How My Mind Has Changed and Remained the Same with Regard to Biblical Interpretation

For some time, the Society of Biblical Literature has included a section at its annual sessions in which an older member reflects on how her or his thinking has evolved over the years under the title "How My Mind has Changed and Remained the Same." Now that I am officially eligible to retire (although I do not intend to do so anytime soon), I have been emboldened to use this genre to express some thoughts on biblical interpretation.

Twenty-four years ago, Spectrum published an article I wrote on this topic.1 In it, I argued that various methodologies included within the "historical-critical method" of biblical interpretation, such as source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism, can be used apart from the liberal assumptions that often accompany them, and that they are legitimate tools for Adventists who take the inspiration of Scripture seriously.

I held that portions of the actual methods used involve nothing more than careful, disciplined observation. The parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12 and parallels served as a test case. The article concluded:

"Indeed, virtually all Adventist exegetes of Scripture do use historical-critical methodology, even if they are not willing to use the term. The historical-critical method deserves a place in the armamentarium of Adventists who are serious about understanding their Bibles."2

About that same time, I taught a course at Walla Walla College called ''A Scientific Approach to Biblical Interpretation." The title had come from the previous teacher, Malcolm Maxwell, but I did not change it. In the course, we examined the role of reason in all interpretation, the need for some kind of control in interpreting texts, and the usefulness of historical-critical methodologies in attempting to ascertain the original intent of the author. I maintained that by careful use of exegetical principles, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and some readily available tools, the informed reader (and not only the scholar), could interpret the text of Scripture and provide a faithful exegesis.

Much has happened in the past quarter century in biblical interpretation. Postmodernism has shaken the confidence that texts even have such a thing as meaning apart from a socially constructed reading by a particular community. At the other end of the spectrum, Adventist fundamentalists challenge the notion that the text needs to be interpreted at all. The faithful reader should just "take it as it reads."

I continue to resist both of these positions and hold that although the text always needs to be interpreted, and although the interpreter never has some spot outside her or his culture from which to interpret with total objectivity, nevertheless, texts do convey meaning that transcends their interpreters. In addition, the humble attempt to analyze as objectively as possible does yield fruitful understanding of the text's message.

My thinking has changed over the past twenty-four years, however. I have come to a quite different understanding of what it means to "interpret" a passage of Scripture.3 This change comes because I now understand the text of the New Testament in a different way. The following table summarizes this difference in a slightly exaggerated way to make the point.

This change has come about from an understanding of the difference between oral cultures and literary cultures and the different role that the text plays in the two. Significant influences have been Walter Ong's book on orality and literacy, the Semeia volume on orality and textuality, Paul Achtemeier's presidential address at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual meeting in 1989, and the continuing work of the Bible in the Ancient and Modern Media section of the Society of Biblical Literature.4 In addition, I have been influenced by Richard Rice's emphasis on the unbiblical nature of American Christianity's individualism.5

These works emphasize that texts have different functions in different kinds of cultures. Robbins differentiates seven kinds of media cultures: oral, scribal, rhetorical, reading, literary, print, and hypertext.6 We are somewhere between print and hypertext in twenty-first century America, whereas the New Testament world was closest to the rhetorical. However, as Joanna Dewey shows, the manuscript world of the first century had a high level of residual orality, where the written message was primarily an aid to oral presentation.7

Richard Ward uses the works of Quintilian to show that when an author sent a document with a messenger to be read, instructions were often given on how to read, and even how to hold the manuscript and how to gesture.8 Most biblical materials would have originally been experienced through the medium of oral presentation.

At a 2005 session of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media, David Rhoads proposed a new discipline of New Testament Studies that would explore the dimensions of these insights for interpretation.9 This discipline would analyze the performance event as the site of interpretation while continuing to draw on the insights of traditional methodologies. It would lead to understanding of the original oral context and might result in oral presentations of passages of Scripture. (At the session Rhoads gave an oral presentation of Philemon.) He suggests the name performance criticism.

Although the usefulness of the title might be questioned, there is no doubt that this perspective is important in its recognition that biblical texts were not written to be read by an individual reader curled up by a fireplace in the den, but were designed to be presented orally in a public setting.

