Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Biblical Interpretation

How is a mortal such as me qualified to interpret the word of God? This question came up in a comment chain a few days back.

What a fantastic question. And I think I want to begin by saying, as the question implies, 'I am not.' By which I mean, 'I don't feel qualified.' Who would? Scholars have made their life's work out of studying small parts of one book. How could I dare to say I know more?

Thankfully I don't need to be qualified.

Having in my hand a collection of the greatest books ever written and daring to suggest I could interpret them would be ridiculous. But not for the reasons you would expect. I can't interpret the Bible to you because it is not a code. The key to the scriptures is not to be found in a commentary, a preacher or even a scholar. The key to the Scriptures is in the Scriptures.

It doesn't need interpretation.

If I felt I needed to be qualified or the Bible needed to be interpreted I would be basing my ministry on the insufficiency of scripture (thanks to Peter Adam for the term) - I would be saying that the scriptures take us so far but then we need teaching, tradition, contemporary revelation, reason, recent documents and more.

The Bible doesn't tell us that these things are needed. It tells us that if we use it we will find it useful and equipping.

Far too many preachers and teachers, when they apply the Bible to people's lives, are actually reading their own prejudices back into the Scriptures. They find verses that tell people to give 10% of their income to the church, read their Bible alone for 20 minutes a day and only have sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Philip Pullman was right to draw people's attention to the dangers of the church manipulative.

I find it is better to help people get into the world of the Bible (we understand what it meant to them then in order to understand what it might mean to us now) and lay out any implications it might have for us today.

Something strange does happen when I read the Bible. It works more like food than text. If I don't read it for a few days I feel undernourished.

The truth of the Bible, which claims to be God-breathed, is to be found not in interpreting it but in relationship with it and with those who similarly seek. If you approach it is as a living word you will find it more like a friend than a set of rules.

I could write more but have probably done enough 3,000 word posts for the month. So lets talk about some Bible for a bit. Any favourite questions?


James Horn said...

I've always loved the description of the Holy Spirit as Counsellor - I like the idea that He is advising me when I read scripture, nudging me to the bits that are relevant, helping me understand more about who God is and His purpose in our lives.

What's your opinion on this, St?

Jonathan Potts said...

St, you say the Bible "doesn't need interpretation" and then say that many Bible teachers are "reading their own prejudices into the Scriptures" when they apply the Bible to people's lives. You then give some examples: giving 10% to the church, only having sex within monogamous, heterosexual marriage. The problem is, I've heard people say that the Bible doesn't need interpretation and that other preachers read their own prejudices into it and then conclude quite the opposite examples (you should give 10%; extra-marital bonking is bad). They say "I'm only trying to be Biblical" and often, I think, are being honest about this.

So which is the interpretationless, wholly Biblical view of how we should live our lives?

For my part, I think that when we approach the Bible (or any other book, for that matter) we don't - indeed, we can't - approach it as a "blank slate". We always - whether we realise it or not - see it from our own particular viewpoint with our own prejudices, history, social constructs, knowledge, lack of knowledge etc. As soon as we start to read and concentrate on the words, we are interpreting. That is not to say we shouldn't be wise and self-aware so as to try to remove our prejudices from the text. But moreover that if we are not aware of this fact, we will continue unwittingly to surplant our prejudices into all we read.

St said...

Ah the dangers of a short post.

The three examples I gave are three things which the church wants and are not absolutely clear in the Bible.

My point is that the key to the scripture is scripture. If someone thnks my interpretation is wrong the only way they should be able to show me is by taking me back to the Bible.

I fully accept that when I, culture or language get in the way we are engaged in translation - using words, images and people, to explain the one who is by definition beyond those things.

Oh and James, I haven't forgotten your Holy Sprit question but will need to do it next week now.

Simon said...

What you're saying then, Jonathan, is that the Bible's value is only equal to the person reading it.

In other words, the Bible is limited by the reader's ability to interpret it. And surely extremely dangerous. A car is dangerous enough in the hand of its creator, let alone if you let a monkey try to drive one (no Chav jokes please).

The "Camel passing through the eye of the needle" debate on my blog demonstrates how words are often the victims of the interpreter - look at the media and how they constantly misquote people to make a story out of nothing.

I think people use words too casually, without thinking of their true meaning.

How do you know, for example, that the Bible is "a collection of the greatest books ever written"? Even by praising it, you are making a judgement about the Bible?

What I want to know is, how dare you?

