The Problem with Presuppositions in Textual Interpretation ~ Part I

Part I

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that too many of us, as believers in Jesus Christ, come to the Bible with too many unquestioned presuppositions. We all have presuppositions we bring to a text. Unfortunately it is not just the person in the pew, rather too many pastors, teachers, and Sunday school teachers are also guilty. They come to the text with a priori ideas of what they think the text should say, instead of endeavoring to let the writer “say what he said.” Nevertheless, objectivity is not precluded if we come to the text seeking what the author is trying to convey. Let me give you a “for instance” from my own life.

I was a Christian for over two decades before I thought about—let alone questioned whether the story of the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus in the manger was accurate.   And then it was through the teaching of a well-studied adult SS teacher–not through my own cognizance that broke up my presuppositions. Where did these a priori ideas originate?

First there was the traditional Christmas hymn, We Three Kings, which I had heard sung and been singing since I was a kid.  Second my parents and everybody I knew always had traditional crèche (nativity scene) somewhere on a table or on the mantle in their homes and they always had three wise men or kings there at the stable (or cave or house). Indeed, you can scarcely buy a crèche that doesn’t include three wise men in the package. Third all the church pageants and television shows had three wise men. Then of course the Bible speaks of three gifts (Mt. 2:11).

But the truth is that the Bible doesn’t say how many wise men or even exactly when they arrived. It certainly wasn’t the night Jesus was born. Matthew tells us, “after coming into the house, [the wise men] saw the Child” (v11).  Now one can argue that the three wise men are hardly an  essential of the faith, so what’s the big deal? And they would be right, it isn’t an essential. But as Christ’s disciples shouldn’t we understand what our scriptures say? If we don’t get it right, the world sure won’t. The point is everything I believed was all based on tradition and it was wrong.  It was just folklore—not scripture. Shame on me!

Exemplar also is that many evangelicals (non-Catholic) believe the Church is built on Peter. The Catholics have more of an excuse for this error. So why do we believe that? Because of confusion over verses in Matthew 16: “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; . . . (vv 17,18).

The English Bible versions seem to say just that. Nevertheless it is case that if you go to some easily available reference materials, and do a simple word study you find that Jesus is not saying He will build His Church on Peter. Firstly the words in the Greek for Peter (petros) and rock are two different words and secondly, they are not in the same gender. Clearly Jesus is The Rock and the cornerstone upon which the Church is built. Other scriptures tell us that. However, there are no other scriptures where Peter is said to be The Rock the Church is built upon.

It isn’t just born-again Christians that do this. Clearly cultists, those trapped in false religions, and even atheists have certain fallacious, a priori beliefs about the Christian religion. You cannot help them by evangelizing them. You can only break through these presuppositional barriers by knowing how to answer their questions. It’s called apologetics. But I digress.

A professor and friend of mine who teaches at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Dr. Richard Howe, has a blog called Quodlibetal (no, I don’t know what it means either).  Several months back he expressed his frustration at clergy who are cavalier with the Word of God. The name of his blorticle (hey it’s a blog article, a blorticle) was Wouldn’t It Be Nice to be in a Local Church Where… . Check it out if you like.

Continued in a Future Blorticle

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