On Informed Reading

Let’s try an experiment: How would you define the phrase “Roman Catholic”? If I put that question to a group of people, would everyone give the same definition? Most likely not, and for various reasons, such as cultural origin, previous exposure to the phrase, or religious bckground (some former Roman Catholics might define it simply as "Papisticalism").

The phrase Roman Catholic took on its meaning many years ago, and has been “traditioned,” or passed-on, to us through various communicative mediums and in various life contexts. In order to understand what is meant by it, one cannot simply assume what he was told is correct—some contact with its history is necessary for a proper definition. And when that contact is made, one has just relied on historical data for interpreting a contemporary phrase.

Are we able to interpret Scripture without assumptions? Are we able to do theology without the Christian theological tradition? No, on both counts. Stephen R. Holmes puts it this way: 

To attempt to do theology without the tradition, then, is to deny, or at least to attempt to escape from, our historical locatedness. It is worth stressing initially that this locatedness is unavoidable: It cannot be escaped from. If we imagine trying to ignore all who have gone before, and coming to the testimony of the apostles in an unmediated form, we simply cannot do it, as will be clear if we begin to imagine what would be involved in the attempt. We might first claim to listen only to the Bible—but the Bible we have, if it is a translation is shaped by a tradition of Bible translation, and by its translator(s).

Should we attempt to avoid this problem by recourse to the original languages, then we would have to learn those languages from somebody, and so would be inducted into a tradition of translating certain words and grammatical constructions in one way and not another, and we would almost certainly have recourse to the lexicons and other aids, which are themselves deposits of the accumulated knowledge of earlier scholars. Further, the standard editions of the Greek New Testament bear witness on nearly every page to the textual criticism that has come up with this text, and not another, and so we cannot even find a text of Scripture that has been ‘handed on’ to us by those who came before.

If we pushed this imagined quest to the last extreme, we might picture a person who has somehow learnt koine Greek only by studying original texts, and who has even examined every extant manuscript of the New Testament and developed her own canons for textual criticism: on these bases she might claim to have unmediated access to the Scriptures. Still, however, the claim must be false: apart from the archeological and bibliographic work that has produced the manuscripts she has used, if she speaks English, German or French, or several other languages, her native tongue even has been decisively affected by earlier theological controversies and biblical translations. There is no escape from the mediation of our faith by the tradition . . . .

We cannot have unmediated access to the apostolic witness to Christ . . .[1]

By “locatedness,” Holmes intends ultimately our place as creatures in God’s world. Everything we know is mediated to us through various means and, sometimes unknown to us, tainted by the various means through which it comes to us. This is inescapable; it is part of being creatures in a long succession of creatures.

But someone might object:

"When I'm reading my Bible and it uses a word of which I am not familiar, I do not consult commentaries, at least not at first; instead, I go directly to a good dictionary of the English language and try to figure out the meaning of the Bible word all on my own."

I think you can see the fallacy in this. One cannot abstract oneself from the world of thought in which one lives, nor from the thoughts of previous generations. That is neither how we learn nor how we think.

Since this is the case, instead of trying to rid ourselves of all presuppositions in order to approach Scripture with no conditioning aspects in our thinking (an impossible task, indeed), we should humble ourselves. We need to recognize that since we must come to the text with conditioning assumptions, we ought to do all we can to come with the best ones. This is why historical-theological interpretation—what is sometimes called "Theological Interpretation of Scripture," or TIS [2]—utilizes the Christian theological tradition in its various forms (e.g. creeds, confessions, catechisms, great theological works, time-tested commentaries) to aid in Scripture interpretation. If bringing presuppositions to the table of interpretation is inevitable, why not work hard to bring the best, time-tested presuppostitions which have been deposited by God’s providence throughout the history of the Church?

On a practical note, if your church subscribes a historically-proven confession of faith, read that confession enough to get well-acquainted with its doctrinal formulations and its theological contour (e.g. Notice the order of chapters and ask yourself if there is a logic to the order.). This will provide scripturally-based theological contours which will aid you in understanding Holy Scripture.

On a side-note, without the discussion above, my practical advice could be used as evidence that I exalt the confession above Holy Scripture. That is not at all the case. If your confession does not possess a scripturally-based theological contour, it is not worth subscribing. Again, my point is simply this: Since we all come with working assumptions that affect interpretation, we ought to try our best to ensure we come with the best assumptions possible.

Richard C. Barcellos is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ.

Related Links

Theology on the Go: "Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals"

Reformed Catholicity, edited by Michael Allen & Scott Swain 

Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Carl Trueman

"Six Benefits of Studying Church History" by William Boekestein

"An Authoritative Appeal to Tradition?" by Jeffery Waddington


[1] Stephen R. Holmes, Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 6-7.

[2] It is safe to say that though TIS is a diverse movement in our day, all schools of thought within it advocate the need to use historical and systematic theology as aids in the interpretive process. One of the reasons for the diversity within TIS is due to the fact that its practitioners are theologians from various traditions. This causes disagreement concerning what resources of the tradition ought to be utilized.