Steve, as Jonathan points out, I think you're trying to dodge the question by saying the Bible "doesn't need interpretation". I think you're trying to suggest the Bible contains a kind of Universal Truth that is above interpretation.

But if that were the case, every Christian would be in agreement and history would be very different indeed.

To interpret something, is to try to understand it - you can't understand words without interpreting them, or reading your own personal meaning into them.

It's impossible.

Therefore, logically, everyone who reads the Bible interprets it in his or her own way.

How is it, then, that ordinary mortals are capable of interpreting the word of God?

Are they, in fact, equal to God?

Are we, in fact, God ourselves?

Is the Bible, actually, not the work of some supernatural creator, but a great work of the collective human consciousness?

Logic tells us we should be rightly proud of the Bible - we created it.

Jonathan Potts said...

St - yes, short posts never allow one fully to express a complicated idea. And the following may (again) implicitly misinterpret what you think. But please indulge me, anyway. I'd like to know what you think about my comments.

I agree that often the key to Scripture is Scripture. But sometimes our understanding of the world (outside Scripture) informs our understanding of Scripture. For example, man used to think that the world was created in 6 days commencing on - what was it? - the 24th October 4004BC? Something like that. Anyway, science has debunked that myth. And (as you know) it turns out that, on closer examination of Scripture, it seems that the Genesis stories were never intended to be an historical account.

Now, you could say that we should have been able to tell that Scripture was not saying the world was actually created in 6 days purely by examining Scripture. But we didn't. And something tells me that, in any possible universe, until the scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries come around, there would be no reason not to believe the old 6-day myth: so we would have believed it. Hence, in actuality, it is science that has held the key to how to interpret this bit of Scripture.

As another example, it is frequently linguistic and sociological analysis of the language and social constructs of Biblical times that hold the key to interpretting certain parts of Scripture (I'm sure you can think of examples). Do you agree? Or do you think it that linguistic and sociological analysis merely helps us understand the Bible - but could not be said to be "the key" at any point?

Jonathan Potts said...

Simon - yes, the Bible is valueless unless read (like every book - except perhaps to the writer). Could you elaborate on what you mean by the Bible's value being "equal to the reader"? I think this phrase could be understood several ways and I'm not sure exactly what you mean.

And yes, like a car, the Bible is very dangerous in the wrong hands. But like a car, is very useful in the right hands. (Whatever "right hands" and "wrong hands" mean in this context - we could probably debate that forever. I would personally say that two examples of the "right hands" are Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. Would you agree?)

Simon said...

Jonathan, I can interpret the work of Tolstoy because we're both equally human. Of course, I'm nowhere near the writer he is, I don't mean equal in that sense. Merely that we are, in essence, the same creature.

But, surely, if the Bible is something holy, something greater than us, we are not qualified to interpret it. Surely we shouldn't even attempt it.

But, as you say, words are useless to us unless we attempt to interpret them.

Is it that our interpretation is useless? In which case, there's no point reading it. Or is it that we are equal to God's word (as in the "I am equal to Tolstoy", example)?

I'm surprised you think the Bible is dangerous in the wrong hands - I thought it was a gift to all humanity and would lead wrong-doers towards righteous path.

On a practical level, to most non-believers, this idea that science has "shown us what the Bible really means" seems very dubious. I'm afraid undermines people's faith in what Christians tell them.

If Tony Blair says "Ah, now the intelligence tells us Saddam didn't have any WMD, so we need to reinterpret things" everyone cries "LIAR!".

I'm afraid non-believers see this as the church rapidly back-tracking. At the very least, non-believers will see this as Christians lying to themselves, if not actually deliberately lying to us.

That's just how it looks.

Polkinghorne says he sees a "mind" at work in the physical dynamics Universe. Well, I see a mind at work in the Bible - a very human one.

Jonathan Potts said...

Personally, I don't think the Bible is so "holy" and "greater" that we cannot interpret it. Mainly because I recognise it was ultimately written by men.

However, some Christians like to say that in Scriptural writing, the Holy Spirit was writing through the men and so the Bible is entirely the Holy Spirit's given words. I don't concurr with this.

I'd rather see the Bible like a tried and tested textbook. Reliable in its teaching about what it means to be a Christian and in that way authoritative. Written by men who were inspired by God - but not necessarily inspired in a way in which means "God controlled their hand". More inspired in a way in which means "they looked up to God for primary inspiration in their writing".

