The Dangerous Idea


In 2007 Alister McGrath published a book entitled, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.  In actuality the book was not so much about Christianity’s dangerous idea as much as it was about Protestantism’s dangerous idea.  What was this dangerous idea?  All Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, and much like the Genesis command to “be fruitful, increase in number and fill the earth”, man, have we ever!  I would suggest to any doubters who are  interested in finding evidence of our prolific Protestant intrepretive bent that they visit the Yellow Pages for any major city and look under the heading “Churches”.  There you will find the cumulative results, per the latest edition, of our proclivity for interpreting the Bible for ourselves.  The scions of the 16th century Protestant revolution are now legion and, potentially, each new individual interpretation of the Bible is latent with the next edition of  the “true church”.

As a historian I make my living studying what has emerged on the scene since Luther, Calvin and the boys shook things up in the 16th century.  Let’s just say I never run out of study material.  This is particularly true of American Christianity where the faith has been forever democratized and exported.  So what do I offer in light of this dangerous idea run amuck, as some would say?   I would like to suggest that we keep in mind that interpretation should have some kind of framework, not a theological framework per se but more of a functional one.  I would like to suggest that we not equate interpretation with the Bible but that we equate interpretation with our understanding of the Bible.  There is the Bible…everything else is commentary (Midrash).  Interpretation starts with the Bible, but theology is what emerges from my attempt at understanding and communicating my understanding of the Bible.

My contribution to this dangerous idea pandemic would be the following eight guidelines for biblical interpretation: 

1) Every interpreter is a theologian,  the only question is whether I am a good one or a poor one.

 2) Interpretation is how I do theology and my theology is not the Bible.   There is the Bible and then there is my understanding of it.

3) My interpretation/theology provides me with a framework for approaching the Bible and influences the way I read and understand it.  

4) Interpretation/Theology is the ongoing business of every faith community; therefore it is never finished.  

5) My interpretation/theology is always autobiographical.  I am part of the interpretation process so interpretation is never a purely objective exercise.   

6) Interpretation/Theology means choosing and using my words carefully.  No language is exhaustive so neither is my communication about God.

7) Theology/Interpretation means holding my views and communicating them with charity and humility.

8) I should be aware of interpretive/theological horizons:  When I am reading and interpreting the Bible, how many other people are influencing the way I read and interpret it?

Happy Interpreting!

Comments are closed.