Interpreting the Text to Death with Kierkegaard

kierkegaard 2It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not at all obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. This is part of why we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers who will roll up their sleeves and carry on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church.

Of course, under-interpretation, simplistic readings, and a lack of textual nuance aren’t the only danger we run when it comes to interpretive task. Indeed, Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” –For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point—hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Obviously, this isn’t an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day, though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria

‘The Philosopher’, ‘The Theologian’…A Reformedish Lexicon

Thomas Aquinas famously referred to Aristotle as ‘The Philosopher’, throughout his writings, not because he followed him slavishly on every point, but because for the Angelic Doctor, Aristotle was the philosopher. More than any other secular thinker, Aristotle’s questions, formulations, and answers shaped and were re-shaped in Aquinas’ thought. For myself, I’ve realized that there are a number of intellectual influences that have played similar roles for me. Their thought has so penetrated the warp and woof of my own that I decided to create a Reformedish lexicon of key figures, both for fun and to encourage others to drink deeply at the wells of wisdom found here:

I don't know what he's thinking right here, but it could probably serve as a Ph.D. thesis.

“The Theologian” – I’ve already documented Kevin Vanhoozer’s greatness. Though he is a theologian’s theologian, his humble, eclectic, and faithful approach to God, Scripture, and doctrine in general has deeply shaped my own and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Lewis“The Apologist” – C.S. Lewis was one of the first Christian prose writers I ever encountered. Like most, he took me in with the clarity of thought & expression, marvelous knack for making complex doctrines seem quite reasonable, accessible, and even more, beautiful. In college, Lewis let me grapple with the big toughies like hell, sin, and evil with intellectual dignity. What’s more, he saved me from thinking apologetic philosophy had to be boring and dull, or, even worse, disconnected from the proper worship of God.

kierkegaard 2“The Thinker” – Soren Kierkegaard is a hard one to pin down. He is a philosopher, but even more than that, he is a thinker-of-life who pressed me into the depths of my own darkened heart during my angstiest college days. I can safely say that if it were not for encountering his works Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death in college, I probably would not be married to my McKenna today. Also, his epistemology hustled me along the way to embracing the proposals of…

plantinga 4“The Philosopher” – Alvin Plantinga is my favorite living philosopher. Working in Anglo-American Analytic tradition, it is hard to estimate the impact Plantinga’s had on modern philosophy and especially philosophy of religion. The man single-handedly refuted the logical problem of evil in the 1970s, kicked classic foundationalism in the face, and made it safe to be a Christian in a philosophy program again. Plantinga gives not only good answers, but teaches us to ask the right sort of questions in the face of aggressive skeptical attacks on the faith.

Keller“The Preacher” – Timothy Keller falls under so many different categories (apologist, thinker, etc.), but at core, he is a Gospel-preacher. All of the other hats he puts on serve to accent his main call, which is to preach the Gospel to the Religious and the Irreligious alike. His several books and lectures on preaching have deeply shaped my own approach in various areas of ministry, but it may be hundreds of sermons exposing my idolatry and pointing me to Christ that have played the deepest formative role in my own spiritual theology. God has used Keller to shape the core of my understanding of God’s transforming grace through the Gospel.

Wright again“The Scholar” – I loved Paul before I read N.T. Wright, but I don’t think I knew Paul until I read Wright; the same goes for Jesus. While I don’t follow him everywhere he goes, more than anyone else Wright has introduced me to the vibrant, dynamic, pulsating historical reality of the Gospel in the New Testament. Whether it is Jesus facing off with the Pharisees, or Paul shepherding his flocks in the shadow of the Roman Empire, Wright simply will not allow us to imagine we are dealing with anything less than a full-orbed social-historical-political-theological-cosmological Jesus whose kingship has implications for everything.

john-calvin“The Reformer” – I’ve written a good amount on John Calvin over the last few months, and given a number of reasons to dig into his commentaries. Like most of these men, Calvin wore a number of hats, including scholar, theologian, and preacher. For me, he has been The Reformer. While I do love me some Luther, standing in the Reformed tradition as I am, it has been Calvin’s programmatic vision for the reformation of preaching, theology, and the Church that captured my imagination more than any of the other Magisterial Reformers. Indeed, a number of my other influences have openly paid tribute to Calvin’s influence on their own thought.

