You Are Where You Are

Kaleidoscope_md_c

In last month’s Kaleidoscope post, I listed several presuppositions for approaching our study of the Bible as if we are looking through a kaleidoscope. This month I’d like to think about the first presupposition: each one of us stands in a unique place.

To quote the great philosopher Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And you are the only one in the place where you are.

How you see something depends in large part on where you stand. That’s one reason it’s possible for eyewitnesses to the same event to give differing accounts of what happened—someone standing on this side of the street will see the event differently than will someone standing on that side of the street, or for two people looking at the same object to describe it differently—someone standing in my front yard will describe my house differently than will someone standing in the back yard. The fact that every person brings different life experiences to what they see complicates the situation even further.

The same principle applies when we approach the Bible—our reading and interpretation of it are influenced by where we stand and especially by our particular life experiences. Try as we might to be “objective,” bracketing out our life experiences is impossible. That is one reason that different people arrive at differing conclusions as to the meaning of a biblical passage.

Someone will object to this with statements such as, “The Bible means what it means” or “The Bible is authoritative”—statements that I affirm. But to say “the Bible means what it means” is not the same as saying “I know for a fact what the Bible means” and to say that “the Bible is absolutely authoritative” is not the same as saying “My reading of the Bible is absolutely authoritative.” We get in a lot of trouble when we lose sight of those distinctions.

On the one hand, we trust our Bibles as a revelation of God. We trust the process by which God chose to inspire the Bible and we trust the processes through which God worked over the centuries of transmission and translation to bring the Bibles we now hold into our hands. On this count most of us probably practice what Clark Pinnock has called a “simple Biblicism,” which he describes as follows.

There is an evangelical view of the Bible which most evangelicals and Baptists hold, whether scholars or not, because the Spirit teaches it to them and which views the Scriptures as the only place to go to if you want to find the words of everlasting life. The Bible is, it believes, the God-given documentation which preserves for all time the gospel of our salvation, and so ordinary believers know instinctively from the Spirit their teacher to go there to be nourished in their faith…. They love the Bible because they love the Lord…. Ordinary believers have a Spirit-engendered inclination to love and trust the Scriptures.

[Clark H. Pinnock, “What is Biblical Inerrancy?” in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987 (Nashville: Broadman, 1987).]

On the other hand, we approach our Bibles with humility because we know that we are limited, frail, and sinful. We know that our interpretations can be inaccurate because of where we stand; we stand on a place of incomplete knowledge and limited experience. Even at our best, we know what we know only in part. We can see only some of the truth. We know furthermore that our interpretations can even be sinful because of where we stand; we are sinners and that means that we might come to our Bibles standing on a place of pride, arrogance, vengeance, anger, or self-righteousness. We also know, however, that despite our incomplete knowledge, limited experience, and sinful motives we may very well arrive at the truth that God intends for us to have because the revelation in the Bible is from God and because the Spirit of God leads the humble seeker to truth.

Perhaps this is a helpful distinction: we approach the Bible with great confidence in it because we are confident in the God who inspired it, but we also approach the Bible with great humility because we are aware of our limitations. Confidence in God comes from and leads to faith, but confidence in ourselves comes from and leads to arrogance. Faith is to be cultivated while arrogance is to be weeded out. So one place on which we need to work at standing is the place where confidence toward God is coupled with humility toward self.

Still, where we stand as a person or as a people—where we stand individually or corporately—is going to influence our reading and interpretation of the Bible. A woman stands in a different place than a man, a person living in extreme poverty stands in a different place than a person living in extreme wealth, a person living in a village in sub-Saharan Africa stands in a different place than a person living in a large city in the American Midwest. Moreover, each individual woman stands in a different place than all other women and each individual Chicago resident stands in a different place than all Chicago residents. A group being oppressed for its faith stands in a different place than a group being allowed to express its faith freely, a group in the minority stands in a different place than a group in the majority, a group living in a land of poverty stands in a different place than one living in a land of plenty.

In such a context it is wise to seek common ground, to seek a common place on which we can stand as we approach the Bible.

That’s what we’ll think about next month . . . .

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Uniform Series Curriculum Editor.

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