“Safeguarding” the faith

Written by Daniel Tidwell : November 13, 2007

I recently had the experience of being in a discussion with a group of people where the question was raised: “What safeguards are there to interpreting scripture?”

My first concern is with the spirit of the question. There seems to be a basic assumption that there actually exist safeguards to how a text gets interpreted in our communities, and that we merely need to unlock the secrets of what those safeguards are. In the term “safeguard,” there are implications of both security and defensiveness. Moreover the question suggests that we, as humans, are responsible for determining and maintaining these defenses of a text—or by extension faith.

Where is the Spirit of God in all this? If we hold that the controversial message of Jesus is really worthwhile, that the Spirit of God is at work in our world, then surely we believe God is great enough to guide our readings of scripture.

If you’ve ever been to an optometrist, you’re familiar with the dark room, the fuzzy letters on the wall, and the rotation of glass lenses, “Which is better? A or B? Now 1 or 2?” You get the picture.

Now imagine, each combination of lenses fits someone’s eyes, yet no single combination fits everyone’s eyes. While some people are blessed to have perfect vision, none of us has perfect sight when it comes to our faith and to the way we read a text.

My lenses are shaped by my age, education, parents, religion, personality, experience with pain, understanding of love, how hungry I am, etc. Each of these influences can at times clarify or dull my vision.

When it comes to reading the Bible or understanding my faith, I need to use a variety of lenses in rotating combinations until things become clearer to me. But if my lenses are the problem, then I may need to see through the lenses of someone else.

Now, the next person down the line is probably having just as much trouble as I am, except, where I am near-sighted, she is far-sighted. Even though I know she doesn’t have everything worked out, by borrowing her lenses and letting them work in combination with mine, I see more clearly.

Now imagine reading in communities that are broadly varied, with people who bring with them very different categories of politics, faith, family, culture, language, sexuality, and ethics. I need not feel like orthodoxy will be destroyed in such a community

In coming together with those unlike me, I am able to engage in a dynamic exchange where, in the medium of love, we allow our differences to shape and create conversations about the text. In such a community, the Spirit of God is in charge of holding truth and guiding us in the process of engaging one another.

I have no interest in safeguarding the scriptures or my faith, because such an activity would be to foolishly declare my understanding as perfectly clear. I know this to be false. If others gave over their trust to me to interpret the faith for them, I have no doubt that I have the capacity to become a Jim Jones. Instead, in following Christ, I must live kenotically, giving away my power, and humbling myself to serve and learn from others.

“Sisters and Brothers pray for me, that I may better understand the scriptures.”
-an invocation from members of an independent African church congregation

for further reading . . .

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15 Responses to ““Safeguarding” the faith”

  1. Matt on November 13th, 2007 9:17 am


    Great thoughts. I think you’re right–the communities we’re a part of (whether consciously or unconsciously) do and should function as the lenses coloring our reading of Scripture. One such community, which you didn’t mention but which has been somewhat rejuvenated in evangelical circles lately, is the historical Christian community–the witness of the communion of saints throughout the history of the church. The more deeply we understand how God has spoken to the Church through the Scriptures in past ages, the more ably we’ll read the Scriptures and the less we’ll simply read ourselves into them. This is, I think, the closest thing to a “safeguard” as we’ll get.


  2. Jason Barr on November 13th, 2007 9:17 am

    I really like this. Have you ever read Hauerwas, particularly on the fallacy of the concept of “individual” Biblical interpretation? Some of what you said here reminds me of that.

    I’ve been thinking a bit about Stanley Fish and Peter Rabinowitz, their ideas on literary interpretation and how their ideas related to interpretive community (particularly Fish) and the relationship between author and reader (Rabinowitz) can inform our understanding of how to read Scripture.

    I tend to think the idea of “safeguarding” interpretation has more to do with a negative focus, analogous to trying to avoid sin, rather than a positive one, such as trying to focus on grace. I also think it has a lot to do with modern foundationalism and the idea that truth is “out there” to be discovered “objectively”, whereas I believe truth exists in relationship between where and who we are and where and who other subjects are - from God to neighbor to world to the scriptures.

  3. daniel.t on November 13th, 2007 9:26 am


    Sadly I am not so well versed in Hauerwas. I do draw a lot from literary theory though. I am just opening up to the beauty and possibility of a set of communal interpretive lenses.

    I really resonate with what you said about “safeguarding” being such a negatively defined term. That’s a lot of why I wrote this. I was so taken aback by the term when it came up in the conversation I was a part of, and I felt like I personally needed to try to unpack that.