If you find yourself having never read someone on this list, I’d encourage you to do a quick Google on one, pick a work that seems interesting and go for it.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel According to Kierkegaard

I’ve been reading Kierkegaard for years, but I’ve never read this until today. It is easily my favorite I’ve ever read, in the best sermon of his I’ve ever read, “The High Priest”, which can be found in Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, translated by Sylvia Walsh. The whole collection is fabulous, as is her opening essay. Here, more than any other work I know, you see Kierkegaard applying the Gospel in its clearest form to the broken, hurting, lonely, tempted, and tried:

Gospel According Kierkegaard

For more Kierkegaardian reflections on Jesus’ High priesthood, you can read here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Keller, La Dispute, and the Promise of Covenant Love – Part 1

Regine Olsen

Sadly, everybody remembers her as Kierkegaard’s fiance and not the wife of her husband…that guy.

February is here and love is in the air–or maybe that’s packaged chocolates and commercial opportunity. In either case, the subject of love and romance will be coming up again, which is why I must once more bring up my favorite philosopher: Soren Kierkegaard.

For those of you who know a little of his biography, he seems an odd choice to turn to on the subject of love–he was one of my philosophers who failed at it. Tragically he broke off his engagement with the lovely Regine Olsen because he felt his depressive melancholy made him unsuitable as a husband. What could we possibly learn from him about love?

Well, for one thing, he’s experienced at failure, so that gives you some insight. Still, Kierkegaard, for all of his Danish weirdness, has this going for him: he’s easily one of the most biblical, prophetic thinkers of the modern period. Under both his own name, and through pseudonyms, he made it his aim to present Christianity anew, true Christianity, with force to a culture that thought it already understood it.

Works of Love and La Dispute
In his Works of Love he turns his meditations to the biblical concept of love. The first half is an extended exploration of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). The piece that captured my attention was the focus he gives to the “you shall” in Jesus’ command–the fact that Jesus commands love at all. Kierkegaard emphasizes, “You shall love–this, then, is the word of the royal law.” Again, “the mark of Christian love and its distinguishing characteristic is this, that it contains the apparent contradiction: to love is a duty.” (pg. 40) Later he writes, “Only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change, eternally made free in blessed independence, eternally and happily secured against despair.” (pg. 44)

Against the popular, romantic “poetic” conception of love that dominated the intellectual scene of his day, Kierkegaard pressed the idea that the highest form of love was not the “spontaneous”, sudden, seizing form of love that sweeps over a couple of lovers, but rather love as duty–love as something secured by the eternal, the command of God. The love of the lovers is beautiful, yes, but it is fleeting–it can change. Even if it lasts, it’s not to be trusted entirely. It can leave. La Dispute gives us one of the best, contemporary expressions of this kind of love on their album, “Somewhere At The Bottom Of The River Between Vega And Altair“, exploring the dynamics of a failed marriage, rent asunder by the wife’s affair.

Speaking in the aftermath, the wife sings, “I know I tore two worlds apart but I can’t change the way I felt./Love swept in like a storm and ripped the hinges from the doors./Love poured in like a flood, I couldn’t stop it anymore. I will not be drowned” (Sad Prayers for Guilty Bodies), or, even more poignantly:

Oh husband, I could not control it
Husband, I could not abstain
One cannot stop the wind from blowing
Nor refuse the falling rain
Love stirred up a storm inside me
Wrapped its arms around my waist
I failed you dear, I’m sorry, oh I’m sorry
There was nothing I could do
No, there was nothing I could
Sure as the rain will fall
Some love just fails without reason

(Last Blues for Bloody Knuckles)

Poetic love is that inherently unstable, emotional chaos that sweeps over us with great passion, and apparently can leave us as quickly. Matt Chandler calls this the “naked angel in a diaper” theory where basically, at any point, cupid can show up and strike you. It has no rhyme or reason, like the blowing of the wind or the falling rain.

