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Sociology of Religion /996, 57:3 259*272

Beyond Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy:

Conservative Protestants and the
Hermeneutic Interpretation of Scripture*

John Bartkowski
The University of Texas at Austin

This study highlights the limitations associated with sociological conceptualizations of "biblical lit-
eralism" and "biblical inerrancy," and proposes an alternate theoretical model for illuminating conser-
vative Protestant scriptural interpretations. In an effort to redress these conceptual limitations, I bring
insights from the field of hermeneutics to bear on the Utercdism-inerrancy problem. Hermeneuticists
maintain that a reader's interpretation of a text may be exphined (I) by examining the presupposi-
tions (or "prejudices") which the reader brings to the text,.and (2) by evaluating the circular process
by which a reader imparts meaning to the text (i.e., the hermeneutic circle). After outlining the con-
tours of the hermeneutic model of textual interpretation, I apply this model to explain contradictory
scriptural interpretations advanced by leading conservative Protestants concerning (I) the concept of
"submission" in conservative Christian marital relations, and (2) the role of corporal punishment in
conservative Protestant parenting ideology. I conclude by specifying avenues for future research.

With the persistence of religious conservatism in the contemporary United

States, social theorists, empirical researchers, theologians, and religious com-
mentators alike have evinced an ongoing fascination with the nature and dy-
namics of conservative Protestant1 scriptural interpretations (Ammerman 1982,
1987; Barnhart 1993; Barr 1977; Boone 1989; Coward 1988:70-71; Dixon,
Jones, and Lowery 1992; Hunter 1981; Jelen 1989; Jelen, Wilcox, and Smidt

Direct correspondence to John Bartkowski, Department of Sociology, 336 Burdine Hall, The University of Texas at
Austin, Austin, Texas 78712-108. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 1995 annual meetings of ie
Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, St. Louis, MO. / would like to thank Christopher Ellison, Louis E. Fischer,
Joseph Forman, William Garrett, Joseph Tamney, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on
earlier versions of aus paper. However, I claimfidiresponsibility for the analyses and interpretations presented herein.

I use the term "conservative Protestant" as an umbrella term for theologically conservative Protestant
groups (Roof and McKinney 1987), and use the labels "conservative evangelical*' and "conservative Christian*'
interchangeably for stylistic convenience. Most conservative Protestants simply refer to themselves as
"Christian," a term which I use selectively and in quotation marks to designate it as a self'proclaimed label. It
also bears mentioning that the terms "literalism" and "inerrancy" originated as native evangelical concepts, but
more recently have been appropriated by sociologists to explain distinctively conservative Protestant attitudes
and behaviors.

1990; Trembath 1987). As part of this broader research literature, a sociological

