The Varieties of Biblical Interpretation


(system) #1

This is another for-class assignment I thought worthy of a blog post. Our assignment was to give our personal reactions to and analysis of three different proposed approaches to biblical interpretation.

J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word (2005), 178.

Duvall and Hays seem to be primarily interested in separating themselves from constructivism and moral relativism. "We do not create the meaning," they assert, "rather, we seek to discover the meaning that has been placed there by the author." They underscore the relevance of Biblical truth to an individual’s life and fate: "We can choose to ignore his message and interpret biblical texts according to our feelings and desires, but if we do, we will suffer the consequences of disobedience – traffic fines will appear and the lights will go out." So they assert that there is a specific, crystallized view of truth in scripture, that it is discernible via honest study, and that if our lifestyle deviates from it, there are real-world consequences. I commend them for their apparent (Although not explicitly stated) implication that God’s truth is a genuine, transcendent, logical truth (There are natural consequences to sin) and not merely some divine dogma ("Because God said so"). The belief that morality is inherently good, and more than a set of rules, gives common ground for discussion with those who, like myself, adopt the title "humanist."

I find their hope in extracting a single, pure exegesis to be overly optimistic, however. As the HCM, Derrida, and others have endeavored to show, communication of ideas is difficult, and the Bible is no exception to the rule of lack-of-clarity. Furthermore, even if original intent were not a problem, relativism still poses a serious challenge to the extraction of moral absolutes. As a precursor to the postmoderns, William James cautiously acknowledged the dynamic nature of religious truth:

"The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alteration, different men may find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely." -- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Lecture XX.

To draw an analogy to Calculus, truth is a function whose parameters are our culture, personality, and situation. The function is defined – there is an absolute answer – but it is differentiable, it is dynamic according to context. Not arbitrary, but complex. The degree to which it is allowed to stretch is up for debate – I doubt James would be a genuine relativist – but to deny the complexity of evaluating "right" is naïve.

Duvall and Hays presuppose the divine inspiration of the scriptures as well as the validity of the modern Christian zeitgeist. While I feel there are important criticisms to this perspective, from the short passage we were given they seem to be fairly lucubrent authors who are interested in serious study.

R. W. L. Moberly, "How Can We Know the Truth: A Study of John 7:14-18" in Ellen Davis & Richard Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture, 240.

The statement immediately before the excerpt we were given is:

"Biblical study was able to become a discipline in its own right only by disentangling and distancing itself from the context of Christian theology."

We are here discussing the academization of scriptural study, and the application of literary criticism, archaeology, anthropology, and the whole wealth of the intellectual and scientific tools at our disposal. I would say that applying science to scripture is a vital part of the search for truth, and in determining how much, if any, of the Bible is worth our attention, and how to interpret it and apply it to our lives. Is it fully accurate? Is it just another deluded meme, an anecdote in the endless saga of human gullibility? If it is basically true, how literally (Or liberally) should we read it?

These are questions to which the affirmatory, dogmatic answers provided by conventional religion have little power to engage. Stating a belief emphatically does not make it true or obvious, and as we mature and gain experience with the diversity in human beliefs we need more sophisticated tools to try and see through the dark glass. Conservatives dislike this liberal exploration via human reason, because the complicated nature of the exercise seems to undermine the ability of a perspicuous gospel to be accessible and clear even to the uneducated. They may have a point: Dogmatic religion, synthesized simplicity, is an incapable method of modeling the truth. A complicated truth takes a complicated model. Thus the dark glass of 1st Corinthians 13:12.

Does academia seek to "problematize" scripture? Well, ideally any problems arise only from objective analysis, contradictions between Christian interpretation and the implications of impartial scientific models. But it must be acknowledged that something so culturally and personally significant as the Bible is far too interesting for truly objective analysis, an the humanities in general do not easily lend themselves to consensus. So, while I do not think there is a cultural conspiracy to spitefully suppress religion in the academic community, I acknowledge the role of emotions and the need for vigil and consistent critique of the zeitgeist.

Fernando Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies, 43.

I find Segovia’s summary of the "cultural studies" perspective on Biblical interpretation to be exceedingly lucid. The traditional approach shies away from modeling the development of opinions. "This, my interpretation, is the true perspective," it tends to say, "and if you’re not perspicacious enough to see that, then that’s your problem." If we are intellectually honest and emotionally aware, the individual’s experience can show the subjective nature of opinion and interpretation.

Anthropology overwhelms us with examples of working paradigms different from our own, and tantalizes us with hope of a meta-perspective of how individual "memes" (To use Dawkins’ term) interact and come about.

For the skeptic this is reason to mistrust every subculture’s dogma without exception, forcing us to attempt to individually synthesize a worldview from the parts we think are cogent. The closest we have to an infallible source of reasoning comes from academia, who’s rigorous reasoning filters out elementary misconceptions, and allows for more consensus as to what the truth really is.

This level of awareness tells us that we can never be entirely sure of the truth, and that whatever our upbringing, or the beliefs of the original authors of scripture, they are very probably flawed. Coming to terms with this insecurity is a difficult process for humanists and theists alike, and most people prefer to isolate themselves from the world at large. I like Douglas Adams’ take on the matter:

"The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of quiet life most people tend to ignore. Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do." -- Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), ch. 10.

Summary:

For a believer in the gospel of Christ, navigating a cogent course through the questions of how to think and believe about the Bible is hardly easy, but far from impossible. While fundamentalists and creationists often attract the dismissal and ridicule of philosophers and scientists, there are plenty of liberal Christians who acknowledge the postmodern dilemma of diversity while maintaining an active and passionate relationship with Christ and what the mission of His church means in their lives. It is when you hold things to be obvious, and the "other" to be a bastion of fools, that you revert to the primitive delusions that anthropology and academia tells us are most very probably flawed, if not outright false.

SigmaX


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1169