We all have a special set of lens through which we read. These presuppositions cause us to arrive at meanings that the authors would surely be surprised by if they heard or read about them today.
The ending section of the book of Revelation may have caused untold fear at this point to generations of Scripture readers. John writes:
If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Rev 22.18-19, NIV).
We read this at the end of our Bible and suppose that it is referring to the whole Bible when it really applies only to the book of Revelation. We read in fear and trembling that we are changing the sacred text when in fact the literalness that we read with is changing the text.
Every reading journey starts somewhere. In the reading journey, our presuppositions 1 are our starting points. They are our colored lens. Our starting point will always determine our ending point. As an example, If we were to take a ride from the beginning of I-5 2 at the Canadian border at Blaine, WA, and travel south to its ends just below Chula Vista, CA, at the Mexican border, we can only go through towns and cities that I-5 goes through. Other cities cannot be reached while on I-5. Let’s say we were in Portland, OR, and wanted to drive to Reno, NV. We can’t make that journey on I-5, because I-5 doesn’t go through Reno. In short, we can’t get anywhere on that highway except where it takes us. Our beginning point really does determine our ending point. In Bible reading, a presupposition is the root belief(s) we hold from which, as we read, all our other thoughts and beliefs flow.
Let’s think about this in terms of the topic “end times.” If we believe that the church will be raptured before a tribulation, that would be our beginning point, our presupposition. As we read Scripture, we discover all kinds of verses that support our presupposition. Such is the presupposition of the Left Behind series of books. Presuppositions are also at play in our present topic of women in ministry. If we believe that Genesis teaches male hierarchy in creation, then we collect all other material in our Bible reading to support that presupposition. If, on the other hand, we read Genesis as not teaching male hierarchy in creation but equality, and we follow the storyline through the fall to the new creation in Christ, then we collect material that supports that point of view. There’s nothing magical about this process. Our starting point determines our ending point.
Here’s another example: when we read Arabic numbers like 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 in our sacred text, we assume that we are reading quantity, i.e., there are seven plates on the dinner table. However, what if we are reading those numbers in terms of quality, i.e., “there are seven plates on the dinner table” could be understood as “there is one perfect plate on the dinner table.” For the ancient reader, this latter reading would be a more normal reading.
Finally, the version of the sacred text we choose to read causes us to wear colored shades and see things differently. Translators make interpretative decisions, which then affect the way in which we read. As an example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7.1: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” In early translations, there were no quote marks around “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” This caused readers to think that this statement was a “Paul saying” rather than a “Corinthians saying,” which Paul was quoting and then refuting that saying in the following text. You can take a look at my Kindle eBook Veilless in Corinth to see an example of how this literary reading works. 3
We need to be intentional to discover what our presuppositions are. Being aware of our presuppositions is the first step in changing them, which will surely change our reading and interpreting of the sacred text for the better. To accomplish this goal, it might be well if we were exposed to the different approaches to reading to help us discover how we read. We start with the premise that God is a speaking God.
- A presupposition is to suppose or assume beforehand; or to take for granted in advance. ↩
- For readers outside the United States, the “I” means Interstate. These are special marked roads that run north and south in the US designated with odd or even numbers, i.e., I-5, I-15, etc., and east and west with numbers like I-10, I-40, etc. ↩
- Winn Griffin, Veilless in Corinth: An Interpretative Read of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 [a Kingdom Praxis Solo], Basileia Publishing: An Imprint of Harmon Press. http://amzn.to/10KHD4d (accessed January 23, 2012). ↩