Interpreting Scripture Honestly and Forthrightly

"I am just stating (preaching/teaching) what the Bible says," is an oft-heard statement in Christian circles and from Christian pastors. Let me offer a prime example from John Piper. Addressing his church about the history of his pastorate among them, he states, "Up until that point, in the life of our church, I'd been here for five years: we had not made any issue at all about so-called Calvinism -- we hadn't made any issue at all of this controversial thing. I had just tried to be faithful to the biblical texts, because I think that's what wins the confidence of God's people. They don't want to hear system [i.e., systematic theology], mainly; they want to hear Bible." (mark 3:48-4:20)

I do not doubt Dr. Piper's sincerity; and I think he genuinely believes he is preaching the word of God rightly. I think he believes the Bible inherently teaches Calvinism; or, perhaps, Calvin and those who agree with him rightly teach a (Calvinistic) theology that is merely assumed by the authors of Scripture. Many disagree with his biblical views, not merely Arminians, and Piper himself did not always agree with Calvinism -- neither did R.C. Sproul.

Before perceiving Calvinism as being biblical, Piper confesses that, during his initial seminary training, he believed in a framework of free will (utter self-autonomy) that even Arminians deny -- one not derived from Scripture but, rather, culture, he states (link). Still, he argued with his professor, fighting for his concept of free will. Evidently, though his views of free will were not properly founded upon Scripture, he found no warrant for belief in the claims of Calvinism, either, not initially at least. A young Piper sorely disagreed with an older Piper on "what the Bible says." This is because the manner in which we interpret or view Scripture is dependent upon certain criteria.

R.C. Sproul makes a similar confession. His college professor challenged his biblical worldview with Calvinistic interpretations: "I did not like it. I did not like it at all. I fought against it tooth and nail all through college."1 When he graduated college he remained unconvinced of the claims of Calvinism. His interpretations of Scripture, then, were against a Calvinistic understanding of the passages he now claims teaches Calvinism (Jn. 6; 10; Rom. 8; 9; 1 Cor. 1; Eph. 1 et al.). In seminary, under the tutelage of Dr. John H. Gerstner, young Sproul argued tenaciously with his Calvinist professor for well over a year before changing his mind -- or, rather, before he found himself unable to critically answer the charges proffered by Dr. Gerstner. He writes:
My final surrender came in stages. Painful stages. It started when I began work as a student pastor in a church. I wrote a note to myself that I kept on my desk in a place where I could always see it.

Here we find the explicit mention of "what the Bible says," the implication being as though merely reading the Bible, at least from Sproul's view, one will conclude with Calvinism. More on this below. Sproul continues his story:
The note haunted me. My final crisis came in my senior year. I had a three-credit course in the study of Jonathan Edwards. We spent the semester studying Edwards's most famous book, The Freedom of the Will, under Gerstner's tutelage. At the same time I had a Greek exegesis course in the book of Romans. I was the only student in that course one on one with the New Testament professor. There was nowhere I could hide.

The combination was too much for me. Gerstner, Edwards, the New Testament professor, and above all the apostle Paul, were too formidable a team for me to withstand. The ninth chapter of Romans was the clincher. I simply could find no way to avoid the apostle's teaching in that chapter. Reluctantly, I sighed and surrendered, but with my head, not my heart. "OK, I believe this stuff, but I don't have to like it!"2 (emphases added)
He eventually coaxed himself into loving with his heart what he had become convinced of -- through Calvinist interpreters Gerstner, Edwards, and the Calvinistic interpretation of his Greek New Testament professor -- in his mind. But, I argue, what Piper and Sproul have relayed to us in the history of their finally adopting Calvinism is a form of what is known among literary critics as naïve (direct or common sense) realism.

For instance, a Christian naïve realist will insist that his or her interpretations of various passages of Scripture are simply "what the Bible says." This naïve approach is also a form of self-deception, which neglects to consider that "disagreements [on interpretive issues] cannot be resolved by reference to the facts, because the facts emerge only in the context of some point of view."3 In other words, and for an excellent example, when Sproul claims the apostle Paul was among the formidable combination leading him to adopt Calvinism, he naïvely assumes that Gerstner, Edwards and his Greek professor were all objectively interpreting Scripture merely by reading Scripture.