debate over conservative Protestant scriptural interpretations emerged nearly
one^ and-a-half decades ago with an exchange between James Davison Hunter
and Nancy Ammerman. While attempting to clarify the meaning of the term
"evangelicalism," Hunter (1981) argued that one of its most distinctive theologi-
cal tenets is the view that the Bible is "God's word of truth to mankind . . . en-
tirely unmistaken in its statements and teachings" (as quoted in Hunter 1981:
368). Yet, in the year which followed, Nancy Ammerman (1982) alerted sociol-
ogists to a significant split within conservative Protestantism: evangelicals tend
to view the Bible as "authoritative" or "inspired" (i.e., parts o f which may be
considered metaphorical), while fundamentalists are more likely to insist that
the Bible is "infallible" or "literally true" without exception. Consequently,
Ammerman maintained (1) that survey items measuring the respondent's degree
of commitment to biblical authority would more effectively distinguish between
different types of religious conservatives, and (2) that the fundamentalist com-
mitment to biblical literalism could be gauged via the respondent's interpreta-
tion of a well-known biblical passage (e.g., the Genesis creation story).
Attempts to operationalize these theoretical insights via subsequent empiri-
cal studies have produced mixed findings. One study, for example, revealed that
"doctrinal conservatives are most likely to select the most 'authoritative' option
presented them, without much apparent concern over whether that option im-
plies 'literalism' or 'inerrancy' " (Jelen 1989:427), while another found that re-
spondents "are able to choose between [literalism and inerrancy measures] in
ways that seem meaningful" (Jelen, Wilcox, and Smidt 1990:312).2 And, a more
recent empirical examination of Ammerman's thesis (i.e., the fundamentalist-
evangelical cleavage) did not detect a clear relationship between an array of reli-
gious, political, and sociodemographic correlates on the one hand, and either of
two types of biblical authority questions a "total Bible" version and a "single
miracle" Creation story version on the other (Dixon, Jones, and Lowery
Subsequent to these developments, Joe Barnhart (1993) illuminated the
complexities of the literalism-inerrancy problem via a case study of the Southern
Baptist Convention (SBC). Barnhart suggested that the primary interpretive
cleavage in the SBC is not the split between literalists and inerrantists, but
rather that between "noninerrantists" (i.e., self-proclaimed "moderates" who
embrace historical and literary criticism as legitimate interpretive tools) and
"inerrantists" (fundamentalists who are highly suspicious of such methods).
Moreover, Barnhart (1993:138-140) argued that the latter group is further sub-
divided into (1) those who subscribe to extended inerrancy, and thereby insist
that "when Scriptures affirm something as true, it is true exactly and precisely as
stated" (Barnhart 1993:139), (2) those committed to limited infallibility, in which
minor conflicts in textual reports of a specific event (e.g., the Resurrection) are

Jelen and his colleagues (1990) reconcile these studies* apparent discrepancies by suggesting that
respondents in the later investigation were able to discriminate between inerrantist/infallibilist options on the
one hand (each of which permit metaphorical interpretation of some biblical "truths") and a "literalist"
response category on the other (which takes the text word for word without any qualification whatsoever).
Jelen's ( 1989) original study did not permit such distinctions.

believed not to imply that the event never happened; and lastly (3) those who
argue for appropriate inenancy, thereby attempting to distinguish the "essential
truths" of the Gospel (which are believed to be without error) from the Bible's
non-essential qualities (e.g., pseudonymous writings, scientific inaccuracies, cul-
tural accommodations). And, finally, to complicate matters further, Barnhart
(1993:136-37) demonstrated via the Genesis creation story that a literalist inter*
preuve strategy may be used by both inerrantists and noninerrantists to support their
particular readings of Scripture.
This case study, coupled with the contradictory findings of previous empiri-
cal studies, has highlighted the conceptual elasticity and empirical ambiguity
which plagues the terms "literalism" and "inerrancy." Indeed, how can scholars
continue to investigate the broader conservative Protestant commitment to an
authoritative reading of the Bible without simultaneously giving short shrift to
the significant theological and interpretive diversity that seems to exist within
contemporary conservative evangelicalism? In what follows, I suggest that
hermeneutics may provide the theoretical foundation for a more adequate under-
standing of conservative Protestant scriptural interpretation. After briefly outlin-
ing the central features of hermeneutic theory, I apply these insights to evangeli-
cal scriptural interpretation as related to two of the most controversial aspects of
conservative Protestant family life: submission in spousal relations, and the cor-
poral punishment of children.



Hermeneutics, the study of interpretation, originated with theologians who

wished to illuminate the contested nature of biblical interpretation in the wake
of the Reformation (Nevin 1849a, 1849b; see Trembath 1987).3 Following its
original formulation in theological circles, hermeneutic insights were then in-
corporated into philosophical discourse and social scientific research (Warnke
1987; Mueller-Vollmer 1986). Consistent with this broader trend, prominent
classical and contemporary sociological studies of religion have used hermeneu-
tic insights to examine how religious communities interpret the world around
them (e.g., Ammerman 1987; Berger 1967, 1969; Erikson 1966; Weber 1952,
1958a, 1958b, 1963; Wuthnow 1989).
In general, hermeneutic theory is characterized by a series of fundamental as-
sumptions about the nature of texts and the process of interpretation. From a
hermeneutic standpoint, texts have three related characteristics. First, a text is
viewed as a "linguistic work" i.e., a human expression which mediates mean-
ing rather than a natural object (cf. Gadamer 1982:91-146; Schneiders
1981). Second, many hermeneuticists contend that a text, once written, be-
comes semantically independent of its author (Armstrong 1990: ch. 2; Gadamer

