Biblical Interpretation

One periodic topic of comments, some angry and some otherwise, is my method of Biblical interpretation. It is sometimes said that I don’t care what the intent of the authors of the Bible were, or that I only impose my own views on the Bible and leave it at that, or that I dismiss the Bible entirely in favor of something awful and postmodern – none of which I think are true, but I may have given the wrong impression, perhaps? Or, perhaps I’m deluded about myself.

Regardless, here’s a brief overview of what I have in mind when I approach the Bible. These are not in chronological order, nor in order of importance – they’re just in the order they came to mind. (Don’t expect rigor, I’m not trying for it.)

The Authors’ Location

Step one for me is to try and put the passage in question in context, to frame it if you will, in terms of who likely authored it, when it was likely written and where, what editorial changes are thought to have been made to it in its development, what other works it is related to or is it referring to, etc. Here, I hang on the words of those smarter and more practiced than I am. This is where I crack open scholarly works on the development of Biblical texts, commentaries, etc. If I’m feeling frisky, I might try my hand on a little bit of the ol’ hermeneutic myself dealing with the original languages.

The idea here is to try and figure out where this text is coming from. First of all, it comes from people writing it, so I try to understand what I can about them, always with the idea in mind that there are lots of views on who wrote what and when, and I just have to deal with that the best that I can. Second, I put “author” in the plural possessive, because I assume that none of these texts come to me pristine from a single author’s hand, but came through all kinds of intermediaries and may have had multiple authors and editors, etc.

The Authors’ Intent

Even with living writers, it is commonly gotten wrong. You know the poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost? I can’t tell you how many different theories I’ve heard and read about what its really about. But according to Frost himself when asked, it is about “stopping by woods on a snowy evening.”

To make things even more complex, the author’s conscious intent isn’t all there is. There’s a host of things going on beneath the surface that come out when we create any work of expression, and many of these aren’t even conscious. We’re shaped by language and culture and social status and privilege (or lack) and gender and our experiences and all kinds of things. That’s perhaps why I start with the Authors’ Location – so I’ve got some idea of what might be going on in the background for a given text.

At the very least, we can try to figure out what the authors want us to think their intent is and go from there.

My Intent

Just like the authors of a given text, I come to the text with my biases and my agendas already in mind whether I like it or not. There is no pure reading or pure interpretation. I am who I am and that colors even my most basic perceptions. There is incredible work that is being done in neuroscience on this topic – if you think you can trust your senses, you’re very likely mistaken. They’re all interpreted by the brain before you’re conscious of them (except for, oddly, the sense of smell, which is a direct route), so there’s always some filtering going on. You can’t help it, it seems. Who you are colors not just what you perceive, but how you perceive.

But we can look at this, hopefully honestly, and try to lay out what it is that we’re bringing to the table when we read the Bible. We can even try to overcome these things – which I is possible in part once we admit them and look at them closely. I’m white and male, I have progressive political leanings on most things, I’m a pacifist, I have the family background that I have, I’m affluent compared to the rest of the world but poor compared to the average American, etc.

A big part of understanding the Bible is self-understanding. I don’t think we can assume we know who the authors are, and I don’t think we can even assume we know who the reader is.

My Location

This is, again, connected to issues around my intent. There are outside influences on me aside from my experiences and thoughts and biases and beliefs. I am shaped by my environment, and the only way to see this environment with any clarity is to be open to new experiences and, basically, to travel with my eyes open. I also need to always be in respectful conversation, as much as I can be, with people in different locations, and especially to let them reflect my behaviors and assumptions back onto me. These things have an impact on me, especially when they’re surprising. Even in a sterile environment like blogging, I’ve read people’s reactions to what I write with surprise more often than not. It just shows how naive I am, and how my location and intent colors everything, consciously and unconsciously.

The Proof is in the Pudding

The Pudding, in this case, is behavior. It isn’t hard and fast proof, but I think its a good indicator. If a mode of interpretation leads to violence and depredation, to injustice and hatred, to dissension and anguish, etc., consider it suspect. If it leads to the fruits of the spirit, a moral life, love and compassion, humility and grace, then that’s a hint that this person is probably going somewhere. Perfect? Certainly not. But its another bit of evidence to put in the pot and let it stew.

