Presuppositions and Interpretation

What is the role of presuppositions in Biblical interpretation?  It is important to begin by defining a critical term that I will be using. When I speak of our presuppositions, I am referring to our basic worldview. Our worldview is our built-in perception the world. Our worldview determines what we consider to be right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable…the list could go on. Presuppositions impact how we understand everything we encounter, and that includes how we understand the Bible. It is imperative that we recognize that each one of us has presuppositions, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to think well about both what they are and how sound they are.

Your goal in reading the Bible will have a direct bearing on your interpretation of the Bible. I assert that we should seek to be guided by what the Bible says about itself. As a Christian, I approach Biblical interpretation with presuppositions about truth, about language, and about the unity of the Bible.

My presupposition concerning truth is that there is absolute truth that exists outside of and beyond us. I affirm that God is the source of all truth. It is important to remember that each of us does have an ultimate standard of truth. For some of you it is God, for some of you it is science, for some of you it is yourselves. My starting point is God. Biblical interpretation can only be done well when it is recognized that it is through Scripture that God has chosen to reveal to us his truth.

If you are going to be able to understand the Bible correctly, you must at least recognize what it says about itself. The evangelical Christian understanding of the self-authentication of the Bible affirms that the Bible carries within itself a claim to its own truthfulness. The Bible does not need additional authentication because it carries sufficient epistemological validation for its own claims. There can be no other ground to accept the truthfulness of the Bible than God’s testimony about the nature of the Bible. That is a significant point in this discussion because if a person rejects what the Bible says about itself, there is no reason for them to accept what the Bible says about anything else. And if there is no reason to accept what the Bible says about anything, why are you interpreting it?

As concerns my presuppositions about language, I believe that language has meaning. In today’s world it must be asserted that language truly does mean something. With that in mind, the words of the Bible must drive us to our conclusions in the process of interpretation. I also approach Scripture with the presupposition that its language is inspired. The Biblical doctrine of inspiration is grounded in 2 Timothy 3:16. According to that passage, Scripture is “God-breathed.” When Scripture is said to be inspired, the claim is that the entirety of the Scriptures are the very words of God. What Scripture says, God says.

Following from the idea of inspiration is the authority of the Bible. God is the ultimate authority behind the Bible. The Bible did not lose any authority in the process of being written; the written Bible possesses equal authority to anything God would say right now. It is also my conviction that the Bible is infallible (not able to be wrong) and inerrant (without error). God used language to communicate to mankind and the language of the Bible is to be regarded as true.

The presupposition of the unity of the Bible guides my interpretation because it helps me to stay focused on the overarching story of the whole Bible. The Bible has a coherent unity – the major storyline must be grasped if the individual details are to be understood. I affirm the Christ-centered historical redemptive unity of the Bible. That means that the point of the Bible is to tell the story of God’s saving work as ultimately accomplished through Jesus Christ. Every detail of the Bible is somehow connected to that theme. The Biblical writers themselves understood the Bible from within that framework.

Presuppositions are an integral part of all approaches to Scripture. The presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism have both proven to be hostile to the Bible. Presuppositions matter because ideas have consequences, and the presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism have had significant consequences. In modernism, human reason was elevated to the position of being the supreme standard of truth. As a result, less of the Bible was considered to be truth, with miracles in particular being quickly discarded.

In postmodernism, the presupposition of pluralism was advanced. According to pluralism, there is not a single truth, but rather many truths. Pluralism is not an absolute denial of truth, but it is a denial of absolute truth. In pluralism there is a suspicion of any claim to absolute truth. The result of that presupposition was that the interpretation of the Bible became relative. Each person’s understanding of the Bible became equally valid.

I challenge us to consider our presuppositions. To those of you who say that there is no truth, I ask you how you know that is true. If language does not have meaning, I ask you why you bother to use words. The historic Christian approach to the Bible has affirmed that there is truth, that it can be known through the language of the Bible, and that the Bible can only be properly understood from the perspective of the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Master Weaver

My life is but a weaving,
between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colours.
He worketh steadily.
Ofttimes He weaveth sorrow
and I in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper
and I the under side.
Not till the loom is silent
and the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
and explain the reason why,
The dark threads are as needful
in the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver,
in the pattern He has planned.

(Author Unknown)