Sunday, December 16, 2007

Confidence and credibility of biblical interpretations

What gives people confidence in how they understand the New Testament? Here are some approaches I've seen people use to gain confidence that their interpretations of Scripture are valid (and by extension, that their theological ideas are too) :
  1. Just "believe the Bible": The bible doesn't need "interpretation". The important things are clear and cannot be misunderstood - so we can be confident that we understand key Scriptures correctly.
  2. Listen to the Holy Spirit: The meaning of Scripture is made clear to us through the working of the Holy Spirit as we read it, which gives us confidence about our interpretations. God wouldn't allow his Word to be misunderstood by those who listen to the Holy Spirit.
  3. Follow tradition: "Fifty-thousand Frenchmen can't be wrong", especially if they lived over the last few centuries. We can be confident of our interpretations if lots of other people have thought and still think the same thing.
  4. See what fits: Learn how passages can be interpreted differently, and choose the way that best fits with the "big-picture". We can be confident of interpretations that fit the big picture, and can confidently reject alternatives that don't fit.
  5. Comprehensively detailed research and reasoning: Consider a range of big picture frameworks to see how each passage of Scripture can be interpreted within each one. Then assess the collective evidence of all Scriptures for each big picture to determine which one is best by using criteria like:
    1. Internal consistency with the whole of the text
    2. External consistency with the socio-cultural context of the text
    3. Explanatory power
    4. Explanatory scope
    5. Lack of being ad hoc
    The best big picture can then be used to identify the best interpretation of individual passages.
Some combinations of these are possible, especially those involving revelation of the Holy Spirit and tradition. Each approach provides a different degree and quality of confidence in the interpretations they support, as I will try to explain.

Bible-believing does not recognize the inevitable process of interpreting texts. As a result of this ignorance, people adopting this approach have high confidence that the way they have been taught to interpret Scripture is the right way. This often goes hand in hand with ignorance of alternative explanations and trust in the teacher's opinion. There is a place for trusting the opinions of more qualified people, but the validity of such opinions isn't determined by how much we trust them. To gauge the real credibility of views held through this method, we must understand the reasons behind the original interpretation. This approach thus leads us to look to other grounds for confidence.

Revelation by the Holy Spirit provides the most confidence if it is authentic, but the least authoritative otherwise, because it would be an illegitimate claim to authority. History shows that people who have all claimed revelation by the Holy Spirit have held quite different interpretations of Scripture, which can be resolved by holding one of two options:
  1. There is more than one legitimate meaning in the text.
  2. One or more interpretations are not faithful to the intended meaning of the passage.
The problem with the first way is that it leads to a very incoherent conflation of ideas that are often mutually exclusive. The problem with the second way is that it demonstrates that not all claims to divine revelation are valid. So if we want a coherent way to interpret Scripture, we need a method to determine whether or not the claim to a divinely reveled interpretation is valid - and that method obviously cannot rely on divine revelation. So this approach leads us to look further again.

Following tradition provides no inherent grounds for credibility, as it is simply following other people. Yet people tend to be much more confident in their ideas if those around them are like-minded. There is some weight to the collective thought of many people, but the majority opinion can be wrong - and sometimes disastrously so. For this reason, the serious enquirer must investigate the origin and basis of the Scriptural interpretations themselves, and not simply assume that commonly held interpretations are well-founded.

The fourth method of choosing what fits is at least more informed than the previous three. It is a common method, and one that gives people high confidence in their interpretations. Many who use this method are unaware of the implicit framework they use to assess the various interpretations, though. They may quite correctly discern what interpretations best fit their framework, but be ignorant of whether or not their presupposed framework is a good one or not. So what is needed is to assess not only how interpretations fit a given framework, but also the frameworks themselves.

That is what the fifth approach does. This method weighs not only different interpretations, but it considers each within the range of possible frameworks. It looks at both the broad picture and the details to determine the best set of interpretations. Only scholars usually attempt this approach because it is very time consuming and difficult. It is made even less appealing to many because other methods allow people to feel more confident of their interpretations. This hard approach just doesn't suit Christians who want great confidence in their own beliefs without taking the time and effort to break out of their relative ignorance of other views.