-* I make reference to post-Reformation theological debates simply to describe the historical context in
which hermeneutic theory developed. A review of these theological treatises, or of classical sociological studies
on the theological convictions and scriptural views embraced by post-Reformation Protestant "sects/* is beyond
the purview of this study (see Nevin 1849a, 1849b; Trembath 1987; Weber 1958 for treatments of these

1982:264; Ricoeur 1976). Consequently, the text's meaning is not limited to

that which was intended by its author. Ricoeur (1976:30) terms this process
"exteriorization," and concludes that "what the text means now matters more
than what the author meant when he [or she] wrote it." Third, based on the
foregoing insights, hermeneuticists argue that texts are by nature polysemous
(Ricoeur 1976; see Armstrong 1990; Schneiders 1981; Tracey 1987), or capable
of generating multiple interpretations. Therefore, it is expected that different
readers will arrive at discrepant interpretations of a given text, and that purvey-
ors of competing interpretations may attempt to marshal various forms of evi-
dence (e.g., scientific, experiential, ethical) to lend legitimacy to their particular
reading of the text in question.

Reader Prejudice and the Hermeneutic Circle

In addition to these fundamental assumptions about the nature of texts,

hermeneuticists suggest that the reader brings two important and related charac-
teristics to bear on the process of textual interpretation. First, readers approach
the text with biases or "prejudices" which are often conditioned by their social,
historical, and cultural location (see especially Gadamer 1982; Ricoeur 1976).
Such prejudice may include broad ontological assumptions (e.g., beliefs about
human nature) or more specific presuppositions about the nature and creative
source of the text itself (i.e., fact or fiction, scientific treatise or romantic litera-
ture, divine revelation or human creation). Therefore, any interpretation is
"biased" in that it accepts certain assumptions while excluding others; and, com-
peting interpretations can often be traced to divergent presuppositions, because
"in opening up a work in a particular way, [reader prejudices] close off other po-
tential modes of access. Every interpretive approach reveals something only by
disguising something else, which a competing method with different assumptions
might disclose" (Armstrong 1990:7). Prejudices, then, serve as "conditions of
understanding" because the reader's taken-for-granted assumptions often are re-
vealed in the act of reading (Gadamer 1982).
Second, hermeneuticists claim that readers employ a circular interpretive
strategy the "hermeneutic circle" to ascribe a coherent meaning to the text
and its constituent parts (Gadamer 1982:235-40; Jeanrond 1991:5-6; Warnke

The classic formulation of the hermeneutic circle holds that we comprehend the details of a
work only by projecting a sense of the whole, just as, conversely, we can achieve a view of the
whole only by working through its parts. All interpretation consequently requires acts of faith
beliefs that compose parts into a whole, hypotheses for understanding that we check, mod-
ify, and refine by moving back and forth between aspects of any state of affairs and our sense
of its overall configuration... . From the title page on, we ceaselessly and silently use the in-
dications of details to project hypotheses about the whole, conjectures that are at first vague
and provisional. Then we employ these guesses to make sense of the work's parts just as ev-
erything new we come across helps to refine and amplify our overarching construct
(Armstrong 1990:2-3).



