Wednesday, April 11, 2018

There is No Such Thing as an Objective, Clearly Correct, Interpretation of Scripture

Just a thought regarding interpretation of the Bible or any ancient text, which grew out of a conversation I had with some friends. The initial conversation was about white Evangelicalism’s inability to show basic empathy for those outside the tribe, but my friends joined in on the question of theology.

My view is that Bill Gothard was right about one thing: morality drives theology, rather than the other way around. It was a need to justify slavery and later Jim Crow that formed American Evangelical theology in the first place, which is why it seems designed to justify cruelty. In my view, thus, the cure isn’t to just try a more literalist or serious hermeneutic - we have to address the underlying evil that drives the interpretation. And that’s how we got off on the question of whether there is one “objective” way to approach scripture (and thus guarantee “correct” theology.) This is my response:


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While some interpretations are better than others, there is no such thing as an objective, exclusively, obviously correct interpretation. Each of us must grapple with the following points at which subjectivity is inevitable:

1. Our own interpretation as we read. Each of us brings our own biases to a reading. Many of these are ones we are completely unaware of, while a few are ones we know, and can thus attempt to compensate for. Each of us, when we read, interpret certain words and phrases in light of our theological upbringing and tradition. We just assume the meaning of them to be thus and such. Not just the literal meaning of the words, but also the theological meaning of them. Furthermore, we apply the meanings that apply in our culture to our reading. Just as one example, “marriage” as we understand it – even a Victorian understanding – is so different from the understanding under the Greco-Roman Domestic Codes that a person from that era would be unable to recognize our institution as the same thing. Likewise, an observer from the Ancient Near East would be unable to recognize a Greco-Roman marriage as the same institution. So when we see “marriage” in a text, how we apply that to a vastly different situation is by definition an act of interpretation. That is just one example. We do that with pretty much everything we read. To read is to interpret.

And that is even before we get to the real challenge: how do we live in imitation of Christ in our modern world? (And in light of vast political, economic, cultural, scientific, and social changes in the last 2000 years.) Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, this crucial task has mostly been outsourced by Evangelicals to Fox News and Breitbart lately; which explains why “morality” seems to mean sexual moralism, Tribalism, and Ayn Rand economics.  

2. The interpretations of those who determined our theological tradition. For any Evangelical (or Christian of any theological tradition, for that matter) to claim that he or she is reading objectively, without depending on the specific theological and interpretive decisions made by those who founded their tradition is silly. None of us raised in that tradition (or any other) read the Bible with an open mind. We took for granted the teachings of people from Luther to Calvin to Spurgeon to…in many cases Henry Morris and Ken Ham. The interpretations these people made was also NOT objective. They were products of their own time, had their own prejudices, and so on. In many (probably most) cases, the cultural needs of their time and place drove their interpretation. (See slavery and Jim Crow, for example. Or reaction to Darwin.) Far more of what we believe the Bible says is actually what certain people our tradition follows believed it said. So our interpretations are colored by the interpretations of those who went before.

3. The interpretations of those who translated the English version we read. Anyone who thinks that this doesn’t matter displays their ignorance. Translation is an act of interpretation, even for modern texts. (Read two versions of, say Pablo Neruda, or Rainer Maria Rilke, if you have any doubts. Or check out the numerous translations of Inferno as I did in this post.) In every translation, decisions as to meaning must be made. Many of these are relatively uncontroversial, but in certain areas of doctrine, they can make a huge difference. (An example here is the KJV and the use of “deacon” when men are involved and “servant” where women are involved. Same word, different translation. And EVERY translation has some of these.) This isn’t a new problem. Research the Latin Vulgate, or the Septuagint. Each has significant differences from modern translations and the earliest manuscripts. The problem is compounded for ancient texts, because the meanings of words have been lost or obscured in many cases. Some words are unique to the Bible (including some of the ones in the New Testament.) Decisions about what these mean are a matter of interpretation – and controversy. When we read an ancient text translated into English, we are experiencing a layer of interpretation, not an objective reading of a text.

