Hermeneutics

Reading the Bible: The Driscoll Effect

A Conversation About Understanding the Bible

Awhile back someone posted this tweet of Mark Driscoll’s on their Facebook page:

driscoll_tweet

I decided to comment. This led to quite an exchange about the nature of interpreting and understanding the Bible. I share this because I wonder if you can relate, and perhaps, you may have an insight to add. I also do so to highlight the nature of this conversation between an evangelical approach that leans on inerrancy and those who are more willing to allow recent biblical scholarship in on the conversation. Finally, you can let me know if I was ever inappropriate (or inaccurate in my own approach!), so I can do better next time in such engagements. To protect the innocent, I will name my Facebook acquaintance as ‘Driscoll Fan.’ (Excuse the typos, I kept the interchange verbatim).

It’s quite the back and forth, so buckle up.

Bryan Berghoef: One of the biggest mistakes people make is to confuse their interpretations of the Bible with the Bible itself. To come to a new understanding of a text or a passage than a traditional view of it, due to study of language, context, history, archaelogy, etc., is not to change the Bible, but one’s understanding of it, and perhaps to be more faithful to it. Not sure of anyone who seeks to actually ‘change the Bible’.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan, Unfortunately the epistemological and ontological assumptions of the postmodern emergent movement clearly seems to be enamored with reconstructing the Bible rather than reinterpreting it. There is for example a disregard for the objectivity of Scripture that leads language, history and archeological analysis to be more a deconstructive process than honest research. In this context I do believe that Driscol is absolutely right. There are always those who seek to “reinterpret” the Word in their own image rather than being willing to humble themselves before an immutable God.

Bryan: I don’t disagree with your last sentence – in fact, we are all at times capable and culpable of this. But to assume any of us can infallibly interpret the text is simply not the case. We *always*, invariably interpret the text when we come to it. There is a lens through which we see it (as in a glass darkly). Driscoll’s comment seems to presume that there are some who see directly (without this lens), or who have “the” lens. I have to disagree. Again, its not a matter of changing the Bible, but one’s interpretation of it. There’s a vast difference.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan – As I read your critique of Driscol it seems to me that you are saying something like this: “Those (Like Driscol) who say that we can have confidence in absolutes are absolutely wrong.” In other words you are claiming to be sure that anyone who claims to be sure is surely wrong. Kinda like saying You know that nothing can be known. This is the problem with postmodern epistemology. It is self-refuting at every turn. Even your disagreement with Driscol (and me in this Facebook) exchange assumes there is a measuring rod outside of those things being measured (to quote Lewis) and that your argument is measured to be more accurate than Driscol’s or mine. Without objectivity there is no reason to debate with anyone about anything. Disagreement would literally meaningless for there would be no basis or even any desire to engage in it. I would argue that you are basically proving Driscol’s point by saying that he is wrong for in doing so you claim to be more closely aligned with reality of what Scripture is than he is. So – when you respond and challenge me on my posting remember that the desire that pushes you forward toward such a challenge is the very thing you are claiming has no merit.

Driscoll Fan: One more word – Indeed, “we ‘always’ interpret the text when we come to it” but that doesn’t mean we are “always” right in our interpretations. In fact we could be wrong. As Os Guinness says “Truth is true even if no one believes it and falsehood is false even if everyone believes it. Truth is true and that’s just the end of it.” Interpretations, i.e. opinions, are irrelevant to accuracy. Some people interpret the Bible rightly and some do so wrongly. So – the goal should not be to settle on a view of the Bible that suits our culture or our egos but to find out what it Truly says and what it Really means.

Bryan: Actually I wasn’t saying nearly what you’re implying I was. My point was simply that no one changes the Bible (it’s a nonsensical thing to say), and that we all approach the Bible with a hermeneutical lens. I don’t know a single biblical scholar who would say otherwise. You’re doing a nice job of avoiding what I’m actually saying while reading into my comments a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t say. It appears you’re more interested in fighting a caricature of postmodernism than discussing this issue.

Driscoll Fan: Not at all Bryan. In fact I would disagree completely with your contention that I’m avoiding what you’re saying. To the contrary I have addressed it head on and quite specifically and repeatedly.

Here it is again –

1. You disagree with Driscoll’s tweet and with me for posting it.

2. You are saying repeatedly that “everyone” interprets the Bible (i.e. changes it) through their own “hermeneutical” lens and life experience.