Even as late as the second century, Papias had a clear preference for the oral over the written. In the following statement, quoted by Eusebius, he speaks of the tradition about Jesus: "And whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord," wrote Papias, "and what Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord, were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice."10

The expectation that the New Testament texts were intended for oral presentation is clear within the New Testament itself. In Revelation 1:3, John pronounces a blessing on the one who reads and those who hear the words of his prophecy: "Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near" (NRSV).

In both Revelation and Paul's writings, hymns and other liturgical expressions suggest that the context of this oral presentation is Christian worship. In Colossians 4:16, Paul urges the believers to share their letter so that it can also be read in Laodicea, and to ask the Laodiceans to reciprocate. "And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans, and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea" (NRSV).

Of course, the lack of means for duplicating manuscripts, as well as the low rate of literacy, made some kind of oral presentation the only possible context in which most early Christians could have experienced the content of the letters.

Perhaps a useful analogy to illuminate the role of the text in first century culture might be the role of musical notation in today's culture. Musical scores are not written to be read privately by individuals, but to enable performance of the music. The analogy is not perfect, but most New Testament writings probably functioned more like musical notation functions today than like the novel you buy at Barnes and Noble functions.

No one took these manuscripts home to read them, but they came together to hear them read aloud, in a context of worship. There can be no doubt that this was true for the letters and Revelation, but as much of the work of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media has shown, it was probably true of the Gospels and Acts as well.

Walter Ong has also shown that, although people in oral cultures should not be considered less intelligent than people in literary cultures, they do think in a way that is more pragmatic and less theoretical than we do. In addition, they think in ways that are more communal and less individualistic than in our culture.

Now, what does all this mean for biblical interpretation? I suggest that it has implications for the scope of what we consider to be the task of interpretation. It also has implications for our understanding of the content of the message that is interpreted.11 This article, however, looks only at the first of these implications.

If the original intent of the New Testament texts was to evoke faith by being presented orally in public worship, they cannot be fully interpreted by theoretical analysis, any more than a Beethoven symphony can be interpreted by theoretical analysis. Certainly musicologists and music historians can explain a lot about a symphony. But it takes a conductor and an orchestra to interpret truly, for the music is only interpreted when it comes alive and is heard. True interpretation is more than analysis; it involves performing the music so that the original intent of the composer can be not only discussed and analyzed, but also experienced.

Of course, the music will never live again in exactly the same way as the composer intended. Musical notations are inadequate to cover all the variables of presentation. And different interpreters will choose different methods of interpretation. For Christopher Hogwood, the best interpretation comes from using period instruments, whereas other conductors prefer modern instruments that they believe the composer would have included had such instruments been invented. Music critics and historians will argue as to which music is closer to the original intent of the composer. Their arguments might be based on extensive research and analysis. But their arguments do not constitute the sum total of interpretation. The music is interpreted when it lives again in sound.

I have heard baritone Thomas Hampson speak about the extensive research he does on songs in order to "interpret" them when he sings. The research involves history, culture, music theory, and much more. The true interpretation comes in the singing, however, which benefits from, but is more than the careful analysis of, the material he discovers in his research.

Now it is quite possible that another historian of music might not have Hampson's voice and could not therefore interpret by singing as Hampson does. But the whole process of interpretation does not have to be accomplished by a single person. Communal collaboration in the process might be necessary. The same is true for biblical interpretation. The interpretive process may necessitate teamwork within the community. Yet each part of the team should recognize the role it plays in the total process, and it should see that the process is not complete until the message actually comes to life again.

Now, imagine hearing the book of Revelation read all at once in a worship setting. There would be little time for the kind of theoretical, historical analysis that we call interpretation. Rather, if the author's intent is to be realized, the images of Revelation, many familiar from the world of apocalyptic and the Old Testament, would evoke responses of trust in the One seated on the throne and in the Lamb, and would give courage to worshiping Christians.

In our day, historical analysis can help us understand how first century Christians would have responded to the images of Revelation and what echoes from the Old Testament and from their culture would have sounded for them as the message was performed. But once this analysis is completed, has the text really been "interpreted"?