A primary argument against naïve realism is its neglect to acknowledge context, perspective, and differing experiences. Thus, when I hear or read a Christian claim that his or her interpretations of Scripture are simply "what the Bible says," I thereby understand that all I am truly receiving are the opinions of what he or she is stating. Dr. Stanley Fish writes:
Nowhere is this process more conveniently on display than in literary criticism, where everyone's claim is that his interpretation more perfectly accords with the facts, but where everyone's purpose is to persuade the rest of us to the version of the facts he espouses by persuading us to the interpretive principles in the light of which those facts will seem indisputable.4 (emphasis added)
This is not to concede overt relativism, even if it hints at contingent relativism, which appears inherently self-evident for us as finite creatures of an infinite divine Being.5 Fish also argues that disagreements over varied interpretations, though they are not settled by the facts, they are nonetheless "the means by which the facts are settled."6 Our goal is to free ourselves from the naïve simplicity of Piper and Sproul, as well as others who espouse a wide-eyed "I just believe what the Bible says" mentality.

For instance, Fish writes: "Whenever a critic prefaces an assertion with a phrase like 'without doubt' or 'there can be no doubt,' you can be sure that you are within hailing distance of the interpretive principles which produce the facts that he presents as obvious."7 (emphasis added) We can avoid these inept methods at honest communication by recognizing that 1) no one reads and interprets Scripture objectively and marginally of one's worldview; or, stated another way, no one reads and interprets Scripture in a vacuum; 2) no one can possibly know, apart from direct, divine revelation that his or her theological positions are objectively correct; and, therefore, 3) no one maintains and teaches the biblical position on secondary and tertiary theological matters.

Let us view this issue by appealing to two opposing interpretations of Romans 9: one from John Piper and one from Brian Abasciano. Both believe Scripture to be divinely inspired, authoritative on all matters for doctrine and right living, and the source for spiritual truth. Dr. Fish summarizes the matter between Piper and Abasciano, Calvinists and Arminians:
What we have here are two critics with opposing interpretations, each of whom claims the same word as internal and confirming evidence. Clearly they cannot both be right, but just as clearly there is no basis for deciding between them. One cannot appeal to the text, because the text has become an extension of the interpretive disagreement that divides them; and, in fact, the text as it is variously characterized is a consequence of the interpretation for which it is supposedly evidence.7
All appeals, then, to an intertextual interpretation cannot settle the matter; and, in fact, only leads us down the path to a form of naïve realism -- the very notion we are trying to avoid. Even the context will not be helpful. Why? Because the context only advances "an already assumed interpretation."9 What we find, then, of Calvinistic and Arminian interpretations are varied perspectives not merely of the text(s) in question but in what constitutes a proper hermeneutic for interpreting those texts. You see, then, why the two theologians (and their followers) cannot agree.

Returning to Piper and his historical relationship to his church, the truth of the matter is that he had already adopted Calvinism before his pastorate at Bethlehem Baptist Church. John Piper was not merely attempting to "be faithful to the biblical texts," but was, in fact, interpreting those texts through the lens of Calvinism. Whether or not one views the matter of Piper interpreting the Bible through the lens of Calvinism without informing his congregation of this fact as orthopraxy is left to the individual. We know that a covert method has been employed by young Calvinist pastors in Southern Baptist churches, and such has caused undue strain and stress. (link)

But to suggest that Piper has merely been trying to be faithful in teaching the Bible, and his faithfulness naturally concludes with a Calvinistic theology, is naïve at best and deceptive at worst. Because I choose to believe better of him, even in spite of my suspicions, my conclusion appeals to his naiveté. He interprets Scripture through a Calvinistic lens in the same manner that I interpret Scripture though an Arminian lens. We both interpret Scripture through these means because we each believe they are faithful lenses through which to express and be devoted to the truths of the Bible.

This is the type of honesty that we are required to embrace as faithful expositors of God's word. We must be honest and forthright on these issues of interpretation and hermeneutics. We cannot afford to perpetuate and promote the naïve presuppositional assumptions underlining much of the "Young, Restless and Reformed" movement in general, and some Calvinist scholars in particular -- not if our intention is to be honest and forthright in our interpretations of the Bible.


1 R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God: Knowing God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 1986), 3.

2 Ibid., 4.

3 Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 338.

4 Ibid., 339.

5 James K.A. Smith, himself a Calvinist scholar, when referring to relativism, imagines not the concept that "nothing matters," but that "everything depends," meaning that "such a claim is a radically creational, radically Christian claim about the status of creaturehood, including creaturely knowing." He points out what should be a self-evident truth, regarding God being ultimately independent and absolute in Himself, and finite human creatures being contingent, dependent and relative. See Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 180.

6 Fish, 338.

7 Ibid., 341.

8 Ibid., 340.

9 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.