The Lens Through Which You Read

I recently sent out a tweet regarding my reading in Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome.


Spent some time reading Romans tonight. A great letter. Funny how it affirms free will theology for me, yet not others.

This tweet was definitely influenced by my anti-Calvinist theology. Perhaps “anti” is too strong a word, rather my opposition to Calvinist theology. This tweet brought about a very healthy conversation on Facebook with a friend of mine. Our conversation revolved around the fact that our presuppositions play heavily into our interpretation of Scripture. My tweet is good example of this, being that I subscribe to Open Theology I read Romans in light of that theology and that influences my interpretation. The question that I want to pose is whether or not an individual can come to a reading of Scripture that isn’t tainted, even in the slightest way, by their preconceived ideas and presuppositions. If our reading is constantly marred by the lens through which we read how do we come to a point of finding Truth. I believe that, as with all problems, the first step to healing is admitting that the problem is there. It is my opinion that most people are not willing to recognize that they are reading Scripture through a lens which influences their interpretation. If we can admit that read through a particular lens then we can begin to see Scripture beyond our particular lens and come to a better outcome, although there are those, including my friend whom this conversation took place with, who maintain (and for the most part, rightly so) that it is nearly impossible to remove our lenses. These issues are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but left unchecked or held accountable they can lead down a path that is completely off-chart for accurate Biblical Interpretation.

An example of how lenses influence reading is looking at the Letter to the Romans. Luther viewed the letter as the definitive argument against a works based Christianity. The lens that he was viewing through was his reaction against practices in the Roman Catholic Church. N.T. Wright however reads the letter as being primarily about God’s righteousness. The two views are not necessarily incompatible but it is obvious that these two men read the Letter through different lenses with different presuppositions which ultimately influenced the outcome of their interpretations.

So here are my questions that I hope will stir some honest debate and conversation.

First, I want to know what lenses you have identified that influence your reading, whether that be Calvinism, Arminianism, or even secularism.

Second, what is the antecedent that you hold your interpretation against in order to preserve truth, allow for freedom in non-essentials, and to determine what the essentials are?

To give some other examples of how this has played out in theology here are a list of people who have influenced traditions of theology that would be contrary to other persons in theology.

Alexander Campbell, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, McLaren, Bell, Driscoll, Piper, Boyd, C.S. Lewis, etc…

Part of the purpose of this conversation will be to show that while we may have different interpretations and disagree that we can all appreciate each others pursuit for Truth and sincere devotion to Christ.

This is a mere academic/theological conversation all responses will be viewed with respect. I welcome differing opinions as long as they are open to constructive and polite criticism.


5 responses to “The Lens Through Which You Read

  • Michael Shepherd

    I was put off by your description of lenses “marring” or “tainting” what would otherwise be a pure interpretation or knowledge. You did come back at the end of the paragraph though to say that these lenses were not necessarily negative, but an un-awareness of them in ourselves and others is where tensions build.

    1. My influences: formative experiences within a context of multi-culturalism, living in a state that valued diversity and pluralism (Oregon), authors: CS Lewis- whose use of imagination in developing theology blew doors off of categorization; JB Philips (Your God is Too Small); a molotov cocktail of grace when I was 18, Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel and Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship– against the backdrop of these two works, I was equally incredibly humbled to assert any claim over the grace of God and free to live in the lavishness of God’s work accomplished and continuing through Christ. (Note: I had a pretty badass Sunday school teacher who would assign us books like these)

    2. The antecedent for me is pragmatism. I receive this antecedent from a Euroamerican value of work as well as a family history of loggers and homesteaders that expect functionality. Therefore, if theology is not practically relevant to accomplishing Christlikeness in discipleship or the introduction of the kingdom of God, it is unnecessary (at best). This antecedent has also led to to believe in open theism as the most effective way to develop our understanding of God and relationship with him.