3. You say over and over again that no one reads the Bible with any hope of an objectively accurate understanding because we all bring our subjectivity to the process.

4. You therefore by definition align yourself with a “hermenuetic” that is postmodern rather than modern or premodern for the only way a person can hold your epistemological and ontological position is to say that anthropomorphic change and personal subjectivity always supersede the objectivity of natural law and the immutability and knowabilty of Divine revelation.

5. I have pointed out repeatedly that your above position is circular and self-refuting and that the very argument you bring to the table proves Driscoll’s point and mine more than yours because in arguing that you are right and that I am wrong you are appealing to the very objective standard of truth that you are attempting to deny.

6. I have highlighted the fact that in your efforts to disparage the absolute statement of Driscoll that you find it impossible not to use absolute statements of your own such as “all”, “everyone”, “no one”, “nonsense” etc.

7. I have suggested that the above is proof that you cannot disagree with someone who believes that there is an ultimate measure of accuracy and rightness without you yourself implicitly appealing to that same “measuring rod” of rightness that you at the same time seek to dismiss.

8. I have said that the fact that you are even taking the time to debate me right now proves my point. For you obviously believe you are right. Therefore, you believe I’m wrong.

9. Finally you contend that I am not interested in a “discussion” of the issues while at the same time you seem to not want to discuss the issues unless I agree with you. In other words “discussion” is great (I guess) as long as makes you feel comfortable but it’s not “discussion” anymore if it doesn’t.

I do have to admit to be smiling a bit at the claims of searching for “depth” while at the same time not being willing to acknowledge that one may be standing in water ankle deep – and in fact being offended when a fellow traveler even suggests that such shallows even exist.

Bryan: Yes, of course I think I’m right. I never said there were no absolutes. There are. If we couldn’t know anything, there wouldn’t be much point in talking about it. There are things that are true about the world.

But that does not imply a leap to knowing everything exactly as it is. You seem to be making a false dichotomy here that is unhelpful. Either there are absolutes *and* we can know them perfectly, or there aren’t any absolutes and we can’t know anything, which as you noted is self-refuting (and not the stance I was taking).

You’re confusing several realms of knowledge: knowledge about what Bible passages mean, knowledge about what we are able to know about ancient texts, and knowledge about what we can know in general. The same standards/limitations aren’t going to apply to all. The first category is limited by the second, which is limited by the third, and so on.

From the start, I was taking issue with Driscoll’s choice of language, which to me, doesn’t make sense. He (and you) are apparently conflating a change in the text itself with a change in how it’s being interpreted. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING! (And I think it is misleading and unhelpful to talk that way, which is why I responded in the first place).

The text of the Bible has been more or less stable for quite some time (setting aside minor translation issues and Dead Sea Scroll stuff). What is changing is how people are interpreting it.

There are clearly interpretations that are more right than others, and certainly plenty of wrong interpretations. I’m just cautioning a little humility in assuming we know in every case whether I or someone else has the right or best interpretation. If you think you’ve arrived at the best understanding of every text you should publish a commentary – I’d love to buy it.

There are things that are true. There are ways the world actually is. The question is which of those things can we know and how sure can we be whether we know them.

An analogy might help.

In clear sunlight we’re good at identifying the colors of things. In the dark we are not. Interpreting the Bible at times is like trying to identify colors at night. There is some light, but it is limited. More and more sources of light are becoming available (e.g., archaeology, history, linguistic discoveries). But we don’t all have equal access to those sources. Nor are we all equally good at seeing under low light.

Under these circumstances, we could still be in a position to say that this object before us is definitely not yellow (No one is saying there is no object, or no color!). It might be red or violet or indigo, but it’s not always totally clear. In all of this, reliance upon the Holy Spirit, one’s faith community, and historical witness all play a role, in addition to what’s already been mentioned.

We are also in a position to say that anyone who denies that there is insufficient light or who claims to be able to see perfectly clearly is extremely unlikely to be telling the truth.

On a different topic, I’m also not sure – given what appears to be your position – what need there is for faith. Where there is perfect and complete knowledge, faith is beside the point. Faith comes in when there is an element of doubt, when things are not obvious. If it was all clear cut and obvious, everyone would have that perspective.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan, I am going to try to be brief as I can for i fear I am risking becoming a bit pedantic in my responses to you.. So I am simply going to respond to several of your contentions in you last posting on a point by point format below.