Kierkegaard points out that the poets instinctively know this; note how often their lovers swear, make promises, and bind themselves to each other in their love. Still, if they only swear by themselves, it is an insecure promise because humans are changeable, unstable. Only when you swear by something higher, something eternal, duty, God himself, can love be something secure. “The love which simply exists, however fortunate, however blissful, however satisfying, however poetic it is, still must survive the test of the years. But the love which has undergone the transformation of the eternal by becoming duty has won continuity.” (pg. 47)

Kierkegaard, Keller, and Covenant Love
Kierkegaard was pointing his culture to a love “transformed by the eternal”: covenantal love. When we hear the word “covenant” today, we mostly don’t know what we’re dealing with. Contracts are closest thing we can imagine, but that’s far too impersonal for the biblical notion of covenant. The concept and language of covenant in the Bible is that of a legal bond, a union based on promises before God and humans of fidelity, friendship, love, exclusivity, and trust.

Now to us this “legalizing” of the relationship seems to drain all of the emotion, the passion–the love!–out of things. For moderns, it’s either love or law, not both. Tim Keller has recently pointed out that, in fact, the law, the promise, especially the marriage promise, doesn’t kill emotion and intimacy, but actually is a testimony to it and increases it. (The Meaning of Marriage, pp 84-85) Marriage–the public, binding promise–is the ultimate expression of romantic love because its the giving of the whole self. Someone who doesn’t want to eventually get married to the person they’re dating is basically saying, “I don’t love you enough to curtail my freedom for you.” How intimate. Ultimately, only when romantic love is set within the framework of a binding obligation do the lovers truly have space to reveal their true selves, without fear of abandonment or rejection. Until then, you’re still on the performance platform, constantly under pressure to put your best foot forward to make sure the other person doesn’t bolt. Ironically, only when you give up your “freedom”, your romantic autonomy, are you able to be truly free to be with the other.

Love, it turns out, hangs on a promise.

So what does love have to be if it’s something I can promise? How is it different than the poetic love that Kierkegaard is speaking of? In my next post, I’ll lay out more clearly the difference between this covenant love and the poetic love.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 Reasons God Isn’t Obvious — Some Kierkegaardian Observations

kierkegaard 2At some point in life, most of us have wondered why God isn’t more obvious. Why doesn’t he clearly reveal himself to all people in a clear and distinct manner? Why all this business about an incarnation, and a book, or an internal word of the Holy Spirit? Why doesn’t he just make it so everybody gets it?

In a brilliant article on Kierkegaard’s (K) conception of God, Paul Moser and Mark L. McCreary draw our attention to 4 Kierkegaardian considerations on the elusiveness of God. Note though I have numbered, labeled, and removed footnotes, what follows is a direct quote:

