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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.

Understanding the Hard Sayings of the Bible

InterVarsity Press have added a helpful feature to their site: each day they are posting an entry from their book Hard Sayings of the Bible.

Check it out at http://www.ivpress.com/hardsay/

Homosexuality and the Bible

Here is an updated version of Robert Gagnon’s response to Jennifer Knust’s CNN Belief Blog post on the Bible and homosexuality. Gagnon is one of the leading evangelical scholars on the subject and his discussion of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality and same sex relationships is well worth digesting.

HT: Chris Reese

Don Carson on Learning How to Interpret the Bible

Modern Reformation have made available a good article by Don Carson, research professor of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on the discipline of interpreting the Bible:

“Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over interpretation, not just over interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half-century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics itself, than in the Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. Ironically, there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t.

The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.”

Carson offers some guidelines for resolving difficult interpretive issues:

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between Biblical times and our own day.

Read the whole thing here. You will need to become a subscriber to read back issues of the magazine, and this article by Carson will no longer be viewable after the close of the month. For further work by Carson on Biblical exegesis, check out his excellent Exegetical Fallacies. It is a must-have for serious students of the Bible.

(HT: Jonny King)

A response to Glenn Peoples's 'No, I am not an inerrantist'

A while back, one of New Zealand’s more prominent Christian bloggers, Glenn Peoples, wrote an article titled ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’. In it, he outlines his understanding of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and why he disagrees with it. I’ve been meaning to respond for some time, but have only now gotten the opportunity.

As Glenn notes, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the widely accepted benchmark for what this doctrine entails. Very briefly stated, it affirms that the Bible is without error. That is what “inerrant” means. Glenn singles out the following parts of the Statement for disagreement:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

One of the obvious problems with this disagreement is that it severely undermines one’s apologetic with regard to the witness of Scripture. By disagreeing with these statements, Glenn commits himself to admitting that the Bible is not guaranteed true, trustworthy, and reliable; and may be misleading and contain falsehood, fraud, or deceit. That is a difficult situation for a Christian apologist like him to be in.

For my own part, I am an inerrantist, and I find Glenn’s critique of inerrancy shallow and unsophisticated to the point of attacking a strawman. Here’s why.

The Objection Evaluated

Glenn provides the following evidence for discarding inerrancy:

If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next.

What is obvious to anyone with even a little exegetical training is that Glenn is implicitly evaluating the Bible against a modern, scientific or journalistic standard of reporting. It should go without saying, however, that the Bible is an ancient, prescientific compilation. While, in the Modern West, it is considered “inaccurate” or even “dishonest” to quote someone without doing so verbatim, in the ancient Near East no such view existed. On the contrary, it was customary to quote the essence of what a person said, without concerning oneself over the minutiae of the words and sentence structure used. This fact was not lost on the framers of the Chicago Statement, as indicated by Article XIII:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Variant Selections & Topical Arrangement

I highlight the latter items—topical arrangement and variant selections—because of additional evidence Glenn moves on to allege against biblical inerrancy. He presents for consideration the differences in who is reported to have visited the tomb on Sunday morning in Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, and John 20:1–2; concluding, reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not?

The answer, however is obviously yes. As the ESV Study Bible notes on Luke 24:10, It was Mary … and the other women indicates that at least five women went to the tomb. And of John 20:2, contra Glenn’s claim that according to John 20:1–2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, it observes: The plural we suggests the presence of other women besides Mary. Since Luke 24:10 lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, and Mark 16:1 lists at least one of those women as Salome, it’s trivial to deduce that these were all present—with at least one other, unnamed woman.

The only way in which one can find a difficulty in this passage is to suppose that each of the authors intended to exhaustively list everyone present. Yet even reading modern writing, that’s far from a reasonable or normal assumption. Imagine I were emailing someone to tell him about our going to an apologetics conference. I might say that “Thinking Matters went to the conference”; or, if the person I was telling knew particular people in Thinking Matters, but not others, I might say that “Jason and Stuart and I went to the conference”; or I might just mention Jason if the other people were less important in the telling. None of these even suggest that the rest of Thinking Matters wasn’t present; let alone entail it.

A final evidence alleged against inerrancy is as follows:

Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are placed in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.

But it’s a well-documented fact that adhering to a strict chronological order when reporting is a relatively modern invention. In the ancient Near East, arranging anecdotes by topic or by idea was an extremely common, not to mention effective, story-telling technique. It’s called block logic. It’s not wrong, unless you’re specifically intending to present a chronological description of events. It’s just a different way of recounting things. Someone claiming enough exegetical competence to reject the doctrine of inerrancy should know this.