I would argue that true "interpretation" means letting the text function for us in the same way it functioned for the original hearers. This cannot be a merely private experience, for the text was intended from the start to be part of a corporate worship experience. Only when the text comes alive in oral presentation, song, prayer, sermon, and other aspects of worship, has the process of interpretation been completed.

I am not at all willing to forgo the kind of theoretical analysis of New Testament texts that I supported twenty-four years ago. It can help us make the text come alive. But neither do I believe that such analysis is the sum total of interpretation. Nor is the use of the text in preaching and worship an optional, practical application added on to the process of interpretation. Making the text come alive in a way that evokes faith within a worshiping community is part of interpretation because it is part and parcel of the purpose of the text.

This is not to rule out private study of the text in personal reflection and devotion. The invention of print media opened up a new opportunity for the message of Scripture to be conveyed, and this opportunity is a great blessing that expands the role of the Bible. It also brings the possibility of distortion and misunderstanding, however. This privatization of Bible study has contributed to the kind of privatization of Christianity that Rice observes and opposes as unbiblical. The original intent of Scripture was not individualistic private devotion, but Christian community.

Unfortunately, even when the community is included in the role Scripture plays, biblical interpretation is often seen merely as a source for the discovery of doctrine, that is, what the community will believe. Individuals study the Bible for personal piety; the community studies to know what doctrines to believe. Without denying the importance of personal piety or doctrine, the goal of Bible study should go beyond either private devotion or doctrine and should ultimately let the Bible come to life to help form and shape a believing, worshiping community. In other words, the end product of interpretation is neither a commentary, nor a creed, but a community.

Therefore, the preacher who vividly brings the images of the text to life may be a much better "interpreter" of it than an erudite commentator who analyzes it with all the tools of historical criticism. But at the same time, the preacher who takes advantage of the careful analysis should have more resources available for deciding how to make the text come alive. If we are faithful to Scripture, the goal of the entire interpretive process should be the rehearing of the text in a context that evokes faith and forms community.

I can think of powerful occasions when this has happened. Charles Teel's worship services on the book of Revelation, which have been presented in a variety of settings, serve as one example. Another is a sermon that Lou Venden preached at a Sabbath morning worship service a few years ago to a meeting of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies.

It was at a time when some teachers who were part of the group were going through a storm in life, and Venden made the story of the shipwreck in Acts 28 come alive in a way that comforted and inspired at a deeply personal level. That is genuine interpretation. The text, which was originally intended to be presented in a worship setting, was interpreted by fulfilling its original intent and making it come alive again for worshipers.

So what would I do differently today if called upon to teach the course I taught a quarter century ago called "A Scientific Approach to Biblical Interpretation"? First, the name would have to change.12 A new title might be "A Holistic Approach to Biblical Interpretation." It would cover all the topics it covered twenty-five years ago. But it would also cover more.

The course would include a broader process of interpretation. Students would reflect on how to make the text live again in the public context of Christian worship in ways faithful to its original purpose. And the course would need to go even further. It would need to include worship settings where "living" Scripture was experienced, (in other words, to carry on the previous analogy, where students heard the music), for anything less would fail to complete the interpretive process and would fall short of the original intent of Scripture.

This article first appeared in Spectrum, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Summer 2006). It was written by John Brunt who is retired after fifty years of educational and pastoral ministry. In retirement he serves as pastor of the Edmonds Adventist Church in Edmonds, Washington.

