Novelist AND Biblical Interpreter

February 08, 2008

Although the reaction of those who actually attended the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant has been overwhelmingly positive, much of the limited criticism from those who did not attend has been aimed toward author John Grisham. In particular, they attack him for a statement that was quoted in the Baptist Press. It is important to note that many of the critics have not actually watched his whole speech (which you find online along with the others here), but instead have relied merely on the account by a biased source. Here is the statement by Grisham that has been attacked:

In the Baptist church of my youth we were taught that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant Word of God -- every word is divinely inspired and it is to be read literally. It just dropped out of heaven. Five thousand years ago God made the earth in six days, 144 hours. Then He rested on the Sabbath, which is really on Saturday but we're not going to start that debate. Methuselah lived to be a [thousand], and when Paul wrote that women should be submissive, that was the literal interpretation. It was the law. However, when Paul told Timothy to have a little wine, and when Jesus said in Mark 16 that His followers would be known for speaking in tongues, taking up the serpents with their hands and drinking the poison, well then some things were not so literal.
Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Richard Land, head of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, both dismissed Grisham as merely being a novelist who was not qualified to interpret Scripture. Patterson remarked:
What he illustrated there is that he is a far better novelist than he is an interpreter of Scripture.
Making a similar statement, Land argued:
John Grisham is a really good novelist, I enjoy reading his books -- but I don't think I'll take his advice on theology.
There seems to be the inference in these statements that since Grisham is a novelist that he is not qualified to interpret Scripture. They are correct that he is a great novelist, but it is arrogant, unbiblical, and unBaptist to claim that a novelist does not have the right to interpret Scripture. What Martin Luther and the other reformers fought so hard to accomplish, Patterson and Land seem to be trying to undue. The reformers--including our early Baptist ancestors--fought for the right of all Christians to have the Bible for themselves and be able to interpret it for themselves. They also fought for the right for all believers to go directly to God with no human intercessor because each of us is a priest. Thus, to dismiss Grisham as just a novelist is poor theology. Instead of personal attacks, they should deal with his argument. Instead of attacking the interpreter, they should address the interpretation.

The dangerous assumption behind the statements by Patterson and Land is that Grisham has no right to interpret the Bible for himself and that such matters should be left in the hands of the elite few who are qualified (by which they mean themselves). The problem is that although the Bible is completely true, none of us is able to completely understand or accurately interpret it. None of us--novelist or theologian--is infallible or inerrant. That is a message that Bill Clinton made in his speech at the Celebration. He argued that love trumps faith because we all see darkly and know in part.

Interestingly, Patterson actually acknowledged that the key is not the Bible but the interpretation. Before attacking Grisham, Patterson admitted that a literal approach to the Bible is not correct and that everything then comes down to interpretation. He clearly thinks, however, that only intelligent people men like himself should be allowed to try the task of interpretation. But like all other interpreters, his interpretation is done through a glass darkly and based on knowing in part. For instance, Patterson claimed that Jesus said the opposite of Grisham on creation because Jesus talked about Adam and Eve. But Grisham never dismissed them and Jesus never talked about it being six literal days. So it is Patterson who is making things up in his interpretation. Patterson even tried to argue away Paul telling Timothy to drink wine. He claimed that Paul was not "advocating a policy of drinking" (even though he just adopted the policy that Timothy should drink to help his stomach). Again, Patterson's interpretation appears to include some fiction writing. It may be that Patterson is also a better novelist than interpreter (as his creative arguments in the Klouda case suggests), but he still has a right to interpret just as Grisham does. None of this means that Patterson is wrong in his interpretation, but that he cannot say it is true just because he says that it is. His interpretation on these and other issues might be correct, but he cannot authoritatively say it is because he sees through a glass darkly and knows in part.

It is time to fully live out our biblical and Baptist belief in the priesthood of the believer and that all can prayerfully interpret Scripture and humbly approach God. That includes Grisham, Patterson, and Land. Arrogant attempts to take away this biblical right and responsibility must not be allowed. Land even went so far as to suggest that Grisham does not hold "a strong and high view of Scripture." However, Grisham defined Baptists as people who are "committed to follow [Jesus'] teachings and the teachings of the Bible." He added, "To Baptists, the Bible is the authoritative, authentic, and divinely-inspired Word of God." That sounds like a high view of Scripture! It is important to note that Grisham was not attacking the Bible but the actions that people take based on their interpretation of it. There is a significant difference there, unless you are arrogant enough to assume that your actions and interpretation carry the same authority as the Bible. The part of his comments the critics leave out is when he criticized those who discriminated against African-Americans because of their interpretation of the Bible. Surely that is a great reminder that Bible-believing Christians can make mistakes in their interpretation. Hopefully, the movement that is emerging out of the Celebration will be one that reaffirms the biblical and Baptist principle that each of us is a priest who can humbly and prayerfully interpret the Bible for ourselves. We need to support the right for one to be both a novelist and a biblical interpreter.