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Foundations for interpretation

bible-08Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.

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