Biblical Interpretation & Clarity: Dialogue w an Atheist

This exchange occurred in one of my blog comboxes. “gusbovona” appears to be an atheist. His (her?) words will be in blue.


The thing I don’t get is why there should be so much interpretation necessary to correctly understand the Bible. The logical thing would be, for a book that would be the most important book in the world if it is as believers claim, to require as little interpretation as possible (I’m admitting that perhaps some interpretation is impossible to remove). But surely writing can require more interpretation, or less.

For instance, one can interpret a story as allegorical if it contains absurd elements, like the story about Jesus withering the fig tree. But it would require less interpretation if allegories were always labeled as such. I suppose there are allegories labeled as such in the Bible, but I presume – correct me if I’m wrong – that not every story in the Bible that should be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically is labeled as such. The Bible would be more clearly written, and require less interpretation, if every single metaphorical or allegorical element were labeled as such.

And the ways in which the Bible requires more interpretation is not limited to just labeling allegory and metaphor. If the analogy of Flatland and dimensions is helpful to understand the Trinity, why isn’t that in the Bible?

It appears, then, that the Bible requires more interpretation than if it had been written differently. And, of course, requiring more interpretation will lead to more possibilities of misunderstanding the Bible. So, I don’t get it.

It requires interpretation because it’s from a different culture and time, in different languages, and because it is complex, with many genres. It’s just flat-out long, too, and has to be read to be accurately understood. It’s also infinitely more sophisticated than atheists — and even many Christians — take it to be. It’s thought that it was written by a bunch of primitive hayseeds, who were very ignorant and uncultured. Some writers were less educated (fishermen, etc.) but there are still very complex ideas. And much of the New Testament was written by a tremendous intellectual, steeped in ancient philosophy (St. Paul).

The well-known Protestant theologian, G. C. Berkouwer, wrote about biblical interpretation:

Such a variety of differing and mutually exclusive interpretations arose – all appealing to the same Scripture – that serious people began to wonder whether an all-pervasive . . . influence of subjectivism in the understanding of Scripture is not the cause of the plurality of confessions in the church. Do not all people read Scripture from their own current perspectives and presuppositions . . . with all kinds of conscious or subconscious preferences? . . . Is it indeed possible for us to read Scripture with free, unbiased, and listening attention? . . . We should never minimize the seriousness of these questions . . . ‘Pre-understanding’ cannot be eliminated. The part which subjectivity plays in the process of understanding must be recognized . . . The interpreter . . . does not approach the text of Scripture with a clean slate. (Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from Dutch ed. of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, pp. 106-107, 119)

An attempt has often been made to solve this problem by referring to the ‘objective’ clarity of Scripture, so that every incomplete understanding and insight of Scripture is said to be due to the blinding of human eyes that could not observe the true light shining from it . . . In considering this seemingly simple solution . . . we will soon discover that not all questions are answered by it . . . An incomplete understanding or a total misunderstanding of Scripture cannot simply be explained by blindness. Certain obstacles to understanding may also be related to Scripture’s concrete form of human language conditioned by history . . . Scripture . . . is tied to historical situations and circumstances in so many ways that not every word we read is immediately clear in itself . . . Therefore, it will not surprise us that many questions have been raised in the course of history about the perspicuity of Scripture . . . Some wondered whether this confession of clarity was indeed a true confession . . . The church has frequently been aware of a certain ‘inaccessibility.’ According to Bavinck . . . it may not be overlooked that, according to Rome . . . Scripture is not regarded as a completely obscure and inaccessible book, written, so to speak, in secret language . . . Instead, Rome is convinced that an understanding of Scripture is possible – a clear understanding. But Rome is at the same time deeply impressed by the dangers involved in reading the Bible. Their desire is to protect Scripture against all arbitrary and individualistic exegesis . . . It is indeed one of the most moving and difficult aspects of the confession of Scripture’s clarity that it does not automatically lead to a total uniformity of perception, disposing of any problems. We are confronted with important differences and forked roads . . . and all parties normally appeal to Scripture and its perspicuity. The heretics did not disregard the authority of Scripture but made an appeal to it and to its clear witness with the subjective conviction of seeing the truth in the words of Scripture. (Ibid., pp. 268-271, 286)

J. Derek Holmes, in a book about John Henry Cardinal Newman’s view of Scripture, summarizes this seminal thinker’s ideas on perspicuity and sola Scriptura:

In 1845 . . . Newman pointed out some other limitations of the Scriptures . . . The mere letter of the Bible could not contain the fulness of revelation; Scripture itself could not solve the questions of canonicity or inspiration; its style was indirect and its structure was unsystematic so that even definitions of the Church depended on obscure sentences . . . The inspiration of Scripture was as difficult to establish from the text of the Bible as the doctrine of apostolic succession . . .

