On the Univocality of the Bible

A common misapprehension among amateur and some professional Bible scholars is the assumption of the univocality of the Bible. According to this assumption, the Bible manifests a single theological and ecclesiastical paradigm which allows exegetes, in their minds, to appeal to and synthesize texts separated by several centuries and virtually irreconcilable worldviews in the interest of the extrapolation of doctrine and, secondarily, administrative guidelines.

I believe the root of this assumption is the belief that the Bible contains all the necessary information for the institutionalization and administration of a  community of faith, which, in my opinion, seems to be related to the idea of biblical inerrancy. After all, conflicting theologies would all but undermine the “God-breathed” nature of all scripture, according to the more conservative definitions of inerrancy.

In a recent discussion I was asked my opinion concerning the reception of the Holy Ghost without baptism. Someone opined that Acts 10:44–48 showed baptism was not necessary for the reception of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. His perspective, I believe, asserted the univocality of scripture, as he seemed to aver that any soteriological paradigm must be able to account for every related event or doctrinal exposition in the Bible. No loose ends may exist, and so Acts 10:44–48 manifests no exceptions or unique or aberrant policy, but rather a clue to unpacking the Bible’s single and consistent doctrine of baptism.

I take a different approach to interpreting doctrine in the Bible. I make no confession of biblical inerrancy, and I believe the biblical texts are in no way free from theological speculation, propaganda, polemic, rhetoric, and human error. I think that asserting the univocality of the Bible tangles up the exegete in the hermeneutic circle and in attempts to reconcile theological and administrative inconsistencies to contemporary dogmas.

While most Bible scholars aren’t often caught up in bickering about contradictions in the Bible and other apologetic arguments, I believe the assumption of biblical univocality still wriggles its way into academia. It is primarily manifested in attempts to homogenize or reconcile the theologies of diachronically distinct cultures and peoples. Early monarchic perspectives on the divine council, for instance, were not identical to those of Second Temple Judaism, which incorporated a conflated pantheon, an expanded angelology, and a more transcendant view of YHWH. Anthropomorphic perspectives of deity changed, as did ideas of monotheism, salvation, the source of evil, corporate responsibility, law, scripture, priesthood, nationalism, cult, and pretty much everything else. The New Testament, in and of itself, is no exception. I think these considerations need to be addressed before one can assert that “the Bible says” one thing or another, or that a scripture in John or the Psalms should be interpreted according to a specific paradigm because it is expounded upon that way in Genesis or Isaiah.



5 responses to “On the Univocality of the Bible

  • Richard

    I agree, it is imperative that we understand the historical context of each book and each layer of each book in order to interpret correctly.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Exactly. Unfortunately it’s much easier for people to just assume that books within the Bible, or the entire Bible itself, represent a single point on a timeline, or a single, unified exposition of doctrine.

  • Richard

    Have you read Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis? John Anderson suggested it to me a while ago and I’ve just finished it, well a couple of weeks ago and it is working within the suggested framework you suggest above.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    I had it in my hand a couple months ago, and I had just finished reading Writing on the Tablet of the Heart (which I enjoyed), but some other research was more pressing, so I haven’t read it yet. I’ll have to pick it back up as soon as I can.

  • Biblical Studies Carnival XLV: Bible Themed Park « The Jesus Memoirs

    […] Step into The Time Machine, a state-of-the-art virtual reality ride that lets you travel back to the ancient world. Go as far back as the last century of the 3rd millennium BCE to the ancient Sumerian Third Dynasty of Ur with Charles Halton. Or live among the Israelites: Julia M. O’Brien writes on how to eat like an Israelite and Claude Mariotinni on how to dress like one. Fundamentalists who think Deut 22:5 is about who wear the pants may be in for a surprise. Witness the rise of Judea and Jerusalem under Assyrian hegemony and then let Neil Godfrey know whether Finkelstein or Thompson got it right. Fastforward through Jewish history spanning from the return from captivity in 538 BCE to the Jewish War in 66-73 CE with Ken Schenck as a guide. Josh Mann lets you see the Roman Empire through the eyes of a slave. Phil Harland has podcasts on the gods in the Roman Empire, the historical Jesus or issues in the Pauline churches. Doug Chaplin focuses in on the Corinthian congregation. You might never guess Paul had a sense of humour. Get acquanted with the Beloved Disciple, whom James Tabor identifies as Jesus’ brother James. Bill Heroman defends the historicity of John while April DeConick explores the soteriological paradigm of the Johannine community. Don’t stop there but continue with her on the road to Nicea. If  you visit Alexandria or Antioch, try to spot the hermeneutical differences with Joel Watts. Learn about the historical processes that led to canonization and the creeds on Quadrilateral Thoughts. If the proto-orthodox church isn’t your cup of tea, hang out with the Rabbis and catch Simeon ben Gamaliel’s amazing juggling act on C. Orthodoxy. There are a number of biblical adventures to choose, for Daniel McClellan reminds us the Bible is not univocal. […]

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