4. The interpretations of the scribes and copyists throughout history – and those who decided what to include in the collection.  This may come as a shock to those used to thinking of the Bible as a monolithic object, but there ARE no originals for the books contained in the Bible. We don’t have the original manuscript of ANY of it. That includes the New Testament, for which the oldest (small fragments) date only back to about 125 CE. Full books date back to no earlier than 200 CE, and some (like the Pastoral Epistles) do not appear until even later. And that is before you get to the question of what actually got included in our version of the NT - and what was omitted. This final process didn’t really finish until quite a bit later. In fact, determining what was “true” scripture seems not to have been a priority. Erasmus in the 16th Century CE put together the first printed Greek New Testament – and he had to make compromises between several versions. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered (fairly recently…), the most modern Hebrew manuscripts we had dated to about 1000 CE. That’s the Middle Ages. We have copies dating back to various times and places. These copies are not identical, and in some cases differ on very important words and phrases. To a historian or anthropologist, this is unsurprising. But it underscores the fact that even copying stuff is an interpretive act. 

 Early fragment (c. 125 CE) from the Gospel of John

 Part of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. 
I got to see these in person when they came to San Diego several years ago. Amazing.

And that is just for the written version. The evidence is overwhelming that the Old Testament wasn’t actually written down until centuries after most of the historical (or legendary in some cases) events would have taken place. Rather, the written documents seem to have appeared in (more or less) their current form around the time of the exile or post-exilic periods, depending on the book. Quite likely, these were edits and compilations of earlier texts (now lost) which were in turn taken from oral histories.

That’s a lot of interpretation right there. Someone (multiple someones, actually) decided to write down the stories. Many other persons edited, compiled, and selected them later. (And yes, this goes for the New Testament too – there was a lot of discussion about what was in or out, and humans made those decisions – an act of interpretation.) In essence, the whole process was a massive, long term project of interpretation. Ancient writers understood this, and, in fact, made changes for theological purposes as they went. (See, for one example, the differences in the histories in Samuel and Kings versus that in Chronicles. There are significant - and intentional - differences.)

5. The interpretations of the authors. Yeah, I know, Evangelicals will consider me a heretic for this one. Sorry. I can’t deny history and, well, the evidence of the text itself. The Bible isn’t a single book, literally dictated by God. It is a collection of books, written over a few thousand years, by humans. Yes, I believe these humans were inspired. (But the meaning of “inspired” is really loaded, isn’t it?) But there are too many disagreements and things that are not factually true for me to believe that they were a literal dictation, which would require a highly fallible God. (This ranges from math to science to history to theology. One of my epiphanies was to realize that the Bible is an argument between different theological perspectives rather than a unified systematic text.) But it should be kind of obvious that the authors themselves interpreted their inspiration based on their own culture and knowledge. Hence, the opening chapters of Genesis naturally are a retelling of an earlier Ancient Near East creation myth. Of course they assume ANE cosmology, rather than reflect a modern understanding of the universe. Of course Saint Paul assumes the fact of the Domestic Codes and the existence of slavery. Of course genocide was considered normal. In my view (and that of many others with a lot more knowledge in the area than me), God has always met us where we are. On a related note, I also don’t believe God has ceased to speak. Revelation didn’t magically end at the end of the 4th Century CE. We still have things to learn about a variety of subjects, including theology, and not all of those things will be in the Bible – any more than modern astrophysics is in there.

So before you assume that you somehow have the correct, objective reading of a text, consider that you are depending on at least five layers of interpretation. Maybe you are correct, but it isn’t inevitable. And there is nothing about your particular time in history or culture that allows you to see more clearly than either those who came before or those who will come after. We will, in my view, be wrong about many things, just as those who came before were. Likewise, by believing that some objective, unquestionably correct interpretation is possible, we make the Bible into an idol, something we worship and serve, rather than seeking to humbly follow Christ. It takes us ever further away from loving our neighbor, and ever less likely to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

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I understand why Evangelicals fight this so hard: they have a theological - and psychological - need for the Bible to be something it isn’t. They need it to be a literally dictated, completely perfect, instruction book; with systematic theology to be discovered, rules for every situation, and without contradiction or argument. They need proof-texts to show the correctness of their views at every turn - something unassailable to competing arguments - something that will shut down opposing viewpoints.

