Posted by: Dan | July 1, 2005

<i>Sensus Plenior</i>?

The deeper I have gone into biblical studies the more I have questioned conventional and popular interpretations of… well… pretty much everything related to Jesus, the bible, and Christianity. I am increasingly convinced that the mainstream forms of Western Christianity have seriously misinterpreted and perverted all three of those things.

When I engage in dialogues around right interpretation (exegesis, not eisegesis!) I hear one objection repeated in many different forms:

“No, the bible can't be that complex, it must be accessible to everybody at all times.”

“If the bible is as complex as you say, then it shouldn't be accessible to everybody. That way it won't be so used and abused.”

There have been several times when I've even wondered about the efficacy of allowing universal access to the biblical texts.

However, I am convinced that such universal access is necessary — but it must also be treated with special caution. The bible is a complex combination of a wide variety of genres, written, edited, and compiled in a wide variety of socio-political contexts. We must approach such a complex document with caution.

Perhaps an illustration (or two) will help. Let's compare the bible with a volume of national law. Now, I'm no lawyer but if I carefully read through the laws I will get a general feeling for the legal system. I will begin to see how some laws are related to others and I will start to understand the values, ethic, and world-view of my nation. However, there is much that I won't understand. There will be a lot of technical jargon that doesn't make sense to me — and there will be a lot that I think I understand but I don't. I may be unaware of other mitigating factors, I may be unaware about the ways in which lawyers can turn a phrase to make it mean something that I do not expect. So, as a person who is no expert in law I need to study law with some humility — and allow the experts to provide the definitive interpretation of the relevant texts.

Similarly, I am no student of architecture. However, I can look at a blue-print of a house and grasp the big picture. I can get where the rooms are, grasp an understanding how their size in relation to each other, even begin to understand where the major support beams are — but there will be a lot about the blue-print that means nothing at all to me. Yet when an architect examines the blue-print she will be able to tell me how such supposedly irrelevant things are actually crucial and have a determining influence on the whole house. I will be able to appreciate some things but at the end of the day I'm going to allow the architect to build the house.

Now here's the point I want to make — a point that many Christian raised in our exceedingly self-absorbed and individualistic culture don't like to hear — Christians must allow the professionals to provide the definitive interpretation and application of the biblical texts. Certainly all of us can examine the documents and gather a sense for the big picture. We can all pull out major points about the character of the Christian god and what it means to live Christianly — but, at the end of the day, if our interpretation (and praxis) differs from the interpretation (and praxis) of the experts, we need to be willing to humble ourselves and submit to those who know the documents in a way that we do not.

Humility must replace any individualistic, positivistic, or triumphalistic reading of the texts.

Walter Brueggemann emphatically asserts that (within the realm of the Old Testament — and I think this point still rings true, although the pouring out of the eschatological spirit must be considered here) God ordains certain people and structures to be the agents through which his presence is mediated to the world (Torah, king, prophet, cult, and wisdom — cf. Theology of the Old Testament). In the Old Testament there is no suggestion that right understanding, or even any form of transformative encounter with God(!), is universally available to the people of God. Instead, there are those who God has met in genuinely transformative ways so that they can mediate God's presence and purposes to the broader community. Those of us who have been raised in triumphalistic, comfortable (and surely blessed) churches would do well to consider these words. We need to carefully consider the arrogance of our presumption that we all have universal and equal access to God. And as we consider these things we must be willing to humble ourselves and submit to those who have genuinely encountered God.

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