In their first podcast for 2020, Beeson Divinity School started the year off with a bang (transcript found here).
The hosts of the podcast, Doug Sweeney and Kristen Padilla, sat down to talk with Esau McCaulley and Osvaldo Padilla, both of which are professors—McCaulley at Wheaton, and Padilla at Beeson.
Their conversation spoke mainly to the issue of biblical interpretation and couched that discussion within the seat of what appears to be a more subjective, racialized approach to the interpretational endeavor. McCaulley states:
What I have in mind when I refer to African Americans are, the history, custom songs and experiences that have shaped the African American experience in the United States. And because of those experiences, we bring certain questions and issues and emotions to a Bible reading (emphasis mine).
Now, the assertion that we come to the biblical text with experiences, at first glance, seems prima facie true, and—in large part—it is. No one denies that we bring personal experiences to the biblical text. The question then becomes, What do we do with those experiences? He goes on to say:
And so when I talk about the African American tradition, I talk about all of those things. The way that our history, our experiences and our culture influences the questions we ask and the responses that we give to the answers the Bible brings back to us.
McCaulley, then, wants to encourage ethnically and culturally related questions to be asked by the would-be exegete as they interpret the Bible. But is this really how we ought to use experience in the task of biblical interpretation? Again, no one denies we have experiences with which we approach the text (such a denial would be absurd). The question is, What do we do with them?
I think the answer is largely found in the question that should motivate and shape all biblical interpretation in the first place. If you’ve been to seminary in the last fifty years, chances are you learned about the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. In fact, your head is probably still ringing from how hard the professor hammered it home. The fundamental question asked in that hermeneutical strategy is, What did the original author intend to say? Historically and most normally, however, the church has been motivated by the question, What does God intend by this or that text? I submit that the latter question ought to motivate and shape the way we come to the Bible. There is no more important question than, “What does God intend to communicate to us?”
So, when McCaulley talks about these questions with which blacks have supposedly approached the text he’s overcomplicating the interpretational task and he’s leading his followers and students down a dangerous road. They’ll be more prone to bend and mold the text into an attractive answer to problems arising from their experiences rather than ask and answer the question, “What has God said?” This is no way to discover truth. It’s only a way to put a bandaid on contemporary problems—what all forms of theological liberalism tries to do. Liberalism trades heaven for the here and now, and this is exactly what McCaulley is encouraging his students to do. McCaulley also says:
But we tend to say, “Well, okay, you have this one passage in Timothy, but let’s look at what the entire Bible reveals to us about God’s character and how that reveals what he thinks about slavery.” And so for that reason, we developed what I call the canonical instinct.
This just describes a tool Christians, black or white, slave or free, have been using for 2,000 years. It’s the analogia fidei or the analogy of faith. An interpretation of any given passage cannot contradict the whole of Christian teaching as it’s presented in the Scriptures. This prevents a-contextual readings of certain passages which people might use for wicked purposes.
If McCaulley wants to claim his subjective approach to the text has encouraged a canonical reading, he is sorely mistaken. It most certainly has encouraged men like James Cone and his Black Liberation Theology, but it has not encouraged a canon-centered reading of the text. That interpretational tool is as old as the Bible itself and is chiefly motivated by the question, “What did God say?” not questions arising from subjective experiences. Do not be fooled. McCaulley is not advocating for an objective reading of the Bible. He’s arguing for a reading of the Bible shaped by fluid experience; a reading that’s more Schleiermachian than orthodox.
The experiences McCaulley suggests his black students appeal to are constrained by their blackness. It’s the black experience that should motivate black Christians to ask certain questions which then motivates their biblical interpretation—interpretation designed to answer questions arising from experience. McCaulley’s suggestion gets it all backwards. We derive the doctrine first, from Scripture, then we apply that doctrine to our situation. Our situation should not determine the doctrine. Our doctrine should determine how we respond in any given situation.
McCaulley’s method sets up an unnecessary and unbiblical competition between black and white bible expositors. If a black theologian comes to a particular conclusion from Scripture using an approach shaped, at least in part, by his experience as an oppressed black man, then any white theologian who suggests his reading is wrong will, no doubt, be accused of racism or prejudice. The quest for truth will be completely interrupted. The black interpretation of the bible must be right because it grows out of an experience of victimhood. To call the victim wrong not only appears to be impious, but it smacks of insensitivity and racism.
Why not avoid all of this conflict by reading the Bible as it was meant to be read? Why not act like children of God, who are no longer Jews nor Greeks, but Christians, and learn at the feet of Jesus, asking the all-important question, “What do you want to teach me, my Lord?” Other questions can be asked and answered after we discover what God has actually said (Jn. 5:24).
