How should we interpret Holy Writ?

Regardless of the subject matter, all communication needs to be interpreted.  Someone with my convictions, how I should be going about interpreting the Bible is vitally important.  Let me explain what I mean since it might not be evident.  I’m not talking about what a particular passage means, as important as that is.  The perspective from where you begin to approach the work is even more important, I think.

Speaking of the Bible for the sake of this discussion, I am of the opinion there is only one correct interpretation. Whether I have it or not is beside the point for now.  But my starting point into determining the correct interpretation is dependent on the message the author intended to convey.  Just as there is only one correct way to understand this post, there is only one correct way to understand the Bible.  This is not to say there isn’t disagreement.  More so that when two competing interpretations are offered, both simultaneously cannot be truly said to be correct.

Not everyone shares this opinion.  Some might suggest that there are multiple legitimate and correct interpretations of the same passage. I disagree.  However, given the nature of the original languages, there is room for more than one reasonable conclusion.  This I can agree to.  What I can’t concede is that even of there are two reasonable interpretations, they cannot both accurately reflect the author’s intention.

This isn’t the only approach.  I’ve had it argued to me that multiple interpretations are all valid in that it is up to the reader to decide what the passage means to them.  This post modern approach seems counterintuitive on its face.  No one operates this way in their daily interactions, in private contracts, while reading news articles, or anywhere else for that matter.  Why then does this method of “interpretation” somehow become a legitimate way of doing things simply because the context is religion?

So what do you think?  Which avenue will yield the correct interpretation, or at least has the best chance?  Does the proper interpretation lie in the author’s intended message?  Or is it in the reader, that he decides what the text means?  What is wrong with the point of view opposite your own?

Comments

  1. John, this post clearly illustrates the subjectivity of your holy writ. It’s no wonder that there are literally thousands of denominations of Christianity. Each has their own interpretation of what they think the author’s intentions were when they wrote them.

    I know all believers will simply shrug off the following statement as just another one of man’s faults, but I find it interesting that your God does such a poor job in communicating his message. One would think that such an important message could and would be delivered in a completely unambiguous way that could not be subject to so many different interpretations.

    • I don’t think the Bible is poorly communicated. I think many people find what they’re looking for.

      Since you’ve made this charge before, I’d like you to cite a passage you think is poorly communicated and difficult to interpret correctly.

      • No, John, I’m not going to cite passages and go on tangents arguing about how that specific text should be interpreted. Let’s keep the big picture and examine the facts. There are major splits within Christianity and wars have been fought over interpretation of the text. Even readers of this blog that call themselves Christians have opposing views of what the texts say.

        Of course people find what their looking for when reading the passages. People see what they want to see.

        Again, one would think that a perfect God would create text that would not be so subjective, but I wouldn’t expect you to concede that.

        • Z

          How convenient. You assert that it’s difficult to understand because God so poorly communicated it, yet you refuse to cite anything to substantiate it. I don’t think it is all that difficult to understand. And I suspect neither do you.

    • Most denominational differences are based on how a given church governs itself. Doctrinal issues are few and minor. Of course that doesn’t work well for the atheist who prefers to denigrate the believer and/or his faith.

  2. R. Nash says:

    So how can you be sure in your assertion that you understand the author’s intent?

    Hasn’t another man interpreted it already? In many instances, many times over?

    The bible was largely organized, edited, and redacted by the Churches of Macedonia, Churches of Asia, Churches of Galatia, of Judea etc. Then came the debate over minimalism and maximalism, Marcan priority, the legitimacy of redaction criticism, what to include of the Gnostic texts, the works by Philip and Thomas, and the penultimate question about who, how and why the decision about canon vs non canon was settled.

    These were just men, scattered over thousand of miles, over more than 1k years.

    I would honestly have a very difficult time thinking that I could understand an author’s intention, or could trust not only their interpretation, but moreover their motives.

    How do you begin to square that your sacred text has been so indelicately handled for so long by guys just like you?

    • Nash

      Your assertion that the manuscripts had been interpreted and edited is factually false.

