Bias and Biblical Faithfulness: Becoming Self-Aware Readers of Scripture
Many of us spend a lot of time reading the Bible. It is a core tenet of living out our faith. The triune God has revealed Himself to us through His Word and, therefore, it demands our attention. Not only that, but it demands our best efforts to faithfully understand what it means. Because the text is revelatory and divinely inspired it has an authority (Goldingay, 1995, 3). More than that, a genuine engagement with it should transform us and provide us with a perspective for how to live as faithful followers of Christ. So to interpret the Bible well is integral to a life of faithfulness.
BIAS AND OBJECTIVITY
Through studying for the Masters at Belfast Bible College, and as I began to read more widely, I noticed that people treated the Bible in various, sometimes unfamiliar, ways. Individuals from different backgrounds would interpret the same passage but come to divergent conclusions. Yet, all too often interpreters who disagreed with one another failed to acknowledge or appreciate the influence of their background and presuppositions on their understanding of the Bible. Biblical interpretation plays an important role in our understanding of God and how we live this out in the world. Yet, this interpretation is shaped to some degree by who we are and the biases we hold as individuals. Bias is formed by the presuppositions we hold about our world and how things should work. Everyone comes from somewhere and is shaped by a myriad of experiences and cultural values. So our divergent hermeneutical frameworks, our biases and presuppositions, impact how we live as Christians. How should we think about the diversity of approaches amongst readers of the Bible and consequently the variety of meanings which result from them? One obvious answer is to strive for complete objectivity. Reading the Bible objectively certainly has an appeal. If we can read without allowing our bias to affect the meaning, all readers should discover the pure meaning of the biblical text. Respectfully, objectivity can be pursued for noble reasons such as wanting to ensure our understanding is unequivocally true (Walton, 2002, 66). However, total objectivity is impossible for finite, limited human beings. Our biases are so pervasive, we can never fully conquer them. To do that would mean to deny who we are, to disengage from our past and experience. However, the opposite extreme is not more attractive. Simply because our bias is pervasive does not mean we should allow it to direct our hermeneutics unfettered. Reader-response theories can be acknowledged for bringing an alternate perspective yet unhelpfully embrace a reader’s biases without question. This approach conflicts with the purpose of the Bible which is to transform the reader, not confirm their prejudices.
THE ‘THIRD WAY’
Each biblical reader must decide what to do with their bias. As it is not possible to achieve a purely objective reading, on one hand, and bias should not be left unchecked, on the other, a third way must be pursued. Our unconscious bias will inevitably affect how we read the Bible. Sometimes its role will be positive, at other times – negative. That is why bias must never be glossed over. We must be aware of the direction in which our biases are taking us and unchecked bias is always dangerous. We need tools to help identify and evaluate our biases and spur us on to become faithful readers of Scripture. A faithful reader seeks to be transformed by the Bible. They work hard to respect the role of the Bible in their lives. Faithful readers listen well to others who are different from them and are open to be challenged. They rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them. Faithful readers seek to become more aware of the biases they hold and how they impact their reading. They are humble as they recognise their own limitations and as they seek to reign in their biases, rather than succumbing to the temptation to read into the Bible anything they want.
AN INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACH
This is where my previous experience in another discipline, through studying social work at an undergraduate level, provided me with the skills to plot a new way for biblical readers in responding to their bias in hermeneutics. I was aware that much of what came naturally to me from my training had not, to my knowledge, been considered within theological studies. I believe this interdisciplinary study can bring helpful insight to hermeneutics as we seek to apply some of the principles of social work theory. Reflective practice is used within social work to allow practitioners to critically consider the complex tasks in their role. Social workers are encouraged to consider how their actions could influence a situation and this is partly achieved through a greater self-awareness of their own bias. Reflective practice asks individuals to “reflect honestly on [their] own thoughts, feelings and prejudices concerning situations and people with whom [they] come into contact” (Parker, 2010, 3). This is a challenging task and requires an intentional process for the individual to consider what has shaped their identity. Houston (2015) developed a model for reflective practice to benefit social work practitioners in their reflection. The model considers five domains which can influence an individual: psychobiography, relationships, culture, organisation and politics/ economy (Houston, 2015, 9). For each area he suggested appropriate questions to allow the individual to reflect on how this domain has shaped them and any related bias which they hold. Surrounding these areas are three concepts which have an effect on how each area is experienced by the individual. These concepts are power, agency and structure (Houston, 2015, 41). In addition, Houston outlines an enabling process to demonstrate how practitioners could use reflective practice and the model in practice.
The model explores how each area could have an impact upon the social work practitioner and provides questions to guide their growth in becoming more self-aware. In a central position, the psychobiography domain considers the individual’s narrative and life events (Houston, 2015, 12). The cultural domain examines difference and inequality, as well as the underpinning principle of cultural norms which can have a significant impact upon an individual’s thinking (Houston, 2015, 28). The next domain considers relationships and how our ties with others shape who we are. The organisation domain considers structures and formal systems that influence us. Finally, the fifth domain focuses on politics and the economy demonstrating how the wider narrative of society can generate specific bias.
A SELF-REFLECTIVE MODEL FOR BIBLICAL READERS
This model of reflective practice has greatly supported social workers in their learning within the discipline. It is relevant now to consider how we can apply the model to biblical readers and the issue of their bias. This model of reflective practice can be adapted and used by biblical readers to guide them to reflect upon who they are and to identify any bias which they hold. Each domain can lead the biblical reader to consider relevant presuppositions which may be exposed within this area. For example, consider the domain of psychobiography. Biblical readers could reflect on how their culture or social class have impacted how they read the Bible. Individuals may have a bias which effects their Bible reading due to their religious experience or gender. An example of recognising bias in this domain could be an individual who experienced their parent’s divorce and a subsequent painful and complicated family history. Such a person may be biased against the idea that the Christian community is supposed to be the family of God and may unconsciously avoid those parts of scripture that focus on that image. Alternatively, an individual who has grown up in a Christian home and is working in a Christian ministry role, could recognise a bias toward wanting the Bible to be true which leads them to ignore challenges to its veracity, and to be suspicious of people who have questions and doubts.
To conclude, I believe this model of reflective practice can help biblical readers as they consider the Scriptures. It equips all of us to consider the bias which we bring to the biblical text, and by identifying it, helps us to be more aware of the impact our bias may have on our understanding. This is important because as we faithfully come to the Bible, seeking to be transformed, we will live in response to what we read and understand. Our bias can significantly impact how we read and therefore how we live. I hope that this tool and exploration of the topic can help us all to take seriously our engagement with Scripture as we seek to become faithful readers.
LITER ATURE CITED
Goldingay, J. (1995) Models for interpretation of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans.
Houston, S. (2015) Reflective Practice: A Model for Supervision and Practice in Social Work. Belfast: Northern Ireland Social Care Council.
Parker, J. (2010) Effective Practice Learning in Social Work. Second Edition. Exeter: Learning Matters