Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
I recently gave some theology and biblical studies students from a nearby university a passage that I had created from several reformation-era authors and I asked them to perform source criticism on the text.
They were to identify the different authors and my redactive glosses that glued them together by observing changes in writing style, form, genre and language: all the hallmarks of a text compiled from multiple authors. These students performed the task well: without exception they chopped up the text into multiple sections according to the criteria of source criticism.
There was one problem, however: I had lied to them. There were no multiple authors and redactive glosses, what they had before them was a section of John Calvin’s Institutes. So why did I play this rather cruel trick on these students? To prove one thing: it’s all about presuppositions: we will always see what we want to see in any text to some extent based on our pre-existing values, our ideas of what the text is and what the text will communicate to us. If we approach any text with superstition, we’ll tear it apart, as the students proved when I gave them that passage by Calvin.
So how does this help us when we approach the Bible? Well, quite simply, presuppositions are dangerous things. They obscure the biblical text and allow it to reinforce rather than challenge our worldview. We can never free ourselves from presuppositions, however: there is no such person who can approach anything with absolute neutrality. Does this mean that we can never approach the Bible in a proper way? By no means.
The 19th century Scottish clergyman Thomas Chalmers wrote a work with the enigmatic title The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. In this work he claims that we will always have idols, so the best way to get rid of them is to replace them with something better: when we compare an idol to the beauty and truth of Christ it will pale into insignificance. I believe the same can be done with our incorrect presuppositions. We would be absolutely hopeless in our attempts to read the Bible had God not given us a presupposition with which to approach the biblical text. Jesus speaks it clearly among other passages in John 5:39-40, speaking to a group of Jews:
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Jesus clearly states here that all the Scriptures speak about Him. He is the subject of everything in the Bible. This is the primary presupposition that the Bible gives us to enable to interpret it: it’s all about Jesus. From this we can take great encouragement: when we’re bogged down reading 2 Kings and we have no idea what it means, we know that we already have the answer: Jesus. So ask the question of the Bible constantly: how is this pointing to Jesus? This allows us to read the Bible with confidence: it’s all about Jesus. Allow this presupposition to fill your mind as you read and study the Bible.
Guest post from Dave King, UCCF Relay Worker in St Andrews
Image and a whole lot of hilarity courtesy of http://st-eutychus.com/tag/source-criticism/