Having outlined the general contours of the hermeneutic model, I will now
attempt to demonstrate how this model illuminates divergent conservative
Protestant readings of the Bible. To this end, I provide two case studies in con-
servative Protestant scriptural interpretation, both centered on aspects of con-
servative evangelical family life which have sparked debate among contemporary
religious conservatives. First, I analyze the impact of reader prejudice on compet-
ing views of spousal "submission" via a detailed analysis of Larry Christenson's
The Christian family (1970) (over 1.2 million copies sold) and Ginger Gabriels
revised and expanded Being a woman of God ( 1993) (over 250,000 copies in print
and the self-proclaimed "classic bestseller" on "Christian" womanhood). The
second case study examines how the hermeneutic circle illuminates divergent con-
servative Protestant theological legitimations for child discipline advanced by
James Dobson and Ross Campbell. Dobson, the founder and president of Focus
on the Family, has authored Dare to discipline (1970), The strong-willed child
(1978), and Parenting isn't for cowards (1987) (which have sold well over two
million copies combined). Ross Campbell's best-selling "Christian" parenting
manuals include Kids who follow, kids who don't (1989) and How to really love
your child (1992) (the latter of which claims over one million copies in print and
has been translated into nearly twenty languages).
To analyze the documents described above, I have read each of the gender
and family manuals several times in an attempt (1) to ascertain the author's ideo-
logical position on the topic in question, and (2) to characterize the presuppositions
and interpretive strategies by which these specialists seek to support their respec-
tive positions. On a reflexive note, it bears mentioning that the comparative na-
ture of my research design leads me to bring certain presuppositions to these tex-
tual analyses. Since I wish to illuminate competing conservative Protestant
scriptural readings, my analysis of these texts focuses primarily on the ideological
and epistemologica! divergences between these conservative evangelical family
commentators. Still, to provide an adequate portrayal of these specialists' views,
I nevertheless specify points of convergence where appropriate.

Prejudice, Hermeneutics, and the Conservative

Protestant Controversy Over "Submission"

One area of conservative evangelical family life which has garnered consid-
erable scholarly interest is conservative Christian support for patriarchal spousal
relations, specifically manifest in the concept of "wifely submission" (e.g.,
Bartkowski 1995b; McNamara 1985; Pevey, Williams, and Ellison 1996; Rose
1987, 1990; Stacey 1990; see Peek, Lowe, and Williams 1991 for a review of re-
lated empirical studies). In what follows, I contrast competing scriptural inter-
pretations of submission in "Christian" spousal relations advanced in two best-
selling conservative Protestant gender/family manuals, and trace these divergent

readings to distinctive prejudices about the essential, divinely-ordained natures

of women and men.

Wifely Submission: Biblical Interpretation and Patriarchal Spousal Relations

In his best-selling family manual, The Christian family (1970), Larry

Christenson articulates at length his unambiguous commitment to the principle
of wifely submission (see especially Christenson 1970:32-54). Christenson's ar-
gument for wifely submission begins with his interpretation of one of the most
frequently quoted biblical passages on the subject, after which he proceeds to
comment on its implications for conservative evangelical spousal relations.

"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as
Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the Church is sub-
ject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands" (Ephesians 5:22
24). . . . To be submissive means to yield humble and intelligent obedience to an ordained
power or authority.... God did not give this law of wives being submissive to their husbands
because He had a grudge against women; on the contrary, He established this order for the
protection of women and the harmony of the home. He means for a woman to be sheltered from
many of the rough encounters of life. Scripture knows nothing of a 50-50 "democratic mar-
riage." God's order is 100-100. The wife is 100 percent a wife, the husband 100 percent a
husband (Christenson 1970:32-33, emphasis in the original).

Despite Christenson's apparent belief that he is merely relaying God's "law

of submission" to conservative evangelical spouses, recall that from a hermeneu-
tic perspective a textual reading reflects the reader's own preconceptions or
"prejudices" about the subject addressed by the text. What forms of prejudice
does Christenson import into his biblical interpretation of the concept of
"submission?" First, according to Christenson, women are clearly the "weaker

In the world a woman is subject to physical attack, and therefore needs her husband's protec-
tion. This is a basic, universal fact of existence and is written into the folkways of every age
and culture. A woman's vulnerability, however, does not stop at the physical level. It includes
also vulnerability at the emotional, psychological, and spiritual level. Here, too, she needs a
husband's authority and protection (Christenson 1970:34-35).