So the Bible is "equal to the reader" in the same way that you or I are equal to Tolstoy, say. But unequal to the reader inasmuch as you or I are unequal to Tolstoy. Or perhaps a better example than Tolstoy would be the writer of a tried and tested textbook on something. The reader of the textbook would consider themselves "equal" to the book inasmuch as them and the author are both human but "unequal" inasmuch as the textbook is tried and tested and known to be reliable. And if a textbook is read selectively and/or with prejudiced eyes then it could be understood in the wrong way despite being a reliable textbook - which could be dangerous (depending on the subject matter of the textbook, of course). Does that make sense? I'm not really defending my belief here - just stating it.

So as for the Bible is "a gift to all humanity and would lead wrong-doers towards righteous path" - I would change this to "the Bible is a gift to all humanity and can lead wrong-doers towards a righteous path if it is approached in a humble, careful and unprejudiced way."

By the way, I wouldn't say as a general statement "science has shown us what the Bible really means" - merely it's changed many people's interpretation of certain parts of it.

And as for having faith in what Christians tell you - I would never advise anyone to have faith in anything unless they believe it for themselves. So I don't really care if people have faith in what Christians tell them or not - there are many different Christians who say many different things. But I do care that people take the time to listen to other people's opinions (including Christians), take them on board and see what they can learn from them. In that way we all end up more enlightened, I think.

Simon said...

ok. But this seems to me to reduce the importance of the Bible to being merely a significant philisophical text, along with all the others.

Surely, then, the Bible is limited by the people who have been inspired to write it. In other words, the word of God has been filtered though the limitations of humanity to give us no more than what humanity would be capable of on it's own.

For example, if God is white light and the Bible is the red filter which represents humanity - all we can ever see through that filter is red.

Putting aside the parts of the bible that are clearly human interpretation, what about the things Jesus is reported to have said.

Even these are interpreted in different ways. But how is a human qualified to interpret the very words Jesus spoke?

The problem is, words are always ambiguous and Jesus chose to communicate with words. Therefore, he left it up to us to decide what he meant.

But surely truth is a solid, immovable and unambiguous thing.

In which case, what Jesus said isn't THE truth, but merely words which we may deem to be wise if we chose to - a possible truth; a negotiable truth; a truth only if we decide it to be truth.

Jonathan Potts said...

Simon - Jesus communicated with words and actions - not just words. Which I think is an important feature of Christianity. We understand him through both his words and his actions (as reported, of course).

And, yes, the relationship between the concept of truth and the language we speak is complicated. To state that truth is fully contained in its expression in words is highly debateable (and dubious, I think). So where exactly is truth contained - if it is contained anywhere at all? Many of the great works of philosophy have dealt with this problem. Possibly you could argue that they all have in some way - I think Wittgenstein believed this.

Concluding that truth is truth only if we decide it to be true is one possible conclusion of this difficulty (see e.g. Richard Rorty) but it's not without its problems. And it's not the only conclusion that philosophers (Atheist, Christian and otherwise) have come to in an attempt to deal with the language/truth problem.

But some thinking does throw into light some of the problems with the traditional "the Bible is infallible" type statements.

I don't know how much you know (or want to know) about the subject of truth and language but I couldn't possibly do it justice in the space of a blog comment. If you're interested, a good place to start would be finding a good introduction to Wittgenstein's work (there are several out there). He is generally considered one of the greatest - if not the greatest - twentieth century philosopher. Though he didn't subscribe to any particular religious beliefs - and would probably have described himself as agnostic - he was sympathetic towards (some of) them and I don't agree with all he says but there's lots of food for thought in his writings. (Sorry if you know all this already - I don't mean to teach you how to suck eggs, merely point to something that might be of interest).

St said...

This is probably as far as we are going on this one for the time being. I'll start something parallel in a day or two. I haven't forgotten all the requests to amplify this and say something about that.

Whilst we haven't got agreement about how we go about understanding the Bible we seem to have a general acceptance that it is an important philosophical text at minimum. We could all discuss it if we approached it as that.

Simon, when I said it was a collection of the greatest books ever written I had in mind the world of literature, sales figures and reputation. But it was subjective, you're right. There are many books, films and albums which people tell me I have to love and I just don't get them. Currently struggling with why so many people love The Royal Tenenbaums. Sack of pants if you ask me.

You are quite entitled to not like/enjoy the Bible, but its popularity is impressive you have to admit.

Simon said...

Popularity is very rarely an indicator of quality.

As a work of philosophy, I think the Bible has had it's day.

I took the camel through the eye of a needle example - which to me seems too simplistic to be useful.

Someone left a comment about this post on my blog saying, in her opinion, rich people were more selfish and therefore found it harder to follow Jesus, whereas poor people tending to be more giving.