That’s not the Bible we have. We have a Bible written by humans over at least a thousand years, with competing theological perspectives - indeed arguments. We have horrific Ancient Near East morality - genocides, women treated as chattel, slaughter of innocent children, slavery, and more. But we also have many beautiful things: a passionate concern for justice (including economic and social justice), deeply human stories, a profound poem about the problem of evil, early existentialism, gorgeous poetry, biting satire, and - most important - Christ himself. We have a radical, completely unexpected shift from the Torah as all-important, to a suffering Messiah who renders the very signs of being God’s people rendered irrelevant. At every point, our book is obviously of its time, while retaining (as the best books written do) a timeless quality that remains relevant to us today. Above all, it is a story. A story of God’s interaction with man throughout history - written by the men (and perhaps women) who earnestly sought the Divine.

Seen in that light, the Bible works. Seen as an instruction book, or treatise on systematic theology, it just doesn’t.

But for Evangelicals, their entire theological structure - and their sense of morality - depends on their delusion that they possess the One True Interpretation of the Holy Writ™, and without that, all they really have is their sexual moralism and commitment to toxic Republican politics.

I have come to realize that this is nothing less than idolatry. Bible-olatry. The veneration of an object - and one that doesn’t really even exist.

In fact, what they really worship is their preferred interpretation of said object. They worship their beliefs about God and the Bible.

And I also have come to realize that it is in fact a distraction. If they ceased to worship their interpretation of the Bible, they might have to actually look at the way that they have ignored the teachings and example of Christ - and see how horribly cruel they are to their fellow humans. That part is too uncomfortable to bear. So they fight tooth and nail to preserve their idol.

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Just a thought here: there have been a lot of really horrid interpretations of scripture in the past. The Bible has been cited to justify the Crusades, witch burning, the Native American Genocide, slavery, the denial of rights to women, the dehumanizing of others, Jim Crow, and in our own time, the unholy political alliance of Evangelicalism and the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan.

Each and every time, many of those who did evil truly believed they had the correct interpretation. As C. S. Lewis noted, the worst form of government is theocracy, because nobody is as capable of doing horrific evil as one who believes he does it in the name of God.

Nothing wrong with theology or pursuit of better interpretations. But history casts grave doubt on the idea that becoming better, embracing good and rejecting evil, is the inevitable result of trying to read the Bible with a more literal, detailed, and hermeneutically “correct” method. If anything, the opposite is true. The more obsessed we become with getting our beliefs right in every detail, the less our faith is focused on following Christ’s example. The more we focus on our theological structure, the less time and energy we have to take Christ’s command to love our neighbor seriously. The more we think of salvation and conversion as a mental agreement with doctrine, the less we are interested in doing for the “least of these” what we would do for Christ himself. Considering that Christ taught that our eternal destiny depended on this, I would think we might at least take that part seriously - and work on figuring out how to put those words into practice in our own world, rather than spend our time arguing about the details of justification. Just saying.

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By the way, my viewpoint about subjectivity and the five layers of interpretation are hardly controversial outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble. It is actually uncontroversial among serious bible scholars, archaeologists, historians, literature scholars, and so on. Even relatively conservative bible scholars acknowledge this subjectivity. It really is only those who are wedded to their own infallibility as interpreters who need the delusion of objectivity. And, realistically, this is a particular problem for American Fundamentalists, who need this idolatrous view of the Bible as their defense mechanism against modern understandings of reality.

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So how DO I approach scripture? Well, first, I recommend reading my three part series on Christianity and Culture:


Second, Peter Enns should probably be credited with a significant role in the preservation of my faith over the last 5 years. People like him are examples of Christians who don’t suffer from the Evangelical/Fundamentalist allergy to reality and fact. This recent post gives his five principles for interpretation, and I find them persuasive.


Third, in exploring the way Christians outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble, I discovered that the literalist/theonomic approach is by no means the only way to approach scripture. In fact, it is mostly an historical anomaly. Perhaps my favorite formulation of a more balanced approach is that of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.



Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Each of the four fit together and work together. In some areas, experience and reason provide better information than the others, and vice versa. Our knowledge of the natural world, for example, is better obtained by reading God’s world, rather than the writings of the ancients. On the other hand, scripture is the best source we have for the words of Christ as recalled and written down by his followers. Church tradition can give helpful guidance on how certain issues have been handled in the past, and what has and has not been beneficial in religious observance and Christian practice. Experience is both about our relationship with God in the present, and about how we interact with our fellow humans. Empathy should serve as a valuable source of information - we live in community, not as isolated individuals. In a global world, this means we cannot merely dehumanize others and reject their needs and experiences as irrelevant. It all works together. And each is relevant in how we interpret the other.

