Southern's Stein says author, not reader, should determine biblical meaning

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--It is washing over evangelicalism like the violent waters from a broken dam and its tepid backwash threatens to leave eternal damage in its wake: the reader-centered approach to interpreting Scripture.

It often begins with innocent intentions, in, say, a Sunday school class or mid-week Bible study. The "teacher" -- or perhaps more accurately, facilitator -- reads a passage of Scripture. He or she follows it with the question: "Now what does this text say to you?"

And around the room it goes with disjointed responses coming like a merry-go-round off its axis: "This part where Jesus feeds the 5,000 says to me that we should not be stingy and more like the little boy with the loaves and fishes."

Or the textus classicus me-centeredus, "Philippians 4:13 means I have the power to be anything I want to be and do anything I want to do because God gives me that power."

It is against this stream of fanciful subjectivity that Robert Stein has been swimming over the past 32 years. Stein, the Mildred and Ernest Hogan Professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1997, has established a hermeneutics program which he hopes to be his enduring legacy within evangelicalism. (Hermeneutics is the study of biblical interpretation.)

Stein teaches the author-centered approach to Scripture and employs a specific vocabulary in solving the question: "What is the author's meaning?"

"I am really frightened by how many evangelicals are buying into the reader-centered approach," said Stein. "And if you really believe that it's not the author who determines the meaning, then any doctrine of inspiration is ultimately irrelevant.

"If I'm the one that is inspired in reading the text and giving meaning to it then you have to come down real low with a view of inspiration to fit that. But if you believe that what the biblical author -- Mark or Paul or John -- what they meant is the word of God and they are inspired in writing this, then I want to know what they meant. I want to know what they meant, not treat the biblical text as kind of an inkblot that each one of us, with good imagination, sees something in it. I think that's the key issue we're facing."

Stein is a veteran of the hermeneutical battles. Prior to coming on staff at Southern, the Jersey City, N.J., native spent 28 years as New Testament professor at Bethel College and Bethel Seminary in Minneapolis.

And he has contributed many works -- including a dozen books and scores of articles and reviews -- to the body of scholarly evangelical literature. Among his best-known books are "Jesus the Messiah," published in 1996 by InterVarsity Press; "The Synoptic Problem," first published in 1987 by Baker Books; and "Playing By the Rules" (Baker, 1994), the textbook used in Southern's hermeneutics classes.

Though Stein is troubled by the "reader-is-king" approach to Scripture, he does see encouraging signs of life among evangelical scholars. The pool of quality scholarship among evangelicals has deepened significantly in the past three decades, Stein says, to such a degree that evangelical scholars are now being taken seriously outside of Christian schools.

Stein says he keeps his target audience in mind when writing books.

"I wrote my 'Playing By the Rules' for lay people," he said. "I kept in mind that I was not writing this for other professors of hermeneutics, I was not writing this so that reviewers would know how smart I am, but I constantly thought of the lay reader who would read this.

"I am very much angered by those who want to make hermeneutics so complicated that people don't know how to interpret the Bible. I think hermeneutics should be very down-to-earth and basically very helpful."

Stein's upbringing may have contributed to such conviction. He was reared in New Jersey, the youngest of two sons to German parents who immigrated to America in the roaring 20s. His brother is an attorney. Stein says his parents were uneducated but wise beyond knowledge that could be gained in any school.

Their work ethic was such that it instilled in the two boys an integrity and grit that would serve them well in their careers.

"My mom's education is probably up to a fourth-grade level, my dad's up to a sixth- or seventh-grade level," he said. "They had a lot of wisdom -- common sense wisdom. They had integrity -- they kept their word, which was very special to them. They worked very hard and gave their sons a model of hard work."

The greatest issue that evangelicals will face in the 21st Century is the location of the meaning of Scripture, Stein said.

"I don't think what the evangelical is going to be struggling with over the next 20 years is going to be how to interpret Genesis or creation or things of that nature. I don't think it's going to be an issue of inspiration. I think that was done in the 1970s and early-80s. I think the issue facing us is the issue of where is the meaning of the text to be found."

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