Shoring Up Our Sources

I’ve had some interesting conversations when I tell people that I study religion. I’ve learned to avoid the conversation by saying I study violence, or martyrdom, or something else, because if I say I study religion, there are typically one of two responses. The first and more common response is to ask if I am training to be a minister. This is understandable, except that ministerial training is not to be found at a state institution. So, when I respond negatively, they ask, “Hmmm…so what are you going to do with that?” Overall, that is the easier conversation. I mumble something about teaching and researching, and that’s usually the end of it. The other response people have is more dangerous, and more time-consuming. You can tell it’s coming when someone’s eyes light up when you use the word “religion.” Before you know it, they’ve launched into their own perspective on the state of religious affairs in the world or a special bit of religious insight they have. Interest in religion means being a sounding board for people’s thoughts.

This happens in the most surprising of places. A few years ago, I had to go to the Doc in the Box for something…bronchitis, I think. In response to his question about what I do, I stated that I study religion. The doctor’s eyes lit up. Uh oh. He pulled a pen out his pocket and said, “Check this out.” He began to write the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, in a triangle formation on the exam table paper. He proceeded to explain to me in significant detail how Yeshua, the Hebrew word for Jesus, is found within each book by taking out letters at a fixed interval. He was genuinely excited about how this proved the coming of the Messiah through Biblical numerology. (He followed his numerological explanation up by suggesting that evolution is disproven by a jar of peanut butter. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth watching.)

I managed to get him back to diagnosing my illness and prescribing my medication and I left relatively unscathed. I note this experience because numerology was this doctor’s method of supporting his existing worldview. While perhaps not many of us would actively cite numerological claims as religious proofs or put much stock in them, we might accept other methods that provide the same deceptive sense of objectivity. If we recognize, as most do in a practical sense, that interpretation varies from person to person, the next natural step would be to try to limit the variables of interpretation as much as possible, to establish criteria by which we can attempt to ensure the accuracy of our interpretation.

Two common methods Martin (who I introduced yesterday) notes by which we shore up our interpretations are authorial intention and historical criticism. These methods are often used by pastors and scholars as well. Authorial intention makes two assumptions, neither one correct. First, it assumes that we can determine the author’s intent if we just read the text correctly. (How do we know we read the text correctly? By finding the author’s intent, of course! Wait a minute…) Second, it assumes that the author’s intended meaning is the only one, or the most important one. While the author’s intention is an important consideration, it is not the only consideration.

When my son first heard about the f*** word, he decided to try it out and see what I thought. I heard him behind me coming down the stairs: “Buckin’…muckin’…luckin’…” I knew what was coming. “F***in…” There was a little pause as he let it sink in. We had a conversation about how if he said that word at school, he might get in a bit of trouble. I didn’t just say, “Go for it, son. If you mean it in a nice way, it’s okay!” Neither did I punish him for saying an evil word, because I doubted his intentions were malicious (and because words aren’t evil). All of us are more judicious in our dealings with people than applying a simple formula to determine meaning. It is the same with text.

The second method Martin notes, historical criticism, argues that the true meaning of the text is found when we examine its original context, the environment in which it was written. This may include the author, but in the case of Biblical texts it also works against the author’s intent, since historical criticism is a modern method. The fact that despite the preference of this method neither scholars nor churches can seem to agree on its results should provide some indication of its limitations. So although it sounds really heady when one talks about the socio-economic situation of the group responsible for the gospel of Matthew, for example, it provides no hermeneutic key for reading the text. I’ve often heard generalizations about how the people of such-and-such place were in this particular environment so they would have meant exactly this when they said this. However, I would never feel comfortable with one of those generalizations applied to myself. “Well, he lives in Idaho, so that must mean he’s a conservative.” “He’s from the Northwest, so he probably drinks coffee, drives a Subaru covered with liberal bumper stickers with a dog in the back and wears flannel year-round.” If I am usually uncomfortable with these stereotypes, am I at liberty to say that the author of the past was more a mirror of his environment than I am?

It is not that these methods cannot contribute to a workable meaning. Rather, it is that none of them allows us to escape the hard work of interpretation. Anxiety over the possibility of an anarchy of interpretation drives many to continue providing normative readings of texts, and thus traditions, but these readings are often contradictory and push certain groups of people to the margins of society. What if instead we admitted that there are no constraints on the understanding of text other than social ones? Would numerologists suddenly rule the world? I doubt it.

6 thoughts on “Shoring Up Our Sources

  1. Matt,

    I’ve already shared some of this with you, but I think it is necessary for Christians (myself included) to acknowledge that there are some parts of the Bible that we take literally and other parts we disregard due to irrelevance in our current context. Even those who claim to be Bible literalists do not live out all of the instructions found in the Bible literally.

