6th June 2006
There has been an interesting blog discussion surrounding the qualifications of an interpreter of the Bible. Jim West started the ball rolling with his post in response to this “news” story about “bible scholars” predicting a nuclear attack. Jim’s basic point is that nutballs shouldn’t be allowed to interpret the biblical text. I don’t really disagree with Jim on this point, though you can’t really prevent anyone from reading the Bible. And someone who is a careful reader can get the point of much of the Bible — even without formal theological education or a degree.
Then Peter over at Adverseria posted on “Dilettantes and the Bible” and takes to task those who interpret outside the community of faith. Once again, I get the gist of his point and I agree with it to a certain degree, though he picks on “most scholars” as “dilettantes” since they interpret outside the community of faith. Here I disagree on a number of points. First, and perhaps I am being picky, but no biblical scholar — even those who never darken the doors of a church — would qualify as a “dilettante” (here I am assuming a biblical scholar is someone who has serious academic qualifications and devotes his or her time to studying the Bible). According to Dictionary.com, a dilettante is “an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially.” That one may not be a member of a community of faith does not qualify one as a dilettante, IMHO. Second, I would daresay that “most” biblical scholars are part of a community of faith; perhaps they are not part of your community or perhaps they are using a method of interpretation that is not directly relevant to your community of faith, but that doesn’t mean they do not belong. Third, I am not sure that Christian history would support Peter’s claim that the church is the best context for interpretation. Finally, I totally disagree with him when he asserts that “we [=those faithful interpreters] should not even enter into debate with them [= scholars outside the community of faith] on questions of interpretation.” This sort of exclusivism does no good. We should humbly listen to all interpreters and sift the good from the bad.
Jim West picked up the ball again with his “Further Observations on Dilettantism and Biblical Interpretation” where he lists his qualifications for the “ideal” interpreter (college degree in reigion/Bible/theology, Jewish or Christian, and community of faith). I guess if we are talking “ideals” I can’t disagree too much, though what is totally lacking in Jim’s qualifications are some things that I would think are essential: humility, grace, perserverance, sensitivity, etc. I am also not convinced that formal training is necessary, though if we are talking “ideals” then I am willing to let it stand.
Finally, James Crossley over at Earliest Christian History put in his two cents with his post, “Who is best at biblical interpretation?” I tend to think James is spot-on in his comments. The Bible is a public document and everyone has the right to read and interpret it. In terms of who is the best interpreter, I would daresay no one is! We all have our faults, our blindspots, our weaknesses. We need each other — whether within or outside of the community of faith — to keep our interpretations honest and plausible. I’m not saying that all interpretations are valid or even that all are fruitful; only that all (OK, to be honest, “most”) interpretations are worth considering.
Anyhow, I didn’t mean to ramble on…
UPDATE: Chris Heard has some excellent thoughts at Higgaion on this debate.