Note that the Wesleyan Quadrillateral is no modern, atheistic, relativistic [insert favorite Fundamentalist slur against outsiders here] idea: it came from the devout John Wesley hundreds of years ago.  


5 comments:

  1. Evangelicals are terrified of being wrong. Which is natural, because being wrong means being lovingly spit roasted for the next eternity.

    There's another angle here, which is complementary to yours: Even if evangelicals were right, it wouldn't matter.

    What do I mean by this? Lets say there was in fact, some sort of objective truth about the words of the Bible independent of interpretation. Some kind of Platonic ideal shimmering in his cave, flawlessly recording the Real True Way of God's Will.

    We couldn't access it. We have only human beings to get at this glittering object, and we can't do it flawlessly. It doesn't matter if the blueprint is perfect if the blueprint is inaccessible.

    Some would try to hand wave this with various buzzwords like "The Holy Ghost." This despite the fact get three Evangelicals in the room with a message from the Holy Ghost, you'll get three and a half opinions on that message.

    What Evangelicals believe isn't merely incorrect. Its useless.

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    1. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinions, Mr. Roivas, but a couple of points: 1) since God created human beings in His image, it stands to reason that He created us to know Him, and can communicate to us via methods whereby we can understand Him. His blueprint for humanity to repent of their sins and know His love for them expressed through the Messiah is all too clear to both Jew and Gentile - it’s just that sinful mankind would prefer to deem God “useless” and “wrong” and act like Jesus never existed. 2) What Evangelicals believe politically may be incorrect and useless. That does not equate to their Biblical beliefs being the same.

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    2. I wasn't writing of Evangelical's political beliefs. I don't know why you brought them up.

      And no, it doesn't stand to reason. If your god wishes people to know it so badly, it screwed up. There are over 40,000 Protestant denominations. the Catholic church is a single church in name only. Orthodox churches are split into different forms of worship based on country of origin, which is bizarre if one truly believes your god wishes people to know it in a uniform way.

      My point was no one can escape human fallibility. Even if a message was somehow perfect, imperfect humans wouldn't be able to reliably transmit it or understand it. So it comes down to what systems of thought and reason best match experience, a truth Evangelicals are based on resisting.

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    3. MrRoivas, I think you have some great points. Obviously, despite a couple thousand years of trying to get the perfect hermeneutic, we have literally thousands (probably millions) of different spins on the meaning of our ancient book.

      It is absolutely true that there is something specific about the Evangelical/Fundamentalist (and the two are pretty indistinguishable these days) approach that demands certainty - and AUTHORITY. There is an old joke that if you want six opinions about the meaning of a verse from the Torah, ask three Jews. Other traditions are okay with uncertainty about meaning, and a constant discussion or argument about it.

      I think there are two reasons for Evangelicalism/Fundamentalism's issue: First, they worship the Bible as the most important member of the Godhead. Second, they need a trump card (no pun intended) that proves they are right against all other opinions. They have no prayer (pun intended) of convincing anyone outside of their bubble anymore - they have moved so far from any objective reality when it comes to science, history, human rights, gender and sex, or sexuality, that only a fanatical belief in the divine inspiration of their preferred interpretation can overcome the cognitive dissonance.

      I return to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: experience and reason serve as aids in determining if our interpretation is remotely useful. I do not believe God expects us to check our reason and our conscience behind at the door. Alas, it is necessary to do so to participate in Evangelicalism these days.

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    4. Re: “if one truly believes your god wishes people to know it in a uniform way.” God didn’t create one solar system, one emotion, one temperature, one octave, one flavor, one color, etc. Pretty sure He expects a spectrum of interpretation as long as that interpretation comes to His Word as Truth, His Son Jesus as risen and ascended Lord and Savior, and His Holy Spirit as actively at work in believers.

      Ps: the whole post was the “cognitive dissonance” of Evangelicals/politics, so I understood your reply in this context.

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