Hermeneutics and the Meditative Use of Scripture: The Case for a Baptized Imagination

Article excerpt


"That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized" (C.S. Lewis)2


Bible-centeredness is one of the defining and most celebrated features of the evangelical tradition.3 To a significant degree evangelical identity revolves around the central place we give to the Scriptures. Historically we have been very much a people of the Book. We confess that the Bible is unique among pieces of literature, for it is God-breathed-divinely-inspired, and therefore infallible (unable to fail), inerrant (without error), and supremely authoritative (possessing the right to compel assent). We acknowledge its power, and so we preach the Word (2 Tim 4:12), counting on its penetrating force as the sword of the Spirit (Heb 4:12).

But one quickly discovers that to hold the Bible in such a prominent place is no guarantee that the way we treat it and use it will always be appropriate. In fact, all too often just the opposite is the case. We are embarrassed at the prevalence of "magical" approaches to Scripture that bear more resemblance than we would like to the superstitious oracular and divining practices of the world's primal religions. We have squirmed when fellow-evangelicals have treated the Bible as a volume of encoded secrets about the future that require esoteric and even mathematical deciphering.4

It has given us headaches to attend home Bible studies at which every random and arbitrary interpretation of a passage put forward by participants is affirmed and validated as a stroke of genius.

And so saner heads among us have taken seriously the Scripture's own challenge to "rightly divide the Word of Truth" (2 Tim 2:15), as the older King James Version put it, or, as the New International Version now translates the phrase, to "correctly handle the Word of Truth." We evangelicals have worked hard to develop responsible ways of interpreting the Bible. We do not want to be victims of dangerous subjectivity and misleading judgments. For responsible evangelical scholars this has meant attempting as best we can to grasp the original authors' intended meanings, an effort that has in turn involved embracing historical-grammatical methods of exegesis and hermeneutics. And over the years we have taken ownership of a rather sophisticated apparatus of scholarly methods and lexical tools to help us with this. Through all of this the thing we have vilified most, and been most opposed to, has been subjective interpretations of Scripture.5

Subjectivism has challenged us in different forms, and we have done our best to remain resilient each time. Despite a considerable challenge in the twentieth century from the neo-orthodox approach to Scripture, evangelicals held to the conviction that, whatever God might say to a receptive reader of Scripture, it must be tethered to the propositional content of the Biblical text itself.6 More recently, evangelicals have responded to deconstructionism, the literary expression of postmodernism, according to which meaning resides only in the reader's creative construction of meaning rather than in the text itself. Generally, evangelicals have inclined in literary matters to submit to something like what renowned Christian apologist C. S. Lewis once vividly described as "the rough, male taste of reality, not made by us, or, indeed, for us, but hitting us in the face."8


Despite its laudable achievements this well-intentioned approach, which has generally been marketed as the approach to Scripture, has not served the church as well as one might hope. It is not failing because there is anything intrinsically wrong with either the methodological principles it advocates or the central importance it attaches to discerning the Biblical writers' original intentions. Rather, this prevailing evangelical approach to hermeneutics may be damaging the vitality of the church because of what it either completely ignores, deliberately underestimates, or cavalierly dismisses as of peripheral concern. …