Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Three Approaches to Scripture
I was talking with a friend from church recently about the issue of women in ministry. He has been wrestling with whether or not scripture supports the practice. Obviously I think it does. As I tried to help him understand why, I realized that there were three distinct ways that I could help him look at the biblical text in his search for answers. And these three approaches don't just apply to this one debate. I think this is a good method anytime we are looking at scripture for answers to a particular question:

1) First, we can look at the specific verses and passages relating to the issue and try to discern their particular meanings. We analyze the language and the context (both textual and historical/cultural) to arrive at some kind of understanding of what the passages say. Of course, there are always more than one possible interpretation of any given passage, so part of our task here is to try and determine which interpretation is most likely given all the linguistic and contextual factors.

For instance, in regards to the women in ministry issue, we looked at the controversial passages in 1 Corinthians and 2 Timothy and Ephesians 5 to get a clearer picture of what they're actually talking about. And we also looked at the New Testament examples of female leadership (e.g. Romans 16) to see how the actual practice of the Early Church should inform our understanding of those other passages.

2) However, the danger of using this first approach exclusively is that one can miss the forest for the trees. To understand what the Bible says about a particular issue, we have to also look at the overall flow of the text, what Brian McLaren would call its "trajectory". In other words, we can't just analyze and atomize individual verses, we have to also grasp the bigger picture, the larger story of the gospel throughout the Old and New Testaments.

It's like what Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen says,
"Much hinges on your view of scripture. Are you playing proof-text poker with Genesis plus the Gospels and Paul's epistles, with everything else just sort of a big mystery in between - except maybe Psalms and Proverbs, which you use devotionally? Or do you see scripture as being a cosmic drama - creation, fall, redemption, future hope - dramatic narratives that you can apply to all areas of life?"

So again, in relation to the women issue, we looked at the flow of gender relationships from Genesis 1 - where men and women are equally created in God's image and how Eve is not created as a lesser being but as a co-equal "helpmate" - through the curse in Genesis 3 where this partnership is broken and a relation of domination and manipulation arises as a result of sin. But then we see first through the Law - which gives extraordinary value and status to women relative to the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures - and then in the New Testament accounts, how God is in the business of overcoming the results of sin, overturning the curse of Genesis 3. We see Christ elevating women to the status of disciples (as with Mary of Bethany) and commissioning them as evangelists (as with the Samaritan woman at the well, or with the two Marys at the resurrection), and Paul declaring that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that such dividing walls of hostility have been torn down - the partnership has been restored. So we see that the larger story of scripture is about a return to equality and partnership for men and women and away from the heirarchical power relationships that are result of sin.

3) Finally, I think it is important to realize that God speaks to us in more ways than just through scripture. There are many sources of revelation. While Protestants have traditionally wanted to isolate scripture as the only source for our faith, personally I think this ignores the fact that we do find truth in places other than scripture - and where we find truth, God is speaking, since, as they say at Wheaton College, "all truth is God's truth".

When thinking about other ways that God reveals himself and his truth to us, I find the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" helpful. Wesley posited that there are four sources for our theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.* He upheld scripture as primary of course, but I would suggest that really there should be no conflict between these, when we understand them rightly. If God really is speaking in all of these ways, then we wouldn't expect him to say one thing through reason or experience, and something contradictory through scripture or through the traditions of the church. (BTW, in regards to Tradition, I understand it as workings of the Holy Spirit in his people throughout history. It is how God has continued to reveal himself to the Christian community for the past two millenia.) Thus, when we seek to understand scripture we need to look at it through the lens of tradition and weigh our interpretations against our experiences and plain reason. By holding these in balance we can hopefully avoid some misinterpretations and misunderstandings of scripture. For example, if our personal interpretations of the text conflicts with the interpretations of the rest of the church, or if they fly in the face of what seems rationally true, or of our real life experiences, then that is a good clue that our interpretation might be in error (not that scripture itself is wrong, but that our understanding of it may be).

Thus, in regards to the women in ministry issue, while some interpretations of the text seem to restrict women's roles, reason suggests that women are just as capable as men of fulfilling these roles if they are allowed to. Furthermore, experience with actual female leaders in the church shows that women can lead and teach effectively. (I have personally been very blessed by several women teachers and pastors over the years.) And when one begins to look at the tradition of the church we start to see (contrary to common assumption) that there is no uniform tradition of divided gender roles in ministry throughout history. In every era of history there have been examples of female apostles, saints, abbesses, teachers, preachers, pastors, prophets, etc.; just as in every era there have been those who restrict women from those roles. Thus, when weighing these four sides of the quadrilateral, we can say that the evidence, overall, should incline us towards those interpretations that see women as full partners in ministry with men.

