The Intersection of Identity and Biblical Interpretation
Biblical interpretation is socially situated. One of the courses I teach at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is Biblical Hermeneutics. This course focuses on methods of bible study. I also focus on the history of biblical interpretation from the apostolic period to the post-modern era, exegetical method, transmission of the bible from ancient texts to modern translations, translation technique, and issues related to canonicity.
Each of these topics is very important for the modern bible reader to understand. However, one of the most important lectures I give in this course is on how one’s racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic identities shape one’s reading of the bible. Consequently, I emphasize in this class every bible reader faces the challenge of potentially misinterpreting and misapplying the biblical text, because of her or his own social situation.
Unfortunately, too many bible readers believe they’re immune to this danger. They think their bible reading is purely objective. But no bible reader’s interpretation is without biases, assumptions, cultural blind spots, privileges, or disadvantages that might enhance or hinder their reading.
Hermeneutical hubris and naivety can lead to racist, oppressive, and misogynistic readings of the bible. Though claiming to be faithful readings of texts, oppressive readings and readings that seek to justify one’s cultural preferences are nothing more than a misuse of the biblical text for the purpose of promoting one’s own cultural, political, or social agenda. For example, those in power have used the bible to oppress the marginalized (e.g. plantation preachers abused biblical passages to justify slavery).
Everyone’s reading of the bible is a socially situated reading, not only the readings of minorities or women, because everyone reads the bible from a specific social situation of which they’re part. Yes, the biblical authors inscribed meaning(s) in texts. And it’s the reader’s job to labor to discern and apply carefully the meaning(s) of these texts to their lives, as they rely upon the Spirit. Still, readers of the bible are influenced by their own social situations even when they carefully seek to interpret and apply the text.
Reading in Different Contexts
Urban bible readers in a multi-ethnic context might see things in the text that suburban or rural bible readers in a mono-ethnic context might not see and vice versa. This may be due to their different social contexts.
There are also occasions when what one sees in a text and what one advocates as biblical truth is not in the text at all, but rather may be what one imports onto the text to support and to justify one’s cultural preferences. What’s celebrated as biblical faithfulness by one interpreter might actually be the cultural preferences of the one or the group controlling the interpretation.
White supremacist readings in the antebellum south supported slavery. But thankfully abolitionist readings in the antebellum south countered racist readings with readings that supported black freedom. Racist, segregationist readings in the middle of the 1900s supported segregation. But black, liberationist readings in the middle of the 1900s supported liberation.
One’s reading isn’t inherently right or wrong on account of it being a socially situated reading. But the point is every reading is a socially situated reading, even when one’s reading can be plausibly demonstrated to be correct, and even if one labors to discern the grammar and history of a biblical text.
Meaning and Responsible Application
To clarify, I don’t mean to imply every reading is a right reading. No! There are correct bible readings, and there are incorrect bible readings. There are correct interpretations, and there are incorrect interpretations. But every reading is an interpretation, even correct readings.
I STRONGLY believe the goal of biblical interpretation is to discover the meaning the author intended to communicate in the text, and then responsibly apply that meaning in the power of the Spirit to the modern world. However, I likewise believe it is impossible for bible readers to be unaffected by their social situation when they read the bible.
And, because all bible readers are captive to a culture and because sometimes bible readers substitute cultural preferences for biblical truth, every bible reader faces the real danger of possibly using the biblical text to justify one’s own cultural preferences. Those who confuse biblical truth with their own cultural norms may in turn try to import their cultural narrative onto those who don’t share their cultural posture.
I suggest bible readers do the following to help arrive at the author’s intent(s), and plausible interpretation(s) + application(s) of the texts.
- Ask God to show us our blind spots when we read the biblical text.
- Ask God to help us love the biblical text more than the norms of cultural Christianity.
- Rely upon the Spirit, as we read the bible over and over again.
- Make bible study a life-long pursuit.
- Pray the bible over and over again.
- Rigorously study the bible individually, and in community with people from different races, ethnicities, social postures, intellectual postures, and genders.
- Read ethnically diverse authors.
- Read female and male commentators of the bible.
- Recognize that every reading is a socially situated reading.
- Be open to changing our interpretation of a text if someone offers evidence from the text that makes our interpretations less probable. In other words, we should ask God for interpretive humility.
Ameen Hudson made a similar point with respect to discipleship in a two-part series this week on RAAN.