could have done (or maybe did do!) that would have made a positive difference in your subsequent faith journey?

The lack of any tumultuous changes over that twenty year period (that add up to what would be a tumultuous change had it occurred suddenly) seems to be a common means of transition.

I realy enjoyed your book “Mere Discipleship” many years ago, by the way, and it was a delight to read your insights here.  Thanks.


camplc - #84178

January 14th 2014

Hi Merv,

Thanks for the feedback. That’s a great question. Of course my recollection would be filtered through a 47 year old’s recollection of 8th grade experience.  But as I experienced it, at least, the presentation was dogmatic and unyielding and confrontational. I was doing the best I could as a good-hearted 8th grader (again, so I recollect) to sort through the competing accounts I was being given.  I would guess that one thing that might have helped had there been some autobiographical recounting of how my teacher came to her understanding.

And thanks for the kind comments about Mere Discipleship.

Peace,  LCC


Hanan D - #84173

January 14th 2014

Thank you for this Lee. A question for you. Most of the evidence is that that Torah indeed took shape after the exile. This is truly evident when seeing Genesis as being influenced by Babylonian myth. But what do you do with the Sabbath? The Sabbath is something both Jew and Christian believe is etched on the tablets and part of a greater covenant, yet, the justification for it, are the events of Genesis. What does this say about the ten commandments? Are the ten commandments also something that is post exile? Would God give a commandment based on a lie?


beaglelady - #84175

January 14th 2014

Forgive me for jumping in here, but couldn’t God effictively give his commandments without literally etching them in stone?


Hanan D - #84180

January 14th 2014

Wait, why do you think he gave commadnments in the first place? Tradition? The Text? Well, that same text and tradition said 10 of them were to be etched on stone and put in an ark as a testimony. So are you picking and choosing?


beaglelady - #84182

January 14th 2014

I believe they were given as a moral compass to mankind.   I don’t think the method of delivering them is very important.  

Do you believe there is a hard firmament in the sky holding back the waters above?


Eddie - #84206

January 15th 2014

How far would you push that principle, beaglelady?

After all, “turn the other cheek” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” are excellent “moral compasses” for mankind, even if the man who taught them never fed the 5,000, walked on water, or rose from the dead, or for that matter had any authority to speak for God.  

By what principles can Christians and Jews decide when to “keep the message, but dump the vehicle” vs. “keep the message and the vehicle”?

As far as I can tell, based on your past several years of postings, your main principle is:  “Dump the vehicle whenever the majority of scientists say you have to, and keep only the message; in all other cases you may keep the vehicle as well as the message, if you go personally go in for miracles and exorcisms and that sort of thing—but only until such time as consensus science tells us the vehicle is no longer tenable.”  Is that your position?  


beaglelady - #84207

January 15th 2014

No, of course it’s not my position. But you desperately want to pretend it is. You are a nasty, insulting fundamentalist, no better than Ken Ham.  


Eddie - #84214

January 15th 2014

beaglelady:

I made no statement; I asked you a question.  You’ve answered it.  You’ve said what is not your position.  Good.  Now, if you would like others to better understand your frequently elliptical and indirect postings, you might try stating what is your position, because I don’t think anyone here knows.   

By the way, I am not a fundamentalist, and have repeatedly denied being one.  Why then do you make such a statement?

I intended no insult, but if you are sensitive about being insulted by people, you might consider that for some people, the belief that God gave physical tablets direct to Moses is a central religious belief near and dear to their heart.  Your question to Hanan above, which implicitly equates believing in waters above the firmament (a notion inessential to either Jewish or Christian faith) with believing that God gave tablets direct to Moses (a notion essential to the faith of many Jews and Christians), and tacitly ridicules the first belief, thus potentially ridiculing the second, is bound to be insulting to some religious believers.  If you are going to complain that others are insulting you, you should be more sensitive about what you post.  

Or is it your view that “fundamentalist” beliefs are so silly and stupid that it is okay to ridicule them with rhetorical questions, but liberal beliefs should be treated with great respect?  (That’s a question, not a statement.)


camplc - #84179

January 14th 2014

Hi Hanan, thanks for your comment. I am not an OT scholar, so I tread lightly here.  But I think the basic idea, even for those who hold to a post-exilic formation of the Torah, is that much of the material would have been much earlier, handed down in both written and oral tradition. So there is no need to move from (a) accepting the post-exilic final shaping of Torah to (b) seeing the material within Torah as mere fiction, or even that all the material in the Torah is post-exilic.


Hanan D - #84181

January 14th 2014

I apologize. 

I guess different theology professors specialize in different things. My issue is really, for both Christians and Jews, the issue of the 10 commandments is so central. Those commandments were said to be put in the Ark as a testimony of his revelation. Well, what was in the box then? 

Thanks anyways


beaglelady - #84201

January 15th 2014

btw, the ten commandments  are given in Exodus, not Genesis.


Eddie - #84205

January 15th 2014

beaglelady, if you go back and look at exactly what Hanan wrote, I think you will find that he did not say that the Ten Commandments were given in Genesis, but that the justification for the sabbath was found in Genesis.

Also, it is very unlikely that Hanan, raised as a Jew, would make such a basic error.  I don’t think he needs a Gentile to teach him Bible basics.  On the other thread, you said it was a good thing that Christians now treat Judaism better than they used to, and I agree with you.  You can follow up on that insight by giving a Jew credit for basic knowledge of his own faith.

(And note that even if Hanan had made that verbal error, it would have been a slip, not a real lack of knowledge that needed correcting, so it would be petty to point it out.)


Roger A. Sawtelle - #84236

January 18th 2014

Friends,

First of all we need to understand that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is based on experience, the experience of God’s people in relationship to God, as opposed to myth and theory.

An exception to this is the history before Abraham before the Jews encountered God which is interpreted tradition stories, which I would take with a grain of salt.  Also Revelation which is prophecy based on the experience of the ancient Church.

Parts of Genesis are influenced not by Babylonian myth, but by ancient Semitic myth which was the part of the heritage of the Hebrews, the Canaanites, and the Babylonians.  Abraham came Ur the heart of Semitic culture.  Semitic myth was part of his experience that he grew out of.   

The basis of the Hebrew faith as opposed to Semitic myth was its Covenantal relationship with YHWH God.  The most important version of this covenant is the Decalogue, but the covenantal relationship began with Abraham and continued and developed over all of Biblical history and even today.

In the Bible the conflict is between myth and the false gods associated with non-experiential myth vs YHWH and YHWH’s experiential relationship with YHWH’s people.  Again the Bible is based on the experence of the Hebrew/Jewish people and Jesus Christ.

When some insist that theology must be based on revelation alone, they are ruling out experience and ruling in an artificial understanding of the Bible.

When some people insist that our understanding of life must be based on science understood as Darwinian evolution, they are ruling out much of experence which affirms that life does have meaning and purpose, and ruling in non-experiential ideological understanding of science.     

Experience is the basis of Christian covenental theology.  Experience is the basis of modern experimental science.  They are two sides of the same coin. 

Only when people on both sides of this issue separate experience from truth that we have the problems that we have today.   

  


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