A second presupposition which guides Christenson's interpretation of the

biblical concept of submission is the belief that women are innately more de-
praved than men, i.e., more readily prone to sinful conduct. Christenson argues

the Bible teaches a subordination of the wife to her husband. In this both the Old and New
Testaments agree. This subordination is grounded upon the creation. "Adam was formed first,
then Eve." It is further grounded upon the (all of our first parents. aAdam was not deceived
(as long as he stood alone), but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (I
Timodiy 2:13,14) (Christenson 1970:39).

Christenson, then, confronts scriptural passages referring to submission with the

assumption that women are weaker and more prone to transgression than men.
Not surprisingly, he finds scriptural support for these views and consequently
construes the concept of "submission,, between spouses as a wife's duty to her

Mutual Submission: Biblical Interpretation and Egalitarian Spousal Relations

Best-selling conservative evangelical author Ginger Gabriel (1993) does not

at all share Larry Christenson's view (described above) that the Bible commands
women to submit to the authority of their husbands. In stark contrast to the no-
tion of wifely submission promulgated by Christenson, she argues that a correct
reading of the Bible calls for mutual submission.* From her perspective, the couple
and not just the wife must mutually submit themselves and their relation-
ship to God. She marshals an array of biblical passages and New Testament ex-
amples to support her scriptural interpretation of submission, including a verse
from Ephesians (5:21) which states: "Honor Christ by submitting to each other"
(as quoted in Gabriel 1993:102). Moreover, she believes that unilateral submis-
sion on the part of a "Christian" wife may be impractical and can yield negative
consequences for marital relations.

Many a woman has memorized the submission Scriptures, gone to women's study groups on
submission, gone forward in church to recommit her life to submitting to the role of wife, only
to blow up hours later at an insensitive husband.. . . The solution is not to try to show more re-
spect to your husband (Gabriel 1993:104, emphasis added).

What then, are the "prejudices" or presuppositions through which Gabriel

interprets the Bible? While Christenson's interpretation of submission passages is
shaped by the preconceptions that women are innately more vulnerable and
more prone to transgress than their male counterparts, Gabriel rejects both of
these presuppositions. First, she stresses that, while women and men are different
in some respects, they were created as equals by God (who, not coincidentally, is
construed as ungendered).

God is neither male nor female. God is both . . . [and] created you to reflect both the initiat-
ing and the nurturing in a balance appropriate to your sexual identity as a female. The Bible
clearly teaches that God is comfortable with equality and with difference. In God's eyes, one
sex is not better than the other (Gabriel 1993:39-40, emphasis in original).

And, Gabriel is openly critical of conservative Protestant commentators (like

Christenson) who argue for a divinely-ordained gender essentialism in which
women are viewed as the weaker and more sinful "second" sex.

^ This debate between Larry Christenson and Ginger Gabriel mirrors a broader debate among religious
conservatives concerning the respective merits of wifely submission and mutual submission in conservative
Protestant families (see Groothuis 1994).

In some "Christian" literature the "feeling" characteristics are referred to as "feminine" and
women are urged to be more emotional. The "thinking" characteristics are considered to be
"masculine." Men are told to be more cerebral. The reality is that these characteristics are
spread across the genders. . . . God created man and woman to reflect His own image. God
intended both men and women to be both thinking and feeling. A whole person is in touch
with both sides (Gabriel 1993:45, emphasis in original).

