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Foundations for interpretation

Some 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.

Can the Bible Be Completely Inspired by God and Yet Still Contain Errors?

G. K. Beale has an interesting article in the latest edition of The Westminster Theological Journal on the truthfulness of Scripture. Examining the book of Revelation, he argues that inerrancy is not just a deduction from the doctrine of inspiration, but a doctrine itself clearly taught in Scripture. In his introduction, Beale writes:

[pk_box]I will contend the following: (1) that John is more explicit about the doctrine of inerrancy than many think; (2) that John, in particular, explicitly refers to Christ’s character as “true” and then applies the attribute of “truth” from Christ’s character to the written word of Revelation as being “true.” Thus, I will argue that John repeatedly sees a clear connection between the flawlessness of Christ to that of Scripture in Revelation. In the conclusion, I will reflect on whether this is a unique feature of John’s Apocalypse and other apocalyptic books like Daniel and Ezekiel or whether there are some pointers in Revelation itself that apply John’s notion of the full truth of his book to that of other books of the OT. There will also be comment on the “word/concept” confusion concerning whether or not the actual word “inerrancy” has to be used in Scripture for the concept to be a biblical concept. I will argue that while the precise word “inerrancy” does not appear in Scripture, the concept explicitly does. This does not make the doctrine an implication unless one violates the “word/concept” distinction.[/pk_box]

You can freely download the full article here.

[HT: Joe Fleener]

Revelation and our mode of understanding

It could perhaps be more helpful if we were to begin to see that all of God’s revelation to us is anthropomorphic. It is, then, essentially accomodated revelation; it is revelation accommodated to our mode of being and our mode of understanding. It is not, therefore, that God’s revelation is accommodated to us when it speaks, say, of God’s eyes or his arm or his repentance, while it is not accommodated to us when it speaks of his eternity. One quotation from Calvin may help us see the matter more clearly:

“What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Althought he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners.”

While there can be no question that there are truths given to us in God’s revelation that point to his essential character, and others that point to his covenantal character, we should be careful to note that those covenantal attributes of God’s are no less “literal” than are his essential attributes. God’s repentance, then, is not simply something that “seems to us” like repentance. It is literal repentance, he is (covenantally) changing directions because of his faithfulness to his covenant. But it is repentance of a condescended, covenant God who has come down, taking on the form of a creature, in order to glorify himself, and it is repentance that does not in any way sacrifice, undermine, or otherwise alter his essential character as a se. He repents, all the while remaining the eternal, immutable “I AM.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 253-4.