Bias, Systematic Theology, and Exegesis
Many people live by the old adage, "I’ve made up my mind—don’t bother me with the facts," and its sister, "People hear what they want to hear." The truth, however, is not always in the fact that people are being willingly ignorant or obstinate to the facts, but rather that people often cannot hear the facts in any other way than that which their prior understanding will allow them to.. We are often unconsciously selective on what we will hear and how we will comprehend a particular fact or event, because we only hear/comprehend what our minds are prepared to hear/comprehend.
The process of learning is a process of adding to and adjusting our current understanding. The mind can only assimilate new information by relating it to already existing knowledge. During the assimilation process our mind will automatically filter the new information in an attempt to fit it into our preunderstandings of reality/truth. At times the new information may be forced into the existing interpretational grid, while at other times we will alter our grid to account for the new data. While our preunderstanding is continually being altered to adjust to new information, some preunderstandings are not as easily changed as are others. It may take quite a bit of work to identify an anomaly which cannot be assimilated it into the existing system, and adjust our interpretive framework to account for the new facts.
Our Biased Approach to Interpretation
We can never be entirely objective with the data we encounter because the knower always brings his preunderstandings to that which is being observed/considered. All human knowledge, understanding, and interpretation arise from the biases and pre-understandings we bring to bear on the evidence. Understanding is not achieved in a vacuum. Nobody is neutral in their approach to the world—preunderstandings are always at work.
We stand within the stream of history, socially conditioned by a particular people with a particular culture. Each of us inherits a particular social tradition, a standpoint from which we begin all rational inquiry. All knowledge is mediated through a certain inherited perspective. All rational activity is "inescapably historically and socially context-bound."1
All of us also inherit a particular tradition. Tradition "is a historically extended, socially embodied argument about how best to interpret" reality as we experience it and think it ought to be.2 The basic assumptions of this inherited tradition are assumed uncritically in our everyday engagement with the world, thus we begin our inquiry into our world assuming certain basic beliefs belonging to our tradition "which cannot be disbelieved while they serve as assumptions."3 While there will be occasions in which the fundamental assumptions of our tradition are recognized and called into question for their inherent justification (often when confronted by the presuppositions of a different tradition), the assumptions can never be questioned in toto, because one cannot completely step outside their tradition. One can only evaluate their tradition and its assumptions in light of other traditions, being compared for their rational justification.
We must face up to the inevitability of our locatedness within and indebtedness to some tradition or other.4 In such a predicament it is impossible to obtain culturally neutral, unconditioned knowledge,5 a 'spectator's gallery,' or 'God's-eye view' of the world. There is no privileged, wholly objective glimpse of the world, unhindered by our own perspective and experience..6 There is no such view-from-nowhere.
The perspectival nature of our knowledge is the reason we must reject the notion of "nothing but the bare facts." Facts are not "pre-theoretical, value-free, pure units of 'public' experience that popular mythology would have us to believe. … Real facts are theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation…."7 Two people can view the same "facts" and come up with two entirely different interpretations of those facts due to their background, cultural surroundings, personal bias’, education, etc. Facts are meaningless by themselves. It is the interpretation of the facts that makes the difference.
We all interpret the "facts" in light of prior knowledge commitments. There is no such thing as the neutral observer, who takes a bird’s-eye-view of reality, free from all presuppositions. All knowledge is theory-laden, historically rooted, and perspectival. "In many, many cases, it is a set of prior commitments, rather than the weight of the evidence, that determines the final conclusion" we come to when presented with conflicting data.8
Each of us views the world through our own particular set of colored glasses. While all of us have such glasses, we are not naturally aware of them because they are always on our noses. We get used to them, and used to viewing the world through them. We often deny their existence because we have never been able to view the world without them to see the difference. Many have recognized the existence of such glasses, but are confused as to who is wearing them. They have wrongly assumed that it is only those who disagree with them who are wearing the colored glasses! The fact of the matter is that these glasses are part of us, unable to be removed from before our eyes. While we make every attempt to be critically aware of and free ourselves of the perspective offered to us by these glasses, we cannot be entirely free from their effects.
Implications for Theology
Such an understanding of how people process and organize knowledge, the perspectival nature of our knowledge, and the natural biases of our inherited tradition and culture has great implications for the theological method we employ. It also explains the reason we encounter such difficulty in interpreting the Biblical text, and find so many different interpretations of the same.
How should the believer approach Biblical interpretation? Most students of theology have been told to approach the text without any preconceived idea as to what it means, so as to be non-biased in their interpretation, performing exegesis rather than eisegesis. While I agree that such an approach is our goal, it is not possible to be entirely objective when we come to the text. The advice is good insofar as it encourages independent thinking, and in the fact that it attempts to guard against us forcing a particular theology into the passage rather than allowing the passage to instruct our theology, but such advice is fundamentally flawed because it is untrue to the learning process.9 It is simply impossible to learn anything without basing new information on existing knowledge and filtering it through existing interpretational grids. We cannot approach the Scripture free from presuppositions, nor free from a theological bias, and thus cannot be entirely objective in the interpretive process. To do proper exegesis, we must be aware of our biases and preunderstandings, not deny their existence.