Again, this is just one example of how one might apply these three hermeneutical lenses to the text of scripture. And in no way am I suggesting that any one of these methods is superior to the others or ought to be used to the exclusion of other approaches. All of these methods are useful whenever we are trying to understand scripture. We should never lose sight of the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forext, nor should we ignore the revelation that God has given us through means other than scripture as we try to understand what scripture itself is saying.

*I should mention that Wesley himself did not see these other three elements as necessarily providing new theological content. Rather, they were lenses through which we should interpret the content of scripture. While I agree that they can and should function that way, I would go beyond Wesley to say that Tradition (i.e. the Holy Spirit), Reason (for example, the sciences), and Experience (our day-to-day encounters with God's world) can themselves provide unique theological content, that, while never in conflict with scripture, can expand our knowledge in areas where scripture is silent or incomplete.


posted by Mike Clawson at 9:58 AM | Permalink |


At 12/05/2006 04:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Scripture is ABSOLUTE. You cannot mingle with it and conform it to your personal standards or those of the culture in which you live (this would be crafting your own god). If your house foundation was not solid as a rock (absolute), your walls would be tearing apart and you would be in danger of being killer under your roof. In the same manner, if you fiddle with the interpretation of the Bible, you are detroying the ABSOLUTE foundation for TRUTH in you life and will eventually die spiritually and go to the Lake of Fire for all eternity. This is most serious business.


At 12/05/2006 06:03:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I hope everyone else who reads this blog is paying close attention to these anonymous comments. They are a perfect illustration of why we need an emerging church and a new approach to Christian faith that avoids this kind of arrogant fundamentalism.

Nony Mouse, thank you for providing such a perfect foil to all my beliefs.


At 12/05/2006 07:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Thanks for some thoughtful reflections.

Your comments on the trajectory of Scripture reminded me of a story about how Johannes Kepler first determined the orbit of Mars.

After years of trying to fit his observations to a circular orbit of some kind -- because heavenly bodies are perfect, of course, and must move in a perfect shape -- Kepler had reached the point of exhaustion. Finally, he began to plot the observations alone, and let them determine the shape of Mars' orbit. To his surprise, he ended up with an ellipse. The story has always illustrated for me how allowing the data to speak for itself, instead of forcing it to conform to a particular, predetermined system, can often open up new insights.

I mention that story because I think Kepler's job was actually easier than our own, particularly when it comes to reading the story arc of Scripture. For us, the data is not so cut-and-dried. Two points to mention here.

First, I would be more careful about distinguishing between the first and second ways of reading Scripture. You are right to point out that proof-texting is a danger to exegesis, missing the forest for the trees as you put it. Still, the forest is made up of trees. Our account of Scripture's trajectory is determined by making scores, even hundreds of exegetical 'observations', and those will determine the possible direction God's story is taking.

For example, you begin a reading of Scripture's trajectory by noting Genesis 1-3, but you incorporate a particular reading of those chapters as an integral part of the trajectory, namely, that men and women are equally created imago dei. Good enough as it stands, but is that really the question that is in contention in the complementarian-egalitarian debate? Both camps agree with this reading. The point of disagreement is whether or not hierarchy can be found in Genesis 1 & 2, whether men and women as spiritual equals have differing, divinely mandated roles.

I had the opportunity to sit under two phenomenal biblical scholars, Gordon Fee and Bruce Waltke. Gordon would read Genesis that way that you have, where hierarchy is introduced as a result of the Fall. Bruce sees it the other way, finding hierarchy in Creation prior to the Fall. If Gordon is right, hierarchy is a foreign element in the narrative trajectory of Scripture; if Bruce is right, then hierarchy is no violation of the equality of men and women in God's story. How we exegete the individual passages will shape the trajectory we find. (This is particularly the case for evangelicals, who are without an authoritative tradition. For Orthodox and Catholics, on the other other hand, traditional sources like the regula fidei inform a metareading of Scripture that determines how certain passages are interpreted.)

Second, there is the question of what passages of Scripture are normative for a particular trajectory. For example, we all know that the Reformation privileged a particular reading of Romans and Galatians as the lens through which all other Scripture was read. Today, a lot of us are doing the same with Ephesians or Colossians. In some parts of Africa, Leviticus has become the normative text.

