Starting with the popular Christian principle, “Let the easy Bible passages interpret the hard ones,” we’ve been examining five principles for biblical interpretation (beginning with this post). Here are the final three.
Principle #3: Begin with the assumption that the Bible has no contradictions
Here’s the principle stated in “How to Interpret the Bible” (HIB):
The “analogy of faith” is a reformed hermeneutical principle which states that, since all scriptures are harmoniously united with no essential contradictions, therefore, every proposed interpretation of any passage must be compared with what the other parts of the Bible teach. In other words, the body of doctrine, which the scriptures as a whole proclaim will not be contradicted in any way by any passage. Therefore, if two or three different interpretations of a verse are equally possible, any interpretation that contradicts the clear teaching of any other scriptures must be ruled out from the beginning.
So before you say, “Aha—there’s a contradiction here in the Bible,” go back and rethink that, because there are no contradictions. (The first rule of Look for Contradictions in the Bible Club is that there are no contradictions in the Bible.)
You can see the problem. “There are no contradictions” would be a conclusion, not a starting assumption, and there is a huge mountain to climb before this principle can be validated.
As an aside, this principle, where Christians simply declare that the Bible has no contradictions, has a parallel in Islam. The Principle of Abrogation states that if there’s a contradiction in the Quran, the later passage (that is, the one written later) wins out over the earlier. Problem solved—no more contradiction.
As damning as the Muslim principle is (how could the Prophet have gotten it wrong the first time?), at least it’s a rule. Principle 3 simply makes a groundless assertion.
Let’s let the Bible itself speak on this.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take anything from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh which I command you (Deuteronomy 4:2).
The verse from 1 Timothy tells us that any passage, even the ones that make Christians squirm, should be read and followed, and the one from Deuteronomy says that the Bible must be allowed to speak for itself and not be treated like a marionette. So next time you pick the more pleasing verse and pretend the “difficult” verse doesn’t exist, don’t!
Principle #4: Begin with the assumption that the Bible is infallible and inerrant.
Here are a few excerpts from the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a joint project of more than 200 evangelical leaders:
We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant.
We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.
(Infallible means reliable and trustworthy, and inerrant means containing no mistakes in statements of fact.)There is no interest here in following evidence. You don’t need to make a reasoned argument if you’re simply going to declare this as a faith position. “The Bible is manmade” has been ruled out, not because the evidence points elsewhere but simply as fiat.
What’s the point of scholarship in this environment? This is intellectual in the same way that discussing strategy in a card game is intellectual. Sure, much mental energy can be spent on the project and interesting ideas can come from it, but in the end it’s just a game. It becomes just one stake in the field of Dogma. Without any empirical evidence to ground this view, other Christians will simply put their stakes where they please.
Principle 5: Avoid claims built on uncertain grounds
Don’t build a doctrine upon a single verse or an uncertain textual reading. We should not erect an entire teaching or system of doctrine upon a verse in isolation from its context, or which has dubious textual support. Christian doctrine should be built upon passages which exist in the original manuscripts and can be confirmed through the science of textual criticism.
I agree that the manuscript tradition should be reliable, but keep in mind how difficult it is to know what the originals said. Scholars do a good job deciding which of two variant traditions is the older one. What they don’t do well is deciding between two traditions when they only have copies of one. We have a centuries-long dark ages before the earliest codices of the fourth century—who knows how many hundreds or thousands of changes were made that we don’t know of?
The principle argues that we not build anything substantial on a verse that is an outlier. That sounds sensible until we consider that this conflict—the general consensus versus the outlier—means that there’s a contradiction in the Bible. Principle #3 declares that contradictions don’t exist, but of course that’s a declaration built on nothing.
The second problem is that one of the most important Christian doctrines, the Trinity, violates this principle. There are a few verses that speak of the three persons separately in one sentence (for example, “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” from Matthew 28:19), but this is a long way from the elaborate Trinitarian handwaving in the Athanasian Creed of around 500 CE. This is the one principle that makes sense, and it tells us that there’s scant evidence for Paul or Jesus having a Trinitarian concept of God.
I wonder why Christians don’t apply these principles to other religions’ holy books (or even apply them consistently to their own).
The Bible is the world’s oldest, longest-running, most widespread,
and least deservedly respected Rorschach Test.
You can look at it and see whatever you want.
And everybody does.
— Richard S. Russell
No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says.
He is always convinced that it says what he means.
— George Bernard Shaw
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