Why what’s clear to you isn’t so clear to me (part 2)

I ended last week’s post by explaining how when two people disagree on a particular Bible passage, we are often quick to interpret the disagreement as a clash between one person who is being faithful to the text and another person who is not. But what we are actually witnessing is a clash between two people who are applying different interpretive principles. That’s not to say both interpretive principles are equally valid. One could be informed by a better understanding of history, ancient languages, etc. However, if the disagreement is to be resolved, rather than dismiss the argument as symptomatic of some sort of moral, intellectual or spiritual defect on the part of the “other,” it’s far more helpful to accurately diagnose where the breakdown in communication is happening. The diagrams I’m providing in these blog posts are meant to help us do exactly that.

Here is the final diagram from last week’s post:

http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/hellbound/files/2012/12/Screen-shot-2012-12-10-at-10.55.25-AM.pngIt takes things one step further to show that a clash between interpretive principles is often a clash between faith traditions, philosophical or theological arguments, experience or some or all of the above. This is already getting a bit complicated, but for the sake of simplicity, it also assumes a couple of things:

1) That we all view the Bible as the primary source of revelation

2) That the first place we turn after reading the Bible is to our particular faith tradition, and then we interpret Reason and Experience in light of that established body of beliefs.

However, as the diagram below illustrates, not all of us are wired that way.

If you're part of the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, you see the Apostolic witness as the primary source of revelation. Out of this tradition comes the Bible, which, in turn, informs our philosophical and theological arguments and experience. Other faith traditions, which might be called Progressive, Liberal or even non-Christian traditions, view Experience and/or Reason as the primary source of revelation and interpret the Bible and Tradition in light of those. And as we have already illustrated, a typical Protestant position is to begin with the Bible and then interpret Tradition, Reason and Experience in light of the text. So once again, what appears to be a clash between interpretive principles is actually a disagreement on a much more fundamental level.

However, for the sake of simplicity, I am holding one variable constant--the Bible. But even those who agree on the primary source of revelation may not agree on how to arrange these secondary sources--in practice, if not in principle--as illustrated below:

Just because two people agree that Tradition is the primary source of revelation does not mean they agree the first place you should go when struggling with a Church teaching is to Scripture. Often the first thing we turn to is Experience. Either that or we encounter what appears to be a logical inconsistency and then apply Reason to help resolve the situation. So even though two people can agree on a fundamental level, they can be pulled apart by all sorts of secondary and tertiary arguments.

You can rearrange these variables in so many different ways it's no wonder theological discussions often devolve into arguments, name-calling and excommunication.

In light of this, many of us wish for--and some of us think we have--a trump card to cut through all of the confusion. But as I hope you can see from the above, so-called trump cards merely amount to arguing for the supremacy of a particular configuration of variables. My faith tradition over your faith tradition. My arguments over your arguments. My experiences over your experiences. Ultimately, my interpretive principle over yours. But seeing as the system is entirely self-contained, no one's interpretive principle automatically wins, because the best you can do is offer arguments in favor of your chosen configuration. There is absolutely nothing outside of the system that compels someone else to agree with you.

Now, someone has already asked where the Holy Spirit fits into this. One answer is to say the Holy Spirit is functioning to enlighten us on every level--through Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. However, if that is the case, how do you explain the existence of 41,000 Christian denominations, never mind the millions of people who don't consider the Christian tradition authoritative in any way?

A common answer is to attribute these disagreements to sin. People don't agree or don't believe, because many (most) of us really are ignorant, stupid, wicked and/or insane. Others take things a step further and argue that Satan and/or demons may be spiritually blinding us. Even if that were the case, the Holy Spirit should easily be able to compensate for such a condition, providing each of us with our own unique "road to Damascus" experience that helps us see things aright. But even if that happened--and most people's testimonies contain accounts of similar experiences--our tendency is to make that experience the primary source of revelation. "I believe in Jesus because I've encountered him." But from the diagrams above, you can see that doesn't really solve anything. It merely rearranges the furniture, leaving all sorts of other arguments to work out.

