What is the meaning of your best friend? Or spouse? Or child?
Those are nonsensical questions, aren’t they?
We don’t approach the people we love as a mathematical problem to be figured out, or a literary text to be dissected. So why do we approach the Bible in a way that often feels like we’re just trying to discern it’s meaning without actually getting to know the One to whom it points? Such a situation came about, I believe, due to the conflict between modern and postmodern reading strategies that were developed in the 20th century.
Due to the influence of the Industrial Revolution, the seeming power of science seemed unstoppable. The modern world became a “scientific” and industrialized one, where “one right away” to do things dominated. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Christians in the 1800 and 1900’s were influenced by the advance of science and technology. Bible study became “methodical” and operated according to a set of rules. Many biblical scholars began to advocate that every text has “one meaning.” A focus on the Bible’s “absolute” or “objective” truth was born in modern times.
Not surprisingly, the cultural winds shifted and there was a reaction against “modernism,” with all of its technological, scientific, and “objective” methods known as postmodernism. Postmodernism criticized modernity’s focus on objective meaning pointing out that every reader can only subjectively perceived what is written. We cannot escape our biases. Therefore, postmodern located the meaning of a text often in response or subjective interpretation of the reader. Moreover, postmodernism criticized the tendency to reduce everything down to “one meaning.” How can rich, literary works really be limited like that? What is the meaning of the great stories? Star Wars? Harry Potter? Can you really say they’re about one definitve thing?
With postmodern reading strategies, the Bible, then, could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In a way, postmodernism injected a lot of life into Bible study because it became more than just a dry, intellectual exercise. Bible study filtered through postmodern assumptions would struggle to become more than a sophisticated take on the age-old problem of pooled ignorance in a Bible discussion group, “Well, what this texts means to me…”
Conversation as the Way
Perhaps there is a better way to conceive of the meaning of a biblical passage. Imagine a conversation with your spouse, or best friend. They’re there. In other words, your spouse or friend is an objective, real part of reality. They’re really there. And yet, they would contain multitudes, wouldn’t they? Of course, people are finite so, theoretically, it would be possible to get to know someone exhaustively. But every long-married couple, or long-bonded friends, still find new things to know about their partner or friend.
The struggle of a conversation with them is the fact that you perceive what they say subjectively. This is why misunderstandings occur between partners and friends. We cannot escape our biases or subjectivity. So how does understanding occur? We humble ourselves to listen. We get to know the other person and allow them to correct our misunderstandings. If we’re don’t understand, we ask questions and we allow them to respond.
So it is with Bible study. The Bible is real. Think of it almost as a person, or a pointer to a Person. A word which stands for a Word (John 1:1). Because the Bible exists in reality, it cannot mean whatever we want it to mean. It is the living voice of God. And as a living voice, it is an (authoritative) conversation partner. To know and understand the Bible properly, then, means to listen to its message. To allow it to correct our misunderstandings. To submit to its rebuke and to take comfort in its promises.