The hosts of the podcast, Doug Sweeney and Kristen Padilla, sat down to talk with Esau McCaulley and Osvaldo Padilla, both of which are professors—McCaulley at Wheaton, and Padilla at Beeson.
Their conversation spoke mainly to the issue of biblical interpretation and couched that discussion within the seat of what appears to be a more subjective, racialized approach to the interpretational endeavor. McCaulley states:
What I have in mind when I refer to African Americans are, the history, custom songs and experiences that have shaped the African American experience in the United States. And because of those experiences, we bring certain questions and issues and emotions to a Bible reading (emphasis mine).
Now, the assertion that we come to the biblical text with experiences, at first glance, seems prima facie true, and—in large part—it is. No one denies that we bring personal experiences to the biblical text. The question then becomes, What do we do with those experiences? He goes on to say:
And so when I talk about the African American tradition, I talk about all of those things. The way that our history, our experiences and our culture influences the questions we ask and the responses that we give to the answers the Bible brings back to us.
McCaulley, then, wants to encourage ethnically and culturally related questions to be asked by the would-be exegete as they interpret the Bible. But is this really how we ought to use experience in the task of biblical interpretation? Again, no one denies we have experiences with which we approach the text (such a denial would be absurd). The question is, What do we do with them?
I think the answer is largely found in the question that should motivate and shape all biblical interpretation in the first place. If you’ve been to seminary in the last fifty years, chances are you learned about the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. In fact, your head is probably still ringing from how hard the professor hammered it home. The fundamental question asked in that hermeneutical strategy is, What did the original author intend to say? Historically and most normally, however, the church has been motivated by the question, What does God intend by this or that text? I submit that the latter question ought to motivate and shape the way we come to the Bible. There is no more important question than, “What does God intend to communicate to us?”
So, when McCaulley talks about these questions with which blacks have supposedly approached the text he’s overcomplicating the interpretational task and he’s leading his followers and students down a dangerous road. They’ll be more prone to bend and mold the text into an attractive answer to problems arising from their experiences rather than ask and answer the question, “What has God said?” This is no way to discover truth. It’s only a way to put a bandaid on contemporary problems—what all forms of theological liberalism tries to do. Liberalism trades heaven for the here and now, and this is exactly what McCaulley is encouraging his students to do. McCaulley also says:
But we tend to say, “Well, okay, you have this one passage in Timothy, but let’s look at what the entire Bible reveals to us about God’s character and how that reveals what he thinks about slavery.” And so for that reason, we developed what I call the canonical instinct.
This just describes a tool Christians, black or white, slave or free, have been using for 2,000 years. It’s the analogia fidei or the analogy of faith. An interpretation of any given passage cannot contradict the whole of Christian teaching as it’s presented in the Scriptures. This prevents a-contextual readings of certain passages which people might use for wicked purposes.
If McCaulley wants to claim his subjective approach to the text has encouraged a canonical reading, he is sorely mistaken. It most certainly has encouraged men like James Cone and his Black Liberation Theology, but it has not encouraged a canon-centered reading of the text. That interpretational tool is as old as the Bible itself and is chiefly motivated by the question, “What did God say?” not questions arising from subjective experiences. Do not be fooled. McCaulley is not advocating for an objective reading of the Bible. He’s arguing for a reading of the Bible shaped by fluid experience; a reading that’s more Schleiermachian than orthodox.
The experiences McCaulley suggests his black students appeal to are constrained by their blackness. It’s the black experience that should motivate black Christians to ask certain questions which then motivates their biblical interpretation—interpretation designed to answer questions arising from experience. McCaulley’s suggestion gets it all backwards. We derive the doctrine first, from Scripture, then we apply that doctrine to our situation. Our situation should not determine the doctrine. Our doctrine should determine how we respond in any given situation.
McCaulley’s method sets up an unnecessary and unbiblical competition between black and white bible expositors. If a black theologian comes to a particular conclusion from Scripture using an approach shaped, at least in part, by his experience as an oppressed black man, then any white theologian who suggests his reading is wrong will, no doubt, be accused of racism or prejudice. The quest for truth will be completely interrupted. The black interpretation of the bible must be right because it grows out of an experience of victimhood. To call the victim wrong not only appears to be impious, but it smacks of insensitivity and racism.
Why not avoid all of this conflict by reading the Bible as it was meant to be read? Why not act like children of God, who are no longer Jews nor Greeks, but Christians, and learn at the feet of Jesus, asking the all-important question, “What do you want to teach me, my Lord?” Other questions can be asked and answered after we discover what God has actually said (Jn. 5:24).