At this point in our series, we now understand how the Bible came into existence through the miracle of Revelation-Inspiration. We have also dealt with the issue of Ellen White, a modern non-canonical prophet for Seventh-day Adventists. We can now move on to the next phase of study which is to establish how to interpret the Bible (hermeneutics).
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When most Christians talk about how to study or interpret the Bible they either immediately begin discussing complex methods of Biblical exegesis or they declare that they simply “take the Bible as it reads.” Both approaches have their merits and disadvantages but before getting into methodologies, it would be wise to take a moment for philosophical reflection and think about epistemology (the study of knowledge).
A Philosophical Timeout
What I am about to describe as “philosophy” is extremely simplistic (and probably more aptly labeled “pseudo-philosophy”) but for our purposes, it will help us establish some guiding principles that will affirm our approach to studying Scripture. The reader should be aware that I will be making some broad generalizations as we take a brief look at epistemology.
Generally speaking, knowledge has been understood from three different paradigms: (1) premodern, (2) modern, and (3) postmodern.
Premodern Epistemology (Subjective Knowledge)
Premodern epistemology or subjective knowledge is an approach to understanding knowledge as being either: (1) a simplistic blind adoption of traditions and myths or (2) the belief that the knowledge that one possesses was already present within the individual. The former approach to “knowledge” allows for the propagation of superstitious belief systems. The latter approach (popularized by Plato in western thought) is not much better as it attempts to convince adherents that they already possess some type of omniscience and simply need to be asked the right questions to awaken the knowledge they already possess.
In this understanding of knowledge, the subject (individual) projects meaning onto the world (object). If you are ever accused of seeing things too subjectively, what is meant is that you are not allowing data or information projected by the object of study to rule your interpretation of the object. In other words, you’re not allowing the facts to hold their proper place in your understanding of the world or a given situation.
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Modern Epistemology (Objective Knowledge)
Have you ever been asked to try and look at something more objectively? Modern epistemology or objective knowledge is based on observation. Essentially the subject (individual) observes their world and the world projects information/data into the individual. The individual does not bring his or her own preexisting or a priori understanding to the world. They are a blank slate to be imprinted with the data the environment throws at them. This type of epistemology is the basis of scientific inquiry, an external data-driven enterprise. A person who adheres to this understanding of knowledge believes that they are allowing the object of study to imprint knowledge within them. Knowledge is a projection of data from the object onto the subject.
Postmodern Epistemology (Synthesis of Subjective-Objective Knowledge)
In postmodernism, epistemology is based on an interaction between the subject and the object with both “contributing” to knowledge. The object projects its contents to the subject through observation, however, the subject also projects knowledge onto the object by way of preconceived ideas or prior knowledge. In other, words the subject observes the object, but the subject also interprets the object in reference to prior understandings of how the world works.
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The knowledge that is birthed from this type of interaction is neither wholly subjective (since the subject is receiving data from the object) but neither is it wholly objective (as the subject must interpret what the object is projecting and also projects unto the object preconceived ideas). This postmodern understanding of knowledge, especially the power of preconceived ideas, will be the basis of our look at how the Bible should be studied since it denies the existence of two extremes: (1) a completely subjective approach to learning, or (2) a completely objective approach to learning. Both extremes exhibit hubris and are actually two sides of the same coin.
Studying the Bible as a Postmodern
If you’re reading this, chances are you are likely a postmodern (or metamodern) individual which means you probably already see the flaws in the premodern and modern approaches. In the premodern approach (specifically the idea that all knowledge is subjective and is already possessed by the subject) is laughable at this point in history. There doesn’t appear to be any real evidence to support such a notion that we as human beings are in some way omniscient and simply need to have our knowledge awakened within us. In other words, we know that knowledge does not reside in the subject.
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On the other hand, postmoderns also recognize that knowledge is not completely objective either. This is evident by the fact that two individuals can view the same object or evidence and arrive at different conclusions about the object. In fact, law enforcement and criminal investigators note slight differences in testimony from witnesses as evidence that the witnesses are telling the “truth.” Completely identical stories are a tell-tale sign of collusion and fabrication.
Thus, postmoderns typically strive for objectivity while recognizing that complete objectivity is an impossibility due to preconceived ideas which color (enhance or obscure) our reception of data from an object. These preconceived ideas are sometimes called presuppositions and a collection of presuppositions is what this series calls a “worldview.”
Presuppositions and Scripture
Presuppositions are ideas or concepts in our minds that we use to make sense of the world. Having presuppositions is neither a good or bad thing. However, the type of presuppositions we have can definitely produce positive or negative results. Everyone has presuppositions. From our earliest moments of consciousness, we attempt to make sense of the environment (the world) that we live in and begin to create categories, inferences, and connections, in other words, knowledge. Our most fundamental understandings of the world eventually become the building blocks of our knowledge base and form what some people call a metanarrative or worldview of how everything works in life, the world, and even the universe to some extent.
