10 principles for reading the Bible in a postmodern context
Implicit in these principles is a process of deconstruction followed by reconstruction. Deconstruction is necessary because there are certain ‘invisible’ structures present in our thinking as believers, many of them relics of an earlier, embattled period, which now constrain and distort our attempts to understand and articulate the truth that lies in the Bible. But there must be a corresponding reconstruction with the goal of reinstating the Bible as a valid public text for the emerging culture.
1. Reading honestly
We need to develop a visible intellectual integrity – keeping in mind that intellectual integrity is not just for intellectuals. Traditionally we have treated Christian truth more or less as an inviolable and definitive set of truths. Built into the formulation of truth, however, must be something of the hesitancy or doubt or provisionality that we experience as we seek to make sense of the story about God. The belief system which we advocate must reflect something of the imperfectness, the incompleteness, of our belief.
2. Let’s pretend it’s not inerrant
There has been considerable debate over whether it is acceptable to take a more historical-critical stance towards the truth status of Scripture. Should we regard the factual content and coherence of the Bible to be divinely guaranteed? Or should we accept more public criteria for truthfulness and deny that the Bible is an epistemologically privileged text?
For the purposes of this site we might suggest a compromise: we will set aside claims to the predetermined inerrancy and sanctity of the Bible, at least insofar as such claims force upon us standards of truthfulness that conflict with criteria of thought that we are not prepared to abandon in other areas of discourse (scientific, historical, literary, social, etc.). In other words, we will read the Bible as though it were a profane text, on the ‘pretence’, so to speak, that its truthfulness is an emergent quality, to be discovered through the process of reading, not to be superimposed from above.
There are some important advantages to this approach: it allows us to read the Bible as the unbeliever reads it; it helps to defamiliarise the Bible for us, which will be an essential aspect of the deconstruction process; it keeps open the possibility that a more robust and persuasive truthfulness will emerge as we grapple with the fact of the Bible’s historicity; and we keep in view the significance of the Bible as the Word of God for the church.
3. Forgetting what we’ve been told
We must let go of the need to define truth dogmatically. The transition we are going through has shown our dogmatic systems to be very inadequate containers for biblical truth. They have become the fragile and lifeless chrysalis from which the butterfly of a more vital understanding is struggling to emerge. If we are to rediscover the truthfulness of Scripture, if we are to find a way to restate the Gospel within a postmodern intellectual environment, we must go back to the source and come to know the Bible for what it really is.
The problem with the traditional propositional theological model is not that it is propositional but that it is inflexible; it is reluctant to acknowledge and review its presuppositions; it is unwilling to wipe the dogmatic slate clean and start again. We do not need to abandon propositionalism in favour of a narrative theology, but we do need to demonstrate that our more or less systematized conclusions are genuinely connected not only with the story of which they are a summary but also with the dynamic process of the church’s continuing interpretation of that story.
4. An intrinsic biblical theology
We can make a useful distinction between an intrinsic and an extrinsic biblical theology.
An extrinsic theology is generated outside the original historical context. Although it is a product of the text, it becomes more importantly the means by which the text is subsequently interpreted. An extrinsic theology is generally well-adapted to a set of contemporary social and religious conditions, but it is likely to misrepresent the original meaning.
An intrinsic theology arises in relation to the complex historical situation of the text: it belongs to the circumstances of its production and reading. It is their theology, not ours. Such a theology is by no means inaccessible to the modern reader, but it requires some effort to place oneself in the world of the original community and hear what they heard. I would suggest that this constitutes the right sort of hermeneutic for a postmodern biblical theology: it is the act of standing outside ourselves, it is an act of intellectual self-displacement, of theological humility. It is also an effective means of deconstructing modernist theological discourse without succumbing to historical and theological relativism.
5. Spirit-driven theology
A postmodernized theology must be pentecostal, in that it must fully take into account the activity of the Spirit in the life of the believer; and it must be charismatic, in the sense that the capacity to re-envision, reinvent, to make sense of the gospel in a postmodern context, must be experienced not purely as an intellectual competence but as a gift of the Spirit.
6. Reading the big structures
Meaning will be found primarily in the large literary structures of the Bible rather than in isolated, dogmatically selected proof-texts. These natural structures include historical narrative, theological argumentation, sustained prophetic analysis. The reliance of popular Christianity on proof-texts is a pseudo-rationalist strategy that is likely to sound artificial to the postmodern ear.
7. Reading the community of the texts
It may suit a postmodern orientation to think not only in terms of reading the text but also of reading the community that generated and used the texts. Such an approach recognizes that for postmoderns truth comes alive as it is expressed and lived out in community. It would require less imaginative dependence on the New Testament texts, an openness to other literary, historical, archaeological resources.
It might help to think of the New Testament community rather as we think of other Christian communities-for example, the Celtic communities that have proved to have a strong affinity with postmodern spirituality.
8. Eschatology at ground level
The New Testament needs to be interpreted much more deliberately and consistently in relation to the eschatological crisis that marked the end of the age. But we will also need to affirm as far as possible the historical and realistic dimension to eschatological teaching.
We need to develop an eschatology that hovers near the ground of history, that is marked out by the crises of history. Whereas seekers may be struggling to get off the ground, believers tend to have the opposite problem of not being able to keep in touch with reality. Having discovered the thrills of eschatology they are inclined to soar off into orbit either to disappear forever or burn up on re-entry.
9. Being read by the text
One problem that arises when we emphasize the historicality and contingency of Scripture is that we make it somewhat remote from personal experience. As sacred text the Bible has an inherent universality and may speak quite naturally to a twenty-first century readership if it is disposed to listen. If we strip away the sacredness, we are left with an ancient document that may lack immediacy and authority. Part of the answer to this is that the reader must learn to enter imaginatively into the ancient world of the Bible. But there is also a need for the church to speak prophetically today, drawing both on the ancient texts, which it is endeavouring to interpret with increasing accuracy, and on the understanding given through the Spirit.
10. Practical usefulness
Our reading of the Bible must be practically useful for the church. We need a discourse that can empower worship, teaching, pastoral ministry, evangelism, and so on.