I Am Most Certainly Wrong

Maybe you’re not, but I am. My theology is wrong, my interpretation is wrong, my motivations are wrong, my actions are wrong. That’s the nature of a fallen world and its attempts to grasp at God. There might be some truth in some things I say, but it is a limited truth, a truth bound by its flawed source. And it certainly may not be the truth I think it is. This is an ongoing process, not a destination we plant our flags of Orthodoxy in and crow to each other; and we are never finished, never complete, never perfect.

The best way to deal with these limitations is community. The more minds and hearts we get working, the more chance we have of seeing something genuine in all of the mess. Who can reprove us but those who disagree? Who can challenge us but other people, seeing with other eyes? How can we test whether what we say is true if we’re only asking ourselves?

That’s one thing I find so frustrating about what’s going on in my denomination – it seems like an organization hell-bent on crippling itself by shrinking the table until we only see people we agree with around it. And what a miserable, boring, and hopeless situation that will be.

A Final Note

God seems to act in ways that are unverifiable. There are many standing offers for anyone who can prove any supernatural event to come and offer proof. Skeptic Magazine has had this challenge out for years, and they have never had a single verified supernatural event occur when they were watching – not a psychic intuition or a faith healing or anything. (If you can prove the supernatural, get ready to be rich and famous) Are they blinded by their materialist/reductionist assumptions? Definitely, to a degree (see above), but I think its telling that in the spiritual life, the “proof” is pretty weak. By comparison, ‘proving’ gravity or the speed of light is a cake-walk. The parameters of proof are different for the spiritual life because they have to be.

So that’s why I left out a category for “the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit” or revelations from God – because these things seem to happen (at lest to me) in the messiness of life and not outside of it, and even if I claimed them now, I couldn’t prove them to you. And I can always be wrong, as I said, and think something is the Spirit when its just me. The Spirit, for me, is present in the stuff I talk about above. If I have some revelatory experience that leaves no doubt in my mind, or see some proof of it in others, I’ll happily eat my words, but I’ve got to play the hand of uncertainty that I was dealt. For me, certainty feels dishonest.

12 thoughts on “Biblical Interpretation

  1. I’d like to suggest that the debate about God is misplaced, or at least an unnecessary distraction. Almosst by definition, God can’t be verified scientifically, and there are so many different opinions that it all seems quite speculative. But when it comes to personal spirituality, I think that’s quite different. I’d guess that most people believe they have at least some free will — true choices they make that are not dictated by an outside power such as God or the laws of nature. And, if you believe you have free will, you believe that there is a part of your personal reality that exists in harmony with the physical world, but is not dictated by the physical world. I wouldn’t call that supernatural, because that implies something that conflicts with and overrides the phsical world. But I would call it spiritual, and such a wonderful gift that our sense of self-worth is affected by how well we recognize and cultivate our Human Spirit. I’d argue that we can prove the existence the Human Spirit from our own experience, without any reference to God. That’s a common starting point for our respectful exploration of various theories about God or non-God, since we can acknowledge that we all share the same unearned gift of Human Spirit, which enables us to indulge in theological speculation while it denies us absolute certainly about theological truth. There’s much more to this than I can contain in this short note, but if anyone is intrigued by this thought, you might be interested in my blog at http://spiritualitywithoutgod.blogspot.com/ or my web site http://www.ExploreRationalFaith.net
(I’m not peddling a book or membership, just trying to stimulate some thoughtful discussion.)

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Roger. I’ll look into the sites you listed when I’ve got some time to do so. I’m interested in how you expand on the experience of limited free will to develop a spirituality, and I’ll have more intelligent comments after I do that. My bias at the moment is to think that it will be relatively hard to prove free will, but possibly easier than proving God’s existence, which also seems pretty hard. Anyway, thanks for the comment.

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  3. I recently read a Christian Century article where Buchanan talks about the “I” in preaching. He says, in effect, that when one talks about her/himself in the sermon, then s/he risks that the sermon’s more about the preacher than God.I thought about the article as I read your post, because of course it’s about the preacher. There’s no way to divorce the preacher (or the interpreter) from the text. Yet somehow God speaks.Thanks for post.

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  4. For better or worse, I’ve noticed that I preach to myself a lot of the time. I write the sermon that I feel like I need to hear.Its like Anne Lamott says, “Write what you’re hungry for.”Thanks for the comment.

