The Meaning Trap

by VorJack

Jesus on Jar LidOur 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.

  • trj

    Apart from the wondrous malleability of hidden meanings, another thing to remember is that the gospel authors of NT were well aware of the various messianic prophecies of OT, which they frequently bring up.

    A cynical person like myself could easily get the idea that a few “facts” were inserted in order to fit these prophecies, such as Jesus being a descendant of David and being born in Bethlehem, and a number of other specific and general things mentioned by the OT prophets. As well, I can imagine much of what Jesus purportedly said as having been put into his mouth by the gospel authors to tie things up with OT.

    But that’s just me.

    • Francesc

      That’s not possible because, you know, it is the WORD of GOD and god doesn’t lies because it says so in his book wich is his book because it says so because it says so…

      Wow! It’s easy but it wastes a lot of time to think like a fundie!

  • http://clergyguy.blogspot.com Clergy Guy

    Most of the things in this article can be heard in a liberal seminary. Personally, as a believer but not a “fundie,” I’m very uncomfortable about the imperial language, such as found in Psalm 22, that we attribute to Jesus, where we make him some kind of conquering king, rather than a spiritual leader.

    I think this has done a tremendous damage not just to Christianity but to the world, where we have done violence in the name of our religion–people on this site are quick to point out examples of such.

    • Jer

      But that strikes at the root of Christianity – Christianity has always had an identity crisis. The Messianic movement that gave birth to the ministry of Jesus was all about a conquering hero that was coming back to restore the glory of Israel and stomp on her enemies. When the religion became less Jewish and more cosmopolitan, the conquering hero was going to destroy the oppressors of the world and raise the Christians into glory. The religion grew quickly under Constantine because he won battles under the symbol of the cross.

      Christianity has always had a militant streak within it (for that matter so has Judaism). Sometimes that streak is as wide as the whole religion. Sometimes it’s far narrower. But you aren’t ever going to be able to excise that militant streak that underlies the religion entirely – too much of the symbolism and underlying theology is wrapped up in that militant imagery.

  • Custador

    Scripture is the best argument against the existence of a deity. Let’s look at what theists all say about their “god”: He’s omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, he’s perfect in every way. Okay. Let’s ask ourselves something. If “god” really is all of those things, why is he not capable of writing ONE set of holy scripture which is clear, unambiguous and timeless – so that there’s no alternative “interpretation”, there’s just what it says, unaltered, relevant no matter what the age, forever?

    The fact is, if an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect god did exist, he WOULD be able to create such a scripture. Isn’t it revealing, then, that of all the many scriptures that purport to be god’s words, NONE of them have single, unambiguous meanings?

    Sorry, theists, but if that doesn’t prove that “god” didn’t write them then I don’t know what does. Either god doesn’t exist, or he doesn’t care about humans one bit.

    • Barry

      “Isn’t it revealing, then, that of all the many scriptures that purport to be god’s words, NONE of them have single, unambiguous meanings? ”

      I’m not sure what that would even look like. Language seems to be a little more slippery than that, we all communicate with double meanings often through tools such as sarcasm or body language. Then on the flip side have you not ever communicated with a person simply and directly and still been mis-interpreted due to the nature of the biases of the hearer? What an omni- God could do isn’t always what they would do, it all depends on goals in mind. Maybe He doesn’t care, or maybe the calvinists are right and He only cares about the elect, or maybe we have a myopic view of what we think He should do based on our own perceived biases or misconceptions.

      • http://ironymous.blogspot.com/ nomad

        I think that if God were omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent and perfect in every way he would be able to do the humanly impossible; to communicate with unambiguous meaning. But maybe he’s not. Maybe he is only super-scient, super-potent and super-present. Maybe that’s why he can do some fantastic things, but not others. Maybe he’s not even perfect. Just merely magnificent?

      • cello

        This argument would hold more weight if the omni omni God didn’t invent the concept of communication itself. God is controlled by the faulty limitations of his own creation? Still a bit of a logic fail for an omni omni.

