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Jeannine BrownAfter a 2 week break (my daughter had the audacity of getting married in the middle of one of my blog series), we are back today with the 16th “aha” moment, this one by Jeannine K. Brown (Ph.D., Luther Seminary, MDiv, Bethel Seminary), Professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary, San Diego and St. Paul. She is author of Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (Baker, 2007) and Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation (Baker, 2011, with Dahl and Corbin Reuschling). She was associate editor of the revision of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (InterVarsity, 2013) and is the author of the forthcoming Matthew volume in the Teach the Text commentary series (Baker, 2015). In addition to her love of studying and teaching the Gospels, Jeannine enjoys collaborative teaching and writing projects. Her forthcoming Matthew commentary in the Two Horizons series (Eerdmans) is being co-written by Dr. Kyle Roberts, a theologian at United Seminary of the Twin Cities. Brown and her husband, Tim, live in San Diego and have two adult daughters.

My ‘Aha’ Moment with the Bible: A Tale of Hermeneutics

I grew up in a Bible-loving family and church, and I am grateful they taught me that the Bible was to shape who I was and how I thought.

And I was always thinking, thinking about faith, about the Bible, about church.

This is how I am wired. And I had questions, lots of questions about the Bible and faith, although I didn’t always feel safe asking these questions aloud.

Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, early on in my journey I discerned a tension between the Bible and what I can now refer to as my call to ministry. [Sidebar: “Call” language has never particularly fit my experience since my movement into ministry, seminary, and the biblical studies guild felt more like a gentle pushing from behind than “a voice” leading from up ahead.]

This tension with my call centered on what the Bible said about women in ministry. And since we were a Bible-believing church, everything we believed must be based in what the Bible said, right?

I had a very clear sense from a young age that women could only do three things in ministry, and there was no question that these limitations must be grounded in God’s Word. The three options were (1) teach in Sunday school (we were Lutheran, so this didn’t include teaching adults, who had “adult forums” not “Sunday school”); (2) lead the choir; or (3) be a missionary.

I remember seriously entertaining the first—we were asked in Sunday school one morning what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said a Sunday school teacher and got a big laugh from my peers.

Everyone knew this wasn’t a career choice! Yet my sense of how God had wired me was strong enough, even at the age of twelve, to name the thing that is closest to what I do today.

Today, I teach the New Testament to seminary students.  I love doing this. And it took me years to figure out that I could and should do so.

So my biggest “aha” moment about the Bible was when the light bulb came on and illuminated the space between presuppositions about the Bible and the Bible itself.

When I realized that my church tradition might be wrong about its highly restrictive views on women in ministry, it opened up that space between the Bible and my community of faith for exploration and for critique.

I’ve come to understand that the problem with the claim “we just follow what the Bible says” is not so much about holding a set of shared convictions. It has more to do with the ignorance about that space between the Bible and us.

When we simplistically think that our views are equal to what “the Bible says,” we limit our capacity to critique ourselves and our churches—we ignore the opportunity for self-reflection.

Trevor Hart helpfully describes this brand of Christianity. It is the we-don’t-have-any-tradition wing of the church.

Simple appeals to ‘what the Bible says’ are always the sign of (no doubt unconscious) subservience to an interpretive tradition, not liberation from it. That which we mistakenly think we have escaped from is in reality free to exercise all the more influence over us, and is therefore all the more potentially dangerous. (Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology, 167)

This brand of Christianity is particularly lively in our American individualistic context. This individualism encourages us to think that our interpretations have come to us directly from the Bible without the help of the church across two millennia.

But back to my story. It was through prying apart the Bible from my own tradition’s “what-the-Bible-says”  assumptions that gave me the courage to go to seminary, with all my questions in tow. And it was at seminary that the worlds of the biblical authors were opened up to me.

I learned in specific ways that the first-century world was quite different from my own and so careful thinking and self-reflection was needed to bridge the Bible’s messages between these contexts. In other words, hermeneutics—the interpretation of interpretation itselfwas essential.

And this is my passion still: to help my students read the Bible on its own terms, in line with the world in which the text was written, so that they can think carefully about what it means to recontextualize its messages today.

I want them to be self-reflective and avoid perpetuating the simplistic message, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”—a message that confuses interpretive assumptions with the Bible itself.

It is not easy to remain faithful to self-reflective journeying with the Bible, since it means being ready and willing to critique my own readings of Scripture and not only the views of others. But the alternative is scarier still—to give myself license to use the Bible to perpetuate my own pet ideas.

A hermeneutic of self-reflection will ideally produce a hermeneutic of humility, one in which we can hold our ideas with conviction all the while reminding ourselves that we could be wrong. Such a perspective puts human knowing in proper context.

Supposing that we can see from God’s vantage point contradicts our finite perspective. We are located. . .[w]e see and understand from a limited point of view, and so we were created to be. (Becoming Whole and Holy: An Integrative Conversation about Christian Formation)

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.