Presuppositions are powerful and when it comes to Scripture, presuppositions actually control what we see in the text. They can either enhance our reception of Bible truth or obscure it. There is no neutral position. What we are exposed to earlier in life will determine what we can perceive and receive from a particular object of study, including the Bible.
Lastly, presuppositions are extremely difficult to change even when faced with new data that shows them to be wrong or inaccurate. This is because presuppositions that we have previously held seem to have “worked” for us consistently in the past becoming a part of our subconscious. Data that challenges our long-held presuppositions will often be resisted vigorously, as it potentially threatens our identity.
The Power of Presuppositions in Bible Study
When we contemplate the power of presuppositions and interpreting the Bible we must keep in mind that presuppositions can either enhance or obscure what the text actually teaches. For example, some individuals use a Christocentric approach to reading Scripture (an approach I recommend) which allows them to see details and concepts in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) that someone who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ will be unable to see because they do not possess a fundamental Biblical presupposition that admonishes that the entire Bible is essentially about Jesus Christ.
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Though having a Christocentric approach to Scripture is generally positive, there are also what I would deem less-helpful and outright destructive approaches to Biblical interpretation. For example, a feminist approach to interpretation may carry positive points but also negative baggage in interpreting Scripture. From a positive perspective, a feminist approach can help us see the inherent, intrinsic, equality of the genders. However, a radical feminist approach may approach the entire Bible with an attitude of suspicion because it was “written by men.”
This can result in conclusions about certain passages that imply that the Biblical authors engaged in spiritual malpractice in order to control or demean women. There are other approaches to Scripture that are outright comical and ridiculous as can be seen from time-to-time on the History Channel in which seemingly bright people argue that God and the supernatural phenomena in the Bible are really UFOs and extraterrestrial beings from another planet. The Bible comments on some of this foolishness in the following texts:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, NIV)
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17, NIV)
What the text is saying is that humanity has a presuppositional problem which causes hermeneutical and exegetical blindness when attempting to understand the Scriptures. This is a significant problem in our theological enterprise that can be overcome only through the aid of the Holy Spirit. As we have seen previously in our diagram for Revelation-Inspiration-Hermeneutics, the Spirit’s illumination work is just as vital to theology as the creation of the Bible itself. The objective of Scripture is to communicate divine content to humanity, but without the illuminating work of the Spirit on the minds of human beings, we would be at a loss to correctly interpret the divine content within the Bible, enslaved to our self-deceitful presuppositions.
The Bottom Line
As postmoderns, we understand that knowledge is an interaction between the subject (the individual thinker) and the object (the thing being studied). Both “actors” contribute data to the knowledge that is created. The subject projects it’s preconceived ideas on the object and also interprets the data projected by the object via these same preconceived ideas.
Again, presuppositions or our worldviews are the ideas and concepts that help us make sense of the world.
- We all have them
- We can’t get rid of them
- However, we can adopt new ones and modify old ones
And the power of presuppositions is that they determine what we “see” in the world (or in our case the Scriptures).
Unfortunately, humanity’s preconceived ideas are bent towards the erroneous and inaccurate. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit can use Scripture as a tool to reshape our presuppositions resulting in accurate knowledge transfer to the mind of the Bible student. Jesus’ promise of the Spirit’s work is captured well in John 16:13:
But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
We will study how the Spirit does this in more detail in the next article.
 For a much more in-depth analysis of the issues covered in this article, I highly recommend Canale, Fernando L.. “Deconstructing Evangelical Theology?.” Andrews University Seminary Studies (AUSS) 44.1 (2006): .
Available at: https://digitalcommons.andrews.edu/auss/vol44/iss1/5
 Tangentially, presuppositions also explain many doctrinal controversies in the church. One side of a controversy may claim that they “cannot see” a certain prohibition or admonition in a text and the other side of the controversy will claim that the prohibition or admonition can be clearly seen in the text. In reality, one of two things is going on if all the parties involved have mastered basic reading comprehension. The first issue may be one in which both parties see what is in the text but one party feels compelled to deny what is in the text because of what the data implies. Not being able to accept the implication, that party may deny what they actually see in the text. But what happens just as often, I suspect, is that the party that “cannot see” is being honest in their assessment of a text. They truly cannot see what the text is teaching because of their preconceived ideas or presuppositions. Of course, the opposite can happen as well, in which individual see things in the text that actually aren’t there because of inadequate/inaccurate presuppositions.
 Though overall a positive approach it that it can help enhance the presence of Christ in Scripture (especially in the Old Testament) it can also obscure the meaning of the text in seeing Christ in places where he is not actually present. For example, many evangelicals interpret the scapegoat (Azazel) in Leviticus 16 as a symbol of Christ which in my opinion is a false identification of Christ in the text. In other words, using this approach may lead to seeing things in the text that aren’t there which is unhelpful at best and could be potentially destructive.
 Out first presuppositions seem to come from our parents or whoever raised us, then probably our siblings and friends, and probably the most pervasive in our culture, the media we consume.