        • LRA

          Tower of Babel, anyone?

    • Question-I-thority

      Those who try to liberalize Christian traditions have the same problem when trying to theologize a very nasty, uncaring process of evolution.

    • cello

      >>Sorry, theists, but if that doesn’t prove that “god” didn’t write them then I don’t know what does. Either god doesn’t exist, or he doesn’t care about humans one bit.<<

      Or if we assume God did write any given scripture, who is to say he only wrote one? Or that he didn't change his mind? Or that he wanted to have each culture worship differently? Or that he still isn't writing today?

    • http://progressatallcost.blogspot.com/ markbey

      ‘ If “god” really is all of those things, why is he not capable of writing ONE set of holy scripture which is clear, unambiguous and timeless – so that there’s no alternative “interpretation”, there’s just what it says, unaltered, relevant no matter what the age, forever? ”

      mark: This is a major issue I attact in my conversations with holy rollers. If Yaweh is smarter than Yoda and perfect then exactly why all of the major confusion and yes thousands of different denomonmnations, with thousands of different understandings of gods word qualifies as major confusion.

      It really is fun to observe christians who have the ultimate back up ( yaweh) on thier side not answer simple questions about why the greatest dude ever inspires a book that is only partially true.

      I think holy rollers refuse to answer some of these basic questions because they know that if they answer multiple questions they will really look morons so they dont answer them.

      A good example of this is, when you ask why would a perfect, all knowing and loving god inspired the sexism in the bible.

      After all didnt Yaweh fully understand the enormous amount of trouble sexism would cause throughout the years?

      • Siberia

        Or what’s more, write a book that you can only understand properly, today, if you’ve knowledge of archaic languages and history (since you have to understand the situation at the time, etc.).

        If God wanted to be unambiguous, or as unambiguous as possible, he’d write as little as possible. Skip the completely irrelevant stories and lineages and smitings; stick to the core, with as simple language as possible (or, hell, in every language possible).

        Or write in math.

        • Olaf

          What would be more cool is that if God wrote a bible that could be read by anyone. The letters automatically form to the language of the person reading it now, and it would even compensate for century culture so yje bible would be always up to date.

    • trj

      Technically, it wasn’t God himself that wrote the Bible (or the Quran), but puny, error-prone humans, so one could argue that this is the source of the contradictions. Still, the authors (and editors and translators) are usually claimed to have been divinely guided. Which appears to have made no difference whatsoever in terms of the scriptures’ ambiguity.

  • John C

    Ok, lets try (for one day) to put aside ugly words, arguing and have a legitimate discussion on the topic of hidden meanings, related inquiries, etc. Fair enough? One of the reasons that Christ spoke secretively in parabolic language was so that the prideful would not be empowered and further perverted (twisted from original design, intention man being created in the very image and likeness of God). It is His image in us that has been defaced, marred, distorted and that very same image that would be restored in true (inner) likenes and manifested to the world in expression through man…again.

    The OT is God viewed thru the lens of the knowledge of good & evil, but God (His true nature and likeness) is clearly seen (truly represented) in Christ (when you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father) who ushers in grace and truth, those dominant virtues conveying the truth of God’s nature, character and heart toward us though we comprehend it not.

    There are “hidden meanings” in scripture because the Bible is not a mere (topical, textual, literal) book in the way that other books are mere books. Additionally, its a “living word” and therefore is personal, not only corporate in its application. Is it possible (just asking, again keeping in mind our intentions to maintain a high quality dialogue at least for one day) that there is more than meets the eye, and mind. And what is Light? A wave particle? Matter? Why do I ask this question now? What is its significance to the topic, if at all? Who was Robert Grosseteste (c. 1170-1253)?

    Q…what’s the difference between an eel and an electric eel? They’re both eels right? They look like eels, act like eels. So, what’s the difference? One man looks (the realm of apperances) like another, but is he the same? Are all men…equal? (just asking) Can we trust our (physical) eyes to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but?