It's the same for competing theological systems. Calvinists privilege passages which image God as sovereign and unchanging, while open theists frame Scripture in light of those passages that image God as spontaneous and capable of surprise. The challenge for complementarians and egalitarians alike is to explain why they privilege certain parts of Scripture as normative.

There's a lot more to say, and I haven't even mentioned your discussion of Wesley, but this is starting to rival War and Peace in length. I'll finish by saying that I think that it's really important that we continue to think methodologically in our pastoral practice, so thanks again for the thoughts. Good post.


At 12/05/2006 10:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mr Clawson and Mr. Matkin,

For the sake of thinking... If you are right in your argument then you can alter the ABSOLUTE TRUTHS in the Bible and God will not judge you for that, on Judgement Day. Then all is OK.

However, what if you are wrong? What if God charges you with heresy for altering His Word, interpreting it incorrectly and teaching lies and deception to those who follow you?

What if you are wrong in your thinking? What will you say when that Day comes in which excuses are not valid?

Something for you to think about...


At 12/06/2006 12:37:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Nony Mouse,

Have you ever considered asking yourself the same question? Have you ever tried turning your condemning gaze upon your own beliefs and wondered whether you are the one whom God will "charge with heresy for altering His Word, interpreting it incorrectly and teaching lies and deception to those who follow you?"

Have you ever considered that you might be wrong? That your approach to the faith may in fact be the heretical one?

Somehow I doubt that you have.


At 12/06/2006 01:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mr. Anonymous (IF that is your real name...),

It is the question of interpretation which animates this entire discussion and so many others just like it. For example, we could agree that Scripture is infallible, but this does you and I little good. Why? Because we are not infallible, so we can never be entirely certain that we are reading God's Word correctly.

I don't doubt that you believe that you are simply humbling yourself to what the Word teaches, and it must seem to you like we are all trying to be slippery in order to escape from being held captive to God's revelation. And, really, what man knows his own heart well enough to be sure? But, to the extent that I know myself, I can say that what motivates me in these explorations is a recognition that my limitations as a creature (a God-given thing) and the corruption of my sinfulness (something I managed to do all by myself) conspire to make it questionable whether or not I can trust as ABSOLUTE my understanding of Scripture. Humility requires that I not confuse my interpretations with God's Word. The latter is divine in origin, but the former is not.

Your position seems to blur that distinction. You seem to me to be implying that you have access not only to the infallible Bible but also to some infallible commentary on the Bible that lets you know with precise clarity what God had in mind when Paul wrote Galatians 3:28 (or whatever).

Of course, we all know that such a commentary does not exist, so here's the question: When you read a passage of Scripture, how do you determine what it means? More important is the follow-up question, namely, Why should I accept your way of reading that passage as truthful?

Humility, don't you agree, requires us to hold our opinions about Scripture lightly, not because we don't respect Scripture as God's Word but precisely because we do. It seems to me that your position forces you, essentially, to write your interpretation of the Bible into the Bible, so who here is really altering Scripture? This is why Mike, in an earlier comment, referred to your position as "arrogant". There is no room in your system for correction, no way of demonstrating that you have made an idol out of a particular interpretation. That is a supremely dangerous place to find oneself.

You've heard the story about the guy who was walking down the street at night and saw a man standing under a streetlight, frantically searching for something. He asked the man, "What happened?" The man replied, "I lost something." He asked again, "Where did you lose it?" "Over there," said the man, pointing several yards away in the darkness. "Well, if you lost it over therer, why are you looking here?" The man replied, as if the answer were obvious, "Because this is where the light is."

Many of us have come face-to-face with the realization that many things that we believed were taught in Scripture were actually "traditions of men". That experience has put the fear of God into us. We will not willingly worship an idol. So, we have momentarily stepped away from the light of creeds and catechisms and are constantly sifting ourselves and our beliefs, searching for the truth of God's Word in the shadow of our own capacity for self-deception. We are daring the darkness because that is where we will find what we have lost. If that offends you, I will remind you that that's precisely what Jesus did when he came to us.

One last thing: I have done you the courtesy of offering my name. Please do me the same. Brothers and sisters should not hide from one another behind a veil, even an electronic one.


At 12/06/2006 11:02:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Michael, thank you for that well-reasoned and gracious response to my anonymous poster. Your reply was exactly what I would have (should have) said if I wasn't so rapidly losing patience with all these anonymous spammers at my blog. I'm afraid my irritation is starting to show through in my less-than-kind replies to them. :) Thank you for stepping in and filling the gap.



