I remember one professor at Dallas Seminary telling me that Evangelicals had learned more from liberal scholars about biblical interpretation over the past century than they had from the most conservative scholars. I also remember Charles Ryrie’s famous (infamous?)Â assertion, “There is nothing more sought after by an evangelical professor than to be called a scholar by a liberal.”
When I entered seminary, I was confused by the respect for liberal scholarship, especially in the New Testament and Old Testament departments. Liberal! In my dictionary, a liberal scholar was one who did not believe the Scriptures, misinterpreted the text, and, therefore, denied the Christian faith. It’s that simple. This was enough for me to shelf their “expositions” of the Scripture right next to the space reserved for the Flat Earth Society. How can they understand the Scriptures?
I remember when my first exegetical was due, I was ready toÂ create a masterpiece of Evangelical orthodoxy. An exegetical is a paper which embodies a critical examination of a particular text, focusing on translation, wrestling with textual critical problems, and validation of any significant interpretive issues. This requires extensive interaction with outside sources of contemporary critical scholarship.Â We received aÂ library list of suggested sources with which we were to interact. When I recieved this list, I was confused. Many of these sources were liberal. They were written by those who at best did not believe in inerrancy and at worstÂ those who did not even believe in inspiration. Why would we have had such resources recommended to us at a conservative Christian seminary?Â
During my studies, I came to find the answer: Liberals often handle the text of Scripture with more integrityÂ than conservatives.
There are several reasons for this:
1. Liberals can often look at the text more objectively. They don’t have their theological turf that they are trying to protect. Therefore, they are not as prone to interpret the text through a presupposed theological grid. While their grid of disbelief might be a costly one, it does not necessitate a misrepresentation ofÂ the human author’s intent as often as it might for one who is passionately committed to a theological tradition. Obviously, the liberals I am referring to do not include those with a theological agenda of their own like many of those on the Jesus Seminar. Most of these are not even recognized as legitimate scholars by their own community.
2. They are willing to explore other options of interpretation thatÂ areÂ out of boundsÂ to mostÂ traditionalists. For example, redaction criticism was popularized by liberals. This interpretive method assumesÂ the possibility that theÂ authors changed, altered, or edited (redacted) the historicÂ events for the benefit ofÂ the community to which they were writing. While this was rejected out of hand by most conservatives in the early 20th century, most are beginning to concede some redaction did take place and that this method is not necessarily outside of the bounds of conservative scholarship–even such that holds to inerrancy.
3. Integrity with issues of Text Criticism. Once again, liberals are not bent on protecting a particular doctrine that issues of the text might affect. That is why liberals often make very good text critics. They can choose among the variants, examining the dataÂ without prejudice.
4. Historical-grammatical hermeneutics is their only option. Liberals are not searching for a theology. Therefore, all they have to work with is authorial original intent found in the historical situation of the day. They only presuppose one author–the human author. Therefore theyÂ must concentrate on issues of history, grammar, personality, style, mood, literature, and culture to discover the purpose of the writing.
As evangelicals, the four issues above often take a back seat to a preset agenda of establishing and giving an apologetic for an assumed theological system. Once this happens, we resort to out-of-context proof-texting, unintentionally relegating the author’s intent to a place near irrelevance. The problem with this is that withoutÂ interpreting the text from the standpoint of the original author, we can never arrive with any assurance at the intentions of the divine author.
I am not saying that Evangelicals cannot or don’t interpret the text with integrity. In fact, I agree with the previous statement that Evangelicals have learned much from liberal commentators who forced us to interact more honestly with the text. I think that there are many good resources that take a critical approach to scholarship. The Word Biblical Commentary series is a good example. The Baker Exegetical Commentary Series is another example. IVP has a series of background resources which include the Dictionary of New Testament Background, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, and the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments. Even Roman Catholics have a series of critical commentaries calledÂ Sacra PaginaÂ that takes a critical approach. This type of critical approach normally does not find much supportÂ from the Vatican since Roman Catholic scholarship has preset answers that they must arrive at regardless of the data. Nevertheless, these commentaries often deal with issues with integrity,Â often bringing intoÂ questionÂ some of the traditional interpretations of Rome.
What have Evangelicals (and other conservatives) learned from liberals about Bible interpretation? The importance of dealing with the text on its own terms before we make it fit our terms. Liberals have caused us to rediscover that while the Bible is divine in nature, it is also human. In the end, the problem with liberals is not that they do not understand the Scriptures, but that they do not accept the Scriptures.