Yet can people justify having confidence in their interpretations if they don't understand the options nor take into account the possibility that they are wrong? They might think their interpretations were revealed by God, but what if they weren't? In-depth research and reasoning lessens both naive confidence and questionable claims of authority. Instead it fosters a richer and deeper kind of confidence that comes from a thorough research and careful consideration. This confidence may even be strengthened through the Holy Spirit and a knowledge of tradition, since it doesn't exclude these other approaches.

It is for all these reasons that I think in-depth study provides far more credibility in interpreting the bible. I use the word "credibility" because confidence doesn't always correspond with the accuracy of ideas. Credible and thorough research and thought does lead to confidence, though, and I have found it to be a confidence that is far more able to weather the storms of debate. Having followed this last method for several years now, I have learned that it is important to discern the degree of authority held by others, and the degree of their in-depth study also makes a good gauge for this purpose. My opinion can be summarized simply: there is no better approach to interpreting the bible than comprehensively detailed research combined with sound reasoning, humility, and a commitment to follow Jesus.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Heretosis - dissent from "religion"

In the churches I've attended all my life, I've often heard Christians claim that while Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and so on are "religions", Christianity is not. While many in the church often seem to agree that some Christians are tied up in "religion", most invariably think they themselves are not. Curious.

Over the years my Faith has grown a great deal. The most amazing thing to me now is how much a lot of popular Christianity is a religion. By religion, I essentially refer to buying into a mindset that subjugates common sense, reason and reality to "faith" in ideas that are not consistent with reason and reality. It seems to me that many Christians have crises of Faith during their lives because they notice this dissonance. There seem to be three ways people who face this deal with it.
1) They suppress it until a later life crises.
2) They give up their Faith.
3) They find ways to rationalize their Faith.

But there are many approaches to rationalise one's Faith. Following Calvin and the Reformed tradition, many Christians would consider subjugating their beliefs to reasoning to be forsaking true "faith". So they adopt the kind of religious mindset I mentioned above, and change their reasoning to fit their Faith. Almost by definition, this approach of people seeking to resolve their faith crises in this way doesn't seem to truly resolve and discrepancies between reality and their Faith. Instead it drowns out those problems by other ideas and reasoning that fit their Faith, and hides them quietly under the carpet of ideas that are really problems because we just don't understand things as they really are. The reason I don't like that approach is that I've seen it make people unwittingly hold on to ideas that really don't help, and in some cases cause harm.

The second way to reconcile one's Faith is to change it to fit common sense, reasoning and reality as best we can. Many Christians would see this as a process of becoming a heretic: a kind of "heretosis". It is heretosis precisely because it questions the accepted religious mindset with the aim of finding a faith that is consistent with our reasoning and experiences of reality. Care is needed, of course, because of course we don't know everything, and so a keen awareness of what's clear and what's uncertain is helpful.

Fortunately for me, I've found other Christians who share my desire for a Faith that makes sense. I think they too share my distaste for "religion", and accept a kind of heretosis in discerning and holding less tightly some of the unhelpful traditions within popular Christian ideology. It seems we share the concept that instead of being "Christians" in a religious fairyland we can be people who follow Jesus in a very real and very down-to-earth way that makes a lot of sense.

An unexpected effect of my dissent from religion, though, is that I've actually come to feel more comfortable discussing Jesus with non-Christians than I do with Christians. I can easily understand why now - to me following Jesus isn't about believing a whole lot of inconsistent and thus unconvincing ideas, but about living in a better way that makes a lot of sense and helping others to also.

So where does that leave me? Various Christians think I am not one, which saddens me for several reasons - both personally, and because it highlights how quick Christians actually are to judge people because of their religious attitude. But I believe one can be a Christian without adopting a religious mindset, perhaps it's even better not to. I say that because many Church services leave me cringing and thinking of things Jesus said about people like the Scribes and Pharisees, perhaps that makes me a little judgmental too - perhaps wrongly, perhaps rightly. Yet I hope for a new kind of Christianity that could be much more like the original than the popular modern version. I suppose I am a bit of a rebel. But then I think of how Jesus' was rejected and even hated by the religious authorities of his day and I see that perhaps I'm not such a rebel after all... and that in my heretosis from the mass-produced modern Christian religion, I might be able to learn more orthodoxy and orthopraxy.