in Hermeneutics

On So-Called 'High' and 'Low' Views of Scripture

When a person crosses ideological boundaries in order to engage in discussions about Jesus, Paul, or any other aspect of biblical theology, it seems as though the more seriously one takes the context of the biblical authors, the ‘lower’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be.  Conversely, the more one favours a ‘plain reading’ of the texts at hand, the ‘higher’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be.  Not surprisingly, it is usually those who favour this ‘plain reading’ who tend to make this sort of statement.
Imagine, for example, the following discussion.
Party A wishes to suggest that Paul as a human person, is not simply an unbiased conduit of the divine Word of God but is, at times, influenced by other political or cultural factors (after all, what human person is not so influenced?).  In order to illustrate this point, Party A points to 1 Cor 11.14-16, wherein Paul argues that ‘nature’ teaches us that it is disgraceful for men to have long hair or for women to have short hair.  Surely, Party A says, this is not God’s general and eternal rule for how we wear our hair; rather, in this passage Paul is revealing one of the ways in which he has been influenced by his own historical context.  Therefore, Party A concludes that there are times when properly respecting Paul means not applying what he has said to our contemporary context.
At this point Party B objects.  No, Party B says, Scripture — whether written by Paul or anybody else — is the divine Word of God and means the same thing for us as it meant at the time it was written.  If Paul makes a statement to one of his churches regarding the length of hair worn by men and women, then this statement must apply equally to us today.  To do otherwise, Party B asserts, is to diminish the authority of Scripture — as though we can pick and choose which commandments to follow!  Therefore, Party B concludes that Party A must have a ‘low view’ of Scripture, whereas Party B holds to a ‘high view’.
Now this conclusion is problematical for at least three reasons.
First, comments regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ views of Scripture tend to actually operate as (veiled?) ad hominum attacks upon the other Party engaging in this discussion.  The implication is that those who have a ‘high’ view treat Scripture with more reverence or respect than those accused of having a ‘low’ view.  In my own experience, this has never been the case.  What is at stake are two differing hermeneutical methodologies and not the reverence or respect with which Scripture is treated.  Indeed, one cannot even say that those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture allow Scripture to operate with more authority in their lives.  Once again, what one finds is that both of the parties are trying to live lives that accord with Scripture — it’s just that the parties differ over which elements of Scripture operate authoritatively.  Thus, while members of Party A may not give much contemporary weight to what Paul writes about hair (based upon cultural and contextual grounds), they might give a whole lot more contemporary weight to Jesus’ injunction to the rich young ruler in Mk 10.21.  Similarly, while members of Party B might disregard what Jesus says to the rich young ruler (based upon literary and contextual grounds), they might continue to affirm what Paul says about hair.  Thus, the question is not who treats Scripture as a greater authority, the question is who treats what parts of Scripture as authoritative and why.
This points to the second problem with the conclusion drawn by Party B — it is fundamentally inconsistent with the way in which members of Party B tend to treat all the texts contained within the Canon.  While members of Party B often want to defend a ‘plain’ reading of almost every sentence found within the Pauline and deutero-Pauline epistles, they most certainly do not apply the same rule to every other passage, observation, or injunction found within the Bible.  Thus, while a member of Party B may choose to follow Paul’s advice regarding hair, that member likely won’t follow the Deuteronomic command to stone disobedient children (cf. Deut 21.18-21).  This is not because the New Testament ever tells us that the command to stone disobedient children has been revoked (which is often the rational used by members of Party B to disregard other passages in the Old Testament — largely those related to food, circumcision, purity, and cultic acts).  Rather, it is because members of Party B can see the ways in which the violent patiarchalism of the Ancient Near East (often reflected in the Old Testament) is not something worth applying within our contemporary context.
Or, to take a second example, let us look at Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5.  The first verse tells us not to answer a fool according to that person’s folly lest we become like the fool ourselves.  The second verse tells us to answer a fool according to that person’s folly so that the fool does not become wise in his or her own eyes.  What are we to do with this glaring contradiction?  Well, I suspect that members of both Parties A and B would tell us that Proverbs belong to a certain genre of Wisdom literature wherein general but not universally applicable aphorisms are suggested.  Thus, it is up to the person with wisdom to discern which aphorism applies to which context.  What is clear (to both Parties, I think) is that both Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5 cannot be equally applied at the same time in the same way.
Therefore, it actually looks like members of Party A and of Party B hold strikingly similar views of Scripture as a whole, but disagree on how this view is applied to certain passages.  Given that this is the case, it seems like a cheap effort to gain power over the opposing Party by claiming a ‘high’ view of Scripture, or by charging the opposing Party with a ‘low’ view. (Or it could simply be a way of avoiding addressing the issue more substantially — i.e. by saying that a person’s view can be rejected, a priori, because that view belongs to a ‘lower’ view of Scripture.)
Third, and finally, claiming a high view Scripture is problematical because it is often a means of masking what is actually a rather disrespectful approach to Scripture.  To illustrate this point take the way in which Mary is treated within the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic hierarchy can point to its veneration of Mary in order to suggest that it has a high view of women… and this then becomes one of the ways in which that hierarchy masks the way it oppresses and marginalizes women within the historical Church itself!   Similarly, those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture often (intentionally or not) end up using this as a way of masking the ways in which they abuse Scripture by disregarding its contexts, its various genres, and so on.  Sadly, the rhetoric of a ‘high’ view of Scripture is all too often employed to defend superficial readings that actually abuse the texts at hand.  Thus, the language of ‘high’ and ‘low’ views becomes a propaganda tool and a means of deception.
Therefore, in light of these things, I suggest that we abandon this language altogether.