  1. Merely Objective Knowledge Isn’t Enough First, K maintains that those who seek God merely by means of objective information will be frustrated. Although K does not disapprove of objective knowledge as such, he strongly warns against approaching God as an impersonal object to be studied. In his words, ‘God is not like something one buys in a shop, or like a piece of property’. Instead, God is a personal agent, a subject with definite redemptive purposes for humans. Human knowledge of God, therefore, ought to be characterized by subjectivity and relationality, not by impersonal or detached forms of objective knowledge. Merely objective knowledge about God does not entail personally knowing God via a God-relationship. Moreover, obtaining merely objective knowledge may also promote complacency or a false sense of superiority. As K puts it, the ‘most terrible thing of all is’ to be ‘deceived by much knowledge’. In the end, some people who pursue only objective knowledge or evidence of God miss the fact that God is a subject and they therefore fail to encounter God as a personal agent, as person to person in an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. In this respect, knowledge of God is not available in a purely objective approach
  2. Presumptuous Approaches Are Inappropriate Second, K expects that God will remain hidden from presumptuous individuals. In Christian Discourses, K devotes an entire discourse to the theme of presumptuousness. Presumptuousness might manifest itself when someone ignores God, explicitly denies God’s existence, or demands particular services from God. All of these manifestations stem from a position of selfishness and cognitive arrogance wherein one desires to live ‘as if he were his own master, himself the architect of his fortune’. However, a presumptuous stance demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of who human beings are and who God is. Human beings are not ultimately their own masters, just as God is not a genie in a lamp who exists to cater to their wishes. As K points out elsewhere, an attitude of presumptuousness begins and ends in despair. Therefore, such an approach is likely to leave one without illumination regarding God’s existence and character.
  3. Denial of Sin The third reason why God may remain hidden from many people brings us back to the crucial issue of self-knowledge. According to K, to know and relate to God properly (as a morally perfect agent), one must break through to a consciousness of one’s sin. Sin and moral imperfection separate, or alienate, human beings from the holy and morally perfect God. To lead people to such an awareness, according to K, God creates each human being with an inner conscience, i.e., a personal ‘preacher of repentance’. However, the truth of one’s sinfulness is difficult to confront for a human. Many humans are afraid of this truth and prefer to retain a posture of self-sufficiency and an attitude of selfishness. Therefore, owing to selfish choices, actions, or fears, God’s call to many humans via conscience is ignored or avoided. As a result, such people fail to hear God’s voice.
  4. The Offense Finally, K explains that Jesus’ life is the possibility of offense and, as such, prevents many people from enjoying a God-relationship. K emphasizes sin to discuss forgiveness. After one’s confession of sin, the claims of Jesus should be of interest to one. K notes that Jesus offers rest to each individual through reconciliation with God and the forgiveness of sins. However, many people do not accept this offer because Jesus is also the possibility of offense. First of all, it is potentially offensive that Jesus, a human being, claims to have divine authority. Next, it is highly offensive that Jesus ‘declared himself to be God’. K describes in detail the various ways in which this claim can be offensive. The very concept of the ‘God–man’ is also problematic for some. K describes this ‘composite’ as the absolute paradox, as a ‘sign of contradiction’, and as something that brings the understanding to a standstill. There is no irrationalism here, but rather an insistence that profane reason and profane history can never directly demonstrate (i.e., deductively prove) that Jesus is also God. K maintains that this situation is the result of Jesus’ free choice to hide his divinity in what he calls ‘the most profound incognito’. The significance of the incognito is that it forces the issue of needed human faith to the forefront. K likens the possibility of offense to ‘standing at the crossroad’, where ‘one turns either to offense or to faith’. Those who are offended at Jesus turn away from faith and hence also from forgiveness and a personal God-relationship.

So why is God elusive according to Kierkegaard? Once again Moser and McCreary:

All of the aforementioned issues are inseparable from K’s conception of God. When individuals think or act in ways that prevent them from recognizing God, it is often because of a misunderstanding of the character of God. To search for or demand merely objective knowledge of God is to miss the fact that God is a subject, a personal agent with definite redemptive purposes for humans. To approach God presumptuously ignores that the fact that God, if God exists, has the wisdom, power, and authority to be God, that is, one who is worthy of worship. Those who drown out their conscience sometimes deny a contrast between God’s moral perfection and their selfishness and moral deficiencies. In addition, those who are offended at Jesus might misunderstand God’s humble, compassionate, and self-sacrificing love for God’s lost and dying creatures.

In other words, God doesn’t want to meet you as anyone other than himself. He wants you to know the real God—to reveal himself in ways that are consistent with his own character.

Would we want anything less?

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard, Mark, and the God You’d Never Notice

Let's be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

Let’s be honest, God poking his head through the clouds makes me think of Monty Python.

For those of us growing up in church, we’d like to think we’d recognize Jesus for who he was if we were there, right? I mean, if we were in the crowds, watching him get baptized, we’d see it–the divine glow, the radiance of the godhead, the words dripping with holy wisdom–we’d never doubt. We’d stand apart, push others aside, let him walk by in his numinous otherness. I mean, how could anybody doubt? It’s just so obvious. He stands out head and shoulders from the crowd.