Second, while both Gabriel and Christenson believe that the Bible's Genesis
account of creation literally describes the origins of humankind, they disagree
sharply about the account's meaning and implications for gender relations. While
Christenson legitimates the imperative for wifely submission via his reading of
Genesis (Eve sinned first and was cursed by God), Gabriel's view of the Bible as
recommending mutual submission reflects a very different understanding of the
Genesis account of humankind's primordial "fall." She stresses that "Adam and
Eve sinned" (Gabriel 1993:95, emphasis added) and that they both had to face
the consequences of their disobedience. In fact, she maintains that Adam's at-
tempt to lay responsibility upon Eve for their mutual transgression "is the first
example of the first couple dishing out shame and blame" (Gabriel 1993:104).
In sum, then, this case study lends confirmation to the hermeneutic insight
that competing textual interpretations can be traced to the distinctive presuppo-
sitions which readers bring to texts. Specifically, contrasting interpretations of
the biblical mandate for "submission" in conservative Christian spousal relations
seem closely related to the particular "prejudices" (in this case, assumptions
about the essential nature of men and women) which conservative Protestant
readers import into the interpretive process. Next, I demonstrate how the
hermeneutic circle sheds light on divergent scriptural readings concerning
"Christian" child discipline.

The Hermeneutic Circle and the Conservative Protestant

Controversy Over Child Discipline

A growing body of research has demonstrated that conservative Protestants

show disproportionate attitudinal and actual support for the corporal punish-
ment of children (Ellison, Bartkowski, and Segal 1996, in press; Ellison and
Sherkat 1993; Grasmick, Bursik, and Kimpel 1991; Grasmick, Morgan, and
Kennedy 1992; Wiehe 1990; see also Bartkowski 1995a; Bartkowski and Ellison
1995; Ellison and Bartkowski, in press). In general, these studies have linked re-
ligious conservatives' support for the physical discipline of youngsters with
commitments to a "literal" or "inerrant" reading of the Bible. However, precious
little attention has been paid to the important ideological and theological diver-
gences which exist within conservative Protestantism concerning the corporal
punishment of children (see Bartkowski 1995a; Bartkowski and Ellison 1995 for
brief discussions). As I attempt to demonstrate below, James Dobson's and Ross
Campbell's disparate readings of the Bible yield quite different child disciplinary
philosophies. At the heart of this controversy are fundamentally different inter-
pretive strategies which each specialist employs to make sense of "biblical" child

Ideologica Divergences Concerning "Christian" Child Discipline

Under the conditions specified in his numerous child-rearing manuals, James

Dobson (1970, 1978, 1987) enthusiastically supports the use of corporal punish-
ment to discipline children. Dobson emphasizes that swift and sure physical
punishment is the only appropriate response to parent-child confrontations char-
acterized by "willful defiance."

In my opinion, spankings should be reserved for the moment a child (age ten or less) expresses
a defiant "I will not!" or "You shut up!" When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked re-
bellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier. When a nose-to-
nose confrontation occurs between you and your child, it is not the time to have a discussion
about the virtues of obedience. It is not the occasion to send him in his room to pout. It is not
appropriate to wait until poor, tired old dad comes plodding in from work, just in time to
handle the conflicts of the day. You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliber-
ately flopped his big hairy toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage?
Who is in charge here? If you do not answer these questions conclusively for the child, he will
precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again. It is the ultimate paradox of
childhood that a youngster wants to be controlled, but he insists that his parents earn the
right to control him (Dobson 1970:16).

