Interpretation, Shmerpretation

scripturescrollToday I came across a question regarding the Bible: Why is interpretation necessary?

Everyone is aware that interpretation is needed on our, the reader’s, part. Well, it’s likely that some don’t believe much interpretation involved. But one of the foundational elements of Bible reading is that of interpretation – a lot of it. It’s never as simple as black ink on white paper. There is a WHOLE lot more involved. Yes, a MASSIVE amount involved.

And, as I’ve shared before, the reformation principle of the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture can be a bit of a misnomer. I am very happy to recognise that parts are a little clearer than others. Is it 50-50, 80-20 or 20-80, in favour of unclear to clear? I’ll leave it to another decide. But the Scripture is not so readily clear.

Hence, interpretation.

You see, our efforts of engaging with Scripture is not simply a theological matter – understanding God and the ways of God. There are many factors that are present well before theology comes into the picture.

One of those elements is known as epistemology. That’s simply a big word meaning how we know what we know.

Thus, interpretation begins at the level of epistemology before it begins at the level of discerning theology.

We, particularly as westerners, believe that we come to grasp knowledge and truth (and revelation) in a kind of Cartesian way – truth is simply objective, factual, verifiable, empirical and absolute. René Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ And while many Christians would push against this statement, we don’t realise how much such post-Enlightenment, modernist thinking pervades our approach to theology.

Now, I am very much ok with using reason (or our noggin’, as we say in the southern U.S.) as one aspect in grasping truth. However, it isn’t the only way we engage with reality and truth. Theology is not merely a rational thought process. It is a holistic process involving so many aspects.

A foundational element for westerners looks like this: A + B = C. But I think a more Hebrew (or non-western) concept, from which we get Scripture, looks something like this: A + B = A + B. I gather the ancients who handed Scripture down to us were quite happy for many conceptual ideas to lie next to one another equally, even in tension, rather than a) preferring one concept over the other or b) trying to make two concepts fit together nice and easy. Not to mention that there are more than simply two elements in every ‘equation’.

So, going back to Scripture, it’s not simply approaching Scripture to ‘do theology’. We have an epistemological preference that strongly directs our theology. Everyone does – even the ancients (different from modern folk) and easterners (different from westerners).

Even more, language is a element of humanity. We have actually created language – Hebrew, English, Dutch, etc – to engage with reality. To say, ‘The sky is blue,’ is a human language formulation to grapple with the intricacies of understanding this sky-vault above our heads. Even detailed, empirical scientific observations of the same sky matter flow out of created languages.

Listen. By no means am I simply rejecting statements about the sky being blue or scientific observations about the sky. Nor am I saying everything is a relative mishmash in grappling with reality and, therefore, we need not do engage with reality because we can never do so with absoluteness as humans.

I’m simply bringing out the element that says interpretation, which includes the aspect of language, does not allow us to yield absolute and objective perspectives – no matter how clear things appear (in Scripture or in the sky). It keeps us humble as we recognise other elements in play to help us engage with life, knowledge and truth – things like tradition, history, culture, experience, faith, etc.

imagesSo maybe Jacques Derrida had it right by asserting: ‘There is nothing outside the text.’ As Christian philosopher-theologian, Jamie Smith, clarifies concerning Derrida’s words:

…rather, when Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language. Textuality, for Derrida, is linked to interpretation. To claim that there is nothing outside the text is to say that everything is a text, which means not that everything is a book, or that we live within a giant, all-encompassing book, but rather that everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced…all our experience is always already an interpretation. (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, p39)

Do you see how well-involved the aspect of interpretation is? This is true regarding our engagement with Scripture as well.

Ok, Scott. I get this for us. We are all involved in interpretation. But this is us, not them, the authors of Scripture.

Well, what of those authors, those compilers, those entrusted with passing on the formed canon of Scripture?

I would suggest that even the first speakers and hearers and writers and readers were involved in the practice of interpretation. Remember, much of what we find in Scripture was first spoken before written. Hence my addition of speakers and hearers, along with writers and readers.

So I am happy to assert that even the original speakers/writers of what is now in holy Scripture were involved in interpretation. It’s a common element for finite (and fallen) human beings.

Consider the simple statement, ‘I love you.’ Who said it – my wife or my friend? What emotions were involved, not to mention what level of those emotions were involved? Is this an agape love, a philo love, an eros love? Just before the statement, had a situation of conflict taken place, therefore possibly bringing in an element of forgiveness?

And on and on we go.

So imagine the author of the first few words of Genesis writing, even under the guidance of the Spirit of God – In the beginning’ (or in Hebrew בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית). Those three words (or one Hebrew word) yield a massive amount of interpretation. Or the well-known words, ‘For God so loved the world’ (Or as John penned the words in Greek, Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον). Here comes some interpretation – for the author of Genesis and John.

