Even Heretics Know Hebrew: How to Interpret the Bible in Partisan Times


ABSTRACT: In today’s intellectual milieu, pride and sloth are the two chief interpretive vices. Partisan pride protects its beliefs behind the shield of identity politics, while systemic sloth shrugs indifferently at the pursuit of truth itself. In response, today’s Bible interpreters need more than the right kind of method; they need to be the right kind of people: readers marked by interpretive virtue rather than interpretive vice. With boldness, they oppose systemic sloth and proclaim what God has said. At the same time, with humility, they resist partisan pride and remain humbly open to correction. Meanwhile, local churches have the opportunity to become cultures of virtuous reading, places that form Bible readers to be people of interpretive virtue.

Of the writing of books about reading the Bible there appears to be no end. Twenty-five years ago, I published one such book: Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.1 It was the high noon of postmodern theory, and I wanted to provide a Christian alternative to two deadly sins of interpretation: modern pride (a too confident belief in reason, truth, and method) and postmodern sloth (a too dubious disbelief).

I believed then — as I still do — that biblical Christianity, by definition, depends on being “biblical,” that being biblical requires a high view of Scripture and the wisdom to read it rightly, that reading rightly is challenging in every age, and that reading rightly requires you to be more of a saint than a scholar.2 I also believe that fulfilling Jesus’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations involves helping Jesus’s followers to follow God’s word where it leads with minds and hearts, thus becoming readers and doers.

There is a place for exegetical methods in learning to read the Bible rightly, but even heretics may know how to parse verbs, diagram sentences, and so forth. Methods alone are no guarantee of truth, which is why I ended my hermeneutics text with a section on the importance of humility and conviction — qualities of the reader, not steps in an impersonal process.

From Intellectual to Interpretive Virtue

Hermeneutics may be “the science of textual interpretation,” but good reading, like good science, requires readers to have certain personal qualities. So does good knowing, as I discovered in Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind.3 I knew about moral virtues — characteristic traits and habits of a “good” person — but even though I studied philosophy in college, I had never heard of intellectual virtues. Opinion became knowledge (so I was taught) thanks to the process of justification. By way of contrast, Zagzebski defined knowledge as what a person attains by acting with intellectual virtue (“a state of cognitive contact with reality arising out of acts of intellectual virtue”).4 Intellectual virtues are habits of thinking that lead to truth rather than away from it, habits that accord with the mind’s “design plan,” the way it should work in order to achieve its proper good: knowledge.5 Put simply, an intellectual virtue is what leads to an intellectual good.6

My proposal (which I believe was the first to make explicit mention of interpretive virtues7) was similar: an “interpretive virtue” is a personal characteristic or habit that leads readers to the interpretive good of understanding. It all starts with a heartfelt desire for the interpretive good of understanding: “making cognitive contact with the meaning of the text.”8 Good readers respect both the author’s intention and what is objectively there in the text rather than trying to come up with self-serving interpretations.

Reading relates to virtue in two distinct ways. Some people read the Bible (the proverbial “good book”) for the sake of virtue formation. William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues is a compilation of hundreds of character-building stories whose tales help children and others learn the importance of moral traits like self-discipline, loyalty, and compassion.9 Karen Swallow Prior does something similar in her book On Reading Well, pairing classic novels with virtues (e.g., Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and justice, or Shusaku Endo’s Silence and faith).10 Prior knows there is a difference between reading for moral virtue and reading virtuously, and she deals with the latter in her introduction: “Reading virtuously means, first, reading closely, being faithful to both text and context, interpreting accurately and insightfully.”11 We can read about virtue, and we can also practice virtue while reading.

The latter possibility is our concern here. The key premise should be obvious: how you read is related to the kind of person you are. When it comes to hermeneutics, the who (the kind of person you are) is as important or even more important than the what (the particular method you use).

To avoid modern interpretive pride, our certainty must be tempered by hermeneutic humility; to avoid interpretive sloth, our skepticism must be tempered by hermeneutic conviction. Both boldness and humility are appropriate in biblical interpretation because, as James Eglinton observes, the form of theology must be suited to the subject matter.12 A theologian’s voice must be bold when reporting what God has said, and modest when claiming to say what it means: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

The Situation Today: An Old and New Challenge

Getting the delicate balance right of a hermeneutics of humility and conviction is more important than ever. Pride and sloth remain the chief interpretive vices, infecting yet another generation, even if 25 years on they have mutated somewhat to adapt to a new cultural situation. Pride now expresses itself as uncritical partisanship that breeds distrust; sloth has developed into systemic skepticism, cynicism, and apathy.

Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy calls out the knowledge crisis that, in the words of her subtitle, is “polluting our politics and corrupting Christian community.”13 Americans no longer trust experts or institutions — unless they agree with their identity politics. Instead of giving reasons for what one believes, one has simply to wrap oneself in the mantle of one’s identity (e.g., “Speaking as an X”). This is what I mean by partisan pride — the idea that me and my tribe are in a special position to know. Unfortunately, if you disagree, you become my antagonist: “Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.”14 To a proud partisan, every disagreement is a hostile act. You are either for or against me; there is no neutral third space for impartial dialogue — or rationality.15

Partisan pride does not need to listen to others; it already knows. Partisan pride is not only tribal but destructive of true democracy. In a culture of identity politics and partisan pride, people on the other side of the aisle — whether in Congress or in church — are not interlocutors, but potential enemies. It’s not even safe to talk about the weather anymore, at least not if you connect the dots between record flooding and climate change. A Chicago Tribune headline declares, “Meteorologists Feeling the Heat from Viewers.”16 Forecasters are without honor in their hometowns. Apparently, whether or not you trust your local weatherman is a function of your party politics.

Twenty-five years ago, I suggested that sloth was the signature temptation of postmodern theorists. Since then, however, the suspicion that truth claims are in fact power plays has become something of a fixture in public consciousness, resulting in systemic skepticism and cynicism — an inability to trust or believe in anything or anyone: “Whereas pride claims knowledge prematurely, sloth prematurely claims the impossibility of literary knowledge.”17 Postmodern suspicion has spread, like a virus, from the labs of French literary theory to Main Street.

To think that no one is in a position to know what texts, including the Bible, really mean is disheartening. Why begin to climb a mountain if you know you’ll never make it to the top? Why start a game of chess if you know the best-case scenario is a stalemate? What began as a hermeneutics of suspicion has developed into systemic skepticism, and it breeds what theologian Uche Anizor calls a “culture of apathy,” which does not merely tolerate but nurtures “an attitude of indifference” toward what used to be important.18 What distresses Anizor is the extent to which this attitude of indifference, even toward spiritual things and biblical truth, has become normal.

The partisan pride and systemic sloth that characterize contemporary culture had a long gestation period. In America’s Book, Mark Noll identifies 1844–1865 as a particularly momentous period because debates over slavery “signaled the end of a civilization premised on white Protestant scriptural agreement.”19 In three consecutive chapters, each entitled “Whose Bible?” Noll shows how conflicts over whose reading of the Bible’s position on slavery was right eventually led people to think that every appeal to Scripture was politically motivated.20 Ironically, partisan pride fueled systemic sloth; interpretive sin feeds off itself.

The Civil War was not the first time disagreements over what the Bible says triggered a political and theological crisis. Christians in the early church had to contend with Gnostics and other heretics, all of whom claimed to be reading the Bible rightly. How should Christians cope with competing visions of biblical Christianity? The interpretive virtues were born for such a time as this.

In Praise of Boldness (But Not Too Much)

Martin Luther is the epitome of interpretive boldness. In the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms, on trial for heresy, he was asked, “Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture?” Luther had the courage of his convictions, but he was also open to being shown — from the Bible, not human tradition — that he was wrong. Of course, like other virtues, boldness sits on a spectrum between opposite vices and therefore needs to be regulated. Someone else might have caved to the pressure, manifesting interpretive cowardice, not boldness. Alternatively, it is possible to have too much of a good thing: an unregulated boldness leads to rashness, foolhardiness, and, at the limit, begins to resemble the ugly partisan pride that esteems one’s own interpretations only.

Luther’s response at Worms also serves as an example of what the French philosopher Michel Foucault says about courageous speech (parrhesia) in a series of lectures later published as a book, Fearless Speech, whose original French title, Le Courage de la Vérité, means “The Courage of Truth.”21 Foucault discovers bold or fearless speech (parrhesia) in ancient Greece, where it was held to be an essential virtue for democracy. Foucault contrasts boldness of speech with other types of discourse, such as flattery and sophistry. What sets parrhesia apart is its commitment to speak the truth, even when it is dangerous or unpopular to do so.