Ross Campbell (1989, 1992), another popular conservative evangelical par-

enting specialist, embraces a strikingly different philosophy of "Christian" par-
enting, however. According to Campbell, unconditional love not "confident
decisiveness" in the face of willful defiance (Dobson 1978) is the key to
"Christian" child discipline. Throughout his manuals, Campbell urges conserva-
tive evangelical parents to be mindful of their primary parental responsibility:
namely, meeting the child's emotional needs (1992:34-35). Campbell maintains
that "only in this way can [parents] convey their love to their child so that he
will feel loved, completely accepted, and respected, and able to respect himself
(Campbell 1992:37). Consequently, Campbell admonishes conservative
Christian parents to avoid the "punishment trap." In stark contrast to Dobson,
he argues that the frequent use of corporal punishment (1) alleviates beneficial
guilt and inhibits the development of conscience, (2) degrades, dehumanizes,
and humiliates a child; (3) teaches the child to be aggressive and punitive; (4)
can be physically damaging to the youngster; and (5) equates morally correct ac-
tion with avoiding parental detection of behavioral infractions (Campbell
1989:80-81, 1992:95-96). Campbell concedes that parents may sometimes need
to use physical punishment to discipline a child; but he cautions parents to do so
infrequently and only as a last resort; and, he re-emphasizes that no real behav-
ioral correction can occur unless the child's emotional needs have first been met
(Campbell 1992: chapter 11).
The marked contrasts in Dobson's and Campbell's disciplinary ideologies
can be traced to their divergent interpretations of the Bible. Ironically, both
Dobson and Campbell argue for an authoritative reading of scripture, and for the
importance of "biblically based" child-rearing principles. For example, Campbell
(1989:23) urges parents to "weed out those [child-rearing] ideas that are unbibli-
cal," and Dobson (1970:197) laments that "we have departed from the

[parenting] standard which was clearly outlined in the Old and New Testaments,
and that deviation is costing us a heavy toll in the form of social turmoil."
Despite this general point of epistemological agreement, however, Dobson and
Campbell interpret the Bible with radically different assumptions about (1) the
Bible's overall meaning as a complete text and, (2) the meaning of individual
passages within it (which, taken together, comprise the hermeneutic circle).
Campbell's opposition to the frequent use of corporal punishment can be
traced to a hermeneutic scriptural interpretation which construes the overall
message of the Bible as a divine imperative to love children and others.

It makes me sad to see people emphasize the four verses from Proverbs which deal with using
the rod (13:24, 23:13-14, 29:15), and then see them virtually ignore Scripture which deals
with the child's basic need love. Hundreds of verses in the Bible instruct us to be under-
standing, compassionate, sensitive, nurturing, and forgiving. Our children are deserving, and
have every right to these expressions of love (Campbell 1989:80-81, emphasis added).

Based on his conception of the Bible's general message, Campbell assures

parents that a "literal" reading of individual biblical passages referring to the
"rod" of correction does not support the corporal punishment of children.

Proponents of corporal punishment seem to have forgotten that the shepherd's rod referred to
in Scripture was used almost exclusively for guiding the sheep, not beating them. The shep-
herds would gently steer the sheep, especially the lambs, by simply holding the rod to block
them from going in the wrong direction and then gently nudge them toward the right direc-
tion. If the rod was (or is) an instrument used principally for beating, I would have a difficult
time with Psalm 23 "Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me" (Campbell 1992:93, emphasis
in original).

Therefore, the hermeneutic circle which Campbell employs regards the Bible's
overall message as one of love and forgiveness, and "literally" interprets individ-
ual passages referring to the "rod" not as a stick or switch with which to punish
children but as a shepherd's staff traditionally used for guidance and direction.
Dobson's interpretation of the Bible's overall message, and of individual bib-
lical references to the "rod," contrasts sharply with that proposed by Campbell.
Dobson's hermeneutic scriptural interpretation presupposes that the Bible's
overall message is not merely one of love and forgiveness, but rather consists
largely of themes of sin and punishment.

[My mother] taught me about heaven and hell and the great Judgment Day when those who
have been covered by the blood of Jesus will be separated eternally from those who have not.
It made a profound impression on me. Many parents would not agree with my mother's deci-
sion to acquaint me with the nature of sin and its consequences. They have said to me, O h , I
wouldn't want to paint such a negative picture for my kids. I want them to think of God as a
loving Father, not as a wrathful judge who punishes us." In so doing, they withhold a portion
of the truth from their children. He is both a God of love and a God of judgment. There are
116 places in the Bible where we are told to "fear the Lord." By what authority do we elimi-
nate these references in describing who God is to our children? (Dobson 1987:107-08).