    In the above (seemingly random but quite connected) paragraphs are clues to “hidden meanings” and the nature of things. This is a fascinating and substantially significant topic of great personal interest to me (I know you’re not surprised, ha). All the best…to you all.

    • Jer

      John C -

      Are you a Gnostic? What you’ve written here sounds an awful lot like Gnosticism and if that’s the case it puts a spin on your various posts that I’ve not previously considered.

      • John C

        Jer, thanks but no, I’m not Gnostic since Gnosticism holds to an imperfect God. I can’t imagine how or why anyone could ever entrust their very lives to an imperfect Being. As I have said before I dont hold to any lables/titles although I would probably most closely resemble that of a mystic if pushed to identify one, but again only for your benefit not mine. I do however hold to the position that our true essentiality is spirit rather than matter. That seems an obvious conclusion to the resurrection (henceforth we know no man after the flesh) and so see things from that internal (and strange) perspective. All the best.

        • Siberia

          I can’t imagine how or why anyone could ever entrust their very lives to an imperfect Being.
          You do that every time you go to a doctor.

    • Zotz

      Behold: A great wind hath broken and it doth stink up the place! (Zotz 7:28)

      • John C

        Zotz 7:28 can be interpreted as…Zotz is greatly loved by Love (Himself) and knoweth it not (KJV). Other “hidden meanings” and common but more liberal interpretations of Zotz 7:28 include…Zotz is of inestimable value and worth, is more than he knows, is in fact an eternal creature not of the animal kind with a paternal origin of spiritual ancestry and lineage though he (yet) knows it not. (JCV).

        What if the truth were far superior than we could ever imagine? Imagine that my friend. :)

        • Zotz

          You’re off your meds, aren’t you?

          Unfortunately, we’re required to tolerate the psychosis that is religious “thought”. It’s in the constitution. People are entitled to their delusions and to speak gibberish if that is their wont.

          Fortunately, we are also entitled to freedom of association and please note that as long as you choose to express yourself with the psychotic nonsense above, you are NOT my friend.

          What an incoherent load. I suspect a SBJ (Juicy as opposed to a Silent But Deadly) has occurred due to a leaky sphincter.

          Go clean yourself up and change your underwear.

          • JonJon

            I’m tired of hearing religion equated with a mental illness.

            just sayin’

    • Question-I-thority

      John, this may be presumptive on my part but I think that you believe the highest forms of knowledge come from revelation. You would be right in the center of things in the 12th century but are completely out of step with the Enlightenment. Most people on this sight are products of the Age of Reason and it’s child, science. As such arguments from analogy, hidden meaning and ‘seeing Christ’ are virtually meaningless.

      Honestly, your modus is for us a foreign language. You will keep making some here very angry until you acknowledge in the spirit of your posts that you are among foreigners and try a little bit to communicate in the lingua franca. From the outside looking in your system sounds like gibberish and since it is based on God revealing it, what’s the point in extended dialogue?

      • Daniel Florien

        Actually God revealed to me that John is competely wrong about revelation. I can feel it very strongly. I met with Jesus personally about it, and I knew it was him because I had a Warm Fuzzy Feeling.

        John, admit you are wrong. You know you’re wrong, you just hate God and purposely going against his TrueTeachings, which is what I believe. God told me he doesn’t exist.

      • John C

        @Question…

        You are closer (in saying you think that I live mainly by revelation) than all the rest my friend. True, “man doesn’t live by bread alone but by every Word that procedes out of His mouth”. Revelation is how the spiritual man is supposed to live, its a spirit-led life and yet one in which we are utterly dependent upon the Spirit within. The irony is that it is a great liberty, this dependence and through it we come to know the true nature (and sufficiency, faithfulness) of the Father.

        It sounds crazy to the natural man, but as George Bernard Shaw said…all new truths start out as blashemy. This goes back to what I have said before that the truth is far better than we can ever imagine, ever believe and so we…dont. But oh if we did we could live a beautiful fairy tale existence full of adventure.