Now, for many, this makes us uncomfortable, very uncomfortable – claiming the original writers were also involved on some level of interpretation. But it goes back to epistemology and how we believe knowledge and truth and revelation come about. Our human understanding of truth involves interpretation – via many factors such as tradition, culture, education, race, experience, etc. Somehow I don’t imagine the biblical authors being free and impervious to such. Of course, I could be wrong.

I’m not negating the Spirit’s involvement in Scripture. I very much hold to such! I, by faith (yes, by faith, not by scientific observation), embrace that Scripture is God-breathed, God-spirited. But the Spirit has always used finite and fallen human beings to make his truth and ways known. And we find that even the divine Son of God submitted himself within the finite element of reality, though not fallen. Jesus was a Jew – he thought like one, ate like one, smelt like one, talked like one, engaged with Scripture like one.

Interpretation at any level can throw a wrench in the cog of wanting to nail down an exact science of interpretation. But I think we’re working more with art here where there are some helpful pointers to consider with our questions, but not details on a Boolean toggle switch between correct and incorrect, errorless and error-filled, perfect and wrong.

Interpreation, shmerpretation.

Don’t blow it off. It’s a part of life. It’s a part of reading and listening to the Spirit in Scripture. For us and for them. We can engage with knowledge, truth and revelation in Scripture. But we must remain humble in our interpretation of Scripture. We look to faithfully use all the elements in our interpretation of Scripture. And I think our Father will be pleased in this.

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21 thoughts on “Interpretation, Shmerpretation

  1. Love your thoughts on this, as usual. Trying not to be a “fan boy” but it just always seems we are on the same wavelength. Anyway, again, you’ve said what I’ve come to believe, that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to study and interpret scripture, except to NOT engage the Spirit. If it’s all based on our intellect, we are likely missing something. The scripture is ALIVE, and it requires a living being (the Spirit) to understand and apply it to our lives. Will we get things wrong from time to time? Of course. Perhaps even often. After all, we are fallen, finite humans struggling to superficially understand and engage with an infinite God through the collected written works of dozens of men over hundreds of years. To assume we would always get it right is ludicrous. So, yes, hold to your theology, and especially your faith in Christ (which over-arches EVERYTHING we interpret), but hold to it loosely, allowing yourself room to grow and for your understanding of that verse you ALWAYS thought you knew to be explained and understood in a whole new way.

    It will be fascinating when we can actually talk to these men in Heaven and find out what they were really feeling and trying to communicate. I’m sure we will often say, “Oh, THAT’S what you meant!”

    • Ken –

      I would say there is a right and wrong to study and interpret Scripture. What I’m trying to emphasise is the nature of interpretation and how that can impede understanding God’s truth and revelation. Even more, it was part and parcel for the original authors of Scripture. Their original words are interpretive as well. For some, that’s challenging. It seems to suggest they could be ‘wrong’, in a Cartesian modernist approach. But I’m not heading down that path. I’m simply noting the (non-absolute) interpretive level for both us and them.

      • Hmmm… by right and wrong I meant there are no absolute devices that MUST be used to study scripture. In other words, some people say that only a particular version should be used or it will lead to “error”. Others say only this teacher’s commentary or a particular concordance should be used. People want a formula, and I think we both agree there is no exact “way to do it” when it comes to studying and interpreting the scripture EXCEPT to make sure the Spirit (as well as the mind, Robert) is engaged in the task. I think a variety of voices in regards to translation and interpretation are for the best when trying to nail down a particular passage or biblical concept. Don’t limit yourself to what others say is “appropriate”. I’m sure you agree.

  2. Indeed rock on with the “Cartesian” model! Note in Geometry, the Cartesian coordinates…

    Always “both” the mind and spirit! And as I quoted on another blog, see Bernard of Clairvaux’s book: On Loving God! Indeed God is always to be loved without limit (just for Himself), “sine modo” (Augustine). And for this is always language, logic and theology! Both St. Paul and St. John (the Johannine). “God creates the affection and consummates the desire.” (Bernard, On Loving God)

      • Scott: Surely most of our method in both Roman Catholic and the Reformational theology is Cartesian, and then from here we move (with this), to the Enlightenment, i.e. rationalism, skepticism, to a social and political empiricism. And of course modernism and postmodernism. However, this does not mean that the Cartesian is wrong, but it is philosophical and somewhat metaphysical. But from here too we get the best of our Western epistemology, and here surely this has also affected the Jews and the Judeo-Christian. And certainly the latter is more toward both the Greek and Jewishness of the history of Hellenism, and the Greco-Roman of our St. Paul, and too the Johannine! (Noting certainly the Gospel of John, again with Paul’s Romans, Galatians, etc.) This is my view of NT Salvation history and the Progressive Revelation at least!

