Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Interpretive Animal

Aristotle famously said of Homo Sapiens that its definition is this: it is animal by genus, rational by specific difference. We are, he said, the rational animals.

I suggest another definition. It is that we are the interpretive animals. We are the animals that interpret.

This is nowhere more evident than in Christianity. The Christian has a text, and a tradition, and each new generation takes and interprets them in a way characteristic of its time.

But curiously Homo sapiens often denies that it interprets. Rather it often speaks as if its mind is a perfect mirror of God's will as expressed in revelation. It speaks as if it merely reflects that divine will and so knows it perfectly, without possibility of error.

It holds that revelation is crystaline in its clarity and that a mind unfettered by prejudice can perceive precisely, without error and without omission, what is there.

But this cannot be. The human mind, at least in its present state, cannot have any such perfect access to the divine will. For consider each of those sects that proclaims the inerrancy of the Bible. Do they all speak with a single voice about God's will? Of course not. Some hold that the laws of the Old Testament, unless explicitly rescinded in the New, are still in force. Others reject this. Some hold that the power to work miracles ended with the disciples died. Others reject this. Some hold that signs now visible point to the fulfillment of divine prophecy of the end-times. Others reject this and say that we can never know when the end-times will come. Examples could be multiplied.

So, then, we have many versions of the Bible, each produced by a group that declares the inerracy of the Bible. Of course if one is within one of these groups and has given one's loyality to it, it might seem quite clear that one's own verison is true. (Indeed one is likely to deny that it is a version of the Bible. One is likely to say that it just is the Bible.) But how will it seem to one who is not within any such group? It will seem that all are unjustified and that their differences as it were nullify one another. They cancel each other out and leave is unable to determine just where the truth lies on matters of dispute.

One cannot, it seems, reject the version of one or another of these groups because its adherents lack critical acumen, are morally corrupt, etc. Each group has its own scholars, extraordinarily learned, morally upright and with the requisite knowledge to have the right to render a judgment about what is meant by Scripture. Thus if they differ about what Scripture says, it must be that we humans cannot be certain about what it says. To say otherwise and insist on the truth of one's own version thus seems hubristic, for it is to insist that one is somehow elevated over others who are no less intelligent than you, and no less and serious in their adherence to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

The situation is the same within science. When do we, scientific non-specialists, take a certain scientific result as proven? When the scientific community reaches concensus. But when we apply this same standard to the question of what is meant by Scripture, we must conclude that we do not know that this or that version is the true one.

What if one were to say at this point that, though one cannot perhaps know where the truth lies when the community of Biblical scholars who hew to the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy disagree, one can know the truth when they agree? Perhaps this standard is right, but its likely to be little consolation to my opponents here. For they wish to say that no part of Scripture is in shadow. It is all clear, they wish to say.

My diagnosis of the situation is this. When we have before us a text as difficult and as complex as the Bible, a text that deals with matters moral and spiritual, it is quite inevitable that those who make a serious study of it will disagree about what is means. For when one interprets, one fills in. But when the question arises of how best to fill in, one must always rely upon background beliefs about what is plausible and what is implausible. But always and everywhere people will not share the same background beliefs. Thus they will fill in differently.

Thus it seems to me that when someone produces an intepretation of Scripture and insists that it is complete and without possibility of error (and many do this) they have in effect said that they are incapable of error, for much of them is in that interpretation. Claim that the Bible is inerrant if you like. (Perhaps in some sense it is.) But do not write a book in which you give your interpretation and then demand that I believe it because the Bible is inerrant. I will dismiss the claim out of hand. Indeed I will take it as a prideful claim. I will take it as the insistence that one cannot be guilty of error.

If, on the other hand, you recommend the book for consideration, I will quite happily do so.


C Grace said...

I can't agree with you more. A guy on another blog I read had it right when he said that sola scriptura has come to mean nuda scriptura. But really a Protestant hasn't gotten rid of the Pope's authority in interpreting the scripture they have just replaced it with their own authority, the problem is most don't recognize this. Which leads to the type of attitudes you have been addressing here. No document can interpret itself.

