We all want to be “objective” readers of the Bible, yes? But if postmodernism has one distinct advantage over modernism, it is its recognition that an “objective” reading is in reality impossible, because we all come to the text with certain presuppositions and points of view. Recently, some scholars from the “theological interpretation of Scripture” movement have argued that a Christian interpreter’s faith commitment is actually an asset, rather than something to be ignored or disavowed.
Markus Bockmuehl, in his thought-provoking Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), illustrates this point with reference to the temptation stories of Eve and of Jesus. In both of these, he contends, “interpretation in each case reduces the divine address to an object for analysis as if from an Archimedean point outside, by staking a pseudoempirical claim to objectivity” (92).
Let’s start with Genesis 3: Bockmuehl sees a three-step hermeneutical temptation. Step One: “to eliminate the ecclesial reception of the word of God and to place interpretation in the hands of the autonomous reasoning subject, isolated from the worshiping community” (93). And so, the serpent asks Eve about God’s word apart from Adam or God’s “presence,” so to speak. “Thus the living word of God is rendered harmless as the object of solitary analysis, a mere cadaver except as energized by the expert’s alchemy of method” (93). Eve adopts a detached, individual perspective to God’s command. Step Two: relativize or eliminate the plain sense of Scripture. The serpent twists and caricatures what God had actually said concerning eating from the tree. “Reduced to autonomous reason, Eve finds the devices and desires of her own heart seductively co-opted by the serpent’s hermeneutics” (93). Similarly, the serpent reinterprets the promise of judgment in a more palatable fashion. Step Three: “move in for the hermeneutical kill” by appealing to human nature and its lust for the forbidden and for power (94). Despite her sincere belief that she is accurately, objectively interpreted God’s word, Eve ends up doing the precise opposite of what God had commanded, and Adam follows.
Note the parallel and contrast with the temptation of the Second Adam: Jesus is tempted by Satan to interpret Scripture as an autonomous reasoning subject (exhausted, hungry, and alone in the wilderness), to relativize what God has said (“If you really are the Son of God…”), and to give in to the lust for power (“All the kingdoms of this world…”). Jesus, unlike the First Adam, passes this test. And so “by this hermeneutical reversal of the fall, faithfully sustained through the depths of Gethsemane and the cross, the risen Jesus has become the key to Scripture itself” (96). By this, Bockmuehl means that “transformed reason and Spirit-given, Christ-centered wisdom are essential to the Christian interpreter’s task” (92).
Elsewhere, Bockmuehl makes clear that he believes that non-Christians can do incredible work in studying and teaching the biblical texts (77). Anyone who suggests otherwise (and I have heard it thus suggested) is incredibly naive. But Bockmuehl is correct, I believe, in arguing that Christian interpreters have a unique gift to offer the scholarly community by reading the biblical texts from the perspective of the texts’ implied exegete – that is, as a disciple. Christian or non-Christian, approaching the biblical text with an awareness of the strengths and limitations of one’s presuppositions is a far better method than to pretend to be “objective.”