My wife and I lived in Oregon, west of Portland, for several years. This was an adventure in many ways for us but one thing I noticed while there was that the rules of the road were different from Arizona. Here is what I mean: While driving I would put on my turn signal to change lanes and more often than not I found that the drivers in the other lanes would actually speed up and take the spaces between vehicles where I intended to move my vehicle. This happened so frequently that I began to alter my driving habits. While I did still use my turn signal before changing lanes, I timed the move into the next lane so that the vehicles behind would not have time to speed up and prevent me from getting my vehicle over. I would suggest that this experience of driving in Oregon is instructive for the topic of this essay—identity and biblical interpretation.
It is not uncommon to hear people say something to this effect, “people read the Bible differently.” What this means is “interpret” but the important point is to ask the question “Why?” I suggest that just as I discovered that the rules of the road in Oregon were different compared to Tucson, AZ, so it is with biblical interpretation. Each church and each pastoral leader has certain assumptions about how to best interpret and explain the meaning of Scripture. Historically, this has also been true, especially in the Patristic period, when the allegorical method became the most prominent method of biblical interpretation and pastoral application. Then in later periods, most notably prior to and during the Protestant Reformation, there was a general adherence to a more literal exegesis of biblical texts to teach and make pastoral application.
The changes in how the Bible has been interpreted reflect the cultural and intellectual currents of those places and times. In the same way, a person’s theology and theological method is deeply rooted in his or her sense of identity and participatory place within a community. The core questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” and “What is God like?” are answered within the context of one’s life experience in community.
There is no way to avoid this fact; we can only bravely ask hard questions about ourselves, our religious (or non-religious) upbringing, and learn to be critically self-aware. To do anything else is to remain a prisoner to the influences of one’s upbringing and to uncritically impose upon Scripture and life experience the interpretative grid we have inherited. Thanks be to God that he has not left us to wander aimlessly without some sense that there is truth which transcends mere personal experience and human culture!
The fact that people’s identity and biblical interpretation are necessarily intertwined is a key for understanding how people can come to embrace the truth. For how did the biblical writers know that what they wrote was true and the authentic message from God? God broke through to the core of their hearts and enlightened their souls! Their perception of truth was rooted in powerful encounters with God, the One who created reality and shapes it. These experiences of God’s intervention in history profoundly shaped the identity of those who chose to listen and serve God. And for those who did not heed the word of God their identity was shaped by the human cultures around them.
Does not God say repeatedly to the ancient Israelites that they have been chosen to be God’s treasured possession and thus to not conform to the practices of the Canaanites? Did not Paul plead with the Corinthians to heed his admonition and cease to conform themselves to pagan practices of worship, sexual license, Greek philosophical concepts at odds with the Gospel and ignorance of the living God? I would argue that in each case God’s word was given in order to enlighten the people’s minds so they would be able to recognize their true identity and purpose as God’s image bearers. Then they could learn to discern truth from error, right from wrong and fantasy from reality.
The tension formed from the many competing voices is reflected in the testimony of the biblical authors. They knew that the dominant culture and the elites of their time would woo them away from God and his truth or persecute them. The living God had to intervene in their lives and they had to want to fight to know and practice the truth. Thus the psalmist asks God directly for what he needs,
“Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.” (Psalm 119:33-40, NRSV)
The psalmist knows that he needs God to intervene. For he is capable of being quite fickle—either turning away from walking in the way of the Lord (if only in small ways) or in developing his sense of identity as one of God’s people he will lose the humility necessary to truly serve his faithful God. This appears to be a favorite trick of the enemy: To take a developed conviction and positive sense of identity in Christians and convince them that they are superior to other Christians (as well as other people). Thus they become a stumbling block for people who would otherwise be inclined to seek to know God.
Recognition of this possibility calls for humility before God. For who among us is so wise as to be able to sort out and identify our own biases and assumptions which factor into our self-identities? And how much more then do those who teach in the Church need to plead with God to protect us from arrogance and presumptive sins? We need to constantly listen to wisdom, heed reproof and to be willing to consistently learn to discern truth.
Thankfully the truth speaks with a terrible and wonderful power and the Voice of God demands a response. For if my self-perception does not accord with truth then I will not be pleased with what I read in Scripture. And I will either reject those aspects of biblical teaching which run counter to my sense of personal identity or I will consciously seek to try to interpret Scripture in such a way that I can claim (even if only to myself) that my self-identity is more or less congruent with Scripture. Paul’s comments to Titus reflect this incongruity in people’s minds as the word of God is presented to them and how turning from truth leads people astray (see Titus 1:15-16). And Peter speaks of those who “torture” the text of Scripture to make it conform to the content of what they affirm and teach others (see 2 Peter 3:16-17).
If my perception of my identity does actually accord (in large part) with Scripture’s teaching and affirmations about reality then I will be able to take delight in and listen to its message. And I will be open to becoming more self-aware of my self-conditioned identity and more willing to have God reshape my self-perceptions so that these accord with truth. The roots of identity and biblical interpretation are deep and it takes a lifetime of diligence to unravel these connections so we can be healed in relationship with God. Thanks be to God that the Holy Spirit indwells believers to be the power in us for this holy and necessary work!
I think by now I may have succeeded in establishing the central point of this essay. However, someone may lodge an objection to this this assertion. Specifically, that this insight about the inherent connection between identity and biblical interpretation could be taken toward a very different conclusion than the one I am making. Namely, that since personal and corporate identity plays such an indispensable role in how we interpret Scripture, we should side with our sense of self-identities and have the freedom to take or leave biblical teaching as fits those identities. And further, that this diversity of perspectives, derived from our respective identities, should be respected by all and affirmed by all.
There is a kernel of truth in this appeal to a diversity of perspectives. For obviously God did create each of us with unique qualities, abilities and thus perspectives. Based upon the extraordinary diversity of life upon the earth alone is it not obvious that God is pleased with creatures that are quite different from each other in quality of life and kind? So obviously, we should expect and welcome differing human perspectives. This should go without saying. However, the fact of diversity of perspectives among people does not mean that every perspective is right or accurate.
This dissolution of truth which transcends personal experience is exactly what the spirit of age, in its current manifestation, is teaching worldlings’ to think and to internalize as an absolute truth. This is the current form which moral and theological relativism has morphed into. And the churches are not immune to this idea; rather, this core idea is manifesting in discussions, writings and actually policy decisions in congregations and whole denominations. The embrace of the dissolution of truth has emptied the churches of spiritual vitality and hope and authentic love in God.
Based upon this relativized concept the whole notion of truth has been turned on its head and individuals own self-determination has been given reign to define reality. This is most ingenious as it allows demons to delude people into thinking that “what is must be right” and that anyone who dares to identify or clarify orthodoxy or moral truth is inherently oppressive. This is the expression of the deification of the self over against God and truth. The fact that identity and biblical interpretation are so closely intertwined means that one’s self-identity can be a catalyst which spurs the search for clarity regarding the Truth or to justify complacency regarding one’s knowledge of self and God.