Why Character is as Important as Method

When reading through an introduction to biblical interpretation you could well get the impression that what makes for good interpretation is good method, and you could even be forgiven for thinking that this is all that matters.[1] If we use the appropriate methods, we will get the desired results. Now as important as it is (we cannot proceed without it) method is not all important. Character is just as crucial when it comes to interpreting texts.

We are all aware of the reality of presuppositions and how these affect our reasoning.[2] What is not often discussed (although we don’t hesitate to identify this in others!) is the profound influence that the dispositions of our heart and mind have on how we carry out the interpretive task and on our judging of interpretive options. These dispositions can have an affect at every stage of the interpretive process; in our gathering and examining of the data, the forming, articulation, and comparing of possible interpretations, and the testing and weighing of these.[3]

So what exactly are these dispositions? They are essentially attitudes and commitments with accompanying skills. We can categorize them in terms of virtues and vices in accord with the expressed purpose of reading in order to understand what an author is communicating through a text. Virtues are those dispositions that are conducive to understanding, vices are those that impede this quest or even supplant it with another goal. [4] In Is There a Meaning in This Text Kevin Vanhoozer outlines four ‘interpretive virtues’: [5]

Honesty consists in acknowledging our presuppositions, aims, and interests. This is important so that we do not unconsciously read our own beliefs and preferences into the text, and so that we acknowledge why we may find a particular interpretive stance appealing or persuasive. The opposite of honesty fails to acknowledge the influence of presuppositions and interests, but feigns complete objectivity.

Openness consists in a desire to listen in order to understand and so consider the perspectives of others. It consists in open-mindedness towards the merit of different interpretations and a readiness to change one’s own in light of the evidence. Close-mindedness believes it possess the truth and so does not listen in order either to understand or consider, but only to subvert.

Attention consists in attentiveness to details, a commitment to serious enquiry rather than jumping to quick conclusions, and requires patience and thoroughness. Failure to be attentive can result in focusing only on that which supports ones interpretation, and moving to judgements too hastily.

Obedience consists in reading the text as the author intended, and in terms of Scripture, embracing it as something to act upon.

In the words of Ben Meyer drawing on the work of the late Bernard Lonergan:[6]

“objectivity is not achieved by the flight from subjectivity nor by any and every cultivation of subjectivity, but by an intense and persevering effort to exercise subjectivity attentively, intelligently, reasonably, and responsibly.”

Our desires, dispositions, attitudes and emotions can be decisive in how honest we will be in our reasoning. Dispositions such as pride and arrogance can prevent us from honestly seeking the truth. The belief that we are right can result in our refusing to listen to other perspectives because we feel that we already have the truth. Or simply desiring to believe a certain thing and not another can blind us to contrary details in the text, and in its extreme sway us in an interpretive direction regardless of its merit. We can be inclined to believe interpretations that support what we already believe. We can be inclined to believe theological perspectives that overturn what we have believed because we have been let down by our ecclesial and theological heritage. The reasons for belief are many and do not all bow to a responsible application and following through on reason and judgment.

When it comes to appropriating the Scriptures we can suggest all manner of qualifications and limitations on scriptural passages because we are uncomfortable with what they may indeed require of us. We can opt for an interpretation (even if it is weaker than its alternative) that does not require the overturning of previous activities and beliefs. Or we can put off decision by wading in the endless waters of debate (of course continuing to live according to what we already believe).

Because of this I am convinced that in the pursuit of truth good character is as important as good method.


[1] I do not intend a critique of such works with these comments. I am only noting that there appears to be a lack of attention placed upon character in introductions to biblical interpretation. While there are often very short sections on what the interpreter brings to the task in terms of presuppositions, what the interpreter brings in terms of longings, desires, motives, dispositions, etc., don’t appear to be discussed at any length.

[2] In regard to our presuppositions, self-awareness is a key skill and a character trait which is vital in the pursuit of truth.

[3] Of course these tasks are never carried out in this linear fashion. We begin our enquiry already with a question which will guide what data we see as relevant. When we form an insight we will move constantly between data and interpretation as it is developed, and weighing the various interpretive acts and as we go.

[4] Is There A Meaning In This Text? The bible, the reader, and the morality of literary Knowledge. Leicester: Apollos, 1998. pp. 376-7

[5] See p. 377. My descriptions of the four virtues do not correspond in every detail with Vanhoozer’s own outline. I have added some points and omitted some present in his sketch for the purposes of this post.

[6] Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics. Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1994. p. 4

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