    I think a lot of my issue with the term is not just the negative approach, but also the way it places us in the role of controlling and limiting the text instead of opening possibility and entering the text in a way that allows God’s Spirit to breathe life into the entire process.


  4. daniel.t on November 13th, 2007 9:30 am


    I love this thought. No only do we find our community in a particular history, but we are situated as a part of a larger historical community that is filled with complexities. By holding on to all the complexities and refusing to narrow the meaning of a text we open ourselves to dialog with this historical community, and we open the door for openness and new interpretation in the future community of the Church.


  5. Matt on November 13th, 2007 9:34 am


    The connection between Hauerwas and Fish is a great one to draw in terms of interpretive communities (they did, after all, heavily influence one another when Fish worked with Hauerwas at Duke). Fish has a couple great exchanges with Neuhaus in the Feb. ‘96 issue of First Things re: how this relates to liberalism (and I’ll try not to mention First Things anymore around these parts!).

    I think that you’re absolutely right that “safeguarding” should have a more negative focus–Scripture is not, certainly, a univocal puzzle whose one meaning we must unlock. I think the tendency to read in the foundationalist mode you mentioned is a direct result of the failure to read through history: Scripture is only an “objective” text when it is not an old text–when we see it as solely and chiefly meant directly for US (as opposed to being certainly for us, but for us as the particular instantiation in 2007 of the historical church).

  6. Jason Barr on November 13th, 2007 10:17 am


    I think a lot of my issue with the term is not just the negative approach, but also the way it places us in the role of controlling and limiting the text instead of opening possibility and entering the text in a way that allows God’s Spirit to breathe life into the entire process.

    Yes, absolutely. My rhetoric teacher liked to talk about the difference between a more “Platonic” propaganda-type approach to rhetoric, where the truth is already assumed and the goal of rhetoric is to constrain other people into the vision of truth you already possess, and a more “sophistic” dialogical approach by which truth is discovered/created together. I think about that a lot in relation to different approaches to scripture. I think you might also find some affinity with the post I have coming out tomorrow on Ecclesiastes.


    I think the tendency to read in the foundationalist mode you mentioned is a direct result of the failure to read through history: Scripture is only an “objective” text when it is not an old text–when we see it as solely and chiefly meant directly for US (as opposed to being certainly for us, but for us as the particular instantiation in 2007 of the historical church).

    Yes, I agree with this very strongly.

  7. Mike Knott on November 14th, 2007 3:47 am


    I’m not sure I’m grasping the implications of everything you’re saying. Well, how do we practice what we believe with people who hold different convictions?

    For instance, I’ve got a meeting scheduled for this Friday night (just what I want to do on a Friday night) with a brother from our fellowship who is strong in the word of faith stuff. He will attempt to totally dominate small groups or prayer meetings at times. I’m pretty tired of it. Frankly, I’m not very hopeful that I can persuade him that he views scripture through a certain lense. I suppose I can only hope to show him that I understand that I view scripture through a certain lense.

    I think this is my question: this is all well and good in a community where everyone humbly accepts the limitations of their perspective, but what do we do when we’re shepherding people I will unfortunately characterize as fighting fundamentalists or charismaniacs?

    You know, people who will accuse others of being “unteachable” if they have strong convictions but who view their own strong convictions as “that’s just biblical truth.”

    Please, is anyone else dealing with this?

  8. Jason Barr on November 14th, 2007 8:42 am

    Maybe asking if he would meditate on Philippians 2:1-11 together with you could be a start?

  9. daniel.t on November 14th, 2007 2:10 pm


    I have been in similar situations, and this certainly is where the “rubber meets the road.” While I won’t claim to know this fellow or the situation, I would be interested in knowing what drives his way of being with others. My experience is that many who assert power over others, and who attempt to control conversation and orthodoxy, are themselves very desperate to hold onto their beliefs. This desperation implies some fear or need of theirs. Rather than meeting this fellow to confront the issue of his domination, why not try to meet him in his need? In direct confrontation with those who seek to dominate, we run the risk of becoming like them through employing their means. We seek a gracious end and we must achieve it by gracious means. Rather than challenging his way of reading or presenting himself to the group, what if you asked him to tell you his story of how he has grown in his faith? What was his life like before Christ? How has he struggled and grown since then?

    In asking these questions, you can enter into the story of his life and not merely confront the behavior, but actual come alongside him. By doing this, you will certainly learn more about how and why he reds scripture the way he does. Not only this, but it will invite him into his own story, causing him to engage with his own life as being a work in progress. This kind of conversation is tough to enter, and it might mean you doing a lot of self-disclosure about how you yourself have grown and changed.