At 12/06/2006 11:10:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I'll add one more thing, Nony Mouse. You said:

"However, what if you are wrong? What if God charges you with heresy for altering His Word, interpreting it incorrectly and teaching lies and deception to those who follow you?

What if you are wrong in your thinking? What will you say when that Day comes in which excuses are not valid?

Something for you to think about..."

I have thought about this. And it is precisely because I thought about all this that I have arrived where I currently am in my beliefs. I used to be like you. I used to think like you and believe as you do. But eventually I started asking myself (as you suggest) whether it was possible that all those beliefs about the gospel were wrong. And when I started to investigate it, I began to discover that in a lot of ways they were wrong, or at least woefully incomplete.

That is why I suggest that you should take your own advice. I have been where you are, and I did what you suggest, and this is where it has led me.



At 12/06/2006 11:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

That was a wonderfully worded response Michael:) I was trying to think of one myself and I must confess that you have done a much better job than I could have. Understanding biblical context and constantly examining and re-examining interpretations is so vital in developing a good understanding of the Bible. So thank you for thoughtfully answering our anonymous friend. I hope this helps him/her (???) to think through these issues. A good book that might serve as a first step into such an examination is "How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth" by Fee and Stuart. I hope that anonymous gives it a read and takes these questions to heart. Stuart and Fee do a wonderful job of pointing out the difficulties in understanding the Bible while at the same time still holding up the Bible as God's Word. Thank you again for the thoughts:)


At 12/07/2006 05:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Awww, shucks....

But seriously, I appreciate the kind words. And don't get down on yourself, Mike. It is the easiest thing in the world to display immense wisdom and cosmic patience when you walk into situation fresh and unsullied.

I'm also hoping that our unnamed friend will hear that I'm not after him/her personally. I don't know what his/her story is, so I can't judge anything except the words, and even that is fraught with peril. Mainly, I just want us to treat one another with respect, even if we don't think the other person deserves it. After all, it's easy to treat people well when we like them. What grace do we need for that?

Heaven's sake, folks, we're all in a strange soup here, simultaneously in the fight of our lives for our soul's salvation and at the same time secure in the eye of "the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God" (thanks for the words, Rich). We have to be gentle with one another -- honest, yes, but gentle. It's too hard a pilgrimage as it is without us adding to one another's burdens unnecessarily (and that's an important qualifying term, I should point out: we just have to be careful with it because we're all liable to define as necessary things that only satisfy our own ego.)

I'll second Nicholas' suggestion. Fee and Stuart's book is very helpful and very accessible. Fee is one of the world's foremost experts on Paul. He sits on the NIV Revision Committee. The guy is uber-passionate about the Bible as the Word of God. My grandmother taught me to believe the Bible, but Fee (and Waltke and Watts and Provan) taught me to love it, to feast on it.


At 12/07/2006 02:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous


I can comprehend the idol you, the friend of Nony Mouse (Mike Clawson). et all have made of your opinions about what the Word of God clearly teaches. This Emerging Movement was prophesied over 2000 years ago by the Apostle Peter in 2 Peter 2. The whole chapter is very plain and specific. All I can finish my comments with is:
Revelation 22:14-21


At 12/07/2006 04:48:00 PM, Blogger J. Michael Matkin

On my own blog, I have a zero tolerance policy. If you want to engage with the debate, or even lob bombs, you can't do it anonymously. Period. You get one warning and then you get deleted. And I encourage others not to dialogue with such a person past the first exchange. I've asked you to return the courtesy of a name. I've given you mine, but you won't give me yours. Until you do, I will not read your comments or respond to them, and I encourage Mike to simply delete them without notice.

It's not what you say that bothers me, and I love a good discussion too much to try and duck a hard question. But I won't talk with someone who claims to be a Christian but repeatedly refuses to show true Christian character in such a simple matter.



At 12/07/2006 05:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Michael, Parla itialiano? Ciao. I guess you don't have a lot of visitors in your website. At least Mike is brave enough not to hide behind a zero tolerance policy with his visitors. If you don't want to answer, suit yourself but please don’t belittle the truth, it’s what I say that really bothers you because you know the Bible is right and your postmodern thinking does not conform to what it says. Deep down in your spirit you know you are heading in a wrong direction, but you have seared your conscience not to feel the guilt of sin.
Its time to ask yourself a very important question: If you were to face God today, what makes you believe He will admit you into the Kingdom?