Driscoll Fan: Opps – I copied your entire text and tried to respond to the first point and it reposted the entire thing… Sorry :- ) [he reposted my entire previous response, deleted here for brevity] Here is my basic response (probably better this way because I will REALLY be brief now 🙂 First, you say I am guilty of presenting a false dichotomy because I contend that you either have absolute knowledge or no knowledge – Not sure where you see that in my writing. Must just be your “interpretation” of what I am saying. Or is it possible my words and intent are being “changed” to suit what your experience and unique context leads you to want them to mean? Just because I am arguing that absolute reality exists and that it is knowable doesn’t mean I am arguing that I am always know that reality without error. What it does imply however is that reality exists and that it can be known and that arguments to the contrary are actually self-refuting and circular attempts to claim that you know nothing can be known and that you are sure that nothing is sure and that you are confident that we can have no confidence. Feels a bit like I am watching my dog chase his tail 🙂 Your obviously think it is REAL that I am wrong and that it is REAL that you are right in this debate. You also clearly think you KNOW what this REALITY is. Therefore you are essentially admitting to KNOWING Driscoll’s point while trying REALLY hard to claim you KNOW no such thing. Third, I disagree with you that Driscoll doesn’t make sense. In fact I think he makes more sense than those who argue that there is no “sense” that is common to and thereby anchored to a knowable absolute. Fourth, I agree with the caution for humility. The irony here is that history shows us that bowing to the knowability of Scripture Truth is the only way man has ever actually humbled himself before God and others. The elevation of ourselves to the position of “grand interpreter” is perhaps the quintessential example of the original sin where we don’t need God to tell us what is right or wrong or good or evil because we are fully capable of “knowing” this on our own. The Bible is clear and it should be read, heard, and “interpreted” in the context of such clarity. This is Driscoll’s obvious point. We have no right to “change” or “interpret” its meaning beyond the obvious. Doing so is the ultimate hubris and the antithesis of the humility you call for. Fifth, I don’t think you need buy one of my commentaries for I doubt (in all humility) my “interpretations” and “subjective” views would lend themselves to the “depth” of “authenticity” and “openness” you cherish…

Driscoll Fan: On your analogy of light – It appears that you are taking the same position of Jones, McClaren, Bell et al in claiming that ontologically there indeed is ultimate reality but that epistemologically such a reality can’t be known by flawed humans. I guess I can only respond by asking how do you KNOW this to be REAL and true? Or perhaps you are saying that you don’t know this??? Or perhaps you are conflating your opinion of what is true and real with what really is?? Or maybe … Oh never mind — my dog almost just caught his tail but watching him has made me real dizzy – or maybe not! Maybe dizziness is merely my interpretation and not real after all..

Driscoll Fan: Finally, forgive all the typos – I am rushing in between duties for the day and I haven’t had time to review and edit… But if it all boils down to your interpretation of what I am saying then it really doesn’t matter anyway because you can never REALLY KNOW what I meant in the first place anyway and it frankly doesn’t matter… Take the text and, in humility, make of it what you want.

Bryan: My guess is that we are both guilty of misunderstanding each other at some level, which actually illustrates my point about how communication works in reality. If you and I can struggle to understand each other clearly, imagine getting a point of view from people who have been dead a couple thousand years, spoke and wrote in languages no one speaks today, and lived in a culture that is in many respects different from ours!

I love the Bible, and study it a lot because of that, and because I think we can know things, and because I believe God is still speaking to us through it.

The simplest understanding is not always the most accurate, because we do not live in the ancient world and culture in which these texts were written. What seems simple and obvious to us in English may not always have been the author’s intent. The very fact that every pastor has multiple commentaries, and many, if not most, study the original languages – illustrates the exact point I have been making. All are unnecessary if it was always simple and clear.

Finally, I’m not sure why a mocking tone seems to follow all your comments about my approach and intentions. It detracts from the substantive things we are discussing.

Driscoll Fan: Bryan.

Frankly I’m saddened (but not surprised) that u just aren’t seeing that even in your last note you are essentially proving my point and Driscoll’s.

What difference does it make of there is no measuring rod of accuracy by which to judge the veracity of competing claims.

It is the ultimate in arrogance for man to place himself above this immutable scale.

This is what Driscoll was saying.

This what I’m saying.

Only subjectivity and sin would dim this light

Bryan: Yes, we do live in a subjective and sinful world. So my point stands. God may have such a rod, but we, this side of glory, are limited by the aforementioned, and get along by his grace.