    An important part to enter into the discussion is one’s view of the Bible. The Bible is not a book to be mastered. It is not a collection of rules or laws to guide our life. It is a collection of stories in which God played a formative role in the life of the Jewish people (and Gentiles in the New Testament). These books were collected because of the way they had continued to impact the church.

    While authorial authority and historical criticism cannot always give us a proper interpretation of the Bible, the church has been deemed with the responsibility of interpretation. This means that the traditional understandings of interpretation given by the church carry great weight in our modern hermeneutical pursuit.

    I share this simply to offer a Christian perspective which embraces the importance of a hermeneutic that continually evaluates the Bible and does not have the arrogance to say that an objective meaning has been found in a given instance.


    • Jeff,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with much of what you have said about the Bible, but there are a few points I would differ on. First, although the Bible is a collection of stories (and letters and poems, etc.), I would not agree that in a historical sense they are all about God, or at least the same god. The books that were eventually collected into the Bible had impacted the Christian church, but there were other influential texts that were not included as well. There is more that could be said here, but I think they are points of lesser importance.

      Even if we grant the points you mentioned (that the Bible is a collection of important stories about God, and that they are collected together because of their significance for the church), how do we know that the church has been charged with the Bible’s interpretation? We know from two possible sources: direct revelation from God, or the Bible itself. There has to be an entry point into that circle; in other words, one must already either believe in the Christian god or believe in the Bible for the logic to work. Christians are already initiated into this belief, but it is understandable why most outsiders do not accept the principle of the church’s responsibility for interpretation when it interferes with other ways of life.

      The church does not even agree within its own ranks (obviously) on interpretation. Now, it’s not that I think that they could. The problem is that in the absence of agreement, not only with the outside world, but with itself, the Church–and by that I mean any that take up the mantle of the institution–promotes its claims with the voice of God. So, on one hand we have the impossible challenge of discerning what we believe to be communication from God, and on the other hand we have actions by individuals based upon a variety of competing and contradicting interpretations of God’s will (commands, stories) that can have severe consequences on peoples’ lives. Christianity is in the difficult position of being unable to support its claims without God, the universal trump card, but also unable to validate its exclusive relationship with God, or even the fact of God’s existence. This ought to make the church, at the least, much more humble in its claims and the source of their authority.

  2. (This is a response to your last three posts regarding interpretation. Sorry for the length.)

    I’m glad to find some of your reasons as to why the Bible holds little authority, if any, with you. The questions of epistemology and interpretation are good ones. I would submit that what you present as “problems” are perfectly acceptable—even with you. For example, we whole-heartedly accept the circular argumentation of the Bible authenticating the Bible. Every Christian should. If we were to “prove” the Bible’s reliability using some other means such as reason or science over against God’s own revelation then we would be surrendering it’s authoritative throne to something alien. We don’t argue to it. We believe it and argue from it. Since the triune God is the only being outside of the reality which we know (metaphysical, ethical, and epistemological), he alone has the authority to say what is. And we can be certain of what is, because he has told us so. Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (cf. Deut. 30:11-14, Prov. 30:1-6). In this, I am unapologetic (pun intended).

    A friend of mine Brant Bosserman Phd. Religion & Philosophy wrote, “As Trinitarian Christians, we agree that human interpretations can never be exhaustive (with the result that they can always be refined), but we insist (on the basis of divine assurance) that they can be fundamentally true, useful, and glorifying to God. And since the Trinity is the only being who fully comprehends Himself and reality, in and by himself, only he stands in a position to declare whether our finitude has the dire epistemological effects that skeptics would claim.”

    One of the mistakes you have made with regard to circular reasoning is that you’ve omitted your own philosophical “field” from the same circular appeal. Even though knowledge is not absolutely certain to you, you are using the autonomy of the human mind (reason) as your presuppositional referent point. Like the Bible, the only way you can argue that reason is the best way to determine reality (albeit insufficient) is by using reason. So we as Christians—along with everyone else and you—are under the same philosophical indictment. We can’t argue to ultimate reality, only believe a referent point, and argue from it.

    In regards to interpretation you make some good points, and huge assumptions. You are right in saying that isolated interpretations are dangerous. Also it was good to note the challenges in interpretation—in meaning. It is not an easy task at times. But from there it seemed you made a pretty big leap. Are you assuming that because three people can’t agree on a given text, then objective meaning is unattainable? Using the car example, does this mean that if many cars are swerving in the other lane and running stoplights, there can’t be any that do drive rightly? Or, let’s put this on a more personal level. I would hope that in your own communication through this blog you intend to be understood. There is objective meaning in your own mind (your thoughts) which you communicate through these posts with the intent that others would know your mind. Does this mean that if 9 out of 10 confuse the message (and I could well be within that 9) that it is impossible for the last one to know as well? The fact that you’re writing a blog tells me you intend and expect readers to know your mind—even if it’s not exhaustively.