Standards of Truth

Now, Glenn even acknowledges that standards of truth in the ancient Near East may differ to those in the modern West. Yet in doing so, rather than seriously considering the issue and recognizing the relevant cultural distinctions, he appears to mock the notion:

Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. […] If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.

There is simply no way to overstate how theologically inept—not to mention culturally prejudiced—this statement is. It amounts to saying that using the grammatico-historical method of exegesis to determine our doctrine is a hilarious spectacle. It’s akin to saying that all we need are English Bible translations, because qualifying our understanding of Scripture against its sociolinguistic context is to qualify it so much that it becomes useless. It’s to say that putting ourselves into the shoes of the authors and audience of the scriptural autographs is not merely irrelevant, but an exercise in comedy.

What Glenn wants us to believe is that how the original authors and audience of Scripture understood errors merely indicates that their standards were too low. And, if we qualify inerrancy to mean that the Bible is free from error as its original authors and audience understood errors to be, then it’s a “hilarious spectacle” and a “useless idea altogether”. This objection is dead on arrival for two reasons:

Inerrancy is supposed to be defined by Scripture

Firstly, even if standards of truth in biblical times were sub par—tsk, tsk—it remains that the biblical authors wrote in those times. Now, maybe Glenn thinks those scamps should have used modern Western standards of reporting, even though these were totally alien to their culture, where the retelling of stories was a largely verbal affair and the manner of conceptualization was quite different. But the fact remains that they didn’t use our standards. They used their own. Probably because the ignorant peons they were writing to, wretched, barely hominid gimps that they were, expected it.

Thus, taking into account what the Bible itself considers an error when we’re defining inerrancy is not a “qualification”. It is a central tenet of the doctrine. When Scripture attests to its own inerrancy, it does so assuming an ancient Near Eastern concept of truth and error.

Modern journalistic standards are not an objective ideal

Secondly, what justification does Glenn have for taking his view that the “standards of the day just weren’t very high”? High compared to what? It isn’t as if our modern Western conventions for journalism constitute an objective standard against which any kind of story-telling should be judged. They’re not some pinnacle of reporting—a gilt-edged ideal that any writer in any culture should be looking up to and trying to imitate, even if that were possible without the use of technologies unavailable to them. In fact, these standards aren’t even commonly used in Western society.

Does Glenn really believe that the genre of the gospels is functionally identical with modern journalism? Does he seriously believe that using any other story-telling conventions actually amounts to error? If I tell him that “Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference last month”, and he tells his wife that Bnonn said, “Last month, Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference,” should we say that his standards of testimony are so low that, in fact, he has reported what I said erroneously? Even in the modern day there is no presumption that we retell the exact words someone used unless we’re doing so in very specific circumstances—such as writing for a newspaper, or using a blockquote tag. Certainly, the advent of copy and paste has made this much easier, and thus raised our expectations. But that hardly implies that reporting the gist, if not the precise words, is a lowlier method, and in fact constitutes error. The only time that would be true is if there is a presumption of a verbatim quote. Unless Glenn has remarkable evidence to the contrary, in the case of Scripture, there is not.

Moreover, even in modern journalistic writing it is never expected that the author report everything, or that he not be selective about the facts he conveys. In fact, basic common sense tells us that every reporter must do these things, because it is inherent to the nature of reporting as a subjective exercise. And this may become more pronounced depending on the kind of story-telling techniques an author is using, and the specific reasons he has for writing. In short, Glenn appears to ignore even the most obvious facts of literary criticism in his efforts to make his case.

Conclusion

Overall, Glenn’s understanding of inerrancy is too inadequate for his critique to gain any actual traction against the doctrine. The fundamental exegetical principles of genre, language, cultural context, and intent are all ignored, meaning that inerrancy itself is essentially ignored, while a strawman is burned in its place. Indeed, it’s as if he’s unaware that inerrancy is an exegetical issue at all. Instead of looking at the scriptural foundation for the doctrine, and the linguistic nuances of the term “error”, he imposes upon Scripture his own arbitrary conventions of reporting, finds it lacking, and then declares that inerrancy must be false. Sadly, the comments on his blog suggest that many other Christians don’t see anything immediately problematic with this approach. Hopefully this article can serve as a corrective.

Hermeneutic Principles in Typological Interpretation

Introduction

McGrath says there is a sense in which the history of Christian theology can be regarded as the history of biblical interpretation.[1] This is particularly true of typological interpretation. It’s history touches the earliest stages of the Christian movement, and plausibly dates back to the interpretive method of the Christ himself. Over two thousand years it has been plagued by misuse and misunderstanding. A cloud of uncertainty lingers today over the nature of typology and the hermeneutical principles that might help establish the study of types. Read more