If Christ didn’t purchase the human mind, He didn’t purchase you at all.
Individual redemption is an all or nothing kind of thing. Christ didn’t only redeem the soul of man, or the spirit of man, or the body of man; He redeemed it all, the whole man (1 Thess. 5:23). But, how can Christ redeem the whole man? By becoming in every way like us in our nature, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). Christ redeems everything in us that He Himself possessed according to His human nature; a human body, a human mind, a human spirit.
If Christ didn’t have a human understanding, the human understanding couldn’t have been redeemed. If He didn’t have a human soul or will, then neither the human soul nor the human will could be redeemed. Christ was Himself under the law to redeem those who were under the law. He has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). If Christ didn’t have a whole human nature according to which He was subjected to the law and the punishment for our transgression thereof, no human person could be redeemed.
This makes standpoint epistemology an all the more frightening redefinition of the gospel.
Earlier on Facebook I submitted a post using this term, standpoint epistemology. Another word we might use is perspectivalism. The idea of standpoint epistemology, in short, is that different kinds of men have different kinds/ways of knowing. In the present context, if you’re white, you know according to whiteness. If you’re black, you know according to blackness. So, black Christians and white Christians read the Scriptures according to distinct ways of knowing or rationalizing. I know differently than a black person or an asian person knows and because of this, we bring “unique perspectives” to the text of Scripture.
Usually, this dynamic is described in terms of life experience. On this view, life experiences not only inevitably shape how a person comes to the text, but they should shape how a person comes to the text. A black man should feel perfectly comfortable bringing his black experience to the table while using that experience as a helpful guide or tool in interpreting God’s Word. The same goes for white men, asian men, brown men, etc (well, maybe all except for white men). And, these particular standpoint epistemology advocates may also add that these experiences, when taken together, help to bring the gospel into clearer focus. The plethora of different perspectives help to bring the gospel into clearer focus.
A white person cannot interpret the Bible like a black person because both of these groups have differing sets of variables acting upon them which prevents one from filling the intellectual shoes of another. The implication, of course, is that black people know like black people, white people know like white people and so on. Of course, this is said to be all experience driven. So, the objector might say, “it’s nothing about being black or white per se that gives these groups differing ways of knowing Scripture. It’s the experiences that affect how we know Scripture which inevitably come with growing up in black or white culture, respectively.
If this were true, the problem wouldn’t be so grave. After all, varying life experiences are a given. We all have them. We all come to the Bible with them in hand (like it or not). But the claim to a difference between black/white theology isn’t so superficial. The term experience is used because no one denies we all have differing experiences. But, if it were only life experience that separated blacks from whites in their quest for biblical truth, why not say there’s also an angler interpretation of the Bible, an Australian interpretation of the Bible, a pharmacist interpretation of the Bible, a rocket engineer interpretation of the Bible, a left-hander’s interpretation of the Bible? All of these groups of people have differing life experiences. Why limit life experience only to skin color or ethnicity. It seems so arbitrary.
There has to be something deeper than experience separating blacks and whites when it comes to the task of Christian theology. It can’t be mere experience because experiences can be sorted out into countless, arbitrary categories.
The standpoint epistemology advocate suggests men know according to their respective experiences. However, we should be asking the question, Why narrow those experiences to ethnicity? Why not something else? There has to be a reason behind why these men have chosen to narrow experiences almost exclusively to ethnicity. That reason must be that blacks and whites are different in some way; different beyond skin color or life experiences. It’s really ethnicity that becomes the distinguishing factor.
If all these life experiences must be categorized according to the ethnic backgrounds, then ethnicity is the controlling variable here. Anglos and African Americans think differently because they’re different ethnicities. They’re strapped to their ethnicity and cannot transcend it, not one iota. Everything they do, say, feel, all of it is according to their ethnicity. It’s not just experiences that shape who we are. Rather, we are, it must be thought, born with ontologically different souls, different minds, different, as it were, ways of knowing.
The Massive Christological Problem for Standpoint Epistemology
What happens when human knowing is not so much human knowing but ethnic knowing? What would happen to Christian theology if we were to suggest that my understanding is different than a black Christian’s understanding, and that that difference exists because of ethnicity or—dare I say—race? Does man know according to his humanity, or does he know according to his ethnicity? Is the nature of man’s knowing defined by his humanity or by his ethnicity?
