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.
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.
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.