    I don’t know if you find that helpful at all, but that’s how I am trying to have that conversation with several people right now.

    Much Grace and Peace upon you in this endeavor,

  10. Maria Kirby on November 14th, 2007 5:28 pm

    That sounds like a very compassionate way to approach things. Would you deal with a heretic the same way? Historically they’ve been treated worse than non-believers, as more of a threat and so there’s been a lot of antagonism that doesn’t seem to reflect our core beliefs. Are heretics a threat that we need to be responsible to eliminate? I think its very interesting that in spite of early Church fathers’ attempts to eliminate heresy by burning and banning the book of Judas, it has come back to light.


  11. daniel.t on November 14th, 2007 5:35 pm

    As I’ve been accused of being a heretic (smile) I should hope that I would. I am thoroughly convinced that my meassage and methods must align. If I am to be a person of grace and peace, then I must compassionately reach out to everyone, no matter how hostile or vehement their opposition.

    That said, it’s not easy. It’s as hard as hell.

  12. Mike Knott on November 15th, 2007 6:12 am

    Fantastic ideas, men.

    Jason, I’ll jump on Phil 2 right now, so I can be pre-seasoned, if possible!

    Daniel - “My experience is that many who assert power over others, and who attempt to control conversation and orthodoxy, are themselves very desperate to hold onto their beliefs.”

    That rings true for me and it may be the case, I’m having trouble connecting the pieces in this instance. I know a bit of his story, but it will be good to explore some more. I love your suggestion that a gracious end seeks gracious means. Very inspiring. I will do my best to shift the focus of this meeting from a theological MMA exhibition to more of a News from Lake Woebegone story-telling get-together.

    A Plowshare for the Lord!

  13. Jason Barr on November 15th, 2007 10:45 am

    ps. - don’t forget to pray, and then pray again. Perhaps ask him to pray with you and then ask God to show you both the path to humility and openness to the Spirit’s teachings. It’s not manipulating him through prayer, I wouldn’t think (something I’ve experienced before, other people very obviously preaching at me or another through praying) because I would think you would legitimately be praying for it to be true not only of your friend but also of yourself.

    The more I think about these things the more firmly convinced I am that we will only change if we pray, and then follow the Lord’s promptings as he puts us into situations that will change us.

    Blessings to you and my prayers for you and your friend.

  14. forrest curo on November 15th, 2007 11:22 am

    You know, one of the old Puritan notions that George Fox picked up & ran with was this: To interpret the scriptures rightly, you need to be in the same spirit as the authors were in writing them.

    And in that spirit, as you’re saying in this post, “God is the only safeguard you’ll ever need.”

    The wrong sort of Bible study comes down to a lot of “teaching as Commandments the teachings of men!” People who do that, of course, have to ’safeguard’ those teachings. But if what Jesus tells us about God registers with us, then we recognize God as our Father who sends the sun and rain we need–And then we can recognize those “teachings of men” by the humanly judgmental, moralistic, punitive distortions that contaminate the message.

    And no, I’m not saying that God doesn’t punish us for falling into sinful practices and states of mind… I’m saying we need to see such punishments as “consequences,” but not as things that anyone “deserves”! That is, we may suffer until a bad situation achieves its purpose, but “God does not cast off forever, nor needlessly afflict the children of men.”

    So we may well be wrong about one thing or another, or be making mistakes we’d be better off not making, but we can and should put our trust in God to give us our daily bread, whether this is literal physical food or the next lesson we’ve been preparing to receive.

    Open-minded, spiritually-alert Bible study, by the way, is a wonderful source of those spiritual loaves!

  15. Mike Knott on November 20th, 2007 9:03 am

    Jason & Daniel,

    I wanted to give you the update. We couldn’t meet Friday so we met last night ( Monday, 11.19.07).

    It was really great!

    Well, I got testy a couple times - REALLY testy when he said that the reason Job suffered was because he was operating in fear (”that which I greatly feared has come upon me…” - too lazy to find the verse reference).

    Otherwise, we opened with prayer, spent time together in the Lord, and closed with great affection. It was really precious (and mostly gracious). My faith was really stirred up & encouraged by his faith and I think I was able to encourage him on a couple points as well. Very cool.

    I have also come to understand his history a little better - he was radically converted in prison for dealing meth and was discipled by TV preachers. Lots of implications to this story, but the most important was simply how it encouraged me to trust God for big and unlikely things.

    Thanks for the help!

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