This particular brand of standpoint epistemology would seem to suggest people know according to their respective ethnicities, making knowing a property of ethnicity, not of human nature. A person can be human, but they don’t have a human mind or understanding. They have either a Jewish mind, a black mind, a white mind, etc.
What’s startling about this prospect is that on this model of standpoint epistemology Jesus would have had a particularly first century Jewish mind. But if Christ had a first century Jewish mind, not a mind essential to all humanity but only essential to Jewishness, would it not follow that only believing Jews can be redeemed? Let me restate it in a more pointed way: Christ’s mind was not part of His human nature, it was part of His Jewish ethnicity—His Jewish nature we might say. Therefore, the human mind is not redeemed. Only the Jewish mind is redeemed. Therefore, we’re all in our sins. We can all just pack up our Bibles and go home, Christianity as we know it is false. This is the logical conclusion here. If there is not one humanity, then Christ cannot redeem one humanity. A human isn’t really a human, they’re Anglo, African American, or something else. But not human. We’re all a bunch of foreigners to one another, aliens—Star Wars style.
But I refuse to believe this is the case. It’s not the case that Jesus came only to redeem the Jewish mind (Rom. 1:16; 3:29). He came to redeem the human mind. Because of this, human minds—those essential to a single, universal human nature—are being redeemed.
Christ had to have a human mind to redeem human minds. Christ’s human mind, His way of knowing, may have existed within a Jewish context, but that didn’t make Christ’s mind an essentially Jewish mind. Jesus’ mind was essentially human. The mind, therefore, must be natural to humanity and not to ethnicity, race, etc. The human mind is transcendent of those things. It exists regardless of ethnicity. It’s not bound to ethnicity or race nor is it necessarily defined by ethnicity or race (although ethnicity may certainly act upon it). Which is just to say everyone must have the same kind of mind. Everyone must know in basically the same human way. So when standpoint epistemology tries to define the mind, or human knowing and how it operates in terms of ethnicity rather than in terms of human nature, it begins to have massive implications upon the doctrine of the incarnation and the atoning work of Christ.
Christ had a human mind. His redemptive jurisdiction was not limited to Jews, but to Gentiles also. Yet, that would only be possible if Jesus had a human mind, a human way of knowing. The question is, “Did Christ redeem our knowing?” The answer is, “Yes.” And the answer is “yes” precisely because Christ redeemed the human mind, not just the mind as it’s defined by a particular culture, ethnicity, or race. Identity politics and things like standpoint epistemology are a cancerous infiltration into the Christian system which undermine the totality of the Christian faith.
As Christians, we do not have a black mind or a white mind, a black way of knowing or a white way of knowing, “we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16).”
The slavery engaged in during the transatlantic slave trade was evil and unbiblical. Full stop.
It was evil, however, for reasons you may not have considered. Most people think slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was evil because it was slavery. This is incorrect. The gross immorality of the transatlantic slave trade is to be found in the man stealing that enabled the trade in the first place (Deut. 24:7); the de-humanization of many slaves by their owners (Gen. 1:27); the murderous abuse that followed (Ex. 20:13); and the selection and generational continuance of slavery based on race or skin color (Deut. 10:19). These are the biblical reasons upon which the condemnation of American slavery, and the transatlantic slave trade in general, must stand. For these reasons, we can say that the slavery we most often hear about was a terrible tragedy, a truly unbiblical travesty.
Slavery, however, by itself, is not a wicked practice, nor is it condemned in the Scriptures anywhere. Now, before you jump my case, let’s define our terms. Slavery, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is simply defined as follows: (1) To reduce to the condition of a slave; to enslave; to bring into subjection. (2) To treat as a slave; to employ in hard or servile labor. (3) To practice slavish imitation. (4) To toil or work hard like a slave (Compact Edition, 2858). Uses (2) and (4) are probably the most enlightening and most relevant to our discussion here.
You will notice that nothing in this definition necessarily entails all the characteristics of American slavery. A slave is simply someone who is in subjection to a master (a boss) for the purposes of performing hard labor. The definitions above do not even prohibit a slave from being compensated for their labor monetarily. So, let’s stop debating whether or not slavery is wrong altogether and talk about the kinds of slavery most people are okay with.
According to the above definition, a member of the military is a slave. They meet all the requirements. They’re subjected to masters and, often times, they’re subjected to hard labor. I mean, contractually, the Department of Defense owns military members in almost every sense of the word. Military men and women are property. I should also mention that military members are obligated to work without pay if the government should experience a shutdown. I know this because I was in the military when a shutdown almost occurred—we were briefed accordingly. That’s a kind of slavery most everyone is okay with. It could even described as a necessary slavery for the purpose of defending a nation.
