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.
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.
…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.
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.