My middle class wife went about the most middle class of tasks last night: rearranging the books on the book shelf. Apparently that was more important than watching whatever nonsense I wanted to watch on our TV (that, in my considered opinion, is much too small because it isn’t bigger than our book shelf). So, she was busy rearranging books while I was busy scrolling through the TV schedule going, ‘rubbish… rubbish… ohh maybe, actually, no… rubbish.’
But as she was rearranging the books, I heard a shout. ‘Can I throw out Morrissey’s biography?’ ‘Yes’ I called back. ‘Have you read it?’ she hollered back. As it happens, I have. ‘Yes,’ I said ‘but it wasn’t much cop.’ ‘That’s good,’ she shouted back. ‘Why?’ I wondered. ‘Well, it just doesn’t fit my system so I thought I might just throw it out.’ And there you have it – no room in the self-constructed system and so we’ll just ditch it because I can’t make it fit.
Many of us approach our theology a bit like this. We’re sure that we’ve got a system that, as far as we’re concerned, makes perfect sense. It is the key, we reckon, to understanding scripture and putting it together. And that is all well and good. Frameworks are most definitely helpful tools in placing texts in their appropriate contexts and helping us sift interpretive possibilities.
But often, we let our framework drive our entire interpretive task. This is when we begin to run into problems. We hit on passages that don’t easily fit our framework. Some, with a bit of a wiggle, comfortably sit in there somehow. But others, we do a lot of hermeneutical gymnastics to try and fit them in but, try as we might, our efforts often feel more than a little forced.
I remember a long while ago hearing a godly man talk about a particular passage and interpretation. I remember him saying, ‘I am reformed. But I don’t think I’m more reformed than the Bible.’ In other words, he had a framework that he trusted but he wasn’t down with trying to force every text through his framework no matter how badly it fit. Instead, the framework had to fit the contours of the text, not the other way around.
Now, don’t mishear me. I’m not saying don’t have a framework. I’ve certainly got one that I think is the most credible way to read the Bible. I’ve got an idea of what I think the overarching storyline of the Bible is and how it fits together. I’ve got a sense of what doctrines are taught throughout scripture and how they temper wayward interpretations of individual, standalone texts. All of that is useful and valuable. Specifically because, if you do the hard textual work to figure it out, you then don’t have to do the hard textual work every single time you approach any given verse.
But we have to be clear what is primary. The text has to drive the contours of our framework. If there are texts that don’t fit the framework, we shouldn’t treat them like Morrissey’s biography and just throw them out because it messes up our system. We can’t just lop off the texts we don’t like because they make our framework a bit messy. We either have to rethink our framework because the text won’t support it or we have to live with a slightly awkward outlier of a text (and the more texts you have as outliers, the less credible your framework is going to feel).
The system is there as an interpretive tool for the text. It is the means of not having to do all the difficult textual work every time you interpret any given passage. But your system must be drawn, ultimately, from the Bible or it is nothing more than a wishful imposition on the text itself. If our framework happens to support everything we hope the text would say, and we always interpret the text in light of our framework, we are doing little more than reflecting our own views back at ourselves. And I know we like the Bible as a mirror analogy, but that really isn’t what folk are driving at when they use it.
So what are your theological Morrissey biographies? There may be limited (or no) textual support for it but you insist it is true because of your framework. Whenever you hit on passages you find difficult to square, your framework is your first port of call and you’re sure to make this particular position fit, uncomfortable as it may often feel. Could it be that you are using your preferred framework to force the text to say what you wish it said, rather than what is actually says?