The Bible did not contain a complete secular history, and there was no reason why it should contain a complete account of religious truth. It was unreasonable to demand an adequate scriptural foundation for Church doctrines, if the impression gained from the Bible was of writers who took solemn and sacred truths for granted and who did not give a complete or full treatment of the sense of revelation . . . Scripture did not interpret itself, often startling facts were narrated simply, needing the understanding of the Church, and even essential truths were not made clear . . .

Newman, it must be emphasized, held a ‘one-source theory’ of revelation. He believed that the Church and Tradition taught the truth, while Scripture verified, vindicated or proved that teaching. The Bible and Tradition made up the joint rule of faith, antiquity strengthened the faint but real intimations of doctrine given in Scripture, the Bible was interpreted by Tradition which was verified by Scripture . . . The Bible was never intended to teach doctrine to the majority of Christians, but was written for those already instructed in doctrine . . .

It might be possible for an individual Christian to gain the whole truth from the Bible, but the chances were ‘very seriously against a given individual’ doing so in practice. (in J. Derek Holmes & Robert Murray, On the Inspiration of Scripture, Washington, D. C.: Corpus Books, 1967, 7-8, 10-11, 15-16)

Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation . . . The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility. (Ibid., 111-112; Newman’s essay On the Inspiration of Scripture, 1884)

I’d also add that Christianity is not a simpleton’s religion. It can be grasped in its basics by the simple and less educated; the masses, but it is very deep the more it is studied and understood. Thus, we would expect the Bible not to be altogether simple. It has complexities, but we can better understand them through human study, just like anything else.

I can accept that a religion might be very complex, but complexity is not the same issue as writing clearly so as to avoid interpretation as much as possible.

If the analogy of Flatland and dimensions is helpful to understand the Trinity, why isn’t that in the Bible?

I would say because it is written in pre-scientific and non-philosophical language. So it simply states (either directly or by direct deduction):

1. God the Father is God.
2. Jesus is God.
3. The Holy Spirit is God.

By and large, it doesn’t attempt more sophisticated analysis of that. There are three Divine Persons, and they are all said to be God; yet there is but one God (monotheism). The Bible (and Hebrew culture and subsequent Christian theology) often express strong paradoxes, as ultimate mysteries.

But it’s not “contradictory” any more than the three-dimensional cube is contradictory to the two-dimensional flat square. The ancient Jews and Christians would accept mysteries in faith as paradoxical (but not contradictory). So the Christians could accept the Holy Trinity based on the biblical revelation that taught it. It was understood that we could not fully understand everything, because God is as far above us in understanding and complexity as the stars, and we shouldn’t expect that we would.

The flatland / dimension analogy to the Trinity was basically a way to explain to skeptics who already disbelieve in it, that the Trinity is not necessarily / indisputably contradictory, as claimed. It is simply another “dimension” that goes beyond our present experience.

Furthermore, we Catholics believe that the Church is needed to guide Christians into a correct understanding of the Bible (just as existing scientific consensus guides new scientific research and provides parameters and a paradigm), because individuals (for a variety of reasons) manage to come up with all kinds of contradictory interpretations. I think this is what the Bible itself teaches: an authoritative Church, as seen in, e.g., the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

You’ve contributed a lot of general statements about interpreting the Bible, but I don’t see how any of them address the specific examples I gave, which demonstrate that the Bible could have been written more clearly and require less interpretation if only because of those specific examples. For instance, being from a different time, language, and culture would not have prevented labeling every metaphor as a metaphor, and every allegory as an allegory.

Nor does any of that prevent you from studying so as to learn how to interpret correctly. I think the Bible is clear in its main outlines and teachings, but there are also complexities. I’ve never had any trouble determining what the Bible taught. But I have the basic background to know how to interpret it.

But much of this was understood in the culture when it was written. This is my point. Because we’re not from ancient near Eastern Hebrew culture we have to learn how they thought and interpreted and expressed things.

For example, it was understood that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He taught parables. The hearers may not have understood the meaning of any given one, but they understood that it was a parable. Jesus then generally explained the meaning to His disciples.

We find Jesus often saying straight out that He was teaching a parable:

Matthew 13:10-14 (RSV) Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: `You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.

Matthew 21:33 “Hear another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.”

Mark 4:13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

Luke 8:9-15 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, [10] he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. [11] Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. [12] The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. [13] And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. [14] And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. [15] And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

[see the rest of the discussion in the combox]


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