This brings us back to weathermen and other scientists, environmental or not, who seek to speak truth to power in service to the public interest. When Tyrone Hayes found evidence that Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine was harmful, the corporation’s public relations department attempted to discredit his research. Hayes persevered with his work, insisting, “Science is a principle and a process of seeking truth. Truth cannot be purchased.”22 This observation did not stop tobacco companies from going to great lengths to suppress the publication of negative data about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. As one ethicist notes, “Individual scientists rarely have the resources or strength to withstand such assaults.”23

Foucault was impressed by the Stoics’ willingness to suffer for their fearless truth-speaking (parrhesia) rather than betray their convictions. The early Christians, in particular the speech acts of the apostles in the book of Acts, are an even better example. Peter, John, Stephen, and eventually Paul all speak gospel truth to imperial power. Their fearless speech is one of the narrative highlights: “Now when they saw the boldness [parrhesia] of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished” (Acts 4:13).

Acts 4 records the arrest of Peter and John for proclaiming the resurrection of the dead. After being charged not to speak of Jesus, they are released, though they know the threat of persecution hangs over them. What else can they do but pray? “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). Their prayers are answered: they are filled with the Holy Spirit, who encourages them to speak with boldness (Acts 4:31). According to the New Testament, this boldness of speech is more than a character trait: it is a divine gift in response to prayer. Significantly, throughout the rest of the book, until the very end, various apostles continue to speak boldly of the gospel and their hope in Christ (Acts 9:27–28; 13:46; 14:3; 18:26; 19:8; 26:26; 28:31).24

Contemporary biblical interpreters have, like the apostle Paul, been “entrusted with the gospel” (Galatians 2:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:11). Like Paul, biblical interpreters may have to speak gospel truth to the powers and the general populace, and they do well to pray to the Spirit for the strength to do so. However, unlike Paul, biblical interpreters today lack the qualifications and authority commensurate with apostolicity.25 Even the Reformers couldn’t claim to have the authorized interpretation of “This is my body” (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24), which is why the conflict of Protestant interpretations is so painful.26 Each Reformer was presumably illumined by the Spirit, a responsible exegete, and a man of sincere conviction — and yet they disagreed about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper.

While it is clear from the book of Acts that boldness of speech is one of the principal means the Spirit uses to build up the church, it is also important to remember that boldness is not rashness. Nor is Christian boldness of speech a rhetorical technique. Rather, it is a personal quality: a willingness to put not simply one’s words, but oneself — one’s very life — on the line. The other early Christian witnesses were not mere orators, but martyrs: their willingness to suffer and die for their truth convictions was an embodied extension of their bold speech.

In Praise of Humility: Power in Weakness

Biblical interpreters must display boldness whenever the truth about the God of the gospel and the gospel of God are at stake. Bold speech is appropriate when we are witnessing to what God has done in Jesus Christ for us and our salvation. However, it is one thing to witness to what God has said and done, another to explain its significance. Jesus said, “This is my body,” yes — but what exactly did he mean? Pastor-theologians must speak boldly when witnessing to what God has done and what the biblical authors have said, but modestly when unpacking their implications.

As Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas knew, “Virtues cannot exist atomistically: in order to possess a single virtue, one must possess the virtues in their entirety.”27 The reason should be obvious. Without some counterweight, boldness easily slips into brashness, recklessness, or, at the limit, partisan pride.

Humble people (1) view themselves accurately, (2) consider others and not just themselves, and (3) are open to the possibility of being wrong.28 All three are crucial qualities for biblical interpreters. We must acknowledge, first, that we are situated in a particular place, time, and culture. Our finitude affects what we see in texts, as does our fallenness (even as a high school soccer player, I knew the other team were not the only ones committing fouls). Our situatedness inclines us to privilege evidence that confirms our biases. Grant Osborne states matter-of-factly, “We rarely read the Bible to discover truth; more often, we wish to harmonize it with our belief system.”29 Second, to be a person of “interpretive conscientiousness”30 we must acknowledge that other interpreters may be trying as hard as we are to read the Bible well. This leads, third, to an acknowledgement that we may misinterpret or misunderstand what the biblical authors have said. Without such interpretive humility, the idea of “always being reformed” (by the word of God) is only an empty promise.

