Interpretation without Presuppositions? Not Possible and Not Desirable.

I am one of those nerds who has read the Tolkien trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, well over a dozen times. I love the Peter Jackson movie adaptations too. One of my favorite scenes in the movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, is when a concerned Gandalf gently suggests to Bilbo that maybe he has possessed the ring long enough. Bilbo is so turned in on himself, due to the poisonous influence of the ring, that he accuses Gandalf of attempting to take the ring for himself. The towering Gandalf has to confront Bilbo with words that are rebuking and comforting, “I am not trying to rob you! I am trying to help you.”

Bilbo misinterpreted the good words of Gandalf because his ring-poisoned heart and mind doubted the noble character and kind motivations of Gandalf.

This is not just the stuff of movies. This happens all the time – anytime we interpret texts. Sure, we may not have the evil influence of the “One Ring” bearing down on us, but we do read and listen with presuppositions and biases; some are rather benign, others are bad and unhelpful, while still others are good and necessary.

If postmodernity has taught us anything, it is that there is no such thing as the perfectly objective, neutral, white-labcoat-wearing, human interpreter of reality. We are all influenced by everything that makes us who we are at any one particular time (presuppositions, background, parents, education, culture, experiences, etc.) and we always bring all of it to the table, if only in varying degrees. This is true of textual interpretation as well.

But what about Bible interpretation? Isn’t that the one place where value-free interpretation can and must take place? Wouldn’t the objectivity of the Word of God be compromised if we admitted that we always bring our presuppositions to the text? Ought not our minds to be a sort of tabula rasa every time we read the Scriptures, and anything less than that would only spoil or distort what the Lord seeks to communicate? I don’t think so.

The objectivity of the Word of God does not depend upon the non-subjectivity of its readers. God, after all, is personal. And the Bible was written by a Real Person, through other real persons to still other real persons. As I explained in a previous post, the Scriptures were written to particular people, in a particular place, at a particular time, in a particular setting. In Scripture, we do not have abstract divine speech. We have particular words that are addressed to people in all of their particularity and cultural conditioning. We are the same. How could we not come to the text with presuppositions and sensibilities. It would not be possible.

Nor would it be desirable.

You see, the Bible not only recognizes that readers will bring presuppositions to the biblical text, the Bible counts on it. And it does so without compromising the transcendence or authority of its truth claims.

What sort of presuppositions might we need in order to interpret the Bible correctly? I think there are many, but for starters, I would include such things as, “God exists,” “God communicates,” and “God is good.”

Have you noticed that the Bible never argues for the existence of God? Sure, at times, some of the authors will praise the Lord in a fashion that looks kind of like the teleological argument for God’s existence (Ps 19, etc.). But such passages come later, not at the front end of Scripture. We do not get an inspired cast of characters, a sort of Divine Dramatis Personae. We do not get an encyclopedia of God facts. We get, instead, a narrative that starts with the simple yet powerful and profound statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Bible, at the beginning, assumes the existence of God. Now, we find out quickly something about this God who exists, namely, that he is unimaginably powerful and creative. And we learn still more as the narrative progresses, so our presuppositions are to be shaped and informed as we read. But what would happen to our biblical interpretation if we approached the Scriptures with the opposite convictions: that God did not exist or that God was incapable or disinterested in communicating with his creatures? Try either one of those false presuppositions and see how far you get. Mind you, I am not saying that only orthodox believers should read the Bible. We come to faith by the Word of God, so it is obvious that you can be persuaded as you read that God exists or that he desires to communicate. My point is that until you come to those convictions, your understanding of the Bible is going to be deficient.

The Bible is to be read in community and it is to be read in relationship with God. If we doubt God’s character, if we doubt God’s goodness, how can we hope to understand and apply God’s instructions, his words of comfort, or his promises? Remember Bilbo and the effect the Ring had on his interpretation of Gandalf’s kind words? Sin has had the same effect on us. We are so turned in on ourselves that we often doubt God’s goodness and then his words of challenge, hope, and comfort are misinterpreted as the malicious words of a tyrant.

Your doctrine of God and doctrine of man will have a huge impact on your interpretation. There is no getting around it. That is why I teach my students: Hermeneutics is, first and foremost, a theological endeavor. Of course, our biblical reading and interpretation will have a profound effect on our theology. Taken together, each informing the other as we go, we arrive closer and closer to true knowledge of God and his redemptive purposes.

The issue is not whether or not you bring presuppositions to the text. Of course you do. The issue is whether or not your presuppositions are faithful. Are they consistent with the truths taught in the very Bible you are seeking to interpret?

So are we left to float adrift without any center in a postmodern sea of meaningless texts? Are we able to make a text legitimately mean anything our idiosyncratic theological presuppositions dictate? That’s not right either, and we will explore that next time.

About Todd Miles

Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).