For example, Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon church, claimed to have had a rather fantastic series of experiences whereby the Book of Mormon was revealed to him on a series of gold plates. If you're not a Mormon, you probably don't accept his testimony as valid. But millions of fine, upstanding Mormons disagree with you.

So once again, even if we want to claim the Holy Spirit has led us to our position, we are back in the realm of the subjective. Who's to say I should accept your experience as valid? Who's to say you should accept mine? If everyone is claiming the Holy Spirit's stamp of approval on their beliefs, we still have no idea how to figure out who is holding the trump card.

Another response is to say that the belief that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth is itself the product of a particular interpretive principle. Yes, verses in the Bible appear to make this promise. Yes, particular traditions hold to a literal interpretation of these passages. And yes, people have worked out complicated theological arguments for the inspiration of Scripture as well as ways in which Scripture illuminates the reader. However, other people don't interpret these passages literally. And the existence of 41,000 denominations--an argument from experience--fouls up the works yet again. If the Holy Spirit is leading people into all truth, how come we can't all agree on what that truth is? You might argue that the Holy Spirit is leading us all into different aspects of the truth which, taken collectively, illuminate the whole. I'd be willing to buy that. Except that some of the "truths" the Holy Spirit is apparently leading people into contradict other "truths" that people swear were revealed to them by the same Spirit.

So once again, the question arises--how do we resolve such disputes? Is resolution even possible? If so, what might that look like? We'll save that discussion for my next post.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" and "After..." In addition to his work in film, Miller has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • Kenton

    Good set of posts, Kevin!

    Does “wicked” in the text and in the diagram mean, like “evil” wicked, or more like “awesomely cool” wicked?

    • Kevin Miller

      I don’t know. I guess that’s a matter of interpretation, isn’t it? :)

  • NateW

    A key to our problem here is that our modern minds jump to equate “Truth” with “correct belief,” and are thus blind and deaf to the idea that something that is factually incorrect can be True nonetheless. The Truth that the Holy Spirit leads us into is not in one group’s set of beliefs over and against an other’s, but rather is embodied within the holy air of Love as it is mutually breathed by both in loving community. The Truth of the Holy Spirit is what I call “communal breath.” It is breathing life into those who are “other” and allowing them to breath life into you. It is in the dissolving of boundaries and solidifying of friendships despite the human imaginary categories we assign to ourselves and others.

    Regarding this topic, I often think about Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series. If you aren’t familiar, she is a social outcast because of her odd beliefs (her father publishes a newspaper that reports on wizard equivalents to bigfoot, UFOs, and conspiracy theories). Throughout the series she continues to believe and do very odd things but proves to be among the most loyal, brave, and trustworthy friends that Harry has. She is an outcast because of her beliefs are different than others, but the Love that she has for her friends so far transcends those things that her friends are able to accept her as she is and rather give up pointing out the silliness of her superstitions. Despite believing many things that are incoherent and occasionally even dangerous her character and friendship are TRUE.

  • Christopher

    Kevin. I think one of the solutions to the problem is to consider all of the factors as pillars that help us to find the truth. For instance, relating to Hellbound, when it comes to believing in Ultimate Reconciliation one can find an apostolic witness, can find it in the Bible and easily dispute the “hellfire texts”, it stands the strongest in reason, morality, and our conscience, plus its what many are hearing from the Spirit. As well one can show how the doctrine was changed historically and by who, and why.

    It has all of any pillars of truth supporting it.

    The same would go with the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, ect.

    As to the plethora of Protestant denominations, which is often cited as a reason that Protestants are interpreting the Bible wrong. Most of these denominations are not separate because of seriously different Biblical interpretations, but rather because of breakaways due to disputes about styles of music in worship etc. The disagreement about Biblical interpretation in Protestantism isn’t as large as many think.


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