How Do We Understand Scripture?

I used to believe in every aspect of contemporary biblical scholarship. I couldn’t get enough information about it, every new book that came out about these methods I was eager to read. Things have changed recently, however. I have come to the place where I would say that historical critical biblical scholarship is only a first step. Certainly, it is important to understand the historical context of the scriptures. However, I would say this is a first step, not a total solution for two reasons. The first is that history is just that – history, and as history it necessarily only informs us only about the past (and a past that existed 2000 years ago at that). If historical critical scholarship is our only point of reference we are missing nearly 2000 years of intervening developing thought.

Perhaps even more importantly, historical critical scholarship is also most often applied in conjunction with the scientific method. The scientific method assumes that if something cannot be empirically measured and observed then it does not exist – hence, there are no miracles. However, God cannot be empirically observed or measured. If you are going to be consistent about applying the scientific method, then you have to be led to the conclusion that God does not exist.

Classically there are two approached to God. The cataphatic approach assumes that human beings can, ultimately, know everything there is to know about God. I believe that approach is ultimately flawed, for if I can know everything about God it must mean that I am larger than God. The scientific method is a cataphatic approach. The other approach is the apophatic approach, which says that the more I learn about God the more I realize just how vast God is and how much I still have to learn about God. I have always resided firmly in the apophatic camp.

SO, I believe that the historical critical method is an essential first step, but I cannot endorse applying the scientific method and its presuppositions regarding reality having to be observable. Nor can I discount miracles, or prayer, or any of a host of other spiritual phenomenon that are part of my experience of God – even though they aren’t observable.

A parallel would be found in love. We simply cannot see love or measure love. We see the behavior of people who are in love, but we can’t see love. We also see people in communion with God, but we cannot see God, nor can we see faith. I’m not prepared to dismiss love any more than I am prepared to dismiss love. I’m not prepared to say faith is a delusion, or some internally developed manifestation of a psychological process. To me faith, God, and love are all as real as the chair I am sitting on.

I think a more reasonable solution is to begin with historical critical method and then look at what we find in light of tradition, reason, and experience.

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