        *Note here btw, J.N.D. Kelly classic book: Early Christian Doctrines.

      • Robert –

        I was not saying that a Cartesian approach is fully wrong. But, on its own, as the primary approach, I don’t believe it will always field faithful engagement with Scripture.

      • Robert, your propensity at labeling everything and everyone with neat concise dictionary-defined labels is sometimes a bit off-putting. I know categorizing things can make them easier to understand, but labels can do as much harm as good.

        Scott is Scott, a Christian on a journey of discovering who God is and what His desires for Scott’s life are (as we all are). From what I’ve read, he borrows from many different schools of thought, but comes to his own conclusions, not content to simply have someone else, no matter how respected or learned, dictate what he should believe. That’s why I like him. I feel a kindred spirit.

        So maybe you could back off just a little with the pigeonholing?

      • @Ken: It is quite obvious that you and Scott are “buddies”, or I should say Scott hits your biblical ideas, since this is his blog. But a Christian blog is just that, an open blog and place to make one’s statements. And Scott as a pastor surely seeks to make his, as we can see over and over he seeks to challenge the more conventional Evangelical history, and certainly Reformational and Reformed positions. Remember, he admits to being a one-time Calvinist! But now, he most fully admits to being (as I called him before this) a Postmodern guy. So, being as I am, myself both Reformed and somewhat conventional, I am simply going to make (just a few btw) of my own points. I am after all, an old trained “theolog” myself, and I will call Scott on those most theological and historical areas! So its just about that simple for me! 🙂

        And btw, I would challenge you also to a more full-blown study of Post-Modernism, itself! Historical Christianity is always “confessional” (definitional), biblical and theological!

      • Robert,

        It doesn’t bother me, in fact, it’s expected and I somewhat enjoy it when you point out differences between Scott’s ideas and your own. Of course, that’s expected and encouraged on any blog. But your last two posts were more about defining Scott with a label than about sharing your own ideas about what he blogged about. You also seemed to be filled with a great deal of mirth in your ability to finally “nail down” his beliefs under a particular label, and that just got under my skin.

        Many of your posts are about categorizing people’s points of view (Scott’s included) into specific defined schools of thought. Honestly, I can’t even follow a great deal of your ideas because they are filled with so many religious and philosophical labels, sub-labels and people-tags (most of which I don’t know) by which you define different ideas rather than just sharing what you personally believe in any detail. It’s like you are almost saying, “You want to know what I think, look up this, this and this idea and this list of authors, preachers and theologians, because I don’t have the patience to actually share my own views.” Which, if you can do it without all the labels, I would love to hear.

        So, please share your heart and your thoughts, but please try to refrain from defining people (even yourself, if possible) with labels. It’s kind of degrading — well, it FEELS that way to me, at least.

      • @Ken: Indeed I am going to be 64 this Fall, I am an old “theologian” myself, having lived and taught in Israel in the late 90’s, and I am as I have said also a retired (reserve), RMC, Royal Marine Commando (officer), I say the latter, for I fought in Gulf War 1, and this did make a real impact on me, as concerns the Modern Nation of Israel (and my theology), and then latter going there to teach (and learn myself!) So I am not just coming off intellectually and theologically, though of course that is so very central for me. BUT, I am very much against Postmodernism! And here finally Scott has admitted he is just this, i.e. “postmodern”! This really is the issue between Scott and myself! And all those who hear Scott should consider this issue! Again, this is MY press!

        Btw, are you too a pomo? Yes, labels and definitions really do matter, especially theological ones! 🙂

      • First of all, let me thank you for your service, both to your country and to the nation of Israel. It is a thing to both be respected for an proud of. But I hope you were not saying that because of your age, you cannot change your ideologies in regards to theology. I believe I will look back at the me of now (at 50) in 10, 20, or 30 years and laugh at my “lame” ideas. We are always growing and learning.

        Interesting question you ask me, considering I just said I don’t like labels, especially for people (though I DO understand the necessity to label ideologies), I find it funny that you would even ask me that question. 🙂

        Honestly, I don’t even know what you mean by that label. I’m a Christ-follower, indwelt and (at least part of the time) empowered by the Holy Spirit. I have not arrived at any set theological standard of thinking. I have opinions based on teachings, experience and my own interactions with the Spirit and other Christians, but I always try to keep an open mind to new interpretations of old ideas. I don’t embrace an idea because one particular smart person said that’s the way it is, nor do I toss out ideas due to the opposite – that someone smart said “that’s wrong”. All that being said, I probably just described a post-modernist ideal. 🙂 Don’t know and don’t care. I am myself in Christ, and that’s all I need to know.

      • @Ken: I am not sure “why” you are even here then? If not to listen and learn? And so you just follow and listen to Scott because he agrees with you, biblically? I consider that rather sad actually!

