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.


era said...

I mostly agree, but I'm left with one question. If you opt for option five, which I agree is by far the best, then why even set the NT apart to be specifically studied and interpreted?

Reuben said...

Well, given the subject of biblical interpretation, I would have thought it would be obvious that the text of primary interest would be the bible.

If what you really mean is "why focus on understanding the bible, rather than other ancient writings by the philosophers etc?" then several answers could be given. I'm sure we both know the most common answer about Jesus being God incarnate and the gospel being the unique path to save us from hell. Another answer is that it's probably worth studying someone who had such a long-lasting and revolutionary movement. Yet another answer is that there are millions of Christians in the world, and they can probably be helped by a better understanding the New Testament, which in turn might help others. I could go on. Of course, the answers people might find appealing will depend on their own underlying assumptions. So something that I think to be a good reason may not seem good to you because of our different underlying assumptions.

I have not suggested that the bible should be the only material we study and draw ideas from, though. In contrast, I think it is a good idea to read and understand ideas from other useful sources too. I think a similar method is useful for interpreting other sources. This in no way hinders our understanding of the bible, but may even help. However, the focus of my blog is Christianity and theology.

era said...

By way of contrast, let’s make a little mock post. Consider the mindset of a murderer, and the sort of process they might go through when deciding how to commit their murder. They split into five groups.

Just believe: These ones don’t think it needs thinking through, it is pretty straight forward and they are ready to just get on with it.

Listen to a spirit: What will be required will be made clear to them by a spirit as they go along. And of course the spirit won’t let them go astray.

Follow tradition: There are plenty of murderers to copy. You just need to find one you like to copy. It worked for them right?

See what fits: Consider a few options and opt for the best one given the circumstances.

Comprehensively detailed research and reasoning: Do a lot of research, consider all the possibilities and what will be best to do in each, think it all through, etc.

So, we have our five groups of murderers, which are roughly parodies of your five. Now what struck me about your five groups, and ought to be highlighted by my five groups, once you think about it, is why each of them are doing what they’re doing. The method of the first three groups also contains a reason to be doing it. Just believe goes hand in hand with just murder, no real reason required. If a spirit is telling you how to commit a murder then I presume they’re also telling you to commit it. And, if you’re copying a murderer, then you’ll copy how they did it as well as what they did. Now the last two begin to get more interesting. The fourth group is a bit gray so I’ll just skip over it. The fifth group however makes you wonder, if they are this smart, together and seemingly rational, why are they murdering someone in the first place.

I was interested that the few brief reasons you gave for interpreting the NT pretty well fell into divine inspiration and tradition.

Reuben said...


Firstly, your comment seems to discussing a meta-level question that is quite outside the intended scope of this post. Nevertheless, reading between the lines I think I understand your point. It seems to be this: you think no rational person would follow Jesus, and thus you see no point in trying to interpret the bible. Have I understood you correctly?

I'm going to assume I have for the moment. Let me spell out my position for you, then. I have done comprehensive detailed research and thought long and hard about a lot of important and difficult issues. I follow Jesus because according to my reasoning it is the best course of action for me to take. I follow Jesus precisely because of the rational thought process I have followed based on the extensive study and thought I've done. So if you think no rational person would follow Jesus, then you seem have two options to deal with my case:

1) Concede that rational people can in fact follow Jesus.
2) Claim that I do understand my own thought processes and have mistakenly thought them to be rational, when in fact they are not.

My question for you, then, is this. On what grounds could you claim to understand my thought processes better than I do?

era said...

I'm certainly raising a meta-level question about the post, but it wasn't really the suggestion that it is unreasonable to follow Jesus. I understood your post to be arguing for a rational approach to the question of 'how' to interpret the NT. What I was stepping back to ask was if you could also provide a rational justification to the question of 'why' interpret the NT.

Regarding whether it is irrational to follow Jesus, I personally can’t see any reason why that would be the case. Certainly a lot of 'christians' are very irrational about it all, but then many, like you, are quite rational about it.

Reuben said...

I see. Well obviously the question of "why interpret the NT" becomes important if you want to follow Jesus, so I guess the underlying question is "why follow Jesus". Perhaps I'll have a go at some rational answer to this soon.