How to Read Your Bible (or How You Actually Read the Bible)

Today I want to continue our (unofficial) mini-series on hermeneutics. I never intended to start a series on interpreting the Bible but I guess thats what ended up happening. Last time we kicked off the series by looking at the parable in Luke 15:11-32. In doing this we saw how our different vantage points lead us to say different (although responsible) things about a text. The fact that there is a good amount of leeway for what makes a responsible interpretation led us to claim that interpretation is an art with certain sensibilities, and not exactly a science with a prescriptive method. Today we turn to two different ways to read a text, also Kevin Vanhoozer helps us consider the reader’s role in interpreting texts.

In Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation Kevin Vanhoozer sets the stage for understanding the role of the reader in New Testament interpretation. He helpfully points out that

“Reading is not merely a matter of perception but also of production; the reader does not discover so much as create meaning.” (13)

At first glance there seems to be something that’s off putting about thinking that the reader creates meaning with the text. In fact this quote might horrify some of you. (You might even think I am off my rocker and have bought into some sort or relativism.) Usually we think that we have to draw out the texts meaning by using objective, scientific methods. However the truth is that there are certain elements that prevent us from being capable of giving an objective reading of the text. The reader always brings some baggage to the text, whether that is the place of the reader, the gender of the reader, or the race of the reader. (This is exactly what we saw in our last post: That’s Not in the Text!!! )

Taking into account that the reader cannot be neutral to the text, the reader is faced with two options to make meaning, Vanhoozer lays them out as: the relationship of “reader-respect” and “reader-resistance.”

There is no way around it…. you bring your social, cultural, economic baggage to your interpretation. So when you read, you allow your “baggage” to create what you take to be your meaning. So you are left with two options:

  1. You can approach the text respectfully, that is, you can try to allow the text to speak to you on its own terms.
  2. You can resist the text, that is, you can push back against what the text is saying because it doesn’t fit your cultural paradigms.

So how do you read the scriptures? Are you a respectful reader or a resistant reader?

Kevin Vanhoozer: Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Kevin Vanhoozer: Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
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