      • My “assertion” is backed up with the fact that we have thousands of denominations stemming from the same text. If God were a good communicator, it would stand to reason that there would not be any split at all within the Christian faith. It’s just that simple.

        • You’re saying that because people disagree that it’s God’s fault. I say that doesn’t follow.

          I then ask you for an example of a difficult to understand passage and you retreat. Why not just give me an example of a difficult to understand passage?

      • R. Nash says:

        Factually false?

        Wow.

        I guess maybe you could explain to us then why there are tens of thousand of different sects/denominations of christianity then?

        Maybe also explain why every theological school seminary teaches something different.

        Are you actually at all versed in the factual errors/problems of the historicity of the bible?

        • Just because there are different sects, Nash, doesn’t mean the texts have been edited and reinterpreted and inaccurately transmitted.

          • Richard Nash says:

            John, Could you comfortably presuppose that your god’s perfection and innerrancy could have, or has in fact survived the gross statistical likelihood that there are errors in the text?

            By your logic every single thing written or ever said and claimed is true, has the same weight/value.

  3. ZQTX, the existence of a large number of denominations would NOT be prima facie proof that the Bible is a document with no easily discernible and objective meaning, because Bible interpretation isn’t the only possible area of disagreement, and in many ways it’s NOT even the main area of disagreement..

    Many denominational disagreements do not center on the Bible’s meaning, but its AUTHORITY: does the Bible have authority over the church, or vice versa? Roman Catholicism teaches the church’s authority over the Bible, both the authority to decide which books are canonical (rather than merely recognize canon by their already-existing apostolic imprimatur) and the “Magisterium” authority to declare what these books say and mean. Protestants teach that the Bible alone has the final word in this post-apostolic era, and that no capital-T tradition has authority alongside Scripture or above it. Those aren’t issues of interpretations, those are issues of authority.

    Many other disagreements involve conclusions to draw from the Bible’s teachings: the teachings are clear, the disagreements arise only from what to do with them. The Bible is clear about the Christian practice of baptism, but it doesn’t state, for instance, whether baptism MUST be by immersion or could be by sprinkling, and the denominational disagreement is about the latter.

    And other disagreements have nothing directly to do with the Bible, with the schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy being rooted at least partially in whether the church was to be organized around Rome or Constantinople, and a later, relatively short-lived schism within Roman Catholicism occurring over multiple claims to the papacy.

    Even ignoring all that, it wouldn’t take that many disagreements to create “literally thousands of denominations,” Suppose there are only binary disagreements, issues on which there are only two sides; if these disagreements are independent, it would only take *TEN* issues to result in more than a thousand groups, 2 to the 10th power.

    But the number of Christian denominations is vastly overblown, as there are only 12 major denominations, and the disagreements, while important, are few in number. All Christian denominations affirm the Bible’s clear teachings that God exists, that He created the universe, and that Jesus of Nazareth lived and was crucified and was raised.

  4. paynehollow says:

    ZQTX…

    I find it interesting that your God does such a poor job in communicating his message.

    I would posit that ANY text – written by dozens of people over thousands of years, then translated into a variety of translations, no less! – can be interpreted in many ways and people can and do disagree about texts. I don’t see how this disagreement can be placed at the feet of the authors. What can authors do to MAKE people understand each line?

    I mean, sure, we could write a one page treatise, but where would the rich tapestry of literature and philosophy be with a one page simple summation?

    Z, I would ask a simple question: Outside of Christianity, within the realm of Philosophy, how many different schools of philosophy are there? Within those schools, how many different takes are there on moral issues? Just as there are many (but not thousands) schools of philosophy and opinions about morality, there are many (but not thousands) of types of Christianity and within those, different opinions about morality.

    I would agree with Bubba in noting that there are not that many different “schools” of Christianity. Within Christianity, you have Catholicism, Protestantism, anabaptist, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, etc… about 10-30 broad “types,” depending on how you break it down. And most of those agree on most of the basic, common components of the faith (salvation by grace, not by works, that there is a God, that God is defined by Love, that Jesus is the son of God who literally came to earth and lived, taught, demonstrated, died and raised from the dead).