I disagree. One of the most generous people I know is a multi-millionaire. Whereas I know some very stingy people who are poor (relatively). In fact, the reason they are poor is possibly because they are so miserly - you have to speculate to accumulate.

So this idea that rich people carry baggage which prevents them from being nice doesn't hold up.

I think a lot of the Bible comes across like this. Simplistic philosophy for simple people, perhaps?

It's usually the simplistic things which become popular.

I'm not sure you can live your life in such a simplistic way. "Thou shalt not kill" If we'd followed that philosophy in the 1939, we'd all now be enslaved and millions would be regularly carted off for execution (or worse).

So is it "Thou shalt not kill unless you have good reason to"?

Jonathan Potts said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jonathan Potts said...

Simon - you say:

I'm not sure you can live your life in such a simplistic way. "Thou shalt not kill" If we'd followed that philosophy in the 1939, we'd all now be enslaved and millions would be regularly carted off for execution (or worse).

Yet your blog, 22nd Feb says "I am a pacifist". Pacifists disagree with going into any war - including WW2. Now you seem to imply that you agree with Britain going into war. You can't have it both ways.

The Bible appears simplistic if you read it in a simplistic and out-of-context way.

The ten commandments can be read as rigorous criteria for living or they can be read as general guidelines that work in pretty much every circumstance - but not necessarily all. For Christian non-pacifism, see the works of Karl Barth (who wrote around the time of WW1).

As for the "eye of the needle" - it procedes a story of a man who was primarily concerned with money. The point is, if you're primarily concerned with money then you're not primarily concerned with God. This is a consistant thread of thinking in the Bible. Whereas interpretting it as "rich is bad" is inconsistant (with say Soloman's life). So we reject the latter interpretation in favour of the former.

Simon said...

True, although I don't hold my blog up to be a work of ultimate truth. Life is muddy, like my blog.

I am, by nature, a pacifist and throughout my life I have been true to that. Luckily, I wasn't alive in 1939. Saying I'm a pacifist by principle is very different to telling others "do not kill".

It's clear Christians aren't exclusively pacifist, as Christian states have started plenty of wars in the last 1000 years, some of them in the name of their god.

The difference is the Bible tells people to do things. I don't.

If you tell people to do things and then don't do them yourself, you will be seen as a hypocrit. If you tell people to do things and by doing them they cause a greater harm to be done, then your instruction is unsound.

The Bible is unsound, I believe, because it instructs people to do things, often in a simplistic way.

Ideals always fail because they are by nature simplistic. Reality, on the other hand, is always infinitely complex.

Jonathan Potts said...

Which goes back to the point I made before: why do you assume the Bible is a book of simplistic ideals rather than variously expressed guidelines for how to live in a complex world?

Christians are not all fundamentalists. Look at some articles on for some (usually - I haven't read them all) nuanced christian responses to some of the complicated questions that this world confronts us with.

Simon said...

I'm assuming it's simplistic based on 1) what I've read and 2) it wouldn't be popular with the masses if it wasn't simplistic.

"Thou shalt not kill" is a simplistic ideal. So is "turn the other cheek", "blessed are the poor", "blessed are the meek" (meek = evidencing little spirit or courage), "Blessed are the Pure in Heart" (what exactly it 'pure'?), "Blessed are the Peacemakers" (wasn't Chamberlain a peacemaker? think of the lives he could have saved by not trying to make peace with Hitler), "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" what is 'righteousness' - a word with as many meanings as people.

I do like the casting the first stone one though.

St said...

Going back about ten comments I needed to say, Jon, that as a living word - a word with the very breath of God in it somehow - the Bible will speak anew to each generation. Of course we bring all our contemporary knowledge to bear on trying to let it speak.

About to post something new on camels and needles.

Keeps me busy this blog. Pity sabbatical ends tomorrow

Martin said...

Simon - I don't think the "blessed are the..." bit is as simplistic as you might think. People often assume they are statements that are unrelated, but actually it was pointed out to me a few weeks ago (in a sermon of all places - thanks to a certain Martin King) that these actually follow on from each other. It makes more sense like that. With regard to us not being equal to the inspirer of the bible's words (ie. God - at least in my opinion), I would say that the words are meant for people. Our understanding of the words may not be perfect, but because they are for us, we should expect them to be helpful, and I think they are helpful. Just because we can't make a 100% perfect interpretation, doesn't meen we can't grasp something closer to the truth by reading it than by not reading it. I personally find it to be a great privilage to even understand .01% of God's plan for me.