Reading Rightly Divided, Roy Zuck1 for hermeneutics class, the idea was presented that preunderstanding comes in a cycle; you start reading the Bible with whatever preunderstandings you have, but are receptive to corrections from the text. The next time you come to the Bible, your preunderstandings have changed, so you read the passage slightly differently, open to new corrections. This spiral of preunderstandings and corrections should eventually lead to Enlightenment. Well, that’s not the exactly what the author said, but the idea of a slow, evolutionary building up of knowledge and discarding old errors is very appealing. Unfortunately, he didn’t give any examples. So, one person has the preunderstanding of God as triune while another person believes in modality. If this spiral acts properly, all people should come to the same understanding by merely reading scripture and accepting what it says. This seems a little oversimplified; what are the building blocks? What is the first, tiny molecule of preunderstanding that changes and opens the way for a modalist to become trinitarian (or the other way around)? The problem seems to be that preunderstandings are self-correcting. When I read that Jesus prayed to the Father, my trinitarian understanding says “Aha! God must be more than one person; Jesus wouldn’t address another mode of Himself!” But a modalist would read the same passage and say “Jesus gives a perfect model of how we ought to pray.” If just reading that passage didn’t turn his whole theology around, it would instead fit into his understanding. Or possibly it would just be a cognitive dissonance, like whenever I read about the pre-wrath view of the rapture. 2
1 That was chapter 6, Preunderstandings and the Interpreter. Chapter 7 Using and Abusing Language was also a good read, as well as chapter 2, Who Makes the Rules?
2 Compare the haphazard “read the Bible and you’ll understand” with the precision of a well designed skill chain in a computer game; first you learn to walk through portals, then to place one portal, then the other, then add momentum, until you’ve mastered all the skills to beat GlaDos. The Bible doesn’t come with a study plan to convince the reader of each doctrine. The spiral might work, but where does the direction come from?