Bryan: None of us stands where God stands, it’s a pretty basic point, really.

Bryan: In any case, appreciate the chance to discuss – I hope people can learn something by reading our exchange.

Driscoll Fan: Yep.

I guess if God’s measuring rod exists as you claim but that we are “limited” in our ability to ever truly know it then we are indeed a sorry lot.

Doomed to be oppressed by the power, popularity and pretensions of man –

Doomed to be subjugated to the bondage that always comes from opinions rather than being set free by the absolute Truth that Christ himself tells us we SHALL KNOW.

Doomed to political arrogance and ecclesiastical hubris.

Doomed to being given over to a reprobate mind –

Doomed to follow in the footsteps of the arrogant young professor of the Great Divorce where we never really had an original thought but simply kept parroting the opinions that seemed popular.

Indeed I hope people do read and learn and think about the consequences of their ideas.

Bottom line – At the end of the day all people will plead to be judged by God’s truth rather than yours or mine.

Thus Driscoll’s point.




What do you think?  I let Driscoll Fan have the last word.  Did he use it well?  In the end, after a later engagement, and despite my attempts to be as cordial as possible in the interchange—I was unfriended by Driscoll Fan, who, it turns out, is the president of an evangelical university.

What I meant to say…

“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”
– Paul Ricouer

“Really?” you might ask.

I think most of us have a hard time believing that.  How could anyone make such a statement?

Surely the most important thing is what the author meant to say when he wrote it.  I tweeted this quote recently and someone responded in such a fashion.  The meaning then is more important than the meaning now.  I am inclined to agree.  As a student of the New Testament (and the Hebrew Scriptures), and someone who preaches, I spend a lot of time working hard to understand what a text meant when it was originally written, in other words, ‘what the author meant to say’.

My assumption is that the more I can understand the original intention, the better job I’ll do of being true to that text. So from this perspective, what the text originally meant seems to be the most important thing!  Upon first glance then, Ricouer, a French philosopher of language, appears clearly wrong.

But here arises the challenge of understanding what the original intent actually was. We don’t always get this exactly right, do we?  Someone says something, and we want to know what they intended to mean.  In reality, this isn’t always accomplished even in everyday life, in face-to-face conversation.  We want to be understood, and get incredibly frustrated when we are not:

Didn’t you say…?

“But I meant to say…”

“You misunderstood me!”

“That’s not what I meant at all.”

One of the worst things possible is being misunderstood.

Yet if it can happen to us today, in face-to-face direct speech acts, how much more might the written word— indirect speech—be misunderstood?  And even further, the written word from a different language and culture by an author who is now centuries and even millennia dead.

(Of course this is where, in an act of faith, one might trust that the Holy Spirit will step in and say, “What I meant to say was…”!)  But for the purposes of this post, let’s leave that component to the side for the time being.  (Invoking the Spirit is necessary, but can often be an easy out in place of the hard work I believe God calls us to do in understanding the text).

Since misunderstandings can (and do!) happen, it seems that our best recourse is to disagree with Ricouer, and assume the original meaning as intended by the author is the most important.  After all, why would we spend all the time we do trying to understand this meaning if it were not the case?  In fact, it seems such an open and shut case, that perhaps we should be done with it.

But… yet…  perhaps…

Importance of the Now

Back to the original provocative statement:
“What the text says now matters more than what the author meant to say…”

We noted earlier that it seems almost intuitively obvious that this statement is wrong.

Yet I wonder… perhaps there is something to this after all.

I wonder, if our interpretation, our attempts at recovering what the author meant to say and thus declaring what in fact the text said and says, is, in fact, more important.  Think of it this way:  When a preacher preaches on any given text, and supplies it with meaning —that is the meaning the listeners take away.  When a person reads a verse with their morning coffee and senses, “What I just read means [this] to me”—that is the meaning this person is taking away.  In this sense, I think Ricouer is right.  What the text says now is more important than what the author meant to say.  In fact, this has to be the case.  Think about it.  What the text says now is all we have.  The author is dead.  The Apostle Paul cannot rise up when we read a selection from 1 Corinthians and say, “But what I meant to say was…!”  (Though we surely wish he would!)  What we have is our understanding of the text now.  What we have is what the preacher interprets the text to mean.  What we have is what we ourselves take a text to mean anytime we read the Bible.  That is what we have.  That is the meaning of the text here and now—and it is that meaning, not the original meaning, that goes on to have impact and live into the world.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying that what the author meant to say is irrelevant or unimportant.  Hardly!  It is crucial.  And we must work hard to attempt to recover that meaning in any reading and work of interpreting.  But the facts are that we can’t sit down with the writer of Matthew when we open that Gospel and make sure we ‘get it’.  It’s impossible.  We can’t sit down with The Teacher when we read Ecclesiastes to make sure he was as skeptical as he seems.  We can’t dissect a Psalm and have David back up our interpretation.