Notes & References: 1. John C. Brunt, "A Parable of Jesus as a Clue to Biblical Interpretation," Spectrum 13, no. 2 (Dec. 1982): 35-43. (It was originally written for the Biblical Research Institute Committee.) 2. Ibid., 42. 3. All of my examples will come from the New Testament, but most of what I say about the Christian community in relationship to the New Testament would apply to the people of God and the Old Testament as well. 4. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 1982); Orality and Textuality in Early Christian Literature: Semeia 65, ed. Joanna Dewey, Society of Biblical Literature, 1994 (contributors are Thomas E. Boomershine, Arthur J. Dewey, Joanna Dewey, John Miles Foley, Martin S. Jaffee, Werner H. Kelber, Vernon K. Robbins, Bernard Brandon Scott, Richard F. Ward, and Antoinette Clark Wire); and Paul J. Achtemeier, "Omne verbum sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity," Journal if Biblical Literature 109, no. 2 (spring 1990): 3-27. 5. Richard Rice, Believing, Behaving, Belonging: Finding New Love for the Church (Roseville, Calif: Association of Adventist Forums, 2002). 6. Vernon K. Robbins, "Oral, Rhetorical, and Literary Cultures: A Response," in Semeia 65, 75-91. 7. Joanna Dewey, "Textuality in an Oral Culture: A Survey of the Pauline Traditions," in Semeia 65, 37-65. 8. Richard F. Ward, "Pauline Voice and Presence as Strategic Communication," in Semeia 65, 95-108. 9. David Rhoads, "Performance Criticism: An Emerging Methodology in Biblical Studies." Society of Biblical Literature members may access this on the Web at https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/Rhoads_Performance.pdf. 10. Ecclesiastical History 3:39:4, in Eusebius, A History if the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 150. 11. For example, knowing that the society from which the Bible came was much more pragmatic in its thinking should warn us against trying to make the Bible too theoretical. Philippians 2 has been fodder for metaphysical discussions about the nature of Christ, but in an oral context was clearly not about that, but was a practical admonition to unity and humility in Christ. In addition, an understanding of oral structuring of discourse can aid the interpreter in catching verbal clues about the structure and meaning of the message. 12. The name has changed. In the current Walla Walla College Bulletin, it is simply called "Interpreting the Bible."

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8038

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, **rightly handling the word of truth.—**2 Timothy 2:15
This verse helps me to better understand (handle) the word of truth. Biblical understanding is the ability to rightly read and apply the Bible, using the proper tools of study
In an intellectual sense is essential for true saving faith. The mind must rightly comprehend what it is that the heart must respond to… This idea does not negate the very necessary role of the Holy Spirit to give spiritual understanding. The Ethiopian would have been blessed by Dr. Brunt’s approach to Bible
understanding, as he was with Phillip.

Does the Adventist experience allow for an “holistic” approach to the Bible? The very reason for its existence is the meticulous scrutiny of verse upon a verse, involving calculations of al kinds. Even the thought that the Old Testament might be poetry, in places, is objectionable in some circles. Placing the emphasis on an oral tradition, when it comes to experiencing the Bible, takes it away from the forensic emphasis that the SDA faith seems to require. It seems it would be difficult to do all the calculations necessary in a communal experiential worship where the Bible is presented as experience, rather than a lab exercise.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. I’m assuming the Bible truths are meant for all ages, and for the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Maybe that is its appeal and intended scope. If that is the case, the community can only be held together by mutual respect,and characterized by “love for each other,” rather than a cookie-cutter approach to religious experience. I don’t see that happening, given the current climate.

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Thank you for pointing our attention to the importance of the communal aspect of biblical interpretation! There is an excellent book contribution to that topic by Adventist scholar prof. Bernhard Oestreich published by Wipf and Stock Publishers: http://wipfandstock.com/performance-criticism-of-the-pauline-letters.html

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An interesting proposition that loses its impact when the glaring mis reads of Daniel and Refelation form the backbone of Adventism. Given what scholarship has shown about the book Great Controversy why attempt to cover New York city and other with that distortion.

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It doesnt matter what the reader “thinks” the text is saying. It doesnt matter what or how the professor says the meaning should be. The only thing that matters is what the original author was trying to convey.
Writing is a bit different than speaking but enough the same that we have all experienced saying something and the person we are communicating with gets it completely backwards.
How is writing different in that respect?
The only immutable fact in any of it is that when a person interprets they inject themselves into an equation that should have no part of them in it.

This is usually where people fall short. They effectively treat the bible as some secret code where the original meaning can be twisted into something completely at odds with the original context and actual word choice discribing it if it agrees with their feelings on a particular subject. They use terms like new light and revealed by the holy spirit to cloak themselves.

The other thing is that this situation is getting worse by the minute. What used to be common fact for thousands of years is now becoming more and more strained as societies morals have ever further separated from the biblical standards.