The notion that the interpretation of a particular passage can be undertaken apart from a prior systematic theology, or any preunderstandings is hopelessly naïve. Whether we like it or not, all of us approach interpretation from our preunderstandings, assimilating new information in light of existing information, because the very possibility of understanding anything depends on a prior framework of knowledge. It is usually only in the case where many facts begin to accumulate which do not fit into the present paradigm (system) that one will begin to question their preunderstandings, and seek to reorganize their system. Truly the mind can only receive what it is prepared to comprehend. All of us have had the experience of reading a particular passage over and over again, never to see its real meaning because we were attempting to understand it in light of a faulty paradigm. Once that paradigm changed, and the mind was prepared to see something else, suddenly the passage takes on new meaning, teaching something different than we once thought it did.
Is our inevitable affinity with preunderstandings a necessary evil? Not necessarily. What one thinks of the predicament is a moot point, because it remains our predicament nonetheless. Seeing that we cannot escape our preunderstandings, we ought to find ways to use them to the best of their ability to aid us in the interpretive process, rather than hindering us in the same.
The Role of Systematic Theology
The mind works as a system, systematizing all incoming data into an understandable framework and grid through which to make sense of the world, and through which to interpret other incoming data. Our mind systematizes everything from the trees in the field, to our understanding of God. All Christians have certain beliefs about God, and those beliefs are arranged in a systematic fashion as well—so it is that every Christian has a systematic theology.
What our minds do naturally has been developed into a specific method of interpreting the Bible known as systematic theology. The question is not whether one has a systematic theology, but how well defined and consistent their systematic theology is.
Some theologians are skeptical of systematic theology because the recognize its weaknesses as a method. Many of these same theologians advocate Biblical theology as the preferred method of doing theology. Biblical theology is an approach to Biblical interpretation that recognizes revelation as progressive--God has progressively disclosed His will and purpose to His creation over time. It attempts to present the Biblical teaching in the sequence that God's revelation was given to man, examining each author's particular contribution to the Biblical teaching as a whole, but not necessarily understanding each author's statement in light of the whole. Biblical theology interprets each passage in light of each author's understanding from his particular vantage point in the history of revelation, understanding his words in his own particular thought forms and categories, rather than imposing on one author the understanding and categories of expression of another.
The Bible was written by many authors over many centuries, each having some new revelation to add to the previous revelation, or offering a different perspective to an already revealed truth. Biblical theology maintains that while the Bible may make many statements concerning a particular subject, each statement must be interpreted in light of the immediate context, the genre, the historical context, and the literary purposes of the author before being interpreted in light of other statements made in other books regarding the same topic. Biblical theology recognizes the error of reading a later revelation into a former revelation, assuming that the truths understood/revealed at a later time were also understood/revealed in the previous revelation. An obvious example concerns the person of Jesus Christ. While the OT contains prophecy concerning His coming, and supplies us with some brief allusions to His purpose, it is the NT that supplies us with the greatest understanding concerning who Jesus is, and what Jesus did for humanity. It would be a mistake to read the OT prophecies concerning Christ and believe that those who penned those prophecies understood all that we understand about Christ after having received new revelation in the NT. Likewise, the understanding we gain from Paul's teaching cannot be read back into the OT passages, and neither can we assume that Paul understood the truths of God in the same manner as did John. Each author was at different stages in their understanding, and offered different perspectives on the same truths. As such, the contribution of each author needs to be evaluated first in light of the author's particular stance in the stream of revelation, the genre he wrote in, and his literary purpose, and then secondly in light of other Biblical statements dealing with the same topic.
While I would agree that there are inherent weaknesses in systematic theology, every theological method has its weaknesses, including Biblical theology. While systematic theology is prone to eisegesis so as to make all the pieces fit together just right, and prone to over-explanation, Biblical theology is prone to leaving one with a series of unresolved apparent Biblical contradictions, not willing to tie up the loose ends to present the Biblical teaching as a unified whole. While the issue could be debated further, it needs to be pointed out that everybody has both a biblical and a systematic theology to one degree or another.. Both theological methods are necessary and beneficial to the believer. What I want to focus on for this discussion is the inevitableness of developing and using a systematic theology in our exegesis.
Everyone must have a systematic theology because systematization is an inescapable construct of the mind, organizing incoming data into meaningful paradigms that can be understood and used. The logical nature of our minds will not allow known contradictory data to be believed at one and the same time, or to allow contradictory systems of thought to co-exist side-by-side. While everyone has a systematic theology, not all theologies are equally consistent, nor do all adequately deal with all the relevant data.
