Saturday, February 05, 2011


Long ago it was obvious to me that the texts of the Bible, in fact the text of any book, remain as meaningless marks on a surface unless those marks are the trigger for a very proactive process of interpretation. This is how I put it in 2001:

For some the issue is simple; it is simply a case of whether you are prepared to believe what the Bible clearly means and what it clearly means is, of course, what they believe it to mean. They think their interpretations to be relatively free of ambiguity and there is therefore perhaps more than a hint that those who disagree with these "plain meanings" are not doing so with a clear conscience. But as Luther's faux pas* has shown, Biblical interpretation is not to be trivialised and taken for granted. The questions of Biblical style and where and how it uses metaphor, literality, poetry, narrative, symbolism etc. are sometimes difficult to answer and impinge upon the extraction of Biblical meaning. Moreover, one extracts that meaning through the complexities, contextuality, informality, fussiness, historicity, and flexibility of common language and this binds the Bible to the ambiguities of the world of which it is part.

There are not many "meta statements" in the Bible telling us what "reading mode" one is to use to interpret it. In fact, it is impossible for any document, even a legal, one to contain exhaustive instruction on how it should be read, because such "meta-statements" must themselves be read in some manner; if each set of reading mode instructions were to have their own information on how they should be read, then one would get an impracticably large regress. Thus, to inform its readers the Bible must rely on them being suitably primed in the first place, although, no doubt, the Bible itself becomes, in time, a source of further priming. The process of interpretation necessarily requires that the interpreter bring something to it to make it happen. It is a process that cannot start or continue in a cultural and cognitive vacuum and requires not only a "bootstrap" to get it going, but also, I suspect, continuous input to maintain it and keep it in progress.

Without the act of interpretation scripture remains a sequence of meaningless symbols and the authority of scripture cannot be applied. Statements of the form "The Bible says so & so" are really short hand for the more subjective "My interpretation of the Bible is so & so". This does not mean, of course, that Biblical meanings are arbitrary or relative, as there are such things as right and wrong interpretations. However, whether right or wrong interpretations are reached depends on a complex of contingencies and conditions regarding the experience and propensities of the reader. Thus, whether the application of scriptural authority is either blocked or facilitated is a function of the interpreter who brings to his Bible reading various cognitive qualities; his culture, his beliefs, his personal history, his knowledge of the physical world, and above all his spirituality, all of which have bearing upon on the act of interpretation. For example, on the subject of the Solar System Luther brought to bear his respect for the astronomical establishment along with some very elementary physics and these probably coloured his interpretation of the relevant Scriptures. The conscious mind draws on a variety of resources when it makes its interpretations and in the case of Luther's comments about Copernicus those resources betrayed him. There is a deep lesson here about the nature of the rational consciousness which is God's gift to each of us: We have far less control than we think over the mental processes and resources from which our decisions flow. Yes, we are free to make this and that choice but self-referencing problems limit just what we are able to do with the complex mental skein which is the source of those decisions. When I think of this I think fearfully of Romans 9:15-23; but then I think of Col. 2:13, Eph. 5:14 and the like, and hope returns. God is sovereign over the countless strands of events that comprise and influence a neural end product that is staggeringly complex and yet not complex enough for full self-understanding and control.

That Biblical interpretation is a process, which harnesses a diverse range of non-trivial resources is an implicit challenge to the notion that the Bible is somehow an alternative source of information which competes with experience of the wider creation: For it is clear that our ability to understand scripture in the first place is influenced by an interaction with the creation as a whole. It is, therefore, wrong to suggest that the Bible and the rest of creation are two independent revelations which, when they apparently contradict, means that precedence is to be given to one over the other. Typically, in fundamentalist circles it is considered a virtue to give certain traditional interpretations of the Bible automatic precedence when these conflicts arise. But the messages of the Bible and the world around it are subtly intermingled and blended, and it is impossible to correctly interpret one without the other. These two sources of revelation are interdependent and together they form a single self-consistent body of testimony revealing something of God Himself and the Grand Rationality of the created order, which He has authored and underwritten. The veracity of these blended revelations is as good as their source, and that source is none other than God Himself, but their effectiveness is only as good as the recipient's willingness to seek the grace to correctly interpret the messages received. Apparent conflicts in the testimonies of the Bible and the rest of creation are not resolved by assuming the superiority of one testimony over the other but by seeking, under grace, to correct the faults in the interpretation of either source.

Now that was a rather long winded explanation wasn’t it? In contrast Vulnerable Mission director Dr. Jim Harries, who also has done a lot of thinking about this subject, has cut this explanation down to an extremely succinct and elegant “equation”, an equation I refer to "Harries Formula". Here it is:

Meaning = Text + Context.

It is this profound formula that I’m pointing to in the picture; in fact it has pride of place on my “Top Gear” cool wall. In this equation all the complexities of the Divinely managed resources of interpretation are embodied in one variable: “Context”. All Christians should learn this formula off by heart; especially the fundamentalists who so readily equate their interpretations and their understandings with the very Words of God. For them there is no context of interpretation. For them God’s Word is acquired very directly without any interpretative hassle. For them the process of acquiring meaning is so often thought of as a trivial process where meanings are “plain” and by “plain meanings” they mean, of course, their own meanings. If fundamentalists hold a suite of erroneous and proprietary ideas they are very likely to be unable to identify them as their ideas at all and instead take it for granted that they are the very Words of God to be obeyed and believed or else. Out of fear of Divine displeasure their self critical faculties are thus utterly hamstrung and they are unable correct themselves. Self criticism and epistemic humility are foreign to them.

* Footnote: Luther was alleged to have said of Copernicus: "The fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy, but according to the Scripture, Joshua bade the Sun and not the Earth to stand still."

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