    From there, we HAVE been VERY human in our tendency to divide over VERY inconsequential matters (How to baptize, TULIP or not TULIP and what does TULIP mean?, etc) as well as over more weightier issues (slavery, womens’ rights, egalitarianism, economic decisions, church organization, etc)

    But that we divide, just like all other humans, on how best to live out our ideals, I don’t see how that is the authors’ fault in what their various texts say. It just means we are all very human, with the same tendency to divide that is common to humanity.

    But I’m sort of repeating some of what has already been said, so…

    Peace,

    Dan

  5. paynehollow says:

    To answer John’s questions…

    So what do you think? Which avenue will yield the correct interpretation, or at least has the best chance? Does the proper interpretation lie in the author’s intended message?

    I would note some facts, first:

    1. the books of the Bible were written by many authors.

    2. We have NO WAY of discovering what the “intent” of each author was.

    3. We can probably agree that, generally (but not always) when authors write something, there is at least a bit of intent.

    3a. I will note that an author’s intent may be nothing more than passing on a story because they enjoyed the story, or with an eye at a bit of humor or pathos or some deeper meaning they found within the story; or that they could be attempting to write a fairly literal, fairly factual representation of a story, as they understood it; or they could be composing a poem to pass on an ideal or simply to pass on a feeling (“I am joyous!” “I am sad…” “HELP!” etc)

    3b. Which is to say that not every author DOES have a specific intent, but many authors do. In the case of authors who are dead, we are not able to confirm their “intent” or if they had one.

    4. So, in the case of a text(s) like the Bible, given that we literally can NOT objectively say, “HERE is THE meaning, as intended by the author of the text…” what we are saying will have to be, “What am I getting out of this story? This poem? This text? What do I understand it to say? What does it tell me about life, about God, about the Human Condition?” and, indeed, we can ask ourselves (SHOULD ask ourselves), “What was the author trying to convey?” But we should do that knowing that we can not definitively answer that question, we can only take our best guess.

    5. Having said that, some best guesses will probably be better, more valid best guesses than others, but they will remain a guess, hopefully, educated guess, but still a guess.

    6. Given that, I think the best avenue is one of humility and humor and sincere seeking of knowledge.

    One man’s opinion.

    Dan

  6. So, based on the replies I’ve read:

    John argues that it’s not God’s fault that people disagree. I say it is. Apparently, the Christian God is not capable of giving us a clear indisputable message that cannot be misunderstood. Blaming the victim is a common theme in Christianity.

    Bubba, while admitting that there may be disagreements with interpretation, tries to confuse the issue with the politics of religion and geography. The fact remains that if a supreme being is trying to communicate with us, why is there so much controversy in trying to understand his message?

    Dan tries to marginalize the controversy by comparing his religious text to any other text. The problem there is that unlike different philosophies and mindsets that can adapt and change over time, religious ideology is rigid and unyielding. When we as a society realize that slavery is wrong, we change.

    The main problem I see with this rigid thinking is that the adherent is unwilling to consider that any of his religious text is wrong or else is belief system begins to unravel. I get that this is an uncomfortable place to be and most people will do all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to rationalize it away.

  7. paynehollow says:

    Z…

    The problem there is that unlike different philosophies and mindsets that can adapt and change over time, religious ideology is rigid and unyielding.

    Some religious ideology is rigid and unyielding, true. Or, Religious ideology is oftentimes rigid and unyielding, also true.

    But not this is not true of all approaches to all religions, or within all religions.

    And I still don’t see how the reality that if you give 1,000 people a huge book composed of other smaller books to read, you may come up with 300 interpretations of the book and its various themes and ideas expressed in its pages… how that is somehow the authors’ fault. People come from different places and have different ideas and starting assumptions, so it is not in the least bit surprising that the human animal is capable of coming up with different takes on a book of books. Given the human condition, it would be startling if we DIDN’T have disagreements on texts.

