The church from its earliest days had a tradition of Scripture, written words of recognized authorities. The church inherited this tradition from its Jewish forebears, and the early Scriptures of the church were the same as the synagogue. This, for the most part, was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible books we call the Septuagint. In its first century of existence, the church began to recognize writings from its own people (like Paul) as having authority and began to collect these books into its own Scripture (the New Testament). The eventual result was the “Bible,” a collection of individual books in two parts, the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament.”
After a time, the authority of Scripture was muted or inaccessible to most people in the church, especially in Western Europe (the primary source of American Evangelicalism). Martin Luther changed this by beginning to study Scripture in the original languages in a somewhat historical and critical way. Luther often took into account the context and intent of the original authors. He also translated Scripture into the language of his people, the German-text “Luther Bible.” Many scholars believe that Luther transferred the authority within the church from the Roman Catholic curia of his day to the Bible, but what he really accomplished was moving the authority for interpretation from the trained and authorized (and sometimes ruthlessly corrupt) teachers of the Roman church to the individual believer. Lutherism, when understood this way, was less a move away from a corrupt church to establish a biblical church as it was a move away from a unified church to a church reduced to the individual.
This was the key to the rise of Protestantism in Europe. It eventually unleashed generations of learned people who studied the Bible using the best scholarly techniques and resources available to them in their day. In the 500 years since Luther, several things have happened.
One was the move away from a single church with its highly organized government (hierarchy) and political power (“Christendom”). This had unintended consequences. The Bible had become a tool of authority for the individual believer. New churches were organized around dynamic leaders and these churches adopted their leaders’ interpretations of key Bible texts. No mechanism existed to prevent further divisions within the church. The result was a multitude of distinct churches, most of which recognized the Bible as authoritative, but with different results based on culture and interpretations of this book. Practical unity in the church was confined to the congregational level, and even there, restless or dissatisfied members could hop from church to church until they found a congregation they personally judged to be adequate. This is still the case in the evangelical church today.
Also, two great trends within the tradition that became Evangelicalism were nurtured and grew. The first of these trends was the desire to systematize the teachings of the Bible into a coherent grid. This was not new, but was undertaken with greater emphasis and exclusivity where the Bible was concerned. The great systematic theologians worked to define the major themes of the Christian faith (Theology, Christology, Soteriology, etc.) and mine the Bible to find the gems of texts that spoke on each topic. The systematician then synthesized these texts into unified statements of doctrine.
The second trend that eventually ran afoul of this systematics work was the progressive development of biblical interpretation itself. A tradition of scholarship arose that began to take the Bible seriously as a collection of documents written within identifiable historical and cultural contexts. Left behind were naïve understandings that treated the narratives of the Bible as stories about semi-fictional or mythological characters unlike the modern readers. Also left behind were the allegorical readings of many texts, the move that made the Bible ahistorical and washed away difficult things by seeing them as symbolic. The interpretation of the Bible became a rigorous discipline, some would say a science, that had clear rules based on the analysis of ancient literature in general.
In the mid-twentieth century, these two trends were primed for a collision. Whether entirely aware of it or not, evangelical scholars had always been influenced by their systematic presuppositions when interpreting the Bible. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the principle of the evangelical “analogy of faith,” the idea that all readings of Scripture must fit into the larger grid of what the church has taught historically. This amounted to the triumph of systematicians over biblical interpreters and is still the case within evangelical scholars today (as witnessed by many of the papers read at the Evangelical Theological Society).
We should not be surprised by this. Luther shifted authority from the hierarchical teachers of the church to the individual, thereby resulting in semi-biblical conclusions driven by theological and doctrinal presuppositions. This was somewhat inevitable, I think.
What has called this into question is the rise of literary criticism in a larger sense in the mid-twentieth century. There were many parts to this: the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” “literary deconstruction,” “reader-based interpretation,” and others. But one positive result was to expose the fallacy of reading and interpreting any text without presuppositions. There was no tabla rasa, no blank slate for any human interpreter. We all come to the text with preunderstandings. For evangelicals, this includes the systematic truths drilled into them as doctrines. But does the Bible determine our doctrines, or do the doctrines control our reading?
Next: How the Train Wreck of Systematics vs. Bible Interpreters Influences the Evangelical Church Today
Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University