        Life is supposed to be a beautiful celebration and exhilorating experience walked out WITH the Creator hand in hand. But we wont believe it, or will we?

        • trj

          Verily verily I say onto you, believe in me, and you can live in a beautiful fairy tale (John C 5:36).

          • John C

            lol, yay…verily indeed. Psst..but the believing is just the appetizer…it gets even better as He saves some (giant and wonderful) secrets for those of us foolish and trusting enough to fully enter in to Sonship, to love.

            • trj

              I embedded a hidden meaning in my message. If you’re up for the challenge I’d be interested to hear what you think it is.

            • John C

              Not sure if you are just messin’ with me or if you’re serious…but if you are referencing that verse (John 5:36) saying “but the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish– the very works that I do– testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me” impyling that you (TRJ) has a greater testimony than that of John (me) than yes, very clever TRJ, kudos my unvelieving friend.

              On the other hand, maybe I’m missing your “hidden message” altogether?

            • trj

              He he, yes, that was indeed the hidden message. Although, I could just as easily have claimed that the hidden message was something else entirely, like, say, the word “testimony” means something else. That word actually has an archaic meaning: “disapproval”.

              So I could really have been saying that the people disapprove of me more than they do of you – which is of course a direct consequence of the Father having sent Me.

              Or I could have meant something else entirely, but no matter what I meant it would of course still be in line with the foregone conclusion that I am the Galactic Messiah.

              That’s the wonder of hidden meaning and mysticism: You can reinterpret things to make them mean almost whatever you want. In other words: you’re free to make stuff up. For instance, your hidden meanings are different from the hidden meanings Catholics and other mainstream Christians have found. I’m sure you see the problem. And I’m also sure you’ll mention something about light and Truth as a solution to this, which, being just more made-up stuff and platitudes, can safely be ignored.

            • John C

              TRJ…

              Ya know, if you keep making up excuses for not knowing (hidden meanings, perceived ambiguity etc) the years will get past you and then you might never know.

              No hidden meanings implied. There is more…

            • trj

              Believe me, I don’t need hidden meanings and ambiguity as excuses. The Bible in general sounds like a bunch of made-up, antropomorphic crap to me, and even if it didn’t its concept of God repels me.

              Besides, being the the Galactic Messiah, I know it’s a bunch of lies. Why must you keep doubting Me, John? It pains me to see you fumbling in the dark like this. I am the Galactic Messiah, the Holy Unity, come to bring light and salvation to this galaxy which is a mere atom of My divine Being. Look into your heart, John. See the light before it is too late for you. You know I speak the Truth.

              There is more. There is Galaxarius.

            • John C

              The Bible “sounds like”? Perception is everything huh?

            • trj

              Would it make you happier if I said “The Bible is evidently a bunch of made-up, antropomorphic crap”?

              Part of the evidence being the fact that it doesn’t match reality.

            • John C

              I appreciate you TRJ, at least you interact and keep the dialogue at a high level without devolving into a tit for tat exercise in futility…thank you for that.

              It may not “appear” that you and I make any real progress, but the fact that we continue the exchange in spite of our wholly disparate perspectives is, in itself imho a magnificent accomplishment.

              Thanks again, all the very best.

            • trj

              You’re welcome. I haven’t given up on you. Maybe someday you will see the light of reason. It shines upon us harshly, but there is comfort and fulfillment in this ruthless, uncompromising light.

    • cynic

      “The OT is God viewed thru the lens of the knowledge of good & evil, but God (His true nature and likeness) is clearly seen (truly represented) in Christ (when you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father) who ushers in grace and truth, those dominant virtues conveying the truth of God’s nature, character and heart toward us though we comprehend it not.”

      what lens? who/what is looking through this lens?
      so god intentionally acted like a self righteous asshole by declaring himself a genocidal, jealous and petty douchebag so he could show us his true colours as jesus by dying and rising up again.
      looks like someone is strainin to do some explainin