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  5. Oh come on, is no one going to join me in my Orthodoxy party? There’ll be flags, and crowing. Also, punch and pie. On a more serious note, the whole Biblical interpretation thing gets yet another layer (like an onion, or an ogre, I suppose) when it’s spoken by the pastor and heard by the congregation. What they think you said could well be totally different from what you thought you said. When I was a teenager (fourteen or fifteen), my father once spent a week preparing a sermon about grace. He was very excited about grace. There was, in fact, no theological idea that excited him more. He read and read and researched and researched and wrote and wrote and we hardly saw him except for meal times. He thought it was his finest sermon ever, and he practiced it in the house several times. We thought it was a good sermon, too, and that it really brought across a sense of wonder about grace, and of its importance. He then went to the church on Sunday and preached it, and preached it well. The next sunday, I heard two people at the church talking in the fireside room (adjoining the sanctuary). “You should have heard Pastor Tom’s sermon last Sunday. It was all about sin, and why sin is so dangerous, and why we should try our best not to sin.”“Really?” the other replied. “Sounds like an interesting sermon.”I stared. I wanted to walk up to them, shake them, and say, “If you think that’s what the sermon was about, you weren’t listening.” What I did say was, “I don’t think that’s quite what he…” at which point I was cut off when the two adults turned, looked at me in surprise, and interrupted me. “Why aren’t you in the service? Don’t you know how disrespectful it is for you to be out here while your dad is preaching?”So I ground my teeth, snapped off a mean, sarcastic reply, and stormed out of the room like a regular drama queen – in the opposite direction of the sanctuary. Well, I did say I was a teenager at the time. 😛 Still, the point is, what people get out of your interpretation and what you put into it can be totally different.

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  6. Excellent point, Paul. Another reflection of the same fundamental problem. If someone can’t ‘get’ a sermon that’s preached to them a week ago (when they have extra evidence like facial expression, tone of voice, body posture, etc.), then how can we assume we ‘get’ writings that are thousands of years old? I mean, you need a little trust in your perceptions to function at all, but beyond that, it seems pretty iffy.

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  7. I’ve been reading the bible all my life. I’ve also been hearing sermons from it, reading commentaries about it, having late night arguments about it, being taught and teaching it.I have really only three rules. Rule one: (its really the second rule) Whatever else you do, always use the bible to interpret the bible – rule of precedence.Rule two: (its really the first rule) Never read short passages. Sometimes it is best to hold a whole book in your head at the same time. The Gospels are like that, so are the epistles.Rule three: (its really rule zero) Stay with a passage until something jumps out that I am certain I have never heard or thought before. I have noticed a reluctance by many bible students to use too many different tools in biblical study, as if certain tools are dangerous and evil in and of themselves. And they label each other according to the tools they use. That’s silly. What I have learned in my other fields of study is that the more tools you can use the better. Use them to crosscheck each other, use them to augment each other, use them to balance each other and give you perspective. Each tool shows certain things that no other tool lets you see. My present favorite is to look at the internal structure and symmetry of the passages. Something I thought I had discovered on my own, maybe I did, but which Kenneth E. Bailey has actually written a couple of books about. It’s word art, and biblical authors used it to emphasize the message. I am sure you are well aware of verses that use xiasms and inverted parallelisms. Those are just two microscopic structures. There are dozens, and they can be shown to connect passages that are many chapters away from each other.Its a mind blowing tool. Bailey explains it in modern terms, so his explanation is anachronistic. The actual origins of the technique are most likely found in religious architectural templates adapted for writing. In any case, I think he just scratched the surface. There are dozens of PhD thesis waiting to the written on the topic.Arabic word art would be direct descendant of this way or writingJodie

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  8. I think spelling xiasm with an ‘x’ is classy. Also, I like the point being made about the information density of the Bible as a whole, or really of any very carefully crafted text, but to say that you ‘understand’ the Bible is really an enormous claim – at least for me, a prohibitively large one.

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  9. Did I use the word “understand”?Yes, ‘xiasm’ was not a full fledged typo.I like the verb “to swim” to better describe my relationship with the Scriptures.Jodie

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  10. The last paragraph, the “inward testimony of the Holy Spirit” spiel, I agreed 8 weeks ago. I’m amazed at God’s power. It’s really hard to admit that someone else is in control of MY universe.Ken.

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