Factory workers are slaves. After all, they’re employed in hard labor, sometimes under other-than-desirable working conditions. Indentured servants, though often contrasted with slaves, are in fact slaves according to the above definition! I would argue that most American employees are slaves, or at least are trained to think like salves. Most Americans are eye-deep in debt and are contractually obligated by a bank to pay that debt off. That’s a kind of self-induced slavery. They’re not free, they belong to the bank until their note is paid in full. We must remember that anything that obstructs freedom is a form of slavery. On the spiritual side of the coin, that looks like bondage to sin or, more positively, submission to the Lord Jesus—in whom we are freed from our “freedom” to sin. On the earthly side of the coin, that looks like forfeiture of inalienable rights or the submission of oneself to a master. Yet, most of these obstructions of freedom are perfectly acceptable in American society, and, many of them are biblically permissible, excepting bondage to sin and perhaps the pursuit of debt, depending on what the debt is for, of course.
It’s not unbiblical for a person to work at a factory. It’s not unbiblical to serve in a military. Indentured servitude isn’t unbiblical. Yet, according to the most accurate and historical definition of the term I could find in the English language, those three forms of employment would constitute some form of slavery, albeit not the chattel slavery of the antebellum South.
Now, I must qualify what I’ve said, lest someone accuse me of actively pursuing a return to any form of earthly slavery. Biblically speaking, earthly freedom is preferred to earthly slavery. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” If slavery is not your current station, do not seek to become a slave. Be content with where you are. This goes, probably most explicitly, for debt. In a day and age where anyone can buy just about anything they want, so long as they have the credit, slavery is rampant. “Do not,” says Paul, “seek to become a slave. Be content with where you are in Christ.” However, as we know with Philemon and Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, if slavery is your station, and there is no injustice being done you, then remain content in Christ. First Corinthians 7:21 says, “Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.” Be content in Christ. If freedom is lawfully available, take advantage of it to the glory of God.
In closing, we should remember that Christians are slaves of King Jesus. Ephesians 6:5-6 says, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” This shows us, at the very least, that slavery cannot be intrinsically evil. It’s certain kinds of slavery that are evil, but not all slavery. I, for one, am blessed beyond measure to be a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. For He is a kind, caring, and gentle slave Master.
— J. S.
I was reading an excerpt from Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition when I noticed him make a rather profound point. If a person was to take two Bible commentaries, one modern and the other ancient, they will notice a vast difference in methodology and even in conclusions drawn from the text. You might think of Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Romans or John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians as compared to a more modern commentary like that from the publisher Nelson, the Word Biblical Commentary; your comparison may quickly turn into more of a contrast, as you begin to notice more differences than similarities in both method and content. I once had an enlightened M. Div. friend tell me that he doubted whether or not the Nicene fathers knew what the Greek meant and how it may have been used in the first century. Those ol’ cave men knew nothing! Never mind that their first language was Greek and that the Creed itself was penned by some of the most astute men of the day (proof read by the Emperor himself, no doubt). All jests aside, modern commentaries are usually more critical while pre-modern commentaries are less so.
What I’m trying to get at is that there is a chasm between how we interpret the Bible now and how they interpreted the Bible then. Carter writes:
The irrational bias of the myth of progress can be seen in the tendency to criticize orthodox church fathers for reading Greek metaphysics into the text, while overlooking the influence of Baruch Spinoza’s rationalism and Bruno Bauer’s Hegelianism on their own biblical interpretation. Is this because “Greek” metaphysics is bad, but “German” metaphysics is good? According to the history of hermeneutics as told from an Enlightenment perspective, if it were not for the pagan Enlightenement, Christians would still be reading Greek metaphysics into the Bible like Augustine and making it say whatever they pleased like Origen. Is it not rather bizarre that this narrative asks us to believe that it took the paga Epicureanism of the Enlightenment to rescue us from the “subjectivism” of the Nicene fathers, medieval schoolmen, and Protestant Reformers (96)?
While there is much here to engage, I’d like to draw your attention to what I believe to be the most valuable part of the quotation. The underlying assumption in the divide between today’s interpreters and yesterday’s interpreters, if you will, is that we are more enlightened than them. We have grown past the ridiculous games they used to play before the Enlightenment, or so it’s thought. The other assumption is that the metaphorical or allegorical tendencies so pronounced within the pre-modern interpretive schema were totally false and uncalled for. We’ve traded assumptions the old fathers once held in exchange for a more rigorous, historical-grammatical practice.
