The Meaning Trap

by VorJack

Our friend Deacon Duncan has been steadily demolishing the apologetic work I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Geisler and Turek. One of his recent entries (X-Files Friday: So Who Cares?) had to do with G&T’s claims for prophecy found in the OT, specifically Psalm 22.

DD does his usual excellent job of showing the flaws in the apologetic argument, but it’s amazing how weak the argument was to begin with. I think that G&T find themselves caught in a trap that was created by Christian history.

Hidden Meanings

Pullquote: Each text had a surface meaning, but also one or more cryptic meanings that had to be ferreted out with time and study.

After returning from the Exile, the Judeans had a problem. Since they had been deprived of the Temple, the focus of their religion had shifted more towards their sacred texts. But their texts were loaded with people behaving badly. The Pentateuch and the Deuteronomic Histories seemed to have been written as a national epic, which explained how Israel and Judah had come into existence. The returning Judeans now needed answers to different questions: What does it mean to be an Israelite? How now shall we live?

They found answers in an ingenious way: by assuming that God had hidden meanings behind the obvious meanings of the text. Each text had a surface meaning, but also one or more cryptic meanings that had to be ferreted out with time and study. Thus was born the image of the Jewish sage, pondering the cryptic meanings of the Torah in search of new wisdom.

By the time of Christianity, the Hellenic world had developed similar techniques. The Greeks had spent centuries trying to reinterpret their myths into something other than the divine soap operas they appeared to be. So Zeus was not actually a randy monarch, but a symbol representing a divine reality that could not be described.

Early Christianity inherited both of these traditions, and it needed them for two reasons. First, because finding these hidden meanings gave them clues to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Second, because the ancient Roman world was very conservative and suspicious of new religions. By tying themselves to the scriptures of the ancient Hebrews, Christians could depict themselves as the fulfillment of a very old religious tradition.

Surface Meaning

Pullquote: In an attempt to get away from the hierarchy, Martin Luther jettisoned the idea of hidden meanings.

This belief in the hidden meanings of scripture was essential to early Christianity, but it later became a problem. Hidden meanings always seem to multiply. You find a meaning, he finds a meaning, they find another meaning still. How do we decide who’s right? The ancient Jewish scholars used argument and reasoning to come to rough consensus. Catholic theologians seemed to do much the same, backing the current consensus with the authority of the church.

When Martin Luther wanted to break away from the Catholic church, he argued that we didn’t need these structures to find the meanings of the text. He argued that the Bible was clear and obvious in it’s intended meaning, and that the believer did not need scholars to interpret things for him. In an attempt to get away from the hierarchy, Martin Luther jettisoned the idea of hidden meanings.

The Trap

Pullquote: It’s a limp argument, but it’s the best they can do with both their legs caught in the trap of hidden meanings.

This set a trap for later apologists like G&T. The hidden meanings of the OT are still vital to many Christians, as seen in the usual statement that the OT predicts the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But good Protestants have to argue that these predictions are obvious and clear, which they never are.

We see the end result in Deacon Duncan’s post: a shifting argument that requires the reader to accept that the similarities are “amazing.” Duncan easily dismantles this claim. G&T shy away from the very idea that their interpretation is not the only meaning of the text, but quickly sidle back with an “even if” argument. It’s a limp argument, but it’s the best they can do with both their legs caught in the trap of hidden meanings.

Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.

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