Humility is, of course, a prime Christian virtue.31 Paul urges the Philippians to have the mind of Christ, namely, the disposition to “count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). And there’s the rub. Humility — the willingness to listen and attend to the interests of others — is hard, because it may mean putting something in ourselves to death. This is precisely the way Jesus humbled himself, “becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8).

For a reader with Christian convictions, admitting that one’s interpretation may not be ironclad — or worse, that it may be wrong — is painful. This is why I so admire Augustine, whose Retractions surveys his publications and fesses up as to where he made mistakes. Augustine viewed himself accurately: this side of the eschaton, our knowledge is only partial (1 Corinthians 13:12). As Bonnie Kristian quips, now we know in part, “and often a smaller part than we imagine.”32

Interpretive humility is a first cousin to epistemic humility, the awareness that though objective meaning and truth exist, our grasp of them may be tenuous. Interpretive humility means being ready to admit that there may be meaning in the text that we have failed to see. There is a difference between feeling that our interpretations are right and being right. This gap is precisely why wise readers are prepared to listen to other readers and be open to correction. Sadly, when in the course of writing a book on critical thinking Adam Grant wanted an example of people more interested in protecting beliefs than in being right, he decided on the preacher, whom he contrasted with the open-minded scientist.33 The ability to rethink, and to be always reforming, “starts with intellectual humility — knowing what we don’t know.”34

“Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). It also preempts instruction. Pride is the preeminent interpretive vice, a guarantee that readers will be inclined to follow their own train of thought, not the biblical authors’. Conversely, humility is the prime interpretive virtue, an essential condition for displaying the mind of Christ. In an age marked by partisan pride and its reactionary opposite, systemic sloth, it is more important than ever for biblical interpreters to hold interpretive boldness and interpretive humility in balanced tension.

When the Corinthians challenged Paul’s apostolic credentials, the proof that Christ was speaking in him was a power paradoxically manifested through weakness (2 Corinthians 13:3–4). The endurance of faith, the pain of perseverance, demands both humility and boldness. Biblical interpreters must be willing to expose their readings and themselves to the conflict of interpretations, and to do so not to prove themselves right, but to attain to truth. This is as true on the corporate level as it is on the individual. The church in the West needs humility to listen to the global church — and to earlier generations of Christian readers.35 Modern methods and technology have not necessarily made Western Christians better readers.

The Local Church as Virtuous Reading Culture

It is good to teach students how to read the Bible in the original languages and to attend to grammar and historical context. Yet it is one thing to acquire knowledge and learn skills, quite another to acquire virtue and learn Christ. This is less a slam on the grammatical-historical method than a reminder: a tool is only as effective as the person wielding it.36

The acid test for any hermeneutic is how it prepares readers to handle interpretive disagreements, such as the doctrinal differences that have divided evangelical Protestants.37 A virtue hermeneutic that holds boldness and humility in tension will not resolve every doctrinal disagreement, but it may help Christians to navigate their way through the conflict of interpretations without going to war with one another.

Church leaders must be bold enough to be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), and humble enough to be teachable (Proverbs 5:12–13). So must interpretive traditions. As members of what is ultimately one body, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others must be willing to entertain the possibility that the Spirit may be using insights from other interpretive traditions to correct their respective blind spots.

We read to our children from their earliest ages, and then we teach them to read. Or do we? Textual understanding involves more than deciphering black marks on white paper. Consciously or not, individuals and interpretive traditions are always modeling (or failing to model) virtuous interpretation. The local church ought to be a place to exhibit and foster virtuous reading cultures — a place that forms Bible readers and believers to be people of interpretive virtue. Other interpretive virtues, in addition to boldness and humility, are important too: attentiveness, patience, honesty, charity, fairness, and above all, wisdom, the virtue that helps you to discern when a situation calls for boldness and when it requires humility — when to stand fast, when to admit defeat, and when to compromise.

In our partisan, skeptical culture, it is all too easy to find fault with opposing propositions. It is harder to find fault with persons who read the Bible with conviction and humility in wise equipoise. May local churches become places where readers are formed not to be partisans of earthly kingdoms but martyrs of the kingdom of heaven, able to say with Luther, “Here I stand,” with a boldness tempered by an openness to being corrected. Learning how to embody these interpretive virtues is sanctification too — and perhaps the best way to proclaim biblical truth in a culture rife with partisan pride and systemic suspicion.

Scroll to top