Is Everyone's Biblical Understanding Tainted by Preconceptions?

In looking over the news, I came across an article concerning dueling Joels: Bible Scholar and author Joel Hoffman disagreed with Lakewood mega-church Pastor and author Joel Osteen. While there is probably more that Joel Osteen and I agree upon than disagree upon, I do not believe that he is a good Bible expositor. (What I have heard strongly suggests that he is a proponent of the prosperity Gospel - a teaching that I find not only not Biblically supportable but contrary to the Biblical teaching in many respects.) Thus, initially I did not expect the article to be particularly interesting -- after all, there is a lot disagreeable in Osteen's teachings.

But when I read the reasons for the disagreement, I became more interested. It essentially boiled down to this: Hoffman was calling Osteen a coward for hiding behind the Bible for being against homosexual marriage when Hoffman was stating the the Bible did not condemn homosexuality. Since I think that the Bible is rather clear in its condemnation, I decided to see how Hoffman supported his reasoning. Following various links I came to a entry on Hoffman's blog entitled “The Bible Says So” and Other Stupid Arguments. Here, Hoffman details his reasons for his arguments against Osteen.

Personally, I think that the blog entry is appropriately titled because - in this writer's humble opinion - Hoffman's arguments are the "other stupid arguments" mentioned.

Hoffman begins by noting that people are arguing against abortion rights on the basis that "the Bible says so." He then says,

Even though I respect the Bible, and even though it forms the foundation of my personal and professional life, I think the argument is stupid. Here’s why: Everyone filters the Bible through their own personal preferences, choosing the parts they like.

He then applies this rule to argue that when people oppose homosexuality it is because their personal preferences and selective reading is what leads them to that conclusion.

The argument that "everyone filters the Bible through their own personal preferences" always makes me immediately skeptical of the motives of the person advancing the argument. First, it is almost always the case that the person making this assertion implicitly recuses himself from the same standard. In Hoffman's blog entry, the people who are asserting that the "Bible says so" to support their against homosexual marriage are (according to Hoffman) not reading the full Bible because of their preconceptions, but Hoffman, as the person critiquing the argument, is critiquing the Bible apparently without preconceptions. Hoffman, like others making this argument, assumes the role of the person with the purely rational and unbiased view of what the Bible says.

If Hoffman really believed his statement that "everyone filters the Bible through their own personal preferences, choosing the parts they like," then his conclusion would not be that the people who claim the "Bible says so" are making a "stupid argument", but rather Hoffman should conclude that his own personal preferences have led him to choose parts of the Bible that lead him to a different conclusion than the people who think that the Bible opposes homosexual marriage. After all, if it is true that "everyone" filters the Bible through their own filter, then how can he believe that his understanding is more correct than the understandings of others? Isn't the differing conclusions the result of the fact that Hoffman and the people with whom he disagrees start with different personal preferences leading them to read the text selectively?

Doesn't his argument boil down to saying that the "Bible says so" is a stupid argument because the "Bible doesn't say so" both of which positions are, of course, just conclusions based upon the arguers' preconceptions?

But, of course, Hoffman doesn't believe his own base rule. He believes that he is right and that the people who disagree with him are wrong. He believes that his view is cleaner of preconceptions than the people who believe that homosexual marriage is wrong. His belief that there is a true and correct understanding of the Bible that can be determined and does not rely upon preconceptions or preferences (even though his blog entry argues to the contrary) is consistent with my own. I think it clear that there is a single true and correct understanding of the Biblical teaching and that people can set aside their preconceptions to arrive at the truth.

So, the question becomes: is the view of the individuals who believe homosexual marriage is Biblically proscribed more correctly understanding the Bible or is Hoffman? If my schedule permits, I will examine his arguments in my next post.


Anonymous said…
I actually get Hoffman's point insofar as he's suggesting that if Osteen is going to take the Bible literally regarding the proscription against homosexual behavior, then he either (1) has to take the position that homosexuality, adultery and cursing at one's parents are punishable by death, or (2) provide an adequate account of how he determines which passages of the Bible are intended to be taken literally and which are not-- neither of which he thinks Osteen has done.

To put my view in context, I've seen Osteen go to great lengths to dodge the question of homosexuality as a sin in an interview with Larry King-- he flat out refused to state a position and seemed clearly uncomfortable being put on the spot. I'm assuming he feels a real desire to not turn homosexuals away from God or church but also knows what the Bible says about homosexuality. So, I see his "the Bible says it's a sin" in light of that interview, and, taken together, that can come off a little bit as hiding behind Scripture-- I don't have a problem with homosexuals, but I have to say it's a sin because that's what the Bible says.

In that sense, I think Hoffman is right to call him out-- you can't just say something like that when there are other parts of the Bible that you don't take quite so literally.

As for Hoffman's own position, he's wrong. I don't see how you can read the Bible and think that homosexual behavior is not a sin, and, the fact that the Bible is not always taken 100% literally in every respect, is not in and of itself a license to make of it whatever one wills. Whether you're a literalist or not, you have to provide an intellectual account of how you interpret the Bible.


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