In that sense—a perfect recovery of what any given author meant (of a text in the Bible or any other text)—is impossible.  The meaning we supply to the text is the meaning we have.  That’s it!  That’s the meaning that lives in the world today.  And the meaning that lives in the world at any given moment is the more important meaning—that is the meaning that causes people to act in certain ways, to believe certain things, to commit themselves to a certain path. We simply don’t have the original meaning in full.  What the text says now is more important, as Ricouer so daringly ventured.

And this actually squares with a Reformed understanding of preaching.  There’s a classic statement that says, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” (As stated in the Second Helvetic Confession.)  I always thought this was a bit presumptuous, and laid too much emphasis on the role of the preacher.  Yet, in light of Ricouer’s analysis, I think there is a  lot of merit to this approach.  When the community gathers, and the Word comes forth, and that Word is explicated, interpreted, delivered: we all have some sense that something sacred is happening, that God is engaging us, indeed, that God is speaking.

Consider Calvin:
“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”

Or Luther:
“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth…”

Invisible Readers

Ricouer notes that through writing, “discourse escapes the limits of being face to face. It no longer has a visible auditor.  An unknown, invisible reader has become the unprivileged addressee of the discourse.”

In other words, at one time, the text belonged to the writer—he wrote it down, and he shared it with people, and could inevitably correct misunderstandings if they engaged the writing in person.  But once the work becomes widespread – such corrections vis a vis a face-to-face encounter with the writer, becomes less and less possible.  And once the author dies, impossible.  The text will reach readers that were invisible to the author, indeed, readers who did not yet exist.

Merold Westphal says it is this invisibility that gives the text an autonomy, an independence from authorial intention. This is known in interpretive circles as “the death of the author.” The absolute author (the one who knows what he or she meant to say) is not replaced by an absolute reader, but by one whose authority is limited, relative to a particular context, and without the presence of the author.

You and I are such readers when it comes to any ancient text (or even reading Steinbeck or Updike).

But here our interpretive journey takes another turn.

Perhaps the author him- or herself is not in full possession of the meaning of what they have written.  Perhaps more is being said than even the author was intending!

Merold Westphal notes that “not even the author is in full possession of the whole that would give fully final and determinate meaning.”

In other words, perhaps what the author intended isn’t the whole of its meaning. (I would say this is particularly the case when it comes to Scripture.)

Nick Wolterstorff gives an example of this possibility of a multiplicity of meanings:

At dinner Mom says, “Only two more days till Christmas.”  To her young children, who think that Christmas will never come, her speech act is a word of comfort and hope.  But to her husband “she may have said, in a rather arch and allusive way, that he must stop delaying and get his shopping done.  One locutionary act [vocal utterance], several illocutionary acts [words of comfort and hope, words of warning, even command], different ones for different addressees.”

Wolterstorff shows how a single utterance can have different meanings for different hearers, and they can each be right!

Merold Westphal notes that as Wolterstorff tells the story, Mom is the godlike author whose words have just the meanings she put into them.  They mean different things to different hearers so that the meaning of her discourse is a plurality of different meanings.  In godlike sovereignty she knows all the hearers and controls the meaning each receives.

Westphal then proposes:

But suppose they weren’t all at dinner and Mom didn’t know that Dad was in a position to overhear her.  Dad would rightly take Mom’s speech act to be one of reminder, warning, and perhaps even command, though that was not the meaning she (intended to) put into her discourse.  The meaning of the utterance escapes the horizon of its author and its original, intended audience precisely because of the invisibility of at least one additional audience.  This is the situation of human authors in general, says Westphal, biblical or otherwise.

By now you’re incredibly uncomfortable with this analysis.  You’re resisting this approach.  You’re thinking that preachers and scholars are in an awfully important (and scary) position – because they most often are entrusted with helping us understand the text.