      “There are “hidden meanings” in scripture because the Bible is not a mere (topical, textual, literal) book in the way that other books are mere books. Additionally, its a “living word” and therefore is personal, not only corporate in its application.”

      so the bible is like a David Lynch film. Obscure and purposefully contrived, but everyone seems to get their own personal thing out of it

      here’s a little nugget of advice for you John c, with comments like this you make people like me very proud of their position on religion/god because your comments are usually on the absurd, almost retarded side and i am happy that i am on the side of logic and not cognitive dissonance. so keep commenting , i’ll be hitting a seven on the Dawkins scale in about a month or so

      • Ty

        If David Lynch is god, then suddenly EVERYTHING makes a lot more sense.

      • John C

        Yea, the darkness…its pervasive, its insidious. It spreads its canopy over our hearts and minds by ever thickening degrees as long as we permit it, as long as we are content not to see. As long as we trust our own minds and eyes to declare truth to us.

        The only way out? The only way to see aright is to want to with all our hearts. Even that is a grace that He must give us. But He is the great Emancipator, when we come to the end of ourselves, then we are on the verge, the very verge of freedom, of light and liberty. he is Love and Light.

        • Aor

          Don’t you have a goat to sacrifice?

    • Sunny Day

      “Ok, lets try (for one day) to put aside ugly words, arguing and have a legitimate discussion on the topic…”

      And then it promptly devolves into confused babbling.

    • trj

      There are “hidden meanings” in scripture because the Bible is not a mere (topical, textual, literal) book in the way that other books are mere books.

      That’s a mere unfounded assertion (although in keeping with Christian tradition). More likely, there are “hidden meanings” because these are necessary to resolve the contradictory nature, as well as the specific contradictory details, of the Bible.

      Most Christian readers make a number of assertions about the Bible – it is inerrant, it is the perfect word of God, it is relevant to our lives in this specific age. Since this is frankly overall quite difficult to reconcile with the mess that is the Bible, they must introduce another premise: the Bible is cryptical, so when it doesn’t make sense, it’s simply because we don’t understand the word of God. This simply further confirms the Bible’s holy and inerrant nature. The Bible has hidden meanings (which invariably conform to the reader’s concept of God – Christians can’t agree on the hidden meanings anymore than they can the non-hidden ones).

      Also, as vorjack mentions, there are historical reasons for the whole tradition of reinterpretation. The Jews had a hard time making sense of the Bible as well, especially all its 613 commandments, of which many are unspecific or out-right contradictory. To a Jew wanting to obey God’s word in his every action it was absolutely essential to follow the commandments correctly. Jewish sages took the job upon them of finding out what the commandments were really saying, and they did this using interpretation and a good dose of imagination. Also, they came up with interpretive explanations for some of the more disturbing parts of the Bible, in order to explain why God or this or that heroic role model (Abraham springs to mind) acted how they did. Early Christians were happy to continue this tradition.

      Christians can talk all they like about the hidden meanings of the Bible, but to an unbeliever they are no more convincing than everything else the Bible says. In fact, they’re probably even less convincing to us, considering that the hidden meanings come out as extremely malleable, subjective, after-the-fact rationalizations.

  • Mau de Katt

    Thanks to this post, I’ve been reading all of Deacon Duncan’s demolishments of I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST. And something nigglingly familiar about the authors’ arguments kept cropping up, something about the way they argued. Then one of the authors’ names finally *pinged* — Geisler? As in Norm Geisler?

    Yeah, that was him, all right. He’s one of Hank Hanegraaf’s “Christian Research Institute” guys, and he uses Hanegraaf’s argument style as well: “clever” word tricks, rapid-fire repetetive arguments geared to hide the lack of substance behind them, and an overly-smooth, bullying tone of “voice” that is meant to ridicule the opposition merely by comparison and inference.

    In short, like Ray Comfort, these folks are nothing more than fast-talking, high-pressure confidence men, trying to fleece the marks convert the unbelievers with a barrage of words and peer-pressure shame.

    Pah. I spew them from my mouth.


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