Ben Witherington III of Asbury Seminary presented a traditional approach to biblical interpretation, where the Bible is considered a “firm foundation” and a timeless source of moral absolutes for Christian living. On the other hand, Jennifer Wright Knust of Boston University presented a relativistic approach to biblical interpretation, one in which few constants exist and individual readers apply their own meaning and insight.
Jennifer Wright Knust
Much of the discussion during the Feb. 15 forum focused on Knust’s 2011 book Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire, in which she asserted that it was difficult to derive a clear sexual ethic from the Bible.
Knust spoke about her treatment of the Sodom and Gomorrah account found in Genesis 19. For her, the account is an example of what she calls the Bible’s confusing and contradictory teachings on sex. This passage, she said, is often used to prohibit homosexuality. However, Knust said biblical authors who commented on the subject did not view Sodom’s destruction as judgment against homosexual behavior.
The books of Isaiah and Ezekiel, she said, present the judgment of Sodom as a warning against greed and selfishness. Deuteronomy presents the event as a judgment against idolaters, while Jude and 2 Peter use the account to determine that sexual mixing between humans and angels is forbidden, Knust said.
By interpreting the text in light of biblical and other ancient literature, some contemporary scholars believe the story reinforces the theme of hospitality common in Genesis, she said. Using this approach, Sodom is destroyed for failing to provide hospitality to strangers in its midst, Knust said.
“If … one views human belief about sexuality to be culturally and historically variable as I do, then Cardinal Ratzinger’s interpretation is entirely unsatisfactory, even unjust,” Knust said of the former Pope Benedict XVI. “Interpretations of biblical stories are not obvious or inevitable; they are produced by human subjects who inevitably bring their contingent expectations, socially embedded assumptions, diverse exegetical principles, and the histories of reading they have enjoyed to bear on the texts they consider.”
This led Knust to conclude that the Sodom story cannot be used to develop a moral standard that must be obeyed at all times. Instead, she argued that biblical claims are “always tenuous, propositional, and subject to revision.” Knust decried the fact that this biblical account and others are being used in the church and in the political arena to deny the “privileges of property, kinship, and inheritance rights to others,” referencing the issue of same-sex marriage today.
Knust noted that many have used the “slippery slope” charge to refute her ideas.
“If we accept my argument and abandon the hope of a clear-cut biblical grounding to the moral absolutes we may want to claim about sex or any human activity, have we not begun our slide down the slippery slope where there are no rules and therefore no basis upon which to anathematize those behaviors we find wholly objectionable or intrinsically wrong?” Knust said. “If we let go of the basic conviction that in the Bible God offers consistent, ahistorical and enduring truths which we can access, to which we can and should appeal in making our moral judgments, how can we proceed in making judgments at all?”
“I see no slippery slope here,” she said. “In fact, I find that I am standing on firm ground.”
Knust argued that human beings only have limited knowledge and understanding of God, and thus certainty is not possible in this life. Acknowledging that human interpretations are limited does not preclude a belief that Scripture has meaning, Knust said. But, doing so would offer interpretations that are less certain and subject to change, she said.
“Now I fully grant that this account of truth, ethics and a moral life that I am presenting this evening is ‘relative,’” Knust said. “But I argue that to pursue relativism is to relate, to be in relationship with one another, to pay attention to our histories, to be faithful to the communities that formed us and to endeavor to love God and not to be God.”
Ben Witherington III
Witherington rejected Knust’s relativistic approach to biblical interpretation during his presentation. He acknowledged that keeping personal assumptions out of the interpretation process can be difficult. However, this is not a problem with the text and its meaning, but rather a problem with the interpreter, he said. Witherington insisted that there are good interpretations and bad interpretations, not just a series of multiple, equally valid interpretations.
“One of the great tasks of any biblical interpreter is to do their very best to interpret the text by its immediate context of various sorts – literary, rhetorical, social, historical and so on,” Witherington said. “Ancient texts are often subject to all kinds of abuse and misuse when care is not taken in regard to the context. And anybody can be guilty of this – from the radical liberal on the far end of the spectrum to the fundamentalist on the other end and everybody in between.”
“A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean,” Witherington said.
Witherington argued that biblical passages do have a real, set meaning – a meaning intended by the inspired author. He discounted the highly speculative and “imaginative” interpretations that Knust seemed to welcome.
“One of the hermeneutical principles that Professor Knust is following in [her book] is neatly summed up near the end,” Witherington said. “And I quote, ‘The story of the Samaritan woman like so many of the stories encountered in this book proves once again that the meaning of the Bible cannot be easily controlled. This story has no single meaning. Therefore, the issue for the reader of the Gospels is not whether a particular interpretation is valid but whether it is valuable and why.’”
“She goes on to say, quote, ‘We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes and that our wishes matter is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation,’ end quote,” he said.
Witherington called Knust’s guiding hermeneutic “eisegesis,” or the act of a person reading into the text his or her own agenda rather than reading out of the text its original, intended meaning. He rejected the idea that biblical texts are open to multiple interpretations.
During his welcome to the Greer-Heard presenters and attendees, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley stated the seminary’s position on matters of faith and explained why the school would host such a forum. One of the reasons the seminary hosts Greer-Heard, he said, is that the seminary community values gracious dialogue with those who hold opposing views. He also said that the seminary believes that a quest for Truth ultimately will lead individuals to Jesus.
“We are a seminary that is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention. We are a theologically conservative school. We believe that the Bible is inspired by God and therefore inerrant,” Kelley said. “We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. We believe that every one of us is broken and needs restoration and that can only happen through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and by His wonderful, amazing grace that is available to anyone who will call upon His name.”
For more about the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum, visit www.greerheard.com. To order audio recording of this event or previous Greer-Heard forums, call (504) 282-4455, ext. 3245, or email [email protected].
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)