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Ken Schenck: Common Denominator of Scripture


Guest blog by Ken Schenck. Ken is Dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry. He is the author of several books, including Jesus Is Lord: An Introduction to the New Testament, Brief Guide to Biblical Interpretation, and Cosmology and Eschatology in Hebrews: The Settings of the Sacrifice, all of which (and more) may be found at his Amazon Author page. Ken blogs at Common Denominator (formerly: Quadrilateral Thoughts).


Someone asked recently if I had written anything on a "big picture" view of scripture replacing the "atomization" which has been so common. The wording of the question indicated that they had read the piece Jeremy Summers and I wrote for the Missio Alliance blog. It also relates to something I wrote last week on how modern inerrancy in the 1800s shifted the center of biblical theology from the big picture to the details of individual passages, chiefly to oppose abolitionism. Individual verses on slaves obeying their masters came to trump the big principle that in Christ there is no slave.

I took the comment as a blog challenge. What would a hermeneutic look like today that tried to recapture the "inerrancy" of the pre-modern era? It's a difficult question because you can't undo historical consciousness. To the extent that someone understands reading in context, you can't undo it. This is in fact what current ETS inerrancy is--a partial understanding of context that can't be undone. It just gets more complex, as a
D. A. Carson or Kevin Vanhoozer demonstrate.

For the record, my hermeneutic was born of this dilemma. I have found it impossible to deny inductive Bible study method as an evidentiary method. I don't see how anyone who truly understands it could. The only "successful" counter is presuppositional and thus turns to blind faith. Regardless of the evidence, we just won't follow the evidence. This is a recipe for eventual atheism — or at least eventual atheism for your children and students.

So since before I cranked out Who Decides What the Bible Means one week in the summer of 2005 (my first self-published book), I have argued for a two level hermeneutic, one of which involved the original meaning of the Bible and the other of which read the Bible in terms of common Christian understanding. The second is more or less the pre-modern way in which the fathers, Luther, Wesley read Scripture, before the modern inerrancy of Hodge and Warfield.

All of that is preface. My two level approach has not found general appeal, even though I think it is the only legitimate way to do what evangelicals want to do with Scripture. It is 1) both honest with history yet 2) allows us to read the text as the fathers read the text. What I am going to present below does not necessarily contradict what I've just written above, but it might be more palatable.

The Post

The problem with modern inerrancy is that it tends toward "the most difficult common denominator." I don't want to say "lowest common denominator" because every piece of the text is Scripture. But if you think of what a lowest common denominator is, you will get the picture.

Modern inerrancy functions such that, even if the vast majority of biblical texts seem to point in one way, a single difficult text can dislodge that trajectory. Before the modern, historical era, these "problem verses" were simply reinterpreted to mean something else. In modern evangelicalism, trump verses tend to undermine the big picture of Scripture.

I have the great benefit of being born an old soul into a old family in a hidden corner of the church. One of my grandfathers was born in 1883 and my mother grew up on Bible college/camp meeting grounds. My first hermeneutic was more or less the revivalist hermeneutic of the late 1800s/early 1900s.

I early recognized that I could not simply take a verse for what it seemed to say. Individual verses had to fit with what the rest of the Bible said. I distinctly and clearly remember thinking that as I read through my King James Bible. The meaning of an individual verse must be interpreted in the light of the whole.

Of course this is not the neo-evangelical or modernist way. An individual verse must be interpreted on its own terms. This is of course completely true from a historical perspective. It just isn't true from the way the pre-modern Christians of the centuries have read the Bible.

So what might a return to the "inerrancy" of the centuries look like?  It would be able to "set aside" problem verses until we know what to do with them. It would, in the words of the Reformers, be able to interpret the unclear verses in the light of the clear ones.

For example, we know that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). We know that one indication of the age of the Spirit is that sons and daughters will prophesy (Acts 2:17). We know that women did play spiritual roles and lead in the early church (Priscilla, Phoebe, the prophetess daughters of Philip, the prophesying women of 1 Cor. 11). Spiritual common sense says, especially in the Western world, that to prohibit women from ministry doesn't make any sense. The only argument you can make against it is that God just doesn't want it.

Now enters the modern inerrancy of Charles Hodge. Sorry, there is one verse in 1 Timothy that you cannot ignore, just like you cannot ignore the individual verses on slavery. Thus the majority of evangelicals are swayed. They flow to the most difficult common denominator. They take the most problematic Scriptures and make them central.

The problems here are massive. You may end up taking the most "that time" elements of the Bible and make them center stage. So instead of focusing on Jesus' love command, you may end up focusing on the annihilation of the Canaanites. You may end up using the Bible to promote things that are actually contrary to God's will because you have placed the center in the most difficult common denominator!

If we return to the sense of Scripture's truthfulness before the Princeton Calvinists,
we look rather to the "greatest common denominator" of Scripture.  What is the central teaching of the Bible on this topic? If there are other passages that seem to pull in another direction, you set them aside as unclear. After all, we don't know all the history to interpret the original meaning of the Bible fully and certainly anyway.

Chalk it up to contextual uncertainty. Reinterpret it like a good premodern or just put an "unclear" tape on it. Invoke the notion of progressive revelation or situational particularity. However your tradition deals with unclear verses, do that. But don't let the problematic trump the central principles of Scripture.

This is something like what I have in mind when I speak of a big picture approach to the Bible driving the interpretation of the details, rather than an atomism. It is an approach that looks to the greatest common denominator and thus returns as best we can in the modern era to the hermeneutic of the fathers, Calvin, and Wesley.

P. S. A closely related post is Ken’s post on A History of Inerrancy. He says it is: “A few quick thoughts on how I think the Bible's truthfulness has been conceived over time and has changed throughout church history.”

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