At 12/07/2006 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson


I've tried a zero tolerance policy, threatening to delete anonymous negative posters. However, recently I've decided to just let them remain as an example of exactly the kind of faith that the emerging church is trying to move beyond. Why should I bother to describe what I don't like about fundamentalist approaches to faith, when these anonymous commenters are so willing to model it for me. They're a better apologetic for why we need an emerging church than anything I could come up with on my own. :)


At 12/07/2006 06:27:00 PM, Blogger J. Michael Matkin

Everybody handles it their own way, Mike. Do what you think best. I just don't like encouraging these folks. Every now and again someone will show up who wants to argue the issues and engage with you but just hasn't learned how to do that in a courteous manner, so I think you give everyone a chance to show what their intentions are. But life's too short to listen to some noisemaker who has refused to think through the issues for himself tell me that I'm wrong to ask questions. I mean, come on, how empty is your life that you show up on somebody's blog not to converse with them but to blast them with anathemas that they aren't even listening to? Seems to me that a Playstation would be much more fun.

As evidence of my concerns, I note that nobody has yet addressed the issues I brought up in my first comment. These spammers suck up all the oxygen in the room to no good end. Let's talk about stuff that matters.


At 12/08/2006 05:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

The reason we see diferently and we will never agree on any subject about Bible interpretation is because the Emerging mentalitily does not see the Bible as an absolute. True Christians, read and accept the Bible as the absolute Word of God. We don't have the same foundation. The emerging movement relies on secular and postmodern thinking, which will in many instances rebels and attacks clear stated rules in the Bible.

A very simple example is that just as you have house rules that your kids must follow and obey, and in many cases those rules have zero tolerance, as J Michael has on his blog, so does God. The Bible is the rule book.

The problem with EC is that it challenges the clear stated rules with ambigous questioning or twisting the significance of the issue. ie. Brian McLaren and Homosexuality. I'm not going to get into this, but one has to be totally ignorant of Scripture to eat up the absurdity that he proclaims about the 3000 points.

Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Ed Mamanus, Bono U2, and the rest of the EC gang have this twisted mentality about the interpretation of the Bible. Oh, I can't forget Donald Miller.

If there were someway I could help you understand the turth, I would. But I guess you have the final choice.

Oh, and come back telling me that the Bible is not about rules... becuase Jesus was obedient all the way up to the cross, and he expects us to obey His Word as well.

Have a good weekend.


At 12/09/2006 09:08:00 PM, Blogger Erin Marshalek

Hey Mike,

I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your post a lot. It might be interesting to note that, over here at Calvin Seminary we're taught to read Scripture in a very similar way.

Oh, PS - I appreciate your articulation of the validity of women's ordination, too!



At 12/12/2006 09:45:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks Erin! Good to hear from you. I hope life is good over there in Grand Rapids. :)


At 10/17/2007 08:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

The only Absolute Word I know of is Christ, the Living Word. That word cannot fit in any Bible, any theology, any religion, ... Such are witnesses, of varying import, to Christ; each are imperfect, in that no other "word" is in essence fullness of the Word. I recommend St. John 1: that seems clear about Who is Absolute Word. It seems a most fashionable idolatry is calling a Bible Absolute ... inerrant ... , when only the Absolute can be Absolute, can be inerrant .... It is one thing to respect the Bible as the primary means of written revelation, another to claim it is Absolute. Such materialization of Absolute is a diminishment of Absolute: a reductionism most idolatrous for it reduces Absolute to less than Absolute. I think the writers and editors of the Bible, over many centuries, would find many of the claims made about the Bible to be a disturbing matter. Just imagine St. Paul finding out we just might take his friendship letter to the Church at Philippi as Absolute. ... I do not, however, mean to disrespect Scripture, for I have high regard for it and Spirit nurtures and speaks to me through it. But, that does not justify calling it perfect or Absolute. Scripture is sufficient unto salvation, we United Methodists teach, but "sufficient" does not translate "inerrant" or "perfect" or "Absolute" or even the only written means of God revealing GodSelf to humankind. Does not our talk of the Bible really rest on our theology ~ what we believe about God? If so, much talk about the Bible shows that many persons have a "little" theology.

Brian K. Wilcox


At 11/03/2007 03:09:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for your comment Brian. I completely agree. Unfortunately you're about a year too late - I'm not sure any of those anonymous commenters you were responding to will be checking back at this post anytime soon. :)

But welcome to my blog anyway!