What Are Presuppositions?
Before I talk about my own biblical presuppositions, let’s ask, What does “presupposition” mean? Very simply, different people approach reading the Bible differently. For example, one person might believe that the Bible is not the word of God. Perhaps they don’t believe in God. Such a person might think that the Bible is like any other book of Ancient Near East literature. How they read the Bible will be different than someone who believes in God.
As another example, let’s say a Jewish person reads the Old Testament. They might think differently about what the words mean than a Christian or an Islamic person might. Presuppositions are the beliefs one carries about the Bible before beginning to read any given passage.
Most people notice that the Christian Bible features two main divisions: the Old Testament and the New Testament. And yet, Christianity calls both of these together, “The Bible.” Two testaments comprise the Christian Bible.
The Old Testament was written BC, or Before Christ. For those who prefer a more politically correct term, the Old Testament was written BCE, or Before the Current Era.
On the other hand, the New Testament was written AD, or “Anno Domini,” in the Year of Our Lord. The letters AD borrow from the Latin words. The current, politically correct way to say this is CE, or Current Era. The main point is that Jesus is the point of both the Christian Bible (two testaments) and human history, at least according to the early Roman timekeepers, who created “BC” and “AD.”
How Do the Two Testaments Relate to Each Other?
We just hit the jackpot! We’ve asked a million dollar question that’s been debated ever since Jesus began his earthly ministry. Speaking in very general terms, there are two sides to this question and many shades in-between.
- First, some think the Old Testament is or should be a “stand-alone” document. That is, because the Old Testament was written first, therefore, these folk think its meaning should be interpreted as though today’s readers were living during the time-frame of Old Testament history. What happened in Israel beyond the last pages of Malachi should not be used to interpret what the Old Testament means.
Those who hold this presupposition ask two primary questions about each Old Testament text, or selection: 1) What was the author’s “original intent” when he wrote or spoke these words? And, 2) How would someone in the “original audience” understand the text? A member of an “original audience” is someone who lived in the same time-frame as the author. In a simplistic nutshell, those on this side of the debate think that the New Testament should not be used to “inform” the Old. In other words, these people believe that someone who interprets an Old Testament text according to the understanding of authors or readers of the New Testament commits the error of historical anachronism. For example, someone might say, “You’re reading into the Old Testament a New Testament meaning. You can’t do that. It’s not correct.”
- The second group thinks the two testaments should be combined. They believe that the Old Testament flows right into the New. They believe that the Old Testament can and should be read in the light of the New. They think it’s okay and reasonable for the New Testament to inform the meaning of the Old. For these people, both testaments talk about the same person–namely, Christ. The difference is that the Old Testament talks about him before he was born. The New Testament talks about him after he lived, died, was resurrected, and ascended.
- IMPORTANT: There are many Christians in both of these groups.
My Own Presuppositions
First, I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I believe that God inspired the entire Bible. And, I fall into the bounds of the second group above. I believe that God intended all parts of the Bible to connect intimately. I believe it is not only okay but highly desirable to read the Old Testament in the light of the New. I believe that Jesus intended his followers to do so. He also taught them how.
I also believe that one and the same eternal, infinite God inspired both testaments. While it may be questionable how much the prophets and other Old Testament authors understood of what God might do centuries later, it seems obvious to me that God knew and understood from eternity past. Plus, I think that many of the biblical characters, such as Abraham and Moses, for instance, understood more than we often give them credit for.
Further, because I believe that one God inspired both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, I also believe that it doesn’t really matter to my understanding of the Old Testament whether or not its authors fully understood what they were writing or not. God, the one who inspired, understood.
Why Am I Stating My Biblical Presuppositions?
I’m stating my biblical presuppositions upfront to save you, the reader, time and effort. I know that some of you, at some point, might want to know what these are. Also, I want you to know where I am coming from as I share with you my thoughts on Isaiah.
Bible students should always know the presuppositions underlying the sources they consult. These include the authors who wrote the study notes of various study Bibles, biblical commentators, Bible translators, the various Bible versions, and the creators of various Bible reference tool websites. Presuppositions affect a multitude of author/creator choices in all of these.
CONCLUSION: Presuppositions are impossible to escape. Everyone, including yourselves, have them.
For those who may want to explore this topic further, some keywords are: biblical continuity and discontinuity. An early writer (twentieth century) who was a pioneer in reintroducing the concept of biblical continuity is Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007).