    Along the lines of interpretation, it should also be mentioned that Biblical interpretation should be a community effort. Even within the Bible itself, the apostles (the ones having seen the risen Christ) could not agree on justification by faith alone in Acts 15. So the church called a council to discuss the Scriptures and to interpret them rightly in light of Jesus. You are absolutely right to show that interpretations can be dangerous. I frequently preach that you can make the Bible say anything you want to—to justify whatever you want. In fact, this is the strategy of the cunning dragon in Genesis 3:1 and again in Matthew 4. But the Bible demonstrates for us the necessity of community in interpretation so as to protect from the abuses of the wolves.

    But what I would be far more concerned with is the danger that lies in the ethics of the autonomous mind. I keep coming back to the word “standard”. By what standard are we to define “love”, “evil”, and “good”? If meaning—even meaning that comes from your own mind—cannot be objectively known, how is it that you have any certainty on good, evil or love? And who is to say? The ethical implications of this are far more dangerous than wrong interpretations of the Bible. When ultimate authority is placed in the autonomy of the mind, nothing is off limits and tyranny is philosophical fair game. This in my opinion is far more dangerous than the moral implications you listed. While atrocities have been committed in the name of Christ, we as Christians can unequivocally say that those atrocities are inconsistent with God’s revelation of who he is. (Which is what the church did to abolish slavery.) However, in an agnostic’s, skeptics, Aristotelian’s, or any other humanistic worldview they wouldn’t be able to say the same for the genocide in the likes of Stalin. Stalin was absolutely consistent in his actions with his worldview. There is no standard but the reason of the human mind.

    Simply put, secular philosophy (the autonomous human mind) always seems to hold cogency in the clouds, but doesn’t seem to function consistently with the way commonly lived out. The belief in the triune God of the Bible has the fewest problems theologically, philosophically and functionally because it comes from a coherent, communicable, and loving being.

    • Aaron,

      Thanks again for a thoughtful comment. Not having ever engaged in any sort of apologetics as a Christian (never had the need), it is intriguing to hear your responses.

      I am glad to hear that we agree on the leap of faith required to enter the logic of Christianity, a leap that is common to all institutional logic. My reasoning process (though it is not based on any certainty of the autonomy of the mind–we could all be brains in a vat of goo) is indeed subject to the same inability to universally vindicate itself. However, this does not mean we should assume that all leaps of faith are equal, even if we cannot quantify how big they are. My argument is that Christianity as a system is comparatively more complex than a suspension of belief in the supernatural, and that it comes with a number of side effects, to individuals and to societies, that outweigh its worth as a system. In addition, the very foundations of Christianity (on the death and resurrection of a divine Christ) are misappropriations of the life of Jesus for self-sustaining purposes. In other words, Christianity is a reinstantiation of the institutionalization to which Jesus paid no heed, and thus died. That last sentence I will return to in the future.

      I suppose that my leap of faith (though it doesn’t seem much of a leap) is in two parts. The first is that we are born, and more importantly, that we will die. The second is that we are anxious about our deaths because, on some level, we don’t understand them. From those presuppositions flow a myriad of systems whose goal is to manage death. Religious systems do this most explicitly; Christianity does it by telling you that you won’t really die and attempting to assuage your anxiety until you do. (I am not trying to be insensitive; there is obviously a lot more detail here. I think these are common to many institutions, but I talk of Christianity because it is my background and it has a particularly important role in Western and thus global society today). But these meaning-making systems are laid upon the foundation of death. Consequently, I think of additions to understanding our deaths as circuitous routes to the same end of understanding, but with greater consequences to existence along the way. I have tried to think of a way to posit God as something more fundamental, more obvious, and I cannot. God always arises as the answer to a question (Why do we die? Why am I here? What is my purpose?), a question that is always rooted in my finitude, the indeterminable space that precedes my death.

      I am indeed saying that objective meaning or an objective textual interpretation is unattainable. In a practical sense, that doesn’t have to be that significant. In a theoretical sense, it makes all the difference. In order to substantiate an objective meaning, as you mentioned, there would have to be a “substantiator” outside of the system in question. For Christians, that is God, but that is unsatisfactory for the 2/3 who do not believe. What this entails is that the objectivity of meaning is coterminous with the number of people who give assent to it. As a theoretical construct, this is only problematic is you have the presumption that for your interpretation to have meaning, it must be validated by an outside source. The practical problem arises when, because the group cannot get those outside the group to give assent to the legitimacy of the outside source, whatever that may be, they use additional criteria for coercion (such as majority rules).

