When one undertakes the task of interpreting Scripture, it is important to remember that it does not occur in a vacuum. All interpreters undertake this task with an established worldview shaped by their environment. According to William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, “all interpreters come with preunderstandings and presuppositions; none come to interpret with disinterested objectivity.” The challenge for the interpreter then becomes one of focused objectivity and constant testing of adequacy and appropriateness.
Presuppositions are much like they sound—preconceived ideas or assumptions about a given subject or text. As stated earlier, these ideas or assumptions are shaped by one’s worldview, and, in turn, sway an interpreter’s objectivity in favor of their worldview. Anyone interpreting Scripture will utilize a “set of preconceived ideas or presuppositions.” When applied to biblical interpretation, presuppositions can influence many areas of Christian thought and practice, such as apologetics.
A great example of this is the Presuppositional Apologetic Method, which consists of three branches: revelational, systematic, and rational. This method asserts that there must be a set of accepted principles before verifying evidence. The revelational branch holds that the Bible is the standard for truth, the rational branch adds laws associated with rational thought, and the experiential branch “appeals to a supernatural religious experience in the most personal and intimate terms.” Again, in many cases, presuppositions can provide the framework used to determine truth, such as the acceptance of Scripture as the standard of truth for Christianity.
In conjunction with presuppositions, preunderstanding will also help form an interpreter’s objectivity. According to Klein, Blombarg, and Hubbard, preunderstanding is “a body of assumptions and attitudes which a person brings to the perception and interpretation of reality or any aspect of it.” These assumptions and attitudes may differ from one individual to the next, and can have both positive and negative effects on an interpreter’s objectivity when applied to biblical interpretation. In addition,
preunderstanding includes all aspects of one’s view of reality, and is affected by a host of environmental factors in one’s life.
Given one’s presuppositions and preunderstanding that affect theological principles, one must test them to verify that they are both adequate and appropriate. In the realm of hermeneutics, the goal of the interpreter is to derive the real meaning of Scripture, and to apply its theological principles to one’s life, when appropriate. By testing one’s presuppositions and preunderstanding in accordance with the source of absolute truth, the Bible, one can determine both their adequacy and appropriateness. Most Christians agree that absolute truth exists through Scripture, and, rationally, claims that contradict this truth are invalid. As a result, any preunderstanding that contradicts Scripture must either be discarded or changed.
When applied to my own life, the majority of my presuppositions and preunderstanding were shaped by my Pentecostal upbringing and military career. For example, growing up as a Pentecostal, I was blessed with an early exposure to some of the supernatural elements mentioned in Scripture, such as the gift of tongues, which formed some of my presuppositions/preunderstanding concerning these elements. When I read about these elements in Scripture, I am able to visualize them based on my experiences. In addition, I can further test them in accordance with Scripture to verify their adequacy and appropriateness.
However, upon entering the military, I was forced to further test my presuppositions/preunderstanding in other areas due to my exposure to other denominations and religions, as well as various parts of the world. Some remained adequate and appropriate, while others were not. I am realizing daily that this process is one of continuous refinement based on new experiences and new understandings of Scripture and the world around me.
One’s presuppositions/preunderstandings shape an interpreter’s objectivity toward the interpretation of Scripture. Today, one of the driving forces in their development is
culture. According to James R. Estep, “culture represents a sum total of human ideas, experiences, and expressions situated in a particular set of worldviews that people hold.” At times, one must resist the temptation to allow modern culture to influence the interpretation of Scripture, and constantly test presuppositions/preunderstandings against the absolute truth provided in God’s Word.
1. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2004), 18.
2. Ibid., 143.
3. Ed Hinson and Ergun Caner, eds., The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), 66.
4. Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, 154.
5. Ibid., 163.
6. James R. Estep and Jonathan H. Kim, eds., Christian Formation: Integrating Theology & Human Development (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 275.