    How is the reality of the human condition that we interpret things differently the fault of the author?

    ~Dan

  8. ZQTX:

    Bubba, while admitting that there may be disagreements with interpretation, tries to confuse the issue with the politics of religion and geography.

    No, I didn’t. You’re the one who invoked the existence of multiple denominations (overstating the number of denominations by orders of magnitude) as proof that there are numerous serious controversies: I’m just pointing out, that since those denominational disagreements involve much more than the Bible’s clear teachings, it’s not the evidence you think that it is.

    The fact remains that if a supreme being is trying to communicate with us, why is there so much controversy in trying to understand his message?

    There really isn’t that much ambiguity in the Bible’s message, but if we’re going to start psychoanalyzing people, I would suggest that we’re not the ones doing “all kinds of mental gymnastics” to avoid the uncomfortable truth.

    You ought to consider the possibility that there’s no real difficulty in our understanding the Bible’s central message, but in your either accepting that message OR being honest that you reject it simply because you want to, not because rationality demands it.

    • Richard Nash says:

      Bubba your apologetics fall flat.

      There is mountains of ambiguity. Your special interest bias and entrenched cognitive dissonance is the mechanism for allowing it to all make sense.

      The majority, 70+%, of the Hebrew bible is anonymous. And there is no scholarly consensus regarding the NT, with over 85% of that text written well after the life of jesus.

      Why do you think that christianity requires an army of apologists?

      • If we know anything, it’s that those who deny a sovereign Creator, moral Lawgiver, and ultimate Judge has no special-interest bias in doing so, even though the denial frees them up to do exactly what they want — and those who both hate God, deny He exists, and hate Him for not existing are incapable of cognitive dissonance.

        There are extra-biblical arguments for the existence of God, and there are a small number of passages that are especially difficult, but the Bible’s most important teachings — teachings about God and His moral law, our predicament of sin and disobedience, and God’s solution of the death and resurrection of Jesus — are plenty clear.

        The problem isn’t that the Bible’s message is unclear, but that you dislike it.

        • Absolutely intriguing that absolutely none of my points have been covered or questions been answered.

          Yet again we raise difficult questions and get non answers in reply. Why is that?

          How can my questions regarding the historicity, the editing, the re-dacting, the language and massive geographical barriers all be cast aside and answered with, “but that you dislike it”.

          If we took apart any other religious text in the world with the same criteria, and the same bat shit crazy findings every christian on this site would be frothing at the mouth to scream how insane it all is and how poor the evidence is.

          Your bias keeps you from coming to terms with the psyche splitting dissonance required to hold your position.

          Denial is the first stage.

          • Nash

            It’s not that your questions or points aren’t addressed, it’s that you’re making unsubstantiated assertions. 85% of the OT is anonymous? Ok, demonstrate that.

            Even if you do try, you wont, but for sake of argument if you did, it doesn’t show the Bible is difficult to understand or ambiguous.

  9. paynehollow says:

    Nash…

    “The fact remains that if a supreme being is trying to communicate with us, why is there so much controversy in trying to understand his message?”

    Asked and answered: People of good will and intent sometimes misunderstand things. I’m not sure what is complicated about that.

    ~Dan

  10. paynehollow says:

    Let me clarify… that “Not sure what is complicated about that” sounded snarky and I didn’t intend for it to sound that way. I just meant to say: People DO, in fact, misunderstand things. There’s nothing controversial about that idea.

    I think perhaps you and Z might be saying (correct me if I’m wrong), “IF there is this perfect, omnipotent God and IF that God will punish you with eternal torment forever, THEN it would seem incumbent upon that God to make the requirements for understanding abundantly clear… if not, then I don’t see how that God could be just…”

    In other words, I can see how this might be an argument against a particular belief about punishment for a failure to understand what is not clear to everyone, but I don’t see how this argument (a perfect God would somehow force a perfect understanding on an imperfect people of the meanings in a holy text inspired by said God) is sound, given the reality that people ARE prone to misunderstanding and disagreeing about ideas.

    ~Dan

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