No reading of the biblical text or the world around us is free from influence. We see the Scriptures and the world through a number of different lenses and multiple different perspectives. While we are certainly capable of grasping truth or aspects of it, our understanding of the truth is limited by our own mental capacities and perspectives. Truth is not relative. It would be a mistake for us to make assumptions about the character of truth based on our ability to grasp it. Truth exists. It is knowable. It just isn’t always easily knowable.
As we consider what influences impact our reading of the Scriptures, I have found it helpful to break it down into four broad categories: (1) self, (2) society, (3) subject, and (4) Spirit. These four influences are described below
Self- This category refers to those aspects of our personal identities that influence the manner in which we view the world. Our experiences, relationships, basic personalities, tendencies, values, etc., color the way we approach the biblical text. Our socio-cultural and economic backgrounds, our gender, and a variety of other factors can influence the manner in which we read the text. Part of our role as interpreters is to determine how our unique identity helps us to read the Scriptures more faithfully and how it hinders us from doing so.
Society- This category refers to the communities of which we are a part. These communities may include our families, business organizations, circles of friends, cities, countries, or churches. Each community influences the way in which we see the world, approach its problems, and seek out solutions. Again, part of our role as interpreters is to determine how our communities help us to read the Scriptures more faithfully and how they hinder us from doing so.
Subject- This category refers to the academic discipline or disciplines through which we approach the Scriptures. While this category is often most noticible in academic settings, it does have an impact on more popular interpretation as well. For instance, an interpreter trained in biblical and theological studies will likely approach the text quite differently than an interpreter trained in geology or the social sciences. The questions, for example, that an archaeologist may bring to the biblical text could be quite different to those that a church historian. Each set of questions may be equally valid, yet neither set of questions is comprehensive or without agenda. Our role as interpreters is to understand how our specific discipline helps us to understand the Scriptures more faithfully and how it hinders us from doing so.
Spirit- This category refers to the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. Unlike the other categories, the Spirit never hinders us from reading more faithfully. Instead, the Holy Spirit is constantly with us as we read the text, convicting us, and guiding us into all truth. Engaging the Holy Spirit and ensuring that we are preparing ourselves to hear His voice is a crucial aspect of the overall interpretive process.
There is no one way to determine how or to what extent you are influenced. Its an ongoing process. Staying humble and open to the perspectives of others is important as others can often provide correctives to your own thinking. Using other tools such a as personality tests can often help give you information about your own tendencies. Ultimately, maintaining a focus on the text of Scripture is often the best way to curtail other influences. Observing closely what is in the text can often help us to recognize when we are making decisions that aren’t explicitly in the text (which is generally unavoidable when interpreting Scripture).
As you approach the Scriptures, keep in mind that you do not approach the text as an uninterested party. You will come with your own presuppositions and, at times, agendas. It will be important for you, as much as possible, to recognize influences and to understand how they are impacting the way in which you read the text. Taking the time to be reflective about your interpretive endeavors will almost always benefit you in the long run.