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Literalist vs. Contextualist Interpretations of Scripture

Presentation for Jesus in the New Testament, St. John Bosco High School, Bellflower, CA

Brian Dau

on 20 August 2011

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Transcript of Literalist vs. Contextualist Interpretations of Scripture

Literalist vs. Contextualist interpretation: Literalist: "God said it, I believe it, end of discussion." In a literalist interpretation, the Bible is God's literal word. It is inerrant, and is necessary and sufficient as a rule of faith. There are two different ways to
interpret, or understand, the Bible--
a literalist or a contextualist method.
Each has different strengths and weaknesses. Definitions from a literalist perspective: God's literal word: The Holy Spirit prompted the human author to write down exactly what God wanted, with no additions or subtractions. Inerrant: Free of errors, with no information that is not strictly correct. Necessary: The Bible is needed to know what God wants us to know. Sufficient: Nothing else is needed to know what God wants us to know. Contextualist: "The Bible is God's revelation to human beings, understood more fully over time as the Church reflects more deeply on its meaning." The Bible must be interpreted according to the mode of writing, the historical circumstances of the text, the intent of the human author, and the cultural modes of expression of the author and the original audience. Interpretation of the Bible can develop and change over time as human beings come to a deeper understanding of Scripture through prayerful reflection and dialogue. Definitions from a contextualist perspective: Revelation: God revealed Himself to human beings gradually. The Bible is the record of how God's people came to an increasing awareness of Who God is and what He asks of us. The Bible did not descend down from heaven pre-written with angels singing and thunder thundering and lightning lightning. Rather, it was written by human beings who, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, were nonetheless struggling to articulate their diverse experiences of God. Mode of writing: The Bible is a collection of books of different literary genres. Not all books can or should be interpreted the same way. We will study this more in-depth through a discipline known as "form criticism." Likewise, various passages in the Bible should be interpreted in light of the context of the passage and the fullness of revelation as contained in the Bible as a whole. Historical circumstances of the text: Each book in the Bible was written to a specific audience to express and put into words how the community and of the individual author or authors experienced God. In some cases, the books were written many years after the events described in the narratives. Intent of the human author (or authors): Deep study of Sacred Scripture reveals that the human authors wrote each text to accomplish different purposes. In some cases, narratives were written to foster an understanding of God at odds with that of outside communities. In other cases, texts were written to encourage the readers to follow certain practices or disciplines. In still other cases, texts were written to give expression to the shared experiences, both positive and negative, of the community. Different texts may be written to explain, to teach, to give form to community worship, to inspire, to document, to persuade, or even to raise deeper questions. Cultural modes of expression: One should remember that different books of the Bible were written in ancient languages to ancient cultures. Their modes of expression-- their styles of speech-- are often very different than those we use today. Particular care must be taken so that we understand the literal words correctly. Otherwise, meaning can be "lost in translation." Strengths and weaknesses of each approach: Potential literalist strengths: It would seem to many that God would want us to have a clear and certain understanding of what he wants of us. Meaning is fixed and unchanging, and thus provides stability because faith is certain. Interpretation is simple and can be understood by anyone, with little or no need for formal theological training. When faith and secular understandings conflict, priority is given to faith. There is a recognition that human beings can "interpret away" God's word when the Bible's teachings challenge our sinful behaviors. A literalst interpretation takes the miraculous, mysterious, and supernatural seriously. Believers emphasize strict obedience to God and unquestioning adherence to His righteous law. Potential literalist weaknesses: Meaning is fixed and unchanging, so it may be difficult to adapt to new cultural situations. Simple interpretation may overlook complexity and thus fail to challenge the believer to deeper reflection on God's word. Faith that is too certain can be closed-minded, triumphalist, legalistic, and/or judgmental. Literalist interpretations can look foolish when challenged by modern secular/scientific sensibilities, and can thus lead to a loss of faith. Potential contextualist strengths: For contextualists, the idea that God allows human beings to wrestle with uncertainty seems consistent with what we know about the world... what we know is much less than what we do not yet know.The more we know, the more questions are raised. Contextualist interpretations resolve many seeming contradictions within Scripture. "Truth cannot contradict truth." Developing understanding of science, history, archeology, language, psychology, other secular disciplines, and theology go hand in hand. There is humility in recognizing that we do not have all the answers, and that we do not necessarily understand Scripture without also understanding the history behind it. Potential contextualist weaknesses: There can be a tendency towards "interpreting away" passages of scripture that challenge human sinfulness. A contextualist interpretation can be confusing for many believers who lack the training or ability to examine the historical circumstances of the text. There is concern that secular disciplines trump the Bible. In other words, priority is given to human knowledge over God's Divine Revelation. If interpretation develops over time, there may be uncertainty about what God wants us to know and do. A contextualist interpretation, if taken too far, can fail to take the miraculous and supernatural seriously. Contextual interpreters can tend to be intellectually condescending toward literalist interpretations, and may dismiss their ideas without giving them due consideration. There can tend to be a privileging of current scholarly consensus over tradition, leading to a gradual "watering down" of faith. Contextualist interpreters can lose their faith when such an interpretation is taken too far, and everything is understood symbolically while nothing is taken literally.
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