The problem here, of course, is that such an over commitment to the montratic plain meaning of the text prevents Scripture from being interpreted on its own terms. Dr. John MacArthur will serve as a prime example. In the first part of his series ‘Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist’, he said:
There are over two thousand references to Israel in Scripture; not one of them means anything but Israel. So, if you say the promises of the Old Testament that refer to Israel really meant the church, you have no precedent for such an interpretation. Not one reference anywhere in Scripture – and there are over two thousand, referring to Israel – means anything other than Israel. There are 73 references to Israel in the New Testament; each of them refers to Israel.
Eschatology aside, words like this do a massive disservice to the text of holy Scripture. By “Israel” MacArthur means ethnic Israel and, since that’s the case, his statement is absolutely false. In a paper I wrote on the issue of dispensational hermeneutics, I talk about how the term Israel is used in three different ways in the Old Testament alone. It’s used as a proper name of a person in Genesis 32:38; it’s used to describe God’s Old Testament remnant in Zephaniah 3:13; and it’s used to speak of the nation of Israel in places like Nehemiah 13:26 and numerous others. But, because MacArthur is so committed to the so called plain meaning of the text, he finds it hard to let the Bible speak for itself. The plain meaning must always be one. Israel means Israel. What’s not disclosed, at least in this case, is that the pious sounding verbiage, “plain meaning of the text,” actually means, “imposition of preconceived assumptions upon the text.” Moreover, another nagging assumption of the new way is that allegory is completely opposed to literal meaning. For almost 1800 years of church history this was largely unheard of. Method and meaning are two different things which are often confused by the critical crowd. For example, what happens when Scripture communicates literal meaning by way of allegory or metonomy? Think of Galatians 4 and Paul’s allegorizing of Sarah and Hagar. What about the heavenly and, therefore, spiritual Jerusalem in Hebrews 12:22? Is that not a literal thing simply because it’s spiritual? The post-modern hermeneutic isn’t built from the Scriptures, it’s built by humanistic rationalism and then imposed upon the text. What’s literal can never be spiritual—a perfect fall into the naturalists snare!
I remember having professors throughout Bible college who would actively discourage students from interpreting passages of Scripture using other passages of Scripture. Instead, we were to read the passage and determine its meaning by looking solely at the original languages and the historical context—the intent of the human author and the understanding of said author’s human audience. Then, as a footnote, we were to do this prayerfully and seek the Spirit’s guidance. All of these things, in themselves are good, but they do not themselves stand on their own. They are not and cannot be the end all to the interpretive agenda. In pre-modern times, the Spirit’s guidance was not some mystical interaction between the Spirit and the reader of the text. It was the Spirit as He spoke through the written Word. So, the Spirit’s guidance would come by means of the biblical text itself. Scripture interprets Scripture. Scripture tells us what Scripture means. Unquestionably so, this principle has been lost in post-modern times.
The Enlightenment had within it presuppositions which, if followed consistently, would bar its disciples from presupposing the spiritual character of the Scriptures. Any spiritual conclusion, including inspiration, divine authority, biblical sufficiency, if any of those things exist at all, must be concluded from the text rather than assumed within the interpretational exercise. If this is the case, it therefore makes sense that the Bible could not and should not be interpreted on its own terms. It must be interpreted on naturalistic terms and then, just maybe, we’ll squeeze some divinity out of it. Because of this, things like inspiration and sufficiency have come into question. Neither of the two were hardly up for debate prior to the modern era.
Admittedly, sufficiency came into question with the Protestant Reformation and Rome’s insistence upon the authority of ecclesial tradition. But, even that debate occurred for different reasons, having more to do with the question of how God reveals Himself and His truth to us. Inspiration was questioned throughout the twentieth century because of naturalistic tendencies found within the church more so than without. The current debate over social justice calls into question the doctrine of sufficiency on the basis of a naturalistic understanding of man and even justice, referring to critical race theory and intersectionality as useful tools. If our hermeneutics can be and has been aided by critical theory, why not our anthropology and missiology?
This is a huge discussion and can’t be comprehended in a single blog post. My hope is that this tiny, insignificant piece of literature would be a starting point. Perhaps it will get you thinking about this issue more, and even send you on a journey of your own to recover the goodness of the past in opposition to the wickedness of the present. We live in confusing times. It is my hope that the recovery of our doctrine of Scripture and a sound hermeneutical methodology will, by God’s grace, set us upon a path to victory.
— J. S.