A friend and former student contacted me this week. He had listened to a lecture I delivered a few years ago at a conference in Rockford, Illinois. (Unrelated: the conference there is held annually, and if you can make it, it is well worth your time and money.)
After listening to what I said, he requested some clarification on this point: how much should we allow our theology to shape our reading of the Bible? Is there wisdom in coming to the text with no preconceptions, so that we can read it more accurately?
The text below is from that reply, reproduced here in the hopes that someone else might find it helpful.
In general, the tension that you’re feeling here is a tension that we should be feeling. What I mean is this: when you read a text that conflicts with what you believe that the Bible says, your first impulse should not be to simply chuck whatever you already believed.
I’m not sure what examples I used in the Rockford sermon, so I’ll use this one. The Bible tells me that our Lord shelters us under his wings. Upon reading that verse, I shouldn’t immediately discard my conviction that God is a spirit, and therefore that he has no wings.
But we also need to (always!) be willing to change our doctrinal convictions under the weight of biblical evidence. The reality is that there a numerous passages which refer to body parts of God. Maybe there is something to the idea that God has a body. And so we explore the idea, taking into account all that the Bible says. What we’ll find is that there are certain passages that are *foundational* to the question, and other passages that are less clear, so that they could be read either way.
In this case, for instance, I would consider the second commandment (the prohibition against making any images of God) as definitive. We cannot make images of God, because God is *incapable* of being portrayed as an image. He is *unseen*. (Check the context for the argument in the text.) For this reason, then, I have very good reason to believe that all of the verses that speak of God’s body parts are not to be taken literally, but as figures.
In this way, then, my theology is always shaping my reading of the text. Remember, by the grace of God, your theology isn’t something that is just made up out of nothing. Your theology comes from the knowledge of the Bible. Because God does not contradict himself, what you know about God (your theology) from one part of the Bible must shape your understanding of every other part of the Bible.
But it also remains true that my reading of the text is always to be shaping my theology as well. This process always goes both ways. We must always be willing to reexamine our understanding of Scripture by what the text in front of us actually says.
As to the idea that we can read “with no prior thoughts”: I think this notion is both impossible and ungodly. It is impossible because, as you read, you always are going to assume certain things are true. Should you pick up and read a passage, for instance, with no conviction one way or another as to how many gods exist? Or whether the Bible is in fact the Word of God? Honestly, we will always have certain convictions that must be in place for us to read the Bible faithfully. Indeed, the idea that “reading the Bible is better without any preconceived notions” is itself a preconceived notion that must be examined; I think it is one that will be found wanting, when compared to Scripture.
Not only is it impossible to be a blank slate, I’m convinced it is also ungodly. Over and again, we see in the NT that the teachers and pastors in the church are gifts to us from our risen Lord (Ephesians 4). The idea that we should completely disregard what we have been taught previous is never considered a virtue: rather, it is a mark of ingratitude, not only to our teachers, but to Jesus, who gave us the gift of pastors.
Now, I’ve spoken strongly here. There is, of course, a more minimal and limited sense of coming to the text with fresh eyes. This, in itself, isn’t a problem. But what we shouldn’t do is think that this kind of careful honesty about the text happens in a complete vacuum, as though we’ve really succeeded in cutting ourselves off from any previous commitments.
In summary, then, the key point is that Scripture shapes my theology. Inasmuch as my theology has been shaped by Scripture, that theology will help me read other Scriptures more accurately. When I’m reading, however, my theology is always becoming *more informed* by Scripture. So it is not that theology trumps Scripture, or that Scripture is best read without any consideration of theology, but that they form a spiral, each influencing the other, so that we come to a fuller understanding not only of each individual passage, but also of the bigger themes taught in Scripture.