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  1. I’m a bit surprised, Dan. I would have expected a more careful engagement from you on this issue.
    I can only suspect, based on your descriptions of how Party B acts, that you’re reacting against a particular traditional segment of American theology? I think I’d be quick to point out that this is not all representative of many who would hold to a ‘high’ view of Scripture (such as myself, along with most evangelicals in Sydney).
    You argue that high/low terminology is cheap and not very fair. In the context you’ve described, I’d agree — but I don’t think that context is typical, and I do think the terminology (or something similar) has warrant normally.
    Most discussions I’ve come across over application of the Pentateuch, Proverbs and 1Cor 11 will be on the foundation and basis that there is infallible inspiration. In other words: the text was inspired *then*, how do we understand it and apply it today?
    But to suggest arguments such as “the violent partiarchalism of the Ancient Near East (reflected at times in the Old Testament) is not something worth applying within our contemporary context”, or “Paul is revealing one of the ways in which he has been influenced by his own historical context”, is to change the foundation of interpretation, so that one is now _essentially_ saying: the text was *wrong* even then, and so we shouldn’t apply it all today.
    It seems to me that there is a logical difference in the sort of argument being used here, and so high/low terminology has some warrant in attempting to distinguish between the two.
    Now, you’ve put one of these arguments in the mouth of Party B, and so arguing the distinction doesn’t really exist. However, I don’t know anyone who holds to a ‘high’ view that would make such arguments; I would agree that anyone who does *is* being consistent.
    Anyway, I hope that what I’ve said is fair and not too jumbled.

  2. The problem of the high/low view of scripture reveals a more fundamental problem: that of the “sola scriptura” — the Bible *alone* as the authority of the Christian faith. This view has been at the heart of the increasing multiplicity of denominations throughout Protestantism.
    When the interpretation is left to individuals (and, of course, the revelation of the Holy Spirit, whatever that ends up meaning), every position on Scripture is fair game.
    It is a long read, but, in relation to your thoughts here, you might find this article interesting:
    Also, I think your comment on Mary’s place in the RC Church indicates a misunderstanding of how traditional Christianity interprets scripture, i.e. how both the Western (RC) Church and Eastern (Orthodox) Church arrive at their Mariologies. The view of the Mother of God as held by the Church is not at all marginalizing. A woman (or human, if you will) had God Himself in her belly!

  3. Sam C.:
    Thanks for your response. I think that what you have written is both fair and clear.
    I do, however, have a few things to say in response.
    First, I think you are still creating an artificial distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ views of Scripture. For example, while I find myself agreeing with Party A above, I could easily argue that I have a ‘high’ view of Scripture. Thus, it is obvious that what I have written does not accurately represent all those who hold to ‘high’ views of Scripture… which is all the more reason to get rid of the rhetoric of ‘high’ and ‘low’ views!
    Second, speaking of Scripture as ‘inspired’ within the the context of discussions like this one, tends to be another ideologically-loaded grab for power. For example, let us assume that God has inspired Paul in what he has written in 1 Cor 7. However, Paul writes that (at least some of) what he says in 1 Cor 7 is not from God but is simply his own (fallible, uninspired) opinion. So, what are we saying then? That Paul was wrong on this point and is actually infallibly inspired even though he does not know this? No, we can’t say that lest we make Paul out to be a lier (and if he has lied here then where else? Yikes!) Perhaps, then, we should say that God inspired Paul to say that what he was writing was uninspired? This is a nifty little trick but the end result is the same — what Paul actually says about marriages across faith-based boundaries can be taken as a suggestion, not as a hard and fast command.
    Third, although you dislike the way in which I have allowed Party B to interpret Deut 21 (I was just trying to make Party B’s argument as logical as possible… perhaps you have another reason why those who like to claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture don’t stone their disobedient kids?) you still haven’t substantially responded to the criticisms I have raised regarding inconsistencies in the way in which members of Party B interpret and apply Scripture. In fact, I have raised this objection on multiple occasions and have yet to receive a substantial response from anybody (so you could be the first to provide one… good luck!).
    I look forward to further dialogue with you.
    Good question. The quick answer is that we don’t. 😉
    I don’t think you’ve understood what I wrote about the use of Mary within the RC church. Yes, Mary as Theotokos is far from a marginalized figure and provides us with the example of a greatly valued female figure, and so on and so forth. But it is talk like this that is used to avoid confronting the abuse and marginalization of women within the concrete life, practices, and places of leadership within the RC (and EO?) church(es?). So, for example, when they are accused of marginalizing women and are confronted with the fact the they don’t ordain women, the RC authorities all too often point to their Mariology… as if this lets them off the hook! Thus, the elevation of Mary becomes a propaganda tool employed to mask the actual (concrete, historical) oppression of women.
    That said, I agree with you about the importance of things like tradition and the community of faith as other authorities within the life of the Christian (although, just like Scripture, one’s engagement with these authorities requires careful negotiation and, just like Scripture, none of these authorities are, in themselves, ultimate).

  4. I love that you picked 1. Cor. 11.. I’m a guy with long hair too, so I’ve been running into those exact situations for years!
    To me, that’s a pretty easy set of verses to address: Paul asks, “Does nature not tell you?” And I answer simply, “No, it doesn’t. Neither nature nor culture.” But here’s a much harder question to answer that I think cuts to the heart of what you’re saying in your excellent blog post: What about a few verses earlier in the same chapter (v. 3) Paul seems to be suggesting trinitarian subordinationism to argue the same in regards to gender. The male is the head of the female, somehow above her in status, like God is the head of Christ. Yet this clearly is an unorthodox teaching. Trinitarian tradition has always resisted subordinationism. I guess it could be explained away by calling it relational subordination, but there’s nothing in the text to suggest that that’s the case. What do you do about this verse? And does you low/high view of scripture have any bearing on the way you treat it?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this and I’d actually recommend the works of Robertson Davies as being amazingly corrosive to this sort of characterization.


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