Not only is systematization the natural process of the mind, but developing a systematic theology is the logical outflow of the conservative Christian’s view of the Scripture as a unitary corpus of writings with one ultimate author—God. To the degree that we believe in a single, ultimate author of Scripture is the degree to which we will allow our systematic theology to inform our exegesis of particular texts.10 If the various passages and teachings of the Bible cohere in unity and are non-contradictory (because they come from one author), then the teaching of one particular passage cannot contradict the teaching of another passage. All Biblical statements must be capable of systematization, even if not perfectly because of our finite understanding. Nevertheless, our systematic theology will be used to help us understand and interpret the meaning of problematic passages, resolving apparent contradictions. This should not cause us to make our theological glass slipper fit the foot of the problematic passage, but the validity of the method is witnessed to by the fact that such a process is natural and necessary to the learning process.
The Biblical theological method elucidates the truth that revelation is progressive, and that various authors may speak of various truths from different perspectives. Having this understanding, we must not try to read later revelation into earlier revelation, or try to make every author out to be saying the same exact thing as a different author writing on the same topic. However, the belief that God is the ultimate author of Scripture must lead us to the conviction that there is indeed a way of reconciling all Biblical statements when considered in their proper historical and literary context, because God cannot contradict Himself.. This does not mean that we will be able to perfectly do so, but it does give credence and validity to our attempt to do so no matter how humble it may be.
The Dangers of Our Systematic Theology
Our attempt to develop a systematic understanding of Scripture is both natural and good, but we must beware lest the system we develop be viewed as the teaching of Scripture itself. We must exercise this caution because all systematic theologies are formulated by finite human beings who interpret the data through a biased, historically rooted perspective.
We must also be aware of canonizing a particular systematic theology because of the nature of systematic theology itself. Systematic theology attempts to fit all the pieces together into a unitary composition. Often, however, we do not have all the pieces available to fit together. It might be compared to a puzzle with missing pieces. The Bible is not always thorough on a particular teaching, or is not clear on a particular point, and thus we only have so many pieces of the puzzle that can be seen. Our Biblical theology attempts to understand the meaning of the existing pieces, while our systematic theology attempts to understand how they cohere together in unity, and to visualize the missing pieces based on the existing pieces.
While such a quest to fill in the missing pieces is natural, and to a large degree necessary and good, it can also be dangerous. It is difficult enough to properly understand the Biblical passages themselves (the existing pieces), yet alone trying to fill in the gaps of knowledge and understanding between these statements. Referring again to the puzzle analogy, even without all the pieces of the puzzle we can get a fairly good mental picture of what the completed puzzle looks like, depending on the amount of existing pieces. We cannot, however, maintain that our mental picture of the puzzle corresponds exactly to the completed puzzle itself. Likewise, while our attempts to fill in the missing pieces (gaps) in Scripture can be fairly accurate, surely it is not perfect because of our biases and preunderstandings. Let us never believe that the gaps we have attempted to fill through our systematic theology are the teachings of Scripture itself. We need to hold any systematic theology as tentative, able to be altered in light of other evidence that may arise to the contrary which can better explain the Biblical statements. All too often we pass off our systematic understanding of the Biblical statements as the absolute teaching of Scripture, when indeed such is not the case. Our systematic understanding of the Scripture, or even our exegesis of a particular text is conditioned by our historical context, and thus may not have permanent validity.
While the approach to exegesis on the basis of systematic theology runs into the danger of eisegesis, reading into a particular text a theology which is not being taught in the text, the approach is necessary nonetheless in light of the unitary nature of Scripture. Realizing the possible dangers of interpreting particular passages in light of our preunderstandings ought not lead us to eisegesis, but make us more aware of our natural tendencies to make the evidence fit our pre-existing understanding, and thus more critical of both our systematic theology and the passage under investigation. Our preunderstandings, then, are both necessary, and can be beneficial to the task of interpretation, rather than hindering it.
Proper exegesis cannot be done from a non-biased viewpoint, where we allow the text to simply speak for itself. While the text may try to speak for itself, we will hear the text in a particular way—in a way that fits our preunderstandings. Our theological system can, should, and will inform our exegesis. Such a predicament may be considered a necessary evil, but it is our only real option nonetheless.
Since it is impossible to interpret the Scripture apart from our prior understandings, then we must use our systematic theology to the best of its ability to aid us in the process. When we are aware of our tendencies to systematize knowledge, "the result should be increased sensitivity to those features of the text that disturb our interpretive framework and thus a greater readiness to modify that framework."11 Those who claim they do not allow their systematic theology and presuppositions to aid them in the interpretive process are deceiving themselves, for they must do it whether they wish to or not. "Exegetes who convince themselves that, through pure philological and historical techniques, they can understand the Bible directly—that is, without the mediation of prior exegetical, theological, and philosophical commitments—are less likely to perceive the real character of exegetical difficulties."12
1. Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 62. <back>
2. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 103. <back>
3. Hart, 98. <back>
4. Ibid., 178. <back>
5. Ibid. <back>
6. Ibid., 31. <back>
7. Ibid., 56. <back>
8. Walter C. Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search For Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 243. <back>
9. Kaiser and Silva, 263-4. <back>
10. Ibid., 262. <back>
11. Ibid., 264. <back>
12. Ibid., 263. <back>
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