        Well mate, I think we have chatted about as much as we can, for we both come from different places and worlds, and experiences. And I got well over ten years on you! And aye, that matters in my “world” and life experience! Sorry but I can’t change that at 63! 😉

        But again, finally, check out the depth and really of Postmodernism, for we are living right in the very centre of postmodernity itself!

    • Scott: Indeed whatever we make of the “Cartesian” model, it is surely central in the history of Western theology and hermeneutics!

      Btw then, what is “your” starting place for epistemology? And note the etymology for epistemology is to understand, i.e. believe!

      • Robert –

        That’s a good question: my starting place for epistemology. In general, without specific theological thoughts, my place to start is in a practical postmodern perspective – that we can adequately, reasonably and responsibility engage with reality, but not with absolute & objective perspectives. Moving in to theology – I believe God alone can be objective & absolute. I also see something of the Wesleyan quadrilateral as helpful in faithfully understanding God, his truth & Scripture.

      • @Scott: WOW! Postmodern eh? (pomo) Well, that is certainly well down the track from the Cartesian! Btw I will use the term pomo for Postmodern here for space. And modernism (modernity) is really the father of the pomo, they are very close and connected! Funny, but some scholars on the pomo have said that post-modernism came somewhat from Nietzsche’s analysis of modernity and its ends of decadence and nilhilism. Even Toynbee said: “Our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914-1918.” Yes, the history of the pomo is very close to modernity! And of course Heidegger later rejected the philosophical of both subjectivity and objectivity, and he and later too Derrida sought to undermine the language of western metaphysis (deconstruction of even the history of ontology). Here again, the attack is quite towards Greek Philosophy, and Plato, etc. But, again, I will go with the classic Western Fathers myself, which of course was both the path of people like Irenaeus, Tertullian and later Augustine, etc. No perfection per se, but myself (as many others) feel this was the place of Jewish Hellenism, and later the Greco-Roman of even St. Paul. From which of course did come the revelation of God in the life and canon writings of Saul/Paul, etc. So no pomo for me! Indeed the great “Incarnation” of God In Christ changed everything, but its genesis came from the great Salvation History of God with the Jewish people and the Covenant and covenants, Old Testament or Covenant to the New!

      • Btw, thank you Scott to admit you are “Postmodern”! There were those that thought I was being hard and even harsh on you, when I called you a “Postmodern”! Indeed Postmodernism has surely become fully “Postmodernity” in our time and culture! No more Judeo-Christian culture that’s for sure! (My youth, and time growing up).

        Postmodernism is a deep and profound study, certainly! The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (concise) refers to postmodernism as “a style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions.”

      • Robert –

        Just to clarify – I would say I see positives in all 3 eras of pre-modernism, modernism & postmodernism. None of them provide THE answer. This is why I embrace something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral in coming to grips with God’s truth & revelation – Scripture, tradition, reason & experience. And my point about postmodernism is that it isn’t the big ugly monster that many Christians might think it is. It messes up stronger modernist thought, but it is not ALL wrong. Hence why I see a more practical postmodernism as helpful, but not completely relative antirealism.

      • @Scott: Yes, we will most certainly disagree here!!! Postmodernism has a grip on this culture and church age like no other, even the medieval church had a much better biblical and theological approach, and here even the so-called quadrilateral (which is Anglican btw, Lambeth, 1888) is closer to the historic Church, and certainly the Reformation, than modernity and the pomo. Lets not forget too the great influence that the Enlightenment (18th century) has had. Like the pomo, it too distrusted all authority and tradition in matters of intellectual inquiry, and believed that truth could ONLY be attained through reason, observation and experiment, this kind of empiricism seems now to drive both the culture and much of the church in the 21st century! Indeed the full kerygmatic (Pauline) Gospel is being lost today in the church of postmodernity!

        I wonder how many Christian thinkers today realize that “Deconstruction” which comes from Martin Heidegger (the Nazi), is indeed central in Postmodernism!

        Well anyway, let us be students of the Historical Church, as well as the Culture in every age! And the true Pauline apology is the proclamation of the Gospel message, which is always the Person & Work of Christ…the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension (the Ascended Life of Christ…the Mediator, and here Christ is always prophet, priest & king, i.e. the Offices of Christ in “Glory”).

  3. Interesting thoughts. I heartily agree with your point about ways of seeing Scripture. Western modern minds often try to resolve all differences and difficulties without appreciating the value of the tensions that ancient near-oriental minds were, I suspect, more comfortable with. I am convinced that it is the tensions and the paradoxes that force us to face our limits, to recognise that we do not have the answers even in interpreting Scripture, and which force us in greater humility to approach the Author himself, surely the very purpose of Scripture in the first place.

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