Friday, September 21, 2007

Important factors for Scriptural interpretation

It's amazing just how few Christians realise how small their set of particular scriptural and theological ideas are compared with the vast number of ideas that have been and are held by other Christians. I've been thinking about ways to help people understand the concept of other interpretations of Jesus and Scripture, and came up with the following diagram. Hopefully, it might also show how we can stand a much better chance of understanding Jesus if we understand what influences the interpretations of his ministry and person.
Essentially, I think the NT authors interpreted Jesus in the context of their culture and their own inspiration and thought. So they wrote these interpretations down in the NT, which have now become Scripture. Later Christians have taken the NT writings, and interpreted them in the context of their own cultures and inspired thoughts. Each generation tends to take the ideas of previous Christians and interprets them in their own context. The problem with this recontextualisation is that if people aren't aware of this, they are inclined to misunderstand writings written in different cultural contexts. It is through many generations of such misunderstandings, I think, that several cherished doctrines exist today. In contrast, the best way to understand the NT authors, and ultimately Jesus, is to understand not only the culture that influences us now, but also the cultural context of the NT writers and Jesus. Understanding their cultural context helps us interpret what they say more accurately.

However, it seems common for Christians these days to be aware of only a very small subset of the ideas held within the whole of Christendom, both past and present. So, I think it's very useful to dialogue with people who understand other ideas. Only when we have understand a range of interpretations do we really have any choice about how we understand Scripture. For this reason, I think I like to help give people more informed choices about how we understand Scripture by sharing other ideas with them.


Nathan said...

Uh... sorry, doesn't make sense to me...

What's the inspiration thing? you have two lots of them?

Christina said...

I like the diagram (well, generally expressing ideas visually). But maybe you could incorporate arrows and subheadings to make it make more sense... I might try and make my own version, just to procrastinate :D

What's the random arrow heading off into the wilderness from Interpretations by Individuals? It seems a little lonely...

Nato - I think the 'inspiration' is those miscellaneous factors that effect interpretation and how people eventually write things up.

Reuben said...

Nato: Yes, the "inspiration" thing are the personal elements that influence what a person writes. So for example, the apostle Paul used to be a Pharisee, and this would have affected his interpretation. I left it intentionally ambiguous so that it can also include inspiration by God.

The random arrow indicates that the same pattern of reinterpretation continues from generation to generation.

Matthew P said...

Is it only uni-directional? Can more modern ideas not inform and give deeper understanding to older ideas? After all, this occurs in disciples such as science today. Perhaps there is more to be understood in scripture than what was understood in the context of the time.

I'm not trying to refute what you've written - I agree and think such an approach very valuable - I am merely suggesting another set of factors which happen to be different in principle to the ones you've outlined. Such factors would however need to be consistent with the original writings, enriching rather than replacing them. And to this end, a correct understanding of the scriptures is necessary, as you quite rightly advocate.

I think such a 'meta-understanding' is actually a key component to determining (from this point in time) the correct interpretation and intended meaning of the original, as we cannot possibly approach it from a purely unbiased position.

(For example, we have a very reductionist methodology these days. Not only is a holistic methodology more useful for getting the 'big picture', but it is the methodology employed by the people of that time.)