There is renewed interest in the question of ethnic interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. Fueled in part by more general conversation on issues of race, the subject has reemerged in recent days within our Southern Baptist Convention.
A noted professor in one of our seminaries told his class, ““If you don’t know it yet, if all you have is males reading the Scriptures you have a very, very misinterpreted Bible. I need sisters within the body of Christ who can help to read the Scripture in ways in which my maleness is preventing me from reading it.” He went on to say the same thing about being white, being an American, and being a graduate of a certain institution.
In the summer of 2020, in an internet conference about race issues in the SBC, one guest said he was hopeful for a day in the SBC “It will not be black faces with white voices. Or black faces with predominately white theology.”
In early December, one our seminary presidents rightly tweeted that Christians would be wise to “study the Bible in community.” He correctly stated that we can “learn from one another, share insights and gain a fuller understanding of the text as a family.”
One of his Twitter followers replied, “Amen. And we as white men, need more exegetical community with our African American brothers and sisters (and other POC and minorities) to gain an even deeper understanding of the text as a whole family.”
The examples of this kind of thinking are numerous. Some suggest the argument is based in critical race theory and intersectionality. Others label it as standpoint hermeneutics or eisegesis. Those are needful conversations to have. But Christians should primarily ask, “Is that what the Bible teaches?”
The implications of this question are profound.
If the Bible teaches that a group of Christian men cannot rightly interpret the Scripture without women present, then every men’s Bible study has, by definition, taught error. Or at the very least it has been limited in its ability to fully convey the word of God.
If the Bible teaches that a mono-ethnic group of believers cannot gain a full understanding of the text of Scripture, then no body of believers has ever understood the Bible unless that group was ethnically diverse.
If the Bible teaches that melanin content creates a hermeneutical barrier that can only be overcome by learning from or listening to others with different skin tone, then no assembly of God’s people can ever have a sure word from God unless that congregation reflects the full ethnic diversity of God’s creation. Further, if individual cultures have unique insights that add to the meaning of the text, then no believer has ever had access to the whole counsel of God. For there are still unreached people groups that have yet to add their ethnic voice to the work of Bible interpretation.
Did the Lord Jesus, our Master Teacher, ever say anything on this subject that would be more helpful and authoritative than the latest theory or analytical tool? Indeed, He did.
The Lord taught us in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of the text, would guide believers into all truth. He, the Holy Spirit, comes into the life of every believer at salvation and He is well able to interpret the very text that He Himself inspired. The promise of the Holy Spirit means, among other things, that any believer living in any place, in any culture, and in any time period can get a sure word from God.
Of course, this does not mean that believers cannot learn from one another. There would be no need for the gift of teachers if that were so. And there would be no reason for the multitude of Biblical commands dealing with accurately teaching the Word or of correcting fellow believers in matters of doctrine. It simply means that such correction and insight are based on the Biblical text, not the gender, skin tone, or identity of the fellow believer.
As I asked in a message I preached at the 2019 Pastor’s Conference of the North Carolina State Baptist Convention, “If being a white American male presumes exegetical error…and I reach out to an olive-skinned Greek sister…and she has a different interpretation…how would we know that it’s my white American maleness that has led to the error and not her Greek olive-skinned femininity? We would have to judge that by going back to the inspired text. She would owe no particular hearing to me because of my gender, skin tone, culture or experiences. Nor would I to her.
If our gender, ethnicity, or personal experiences cause us to see something different in the text, then those biases lead to eisegesis and should be rejected, not embraced in the studied search for Biblical truth. We are indeed called to “rightly divide” or “accurately handle” the word of truth.” But that exegetical work will separate theological propositions into categories of right and wrong, truth and error, and sound doctrine and false doctrine. The divisions of sound exegesis are not male truth versus female truth, black theology versus white theology, or American doctrine versus Asian doctrine.
I agree with the seminary president’s original tweet. It is wise to study the Bible in community.
We can and should benefit from the community of faith around us. We each have biases and blind spots that should motivate us to study the Word together, learning as “iron sharpens iron.” But in Matthew 22:29 Jesus told His critics, “You do err, not knowing the scriptures.” He did not say, “You do err, being all first-century Jewish males.”