As R.T. France points out, that’s not necessarily the case. Writing of Jesus’ baptism by John:

There is no indication that anyone other than Jesus himself saw or heard what happened after the baptism (1:10-11), or that the crowd had any reason to identify him with the (mightier one) of John’s prophecy. No one else witnessed the confrontation with Satan and the animals, or saw the angelic intervention. All that people saw was an unknown man from an obscure village joining the many others who responded to John’s call to baptism. It is only Mark’s readers who, as a result of his prologue, are in a position to see more clearly who Jesus is…

For the time being…the coming one is incognito (and will remain so for the actors in the story, since the revelations of vv. 10-13 are not publicly available, but offered only to the privileged insight of the reader). John’s enigmatic words would presumably, in the narrative context, be understood as a prophecy of God’s eschatological coming; only Mark’s readers have been given a hint that there is a human (mightier one) waiting in the wings. –pp. 58, 70, The Gospel of Mark

Yes, eventually he would perform miracles, preach, teach, get crucified, and rise from the dead, but even then, you were making a decision about a man–a very normal-looking man, a Nazarene who’d grown up in a village not much different than yours. You were deciding on a paradox, whether this man, this contemporary of yours, was, in fact, the eternal stepped into time. In a lot of ways, Jesus is the God you’d never notice, and when you had, it was still up for grabs.

This is the kind of point Kierkegaard loved to press in order to puncture that easy sort of “historical” assurance in his works. As he pointed out, after 1,800 years, in the context of Christendom, Jesus looks pretty obvious. I mean, look at his impact on world history, right? He’s got to be truth; it’s so clear. But that’s not how we’re supposed to come to Jesus. At some point we have to make a decision about the Christ who is contemporaneous with us–a Christ whose claims, when taken seriously, are a bit ridiculous–indeed blasphemous, if false. We have to make a decision about a man at whom we might take offense.

Christians ought to be sobered by this thought in two ways.

First, if you’ve never been struck by the offense of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ claims, there’s a good chance you have not processed the Gospel. I’m not saying you’re not a Christian. It’s a silly, romantic idea that everybody has to suffer some intellectual crisis of faith in order for their faith to be authentic or valid. I’m saying that the message of the Gospel, that God himself has come to save us in this man, Jesus, is a bold, brilliant, non-obvious claim which confronts our human sensibilities at every level. It’s kind of like the ontological counterpart to grace: if it’s stopped astonishing you and converting you, or it never has, you may need to do some self-examination and see whether or not you really heard it in the first place.

Second, for those of us looking to teach and preach the Gospel of this Jesus, the paradox, we must be aware of our hearers. For those of us in the Christ-haunted parts of the culture where Jesus’ name still evokes a sort of ill-informed respect, or reverence, it may be profitable to inject a little Kierkegaardian-note into things. Let people hear the offense and decide on Jesus, not simply persist in their vague, pleasant, respect for him. On the flipside, many in the culture no longer have the feeling of 2,000 years of history backing Jesus’ claims, making him more plausible, or obvious to them. For them, Jesus is just another Jew going down to get baptized with the others who happened to have a lot of high-sounding claims made about him. In a lot of ways this is a blessing. We don’t have Kierkegaard’s problem of re-introducing Christianity to people who already think they believe it. We have far more first-time hearers than before. Still, that means the offense is live for them. We need to be conscious of that. If we go about our preaching and teaching as if Jesus was equally obvious to all, we will fail to actually engage our hearers.

May we never forget the offense, the shocking ordinariness of Jesus, the God you’d never notice.

Soli Deo Gloria

Kierkegaard on Interpreting the Text to Death

It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand. (2 Pet. 3:16) Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. Today we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. (No joke, I wrote 30 pages on 2 verses in Colossians in my MA program and just barely scratched the surface of the literature on the subject.) Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers and pastors who will roll up their sleeves and get to work on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church. Preachers, teachers, and even lay-people who have come to rely on them, still need to work at the task of interpretation.

Now, to some this might seem troublesome and daunting. As someone who has devoted my life to wrestling with the text in order to teach and preach it faithfully, I absolutely love this stuff. Digging into the interpretive issues and the complexity of the Scriptures is what I live for. “What’s that you say about an ingenious new understanding of that obscure verse in Leviticus? Brilliant! Let me read it.”  “Is that a new commentary on a book I finished studying last month? I must have it!” Anybody who’s seen my desk at home or at work knows that I live knee-deep in this stuff. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now why do I bring this up? To alert us to a deadly risk we run when engaging in the interpretive task.

Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” -For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point–hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Do not mistake this for an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage with it at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria