Executive Summary

‘Do You Understand What You Are Reading?’

Toward a Faithful Evangelical Hermeneutic of Scripture

28 Jun 2024

Editor's Note

This is the executive summary of Lausanne Occasional Paper 74 authored by Grace Al-Zoughbi, Steven Chang, Jacob Cherian, Chun Kwang Chung, Jessy Jaison, Leulseged Philemon, Danillo Augusto Santos, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and Kazuhiko Yamazaki-Ransom. Access the full occasional paper here.

Seeing unity in the diversity of Scripture is a long-standing issue in biblical interpretation. How can a literary product of so many different authors, genres, and perspectives speak with any discernible unity? Evangelicals have insisted that the very nature of Scripture as God-breathed implies its unity, and that an appropriate biblical-theological perspective based on an overarching theme or storyline, or an interpretation that is properly ‘theological’, unifies the diversity so that Scripture can and does speak with a single voice. There is, however, a more difficult ‘unity in diversity’ issue. Increasingly diverse readings of Scripture are espoused, especially as evangelicals globally are more heterogeneous than ever before. As interpretations reflect greater divergence, one is forced to ask the question of faithfulness. Are these divergent readings still ‘evangelical’? How do we as a global evangelical community come to terms with the diversity of evangelical readings? Is there a hermeneutic of Scripture that would equally be unquestionable in its evangelical character and still allow for contextual diversity reflective of global evangelicalism today? And is such an ‘evangelical hermeneutic’ credible or even possible?

Evangelicals have held that the nature of Scripture should control the way it is read. Because Scripture is produced by God’s superintending inspiration, it must speak with a voice beyond its human authors. Evangelical readings seek to discern that voice in Scripture that discloses God’s nature as redeemer and God’s plan of salvation for humankind. However, the diverse nature of Scripture, that Scripture is a collection of various human authors, should also inform the way it is read. On the one hand, we must account for the diversity God has allowed in the production of Scripture and likewise celebrate the diversity of readers and readings in evangelicalism today. On the other hand, we must carefully consider how Scripture unifies the diverse voices of its authors and begin to apply that same search for unity to our own diverse perspectives. In other words, the diverse yet unified nature of Scripture itself must inform and guide evangelical readings of Scripture. 

Thus, the goal of this paper is twofold. The first is to search carefully for unity as evangelical readers of Scripture and to lay out the defining characteristics of an evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture that is faithful to the evangelical tradition, not least as it is embodied by the Lausanne Movement. The second is to consider how to apply hermeneutical faithfulness to the diversity of local contexts and readings, and to foster a faithful Scripture reading culture for evangelical churches in these contexts.

The diversity of global evangelicalism, then, is not so much a problem as it is a strength. The strength of diversity furthermore is evident in Acts 2 and the Pentecostal unity experienced by the Jews ‘from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5) who in unison under the Spirit’s guidance accepted Peter’s reading of the Scriptures. The result was that ‘[a]ll the believers were together and had everything in common’ (Acts 2:44), including, we presume, their reading of Scripture. Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, the readers’ diverse contexts aid in finding fresh insights into the fuller understanding of God’s truth in Scripture. As soon as readers’ contexts and the work of the Spirit are considered, a hermeneutical community comes into view: ‘the task of understanding the Scriptures belongs not just to individuals but to the whole Christian community, seen as both a contemporary and a historical fellowship.’ With the help of the same Spirit, the whole (universal; catholic) church reads, believes, and lives the holy Scriptures. With the help of the same Spirit, the whole (universal; catholic) church reads, believes, and lives the holy Scriptures. Thus, taking center stage in the faithful reading of Scripture is the church as the universal communion of saints, in all places and in all times. The church in all its catholic diversity is tasked with declaring and displaying its evangelical unity, faithfully reading, believing, and living the gospel message at the heart of the Scriptures.

Still, when we evangelicals do not share a common confessional document or church authority structure, finding unity in diversity is a difficult task. Finding the typology of sets helpful for defining ‘evangelical’, Kevin Vanhoozer proposes another analogy from the nautical world, the ‘anchored set.’ In this set, the anchor is grounded in the seabed and the ship, though free to move with the waves, is kept from drifting freely by the attached chain and anchor. In an anchored-set view of evangelical hermeneutics, Scripture (or God speaking in Scripture) is the anchor that is grounded and fixed while the ship is the church that floats on the sea above with the waves and currents. As the winds and waves (of doctrine, Eph 4:14) moves the ship wherever the sea wishes, the anchor and the chain keep it steady and safe. At the same time, the ship is still free to move with the currents above, expressing its contextual diversity, even while remaining firmly attached to the anchor below. A faithful evangelical hermeneutic stands in continuity with how the church historically has read Scripture for faith, life, and mission. Thus, the anchored set analogy keeps evangelical hermeneutics grounded in God’s Word (canon sense), connected with the universal church of the past and present (catholic sensibility), and engaged with local cultures in every place (contextual sensitivity). The vessel of the church is free to move with the currents yet kept from drifting by the chain of tradition that connects it to the anchor of God’s Word. This paper proposes a faithful evangelical hermeneutic that accounts for canon sense, catholic sensibility, and contextual sensitivity, using the anchored set analogy. This paper begins with canon sense by affirming what the Bible is and what it is for, especially in relation to the Lausanne Movement. 

Section (1) affirms that Scripture is an inspired human-divine discourse with the goal of forming citizens of the gospel (1.1) and reviews an evangelical theology of Scripture using Luke’s theology of ‘the word of God’ in the Book of Acts (1.2). Because the anchor of Scripture is lodged in its historical and literary contexts, which may rightly be seen as the seabed, Section (2) examines why reading in context is critical for a credible and faithful evangelical hermeneutic and reflects on the importance of the historical (2.1), literary (2.2), and canonical (2.3) contexts of Scripture in biblical interpretation.

Moving from canon sense to catholic sensibility, Section (3) addresses what it means to be evangelical in our hermeneutic of Scripture. Reading evangelically is important because it is what keeps the ship securely chained to the anchor and from dangerously drifting into misinterpretation and discredit. At the core of an evangelical hermeneutic is the gospel of Jesus Christ (3.1), which has implications for not only understanding the content of the Bible but also the way it is read, submitted to, and lived out. Evangelicals globally recognize that the Scriptures reveal and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that people are transformed when they encounter and submit to that gospel. Evangelicals furthermore acknowledge that Scripture is not only written by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration but also interpreted by the Spirit’s illumination (3.2). This illumination in the interpretative process is internal guidance and discernment as part of the catholic church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the empowerment to live and witness according to the Word of God. The section is rounded out by a reflection on the critical role of tradition in a faithful evangelical hermeneutic (3.3). Evangelical reading must be located in the larger history of the church with the recognition that reading evangelically is part of the Great Tradition of biblical interpretation stretching back to the apostolic church. This ecclesial perspective (catholic sensibility) becomes the chain that not only connects today’s evangelical churches to Scripture but also becomes the foundation for consensus that unites the diversity inevitable in contextual sensitivity as global evangelicals read Scripture from our own contexts.

Finally, Section (4) focuses on contextual sensitivity and the goal of developing a Bible ‘reading culture’ for evangelical churches in various contexts. Proposing a faithful evangelical hermeneutic presupposes the goal of developing a ‘local hermeneutical culture’ of the gospel. Thus, this important section begins with a fresh look at the unity and diversity of contextual hermeneutics (4.1) and how an evangelical reading culture must account for contextual diversity and cultural blind spots if it is to be missionally relevant. The section then turns to two examples of local Bible reading culture. The first example puts forward ‘collaborative reading’ in pluralistic settings (4.2) where contextual diversity is embraced without sacrificing theological depth and fidelity, thus, making the mission witness of the church front and center. The second example appeals for a more robust Bible reading culture in volatile contexts (4.3) where unsound hermeneutics may lead to disastrous consequences. A faithful evangelical hermeneutic in such contexts rightly exhorts an identity for the people of God characterized by covenantal love for God and others, and that which leads steadily to Christ and his lordship.

How should we evangelicals read the Bible and does it really matter how we read it? In this paper, we put forward the analogy of the anchored set for understanding how we as global evangelicals might be faithful in our reading of the Bible. We suggest that faithfulness is the goal because reading Scripture well has everything to do with our identity and mission as evangelicals. We believe that faithfulness must be evident in how we understand the Bible (the anchor), our tradition (the chain), and our contexts (the ship). We are in essence striving for a broader faithfulness toward our God, our siblings in the church, and our neighbors in the world. And in this regard, faithfulness is how our evangelical hermeneutic might be deemed credible in our witness to the world.

Then what does hermeneutical faithfulness look like? First, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to God and his speaking in Scripture. Thus, faithfulness starts with canon sense, that is, the affirmation of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture as God’s authoritative Word. This anchor of God’s Word, embedded in its historical, literary, and canonical seabed, is trustworthy and effective as it still speaks powerfully to the world to reveal the Triune God and the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Our hermeneutical faithfulness toward God, then, is not only a recognition of this nature of Scripture but also a submission to its authority and message in worship and discipleship as the church.

Second, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to our brothers and sisters in the church. Thus, faithfulness builds on canon sense toward catholic sensibility, that is, the reading of the Bible with all the communion of saints. On the one hand, catholic sensibility gives our hermeneutic universal scope. Local churches in all their variety are part of the universal confessing church and so our reading of Scripture must honor that unity. Local readers cannot interpret Scripture in isolation, nor claim any local interpretation to have final say and authority. On the other hand, catholic sensibility connects our hermeneutic to the anchor of Scripture by the chain of tradition, that is, the biblical interpretations of the past church. The elder siblings of the confessing church of the past who have read the Bible for faith, practice, and mission both inform and ground our hermeneutic. We are together part of the chain that both receives and passes on the good news of the gospel through the right reading of Scripture in the power of the Spirit. Evangelicals must reconnect our biblical interpretation to the Great Tradition in order to recover faithfulness and credibility.

Third, we propose that our hermeneutic must be faithful to our neighbors in the world, as a witness to them. Thus, faithfulness builds on canon sense and catholic sensibility toward contextual sensitivity, that is, the reading of the Bible for relevance and discipleship in the local context. On the one hand, contextual sensitivity means every culture must encounter afresh the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Bible and that this gospel must be read and interpreted from the ship among the waves of local culture. We suggest that faithfulness means developing a contextualized Scripture reading culture in the local church context. Thus, Spirit-led contextualization is necessary and desirable, even as we are convinced that the message of the gospel in Scripture is universal. On the other hand, contextual sensitivity takes for granted the unchanging anchor of Scripture and that although every Scripture must be interpreted by those on the floating ship, the contexts of the winds and waves must not skew and change the essential message of the gospel in Scripture. In other words, the dangers of over-contextualization and relying solely on our contexts for meaning are kept in check and overcome. Thus, contextual diversity is both welcomed wholeheartedly and assessed carefully in a faithful evangelical hermeneutic. 

So, do we evangelicals understand what we are reading? In this Lausanne paper, the international team of evangelical Bible readers and theologians sought to do the ministry of Philip in Acts 8, to be led by the Spirit and to guide our evangelical sisters and brothers of the global church in the faithful reading of Scripture. We thank God that we do not stand alone in this task, that God has blessed our communion with the Spirit-led insights, local faith experiences, and learned perspectives of the global evangelical church. Perhaps the strength of our fellowship might be measured by our diverse yet unified reading of Scripture for the sake of our collective transformation and witness in the world. Reading Scripture together as the global movement of evangelical churches, then, is the only faithful and credible evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture. And in this way, the church will indeed declare and display Christ together, to the glory of God.