      Using the car example, it is true that there are no people that fulfill the qualities and actions of the ideal driver when they are out on the road. There is a certain amount of tolerance built into the system so that deviations from the ideal, in normal circumstances, are not problematic. Yet there is never assurance that there won’t be deviations that the system cannot handle. In my blog, my primary intent is not that people know my mind; I don’t know it myself. My goal is, given my understanding of the diversity of interpretation, that by putting my thoughts in writing, such as they are, that others will be exposed to interpretations that had not thought of before, at least in this unique configuration. I do have hopes of conversations, and perhaps deconversions, but the impetus was my own existential response to the questions I outlined above.

      I agree with your comment that interpretation should be a community effort, but this only can protect from abuses if all community presumptions are open to question. I know of no institution that has successfully done this because it is too destabilizing.

      The biggest issue you raise is the one about standards, and it’s one I will bring up frequently. It is important because it is one of the biggest reasons Christians cite for not abandoning the security of the institution. What will give us our standards? The answer is nothing, or no one. We have to, and do, create them ourselves. We have no assurance of our definitions of good, evil, and love. The understanding that we have no assurance calls for a greater humility about the justifications for our actions. Perhaps this is because I am an outsider, but it is beyond me to understand how speculative arguments about how much worse it would be without universal standards are so convincing. It attempts to cash in on the anxiety people have over death and manipulate them toward a certain outcome. It is precisely that fear of tyranny, of what might happen, that has led to abuses not unlike those feared. History, though, is history. We have not ever had ultimate authority in history (or it is not accessible), so speculations on its disappearance in the future are irrelevant. I want to make clear that there is no ultimate authority, not even the mind. The presumption that there must be is problematic, and is key to the argument that tyranny must take place without objective standards holding it back.

      I understand that from a Christian perspective, there is the belief that God has been in history all along, and thus the apparent godlessness of the modern age appears threatening. I can’t respond to this other that to go back to our basic presuppositions above and to suggest that throughout every age of recorded history we have extensive commentary on how the present is degenerate in comparison to past ages. The importance of the present to those existing is always preeminent. I don’t know if the best way to solve the problem would be to stack up the perceived atrocities on both sides of the aisle and choose whichever has less. That would seem to be the implications of this last argument. I’m not sure either of us would be convinced by that, though.

      Thanks for challenging me on these points. It has been beneficial for me, and I think more people would benefit from hearing thoughtful arguments on each side.

      • Late to this party, but I would like to add one thing. The car example is not a strong argument for the possibility of approaching an objective standard. First, there truly is no objectively correct way to drive. The rules of the road are in no way universal, and are created to meet a hierarchy of clearly defined needs, generally safety and and efficiency, by arbitrary institutions created to meet a wider set of needs. At no level could the rules themselves be said to be objective. What appears to be objective is actually arbitrary and sustained only by the system that created it. The difference from Christianity is that a traffic system’s effectiveness in meeting its goals can be evaluated and the system changed. Christianity’s goal of perpetuating its system can be evaluated, but the higher goal of moving people closer to God and into the afterlife can not (though the Bible has been updated to try and better meet those needs, and then rejected by the main Christian establishment, much as the bible was when it updated Jewish texts).

        • Hi Marcus,

          Good to hear from you and thanks for your comment. We’ll call it fashionably late to the party. Analogies like the one you mention usually break down at some point, and I’m not very good at making them. I agree with your assessment of the transportation example. My intention with the example was to indicate that although it is an arbitrary system, on a practical level we treat it as right or wrong. There is a correct way to drive and there are incorrect ways. I also like the example because my own hypocrisy comes out most when I’m driving. Since I trust myself fairly well, I’m confident in fudging the rules from time to time (a little over the speed limit, a lane change without a signal), but I am very critical of the erratic driving of others. We could easily construct the idea of an ideal driver, one who never goes over the speed limit, observes proper distances, drives perfectly straight, etc. The same could be said of the way we view religion.

          I guess I’m not quite sure why you think the “higher” goals of Christianity wouldn’t be able to be critiqued in the same way. The goal of self-perpetuation common to every institution finds its particular form in Christianity through the maintenance of a strong sense of God, the afterlife, and the Church itself as the best vehicle for getting there. If you are trying to indicate that it cannot be critiqued because it is also a goal outside of Christianity (in other religions) as well, that is a good point. I “pick on” Christianity because I think it has a disproportionate amount of influence in the contemporary world due to its heritage in Western Europe and the United States and their influence on the global economy and politics. (Plus I know more about it than other traditions!)

          In any case, thanks again for your thoughts and feel free to clarify if you like.

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