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It is not what the reader “thinks” the text is saying, but how the reader opens herself up to a dialogue with the text. To be sure, getting as close to understanding the author’s original intention is important, requiring history, archaeology, linguistics, cultural understanding of time, and so on. But the original meaning is not the only meaning. What is the text’s meaning for today? That is where the dialogue begins. The dialogue does not erase the text’s original meaning but asks: how am I, thousands of years later, to understand what this text is saying to me and my believing community? That is the “holism” Brunt speaks about.

For example: What does the parable of the Good Samaritan mean in the present? In its own cultural and historical context, devoid of capitalism and full of class distinctions, what can it mean for a reviled stranger to risk his life to help a wounded Jew? We do our best to sort that out, and can do it fairly well. Now, what does that mean today? Does it apply to the three men stabbed (two murdered) on a train who “stopped” to rescue someone reviled by an American “patriot?” Does it apply to the wealthy helping the poor, sick and beaten in a given community? Does it only apply to “innocents” who were attacked, or also to those whose decisions have incapacitated them and put them on the road right in front of us? Does the LLU statue of a black man helping a white one have any meaning vis-a-vis the parable? Is ADRA a fleshing out of the parable for Adventists? Is UNESCO a fleshing out of the parable for the international community? One could do dozens of these in the space of an hour, but the point is made.

Finally, ethical issues such as women’s rights, slavery, war, violence, are complex and while we start with the Scriptures, we cannot end with them, for they did not confront, in every respect, what we confront today. The Bible is largely narrative and stories, which summon exploration and conversation, not logical analysis.

Insightful, helpful essay John–you never let us down!!

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Nice article. Like others, I appreciated the emphasis on interpretation as a part of corporate worship. I also liked the change in title for the course that the author once taught. Blessings to you, Dr. Brunt.

Biblical interpretation is a “minefield” fraught with weaponised misinterpretations i.e. opinions, or even truth(if such can be proven) that may be deemed to “weaken faith” in traditional lines of belief of church membership. An obvious example is the formerly widely accepted concept of “creation week”, which modern science has demonstrated cannot co-exist with geological evidence of a 4.5 billion year old earth. Jehovaj Witness’ church has made a change to a real time scenario with little damage as far as I am aware to their quantum of church membership. This would not neccessarily be so for our church , the “sundown people” who regard the 7th day sabbath as unique as it celebrates creation in a weekly cycle, ending with a well deserved rest by the creator. But our esteemed theologians upon whose arguments andBiblical interpretations the future of our church depends are no doubt equal to this task. One such problem , often noted, is that Christianity seems to have been based, at root, on racism, or more broadly on anti- semetism. The christian religion reached full religious status under Constantine who severed it from its Jewish roots and made it the chief religion of the Roman Empire with himself as Pontifex Maximus or Chief Priest. To Jews, Yeshua (“jesus”) did not start a valid new religion, but to gentiles faith in Yeshua was a new religion which quickly had a gentile majority (and in the present day ,this is most overwhelmingly so). BUT the Jews had the sacred Torah , but not the Messiah , whereas the gentiles had the Messiah but no Torah, as of right, culturally.The Jewish writers of the New Testament are said to have emphasised that Yeshua was a Jew in order to maintain Jewish supremacy as the preferred conduits of the messages of Yeshua to mankind. Rav Sha’ul (apostle Paul) preached to congregations mainly of Gentiles with Jewish minority .The question of interpretation that still exists for some christians is whether to study the Bible from a jewish perspective , or from a Gentile one as indicated in the attempt to declare a Judeo-Christian Bible.

I would probably agree with much of what is said here about interpretation. I have also changed my mind on some things and not others even though I am not a theologian but a student of the Bible. I still believe the Bible is about Christ from beginning to end. I believe He is the Sabbath rest and wants us to celebrate that rest. His sacrifice was from the foundation of the world.
However, I am wondering how Dr. Brunt thinks the average person in the pew should interpret the Bible. They do not have the time nor the resources to do in-depth study and research. Theirs is a more personal God and their interpretation more literal. Yet scholars are uncomfortable with that and it causes division with a kind of theological righteousness on one side and distrust on the other. Why aren’t insights by scholars not shared more within the church? If not, they shouldn’t be surprised by questionable beliefs.