This is true.  Yet in a sense we all are in this position, we are the invisible readers, at least those of us who read and engage texts (of any sort), especially the Bible.

But fortunately, there is more to it.  We’ll get to this in the next post.

No Interpretation Needed? Part 2

Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.

It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory.  Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist.  In fact:

Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?

We cannot escape interpreting the Bible.  We are not God.  Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).

The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.

Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?

approaching the text

If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity.  But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity.  This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.

We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same.  James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:

For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new.  Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents).  One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself.  In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst.  Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition.  The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.

But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:

“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””

Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”

This, however, is simply not the case.  We all interpret.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.

This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.  Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century.  This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms.  It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.  (Westphal, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?)

So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation?  Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say.  But the point holds: we are not God.  Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text.  This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives.  We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.

My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:

Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.

Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.

 

So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this?  Yes!  Of course.  God will speak.  Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”

No Interpretation Needed?

Are you skeptical about biblical interpretation?  Does it seem that someone can just “make it say anything?”  Are you one of those who would prefer to just “read it for what it says”?

 

You’re not alone.  Many are intimidated by the vast amount of study some seem to think reading the Bible requires.  Can’t I just take the “plain sense” of a text and arrive at what God is trying to say to me?

 

See? It clearly says right here...

When someone encounters an interpretation of the Bible she doesn’t like, she may respond with, “Well that’s just your interpretation.  My Bible says this instead…”

 

After all, much easier to dismiss someone’s interpretation (which involves a bit of their own thinking), than to actually dismiss a passage of the Bible itself.  So perhaps we are better off trying to rest on the “Bible” instead of an “interpretation.”

 

 

As Merold Westphal puts it:

 

“Common sense . . .  claims to “just see” its objects, free of bias, prejudice, and presuppositions (at least sometimes).  We can call this “just seeing” intuition.  When [this] view of knowledge and understanding is applied to the Bible, it becomes the claim that we can “just see” what the text means, that intution can and should be all we need.  In other words, “no interpretation needed.”  The object, in this case the meaning of the text, presents itself clearly and directly to my reading.  To interpret would be to interject some subjective bias or prejudice (pre-judgment) into the process.  Thus the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…”  In other words, “You interpret (and thereby misunderstand), but I intuit, seeing directly, clearly, and without distortion.”

 

 

 

Westphal refers to an ad for a new translation of the Bible billed as so accurate and so clear that the publishers could announce: “NO INTERPRETATION NEEDED.”  The ad promotes the “revolutionary translation that allows you to understand exactly what the original writers meant.”  (Unfortunately he doesn’t mention which Bible made this claim).

 

The “no interpretation needed” approach says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.

 

What do you think?  Is interpretation unnecessary?

The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 1

Taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God:

Attempting to read a biblical text challenges us in ways that quickly threaten to sink us in a quicksand of questions.  Which translation is “best” if we don’t read ancient Greek or Hebrew?  And even if we try to learn something about these long-dead languages, how do we move forward in our language to talk about the text?  Once we start getting enmeshed in inquiries about language, the paradoxes of words and their relationship to reality “out there” can become powerfully mind-boggling.  Linguistic and literary theory are minefields in which much heat is radiated but precious little light remains after the explosions.

it's all Greek to me

At the same time, the biblical texts – like almost no others still widely read in our time – confront us with worlds confoundingly foreign.  Names of people and places seem unpronounceable, and locations are obscure.  People behave in ways strange to our “normal” practice, but we cannot easily discern whether their behavior is strange to those with whom they interact in the stories.  Much of the context involves situations with which we have absolutely no experience or concern.  Furthermore, few sources of information from the ancient world are available to enlighten us on these crucial matters.  A few pieces of broken pottery or tablets and miscellaneous scraps of documents are hardly sufficient to recreate for us a sense of the long lost world of Israel.  What would future cultural historians do with a couple of our daily newspapers and a handful of random paperbacks from the best-seller list?  Would such artifacts allow for reasonably certain inferences about our daily lives and concerns?

What Is One To Do?

Beginning to consider these questions and the infinite corollaries that cascade from them can lead to several responses among prospective biblical readers.

First, we can attempt to close our minds to the questions and, like fundamentalists, pretend in effect that the Bible was written in English in the recent past, interpreting its “plain words” according to our (unspoken) cultural assumptions.  This is the de facto reading “method” of most people of goodwill who have grown up with the Bible as a book on the shelf to be read among other selections from history or literature.  Whether because the questions are threatening or simply because they have not occurred to us to ask them, we read the Bible naively and come up with naïve – and often dangerous – interpretations.

