Many years ago, when I was an Undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, I and a friend had a most remarkable conversation with a man. We met him while walking across the University of Arizona campus after attending church on a Sunday; he was very happy to have our company and to talk with us about life and religious subjects and eventually he invited us to his apartment for food and more conversation. Toward the end of our conversation I pressed him by asserting the biblical teaching of the atonement of Christ and that it was necessary for salvation and healing and the actuation of spiritual life. He said, “No, I cannot believe that. I will not believe that I cannot myself achieve spiritual enlightenment.” Even though he wanted to be able to say that the Bible’s teaching correlated to his own understanding of spirituality, it was obvious that he understood this core biblical teaching of God’s atoning work and he ardently reacted against it when he heard us explained it to him. His sense of identity and biblical interpretation were so intertwined, that when faced with the contradiction between his identity as a “spiritual person” and biblical teaching, he could not accept the biblical testimony!
The dynamic interplay between our self-perceptions (identities) and how we attempt to interpret the Bible are very important to understand. Those who have the intellectual curiosity and ability to explore theological questions in depth often use their personal identity as a chief criterion for having confidence regarding theological answers. This is true of scholars, pastors or people who do their best to study Scripture with other available resources. (The technical term for this is eisegesis.)
How conscious one is of this dynamic correlation reveals much about the quality and authenticity of one’s spirituality. That is, it demonstrates the self-awareness of the person who seeks to understand and teach spiritual truth. I note this because I think that, regardless of the content and shape of one’s theological views, identity and biblical interpretation go hand in hand.
Think for a moment of the intensity and seriousness with which Christians have argued about points of theological doctrines (and broken relationships). How many examples we could give of that happening! Pentecostals split over the question of whether or not speaking in tongues was a necessary sign confirming a person’s “baptism in the Spirit.” Baptist, Reformed and evangelical protestant churches frequently diverge sharply in practice and theological teaching from other evangelicals and Pentecostals who embrace charismatic experiences and “spiritual gifts” from God (see 1 Corinthians 12). Catholics, Orthodox and Anglican leaders have tended to slight those who embrace a simplified mode of worship and devotional practices (for example, the “low church” practices of the Puritans and Baptist groups). Protestants who lean more toward a fundamentalist or staunchly historic Protestant theological orientation still routinely consider Catholic, Orthodox or Anglican worship practices to be ritualistic and not authentically spiritual expressions of faith (at best) or simply pagan practices dressed up with Christian terminology (at worst).
My question is this: Why have Christians, who otherwise affirmed the same core doctrinal beliefs, so adamantly separated and categorized themselves as radically differing from those they did not agree with on other matters? Historians can address the multiplicity of specific reasons for each case and I have no doubt that there could be many valid answers given to explain this phenomena. However, I think that there is a more basic reason that explains so much of the behavior we who identify as Christians would like to be able to forget. Namely, for better or worse, identity and biblical interpretation are necessarily intertwined together. Our theology, whatever it is actually rooted in, will determine how we interpret Scripture.
Do you recall the account of the reaction of the apostles when they came across a man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus? (Luke 9:49-50) They reported to the Lord that they had tried to persuade this man from doing this because “he does not follow with us.” (9:49, NRSV) Their identity as disciples of the Lord seems to have become twisted into a presumptuous sense of elitism; for only they could exercise such spiritual authority in the Lord’s Name! Something like this can happen among God’s people of any generation. Especially among those gifted intellectually who seek to clarify biblical teaching or dogmatic theology.
I will be the first person to insist on the value of sound teaching and the need for leaders in the Church to instruct God’s people with integrity and accuracy from Scripture. And surely the gift of clarity regarding biblical teaching and the ability to communicate that truth through theological thought to others is good and needful. Where would Christian people of each generation be if God had not raised up gifted teachers to distinguish truth from error and articulate the beauty of truth? To name just a few, I think of the theological contributions of Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen (known as “the Theologian”), Chrysostom (bishop of Constantinople), Leo (bishop of Rome), Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards.
However, just as I could go through this list of gifted teachers and assess the strengths of their teaching I can also assess the weaknesses of each of these men’s ideas and theological perspective. I can make this assessment because my own theological perspectives are undergirded by and reflect essential assumptions related to my identity (as an individual and/or as part of group). And since my sense of identity differs, in one way or another, from that of these eminent teachers and theologians, I can identify differences. However, this does not ensure that I will accurately critique how close their teaching parallels the teaching of Scripture! For how do I know how well my own theological affirmations parallel the teaching of Scripture? Thus, in regard to myself, I read other teachers from the past generations of the Church with deference and an open mind.
This principle of the inherent tie between identity and biblical interpretation becomes even more obvious if one compares traditions within the broad streams of historical orthodox Christianity and the splinter groups like the Mormons (Latter-Day Saints) and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their identities theologically not only color how they read and interpret the Bible but actually require them to consciously leave out certain passages of Scripture and add material in order to “restore” the original meaning of the Bible.
I am not asserting this merely because I do not agree with their theological perspectives; rather to point out the fact that, upon close examination of their beliefs, compared carefully with a rigorous study of the central teachings of the biblical authors, it becomes obvious that there are discrepancies. Thus both groups historically have decided it was necessary to either alter the text of the Bible (Jehovah’s Witness’ have own translation of Bible) or to add books or sections to supplement the received text of the Bible. This demonstrates the point of my essay.