  • redlightorphanage

    Michael, thanks for the reply. I did use the descriptions of “marring” and “tainting” specifically due to the fact that any interpretation from humanity’s standpoint does not encompass the purest and truest interpretation and therefore in a way, however small or large, our interpretations do taint or mar the intended message.

    I appreciate the antecedent of pragmatism; practical theology is, in my opinion, the only useful theology. However, I must again ask the question where do we draw the line for our relative interpretations. At what point is an interpretation no longer Christian? Much of this stems from my current reading in the Bonhoeffer’s biography by Metaxas. Bonhoeffer saw first hand the dangers of a theology that was taking their own interpretation too far and negating vital parts of Scripture. These “German Christians” sought to interpret Scripture in such a way as to advocate for their own motives. That being said, I believe that their obvious fault was in utilizing Scripture to their own ends and to justify their own actions and most of all they did it willingly and knowingly. However, the same danger can lie in our interpretations when we, albeit subconsciously at times, interpret Scripture through our own lens in order to make it fit what we feel are rational and logical arguments. These instances stem from a fear of much of what Scripture teaches and the natural impact that it will have if we were to truly live it out. This is exactly what Bonhoeffer was trying to address in his methods of teaching and theology.

    With all that said, how do we hold ourselves accountable to pursuing truth without making it about us and our own motives?

  • drkaristai

    This is an interesting discussion that I have been hesistant to jump into because my white space for more fully developing my arguement is quite limited right now…but I just can’t help wading in the shallow end of this pool.

    In reading your exchange with Michael on Facebook and your thoughts here I was constantly reminded of Wittgenstein and George Lindbeck. In the “conclusions” reached (I use that term rather loosely here) I think we see good examples where the philosophy of Wittengenstein and his later followers go too far. For this philosophy would have us believe that our entire view on reality is determined by cultural, linguistic, religious, gender and geographical factors; thus cutting us of from the Ontological. We can’t make statements about reality outside our cultural-linguistic matrix because everything we think and feel is determined by x,y,z factors. Its a strange form of determinism to me.

    My problem with this is that the Gospel and the eschatology it contains tells of a kingdom Out There breaking into Here and making us accessible to It. This has been confirmed from St. John and Paul to Athanasius to Thomas Aquinas to Paul Tillich; it has transcended time, culture and language. If the cultural-linguistic philosophy were entirely correct then we would have to conclude that the gospel is a product of x,y,z factors as well. A theology that is both a product of a cultural linguistic system and teaches of an Inbreaking Kingdom is nonsensicle.

    Does experience count for nothing, then? I think they do but in as much as the 18th Century’s worship of Reason went too far our post-modern obsession with experience is the opposite end of that pendulum. Of course, the fact that I am a Heterosexual, Married White, Christian living in America affects how I see the world but my epistemological growth is not trapped within those confines. Reason and Experience are interdependant axioms as our narratives are consistently countered with the story of Christ and his coming kingdom. This is why the theological task is always unfinished.

    As for our antecedent, i think community is our antecedent. More specifically, how the Spirit moves and shapes communal practices. This kind of speaks to your question about how do we tell when our theology becomes deformed. When we as a Body make the sacraments, prayer, peacemaking, advocating for the poor etc. communal rituals these practices are transformed into virtues and we develop a sense of intuition that tells us when a cultural presupposition or worldview isn’t quite right. I point to Bonhoeffer and his community as an excellent example of this. Those living in constant comformity to the Way of Christ comes to know the will of the Father intuitively.

    This is where I think the im-practical theologies shine for it is through non discursive ritual that gives birth to virtue rather than sound principles that can be applied today. They the intangbiles of our faith and theology but vital to it as well or we’d be doomed to a stale deontology.

  • redlightorphanage

    Daniel, what you articulated in your post is perfect. Most of all, I agree with your antecedent. If our lens affects the way in which we read the Bible then the Bible itself cannot be our antecedent, it would serve as a conflict of interests. However, if we base our antecedent within community then there is both accountability and freedom. Well said.

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