A second option is to allow the questions to take us over and move toward becoming biblical scholars at one level or another.  One can very easily be swept up into methodological questions – for instance, questions of form criticism and hermeneutics – and never return to the Bible itself.  Or one can attempt (impossibly) to consider all that has been written on a particular biblical text in an effort to cull the wisdom of “better” and “more qualified” readers than oneself.  This project runs into the barriers of one’s own linguistic competence (biblical scholarship speaks many languages) and the supply of periodicals in local theological libraries.  Not to mention the financial and social costs of giving up one’s job and family to create the time to read such a mountain of material!

A third possibility in the face of the mammoth nature of the undertaking is to give it up altogether.  The Bible is too arcane, too distant, too complicated to be of much practical use for those of us struggling to discern the Creator’s path for humankind in our troubled era.  Why bother to conjugate lost languages to figure out how to act in the face of racism, poverty, and the infinite oppressions of everyday life in the American empire?  The very act of attempting to dig out from under the mound of questions is evidence enough of the privilege we should probably be about the business of renouncing.

approaching the text

Each of these options avoids in a different way the challenge and opportunity to learn from our ancestors what the Bible offers.  Whether one chooses fundamentalism, ivory-tower academia, or some “new” religious approach disconnected from the biblical tradition, the result is to deny the invitation to acknowledge that we stand on the pinnacle of the mountain of human experience.  Our “age” – whether we conceive of that term as signifying the baby boomers, generation X, millenials, the period of technology, or the era of democratic capitalism in the West  – is only the most recent chapter in a human story spanning many millennia.  The simple fact remains that the Bible is the deepest echo of our ancestors’ own cries of “Who are we?” and “What are we to do with our lives?”

So, if we are to choose an alternative to abandoning or getting lost in the search for biblical wisdom, we must begin with a humble acknowledgement that our efforts are limited by many factors that cannot be overcome.  Rather than denying either the invitation to learn or the existence of barriers, I urge us to name our limits and continue to move forward.

Who We Are Matters 

This very process has also been taking place from within the formal institution of biblical scholarship.  Where once professional Bible readers (are there such things?!) claimed “scientific” methods that obviated the need to claim the personal positions and limits of the interpreter, more and more we find scholars admitting what has been true all along.  That is, each reader or community of readers comes to the Bible with a panoply of prejudices and commitments that necessarily play a powerful part in shaping how one hears the word of God speaking.  Poor peasants in Latin America can connect with Jesus’ parables drawn with images of farming far more readily than clean-fingered university professors in the United States or Europe.  Women can hear both the pain caused by the patriarchal mind-set that permeates the Bible and Jesus’ shocking invitations to reshape that mind-set in ways that men such as myself can never do.  People anywhere committed to the transformation of unjust social structures into God’s realm of shalom will pick up the pervasive political context of the gospels when readers satisfied with the status quo find only “spiritual” messages.

This is not to suggest that one particular cultural perspective or sociopolitical ideology is “better” for reading the Bible.  Rather, it is to call all prospective readers to the enlightening and humbling task of paying attention to how who we are affects who we believe the God of the Bible to be.  At the same time, it is not to succumb to a trackless pluralism in which anyone and everyone can read the Bible and find their “opinion” equally valid.  Criteria do exist for distinguishing among readers, just as distinctions between faith in Yahweh and faith in Baal, Marduk, or Caesar are not mere tricks of the text.  Our image of God and sense of God’s will for us and for creation powerfully influence our sense of what makes for a “right” world.  Are we simply part of a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest struggle to survive, or ought we to aim together for a harmonious interconnectedness that respects the dignity of all life?  Our biblical interpretations are crucial to answer this eminently practical inquiry.

Beginning the Journey

This getting to know ourselves in order to get to know the Bible can, of course, produce the same avoidance of the question as does the attempt to get to know the Bible “directly.”  We will never completely know ourselves any more than we will completely know the Bible.  But just as we should not allow our ignorance of Greek or Pharisaic practice to prevent our encounter with the sacred texts, we should not stop reading the Bible simply because some unrevealed prejudice may be affecting our reading.  Instead, we can, like the Hebrews in Egypt, courageously accept the invitation to leave our captivity behind and begin the journey toward liberation.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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