Given Dobson's particular pre-understanding of the Bible's overall message,

it is not surprising that he interprets individual passages concerning the "rod of
correction" much differently than does Campbell.

"Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from
him" (Proverbs 22:15, KJV). This recommendation has troubled some people, leading them to
claim that the "rod" was not a paddle, but a measuring stick with which to evaluate the child.
The following passage was included [in the Bible] expressly for those who were confused on
that point. "Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatesi him with the rod, he
shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell" (Proverbs
23:13-14, KJV) (Dobson 1970:197, emphasis in the original).

From these passages, Dobson (1970:197) concludes rather acerbically: "Certainly

if the 'rod* is a measuring stick, now you know what to do with it!"
In sum, these competing theological rationales for child discipline highlight
the problems associated with describing conservative Protestant biblical inter-
pretations merely in terms of "inerrancy" or "literalism." While both of these
prominent parenting specialists argue that their interpretations are "literal" read-
ings of biblical verses about the "rod" of correction, they arrive at very different
conclusions concerning the Bible's prescriptions for child discipline. From a
hermeneutic perspective, the Bible as a text is capable of generating multiple
readings even multiple "literal" readings and can yield seemingly contra-
dictory conclusions concerning the discipline of youngsters. As each of these
specialists use the broader biblical themes of love/forgiveness or of
sin/punishment to legitimate their specific disciplinary prescriptions, they
demonstrate quite clearly that interpretation is in fact a circular process.


Using two case studies on conservative Protestant family relations, I have

sought to demonstrate how hermeneutic theory can explain competing scriptural
interpretations within contemporary conservative Protestantism. From a
hermeneutic perspective, textual interpretations vary in accordance with: (1)
the reader's presuppositions (or "prejudice") about a given subject with which
the text is concerned (as evidenced in case study one on conservative Protestant
disputes over submission and authority in "Christian" spousal relations); and (2)
a circular process whereby the reader ascribes meaning to the text via a parts-
whole dialectic (i.e., the hermeneutic circle, as evidenced in case study two on
the controversy within conservative Protestantism concerning "Christian" child
Future research on this topic should employ qualitative research methods,
particularly ethnographic observation and in-depth interviews, to examine the
hermeneutic dynamics of scriptural interpretation in actual conservative
Protestant communities. A growing body of research on conservative Protestant
biblical interpretation has already laid the groundwork for such analyses. Several
studies have demonstrated that viable conservative Protestant scriptural readings
are not generated through individual study of the Bible, but via the interpretive
community in which the individual evangelical is situated (Boone 1989; Ellison

and Bartkowski, in press; Ellison and Sherkat 1993; see Ammerman 1987 for ex
ceptional ethnographic illustrations). From this perspective, the interpretive
community under the leadership of its interpretive authorities such as pastors
and theologians determines the "ground rules" for scriptural interpretation.
Hermeneutic theory could serve to complement the interpretive community
model in several significant ways. Drawing on hermeneutic insights, researchers
might (1) determine if discernible interpretive cleavages emerge around specific
groups within and across interpretive communities (e.g., younger versus older
individuals, men as opposed to women), (2) specify the hermeneutic sources of
such cleavages (i.e., divergent presuppositions and/or competing interpretive
strategies), and (3) examine how these different groups seek to reconcile con
flicting biblical interpretations (via appeals to social scientific research, the
community's ethical standards, their own personal experiences, or to "preferred"
sections of the text [e.g., the New Testament vs. the Old Testament]). Given
the well-recognized centrality of the Bible to the conservative Christian world-
view, such research may provide much needed clarification of one of the most
complex problems concerning the sociological study of contemporary conserva
tive Protestantism.


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^ s
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