Just last nightI was reading an ariticle by CS Lewis that reminded me of an important point. What God is can not be fully grasped, we may each build descriptive pictures, or elaborate doctrines but these are only the shadows, not the reality. We touch that reality most closely, not through our minds, but through our heart attitude and the actions that procede from it - prayer, sacraments, repentance, adoration.

I think our minds can begin to see the reality a little more clearly, though, by understanding Christianity across the ages. Like you implied-We have to understand the Christian truths that all (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox - both modern and ancient writers) agree on, "Mere Christianity" as Lewis has written.

(One of the most useful pieces of advice I have gleaned from Lewis is to read old books. He says "every age has its own outlook. It is espcially liable to make certain mistakes. We all therefore need the books that will correct the charactersitic mistakes of our own period.And that means old books." He goes on, and I am tempted to quote more. If you are interested the article is called "On the Reading of Old Books" and is in the book "God in the Dock"

Funny to me how well respected Lewis is in many circles of Christianity, yet some of what he taught is totally at odds with a few of their most cherished beliefs. Go figure.

C Grace said...

by the way if I am getting annoying with all my posts please e-mail me or post a note and let me know. I don't want to unkowingly offend.

I really do enjoy reading your blog. I have been thinking about what my view of scripture is after you post on Biblical innerrancy.(I am not an innerrantist, but I don't believe in picking and choosing according to my own inner moral sense either. I guess I believe it is God revealing Himself to man through history. That it is not primarily a guide to living a moral life but that it is a revealing of God and his purposes.

Franklin Mason said...

Oh, you have absolutely no need to apologize at all. I really do love to read your comments. I've learned quite a bit from them already.

I'll have comments on your posts later today.



C Grace said...

Two quickies, My husband and I were talking about how we view the Bible and he came up with an excellent analogy I wanted to share. We view the Bible primarily as if it were a biography written by close friends rather than as a textbook for moral living.

To my mind the most dangerous are those who view the Bible the way a scientist views nature.

"“the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his storehouse of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches.” From Charles Finney to Jerry Falwell, a clear and distinct cause/effect relationship has been adopted within not only the ‘scientific’ world, but the world of faith. Theology, faith, revival: all have become an exact science." This is from a blog summarizing Robert Greer's book Mapping Postmodernism. [url=]here[/url],[url=]here[/url],[url=]here [/url]

If I am understanding you rightly you are saying basically the same thing in your post -
"It holds that revelation is crystaline in its clarity and that a mind unfettered by prejudice can perceive precisely, without error and without omission, what is there."

C Grace said...

ah, sorry about the goofed up tags.

Franklin Mason said...

It is of interest to consider the analogy of the scientist and nature to the Christian and the Bible. I hadn't thought to compare them, but it does seem potentially fruitful to do so.

I have no very clear view about the justification of scientific theory, but I do know enough to say this. Sometimes, the data available for theory construction is not enough to pin down which theory we should accept. I believe that this is the case in physics. The data to do with the very small - quarks,photons , bosons, etc - does not determine which of the various interpretations of the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics to accept. Many accept the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. Others favor the so-called many worlds interpretation.
There are others, too. This seems to suggest that the issue of which theory we are to accept is not purely an empirical matter but instead is partly dictated by - I'm not sure how to put this - personal matters to do with what seems intuitively plausible and implausible. Perhaps then there's a analogy between science and, what by my lights, is the proper way to view interpretation of Scripture.

More tomorrow.

Thanks again for the comments.

Franklin Mason said...

I believe that I might have used 'moral sense' in a way that is apt to mislead. I did not mean that it is some infallible inner voice that speaks moral truth to me. Rather I mean by 'moral sense' just me and my moral opinions. No doubt I have been educated by many along the way, and my moral opinions have a history that can be traced back to them. (Important here are the Gospels, Kant and my wife.) It seems to me that I have no choice but to enter each new conservation with the strength of my convictions. If that conversation is with Scripture (and I do think of the time that I spend with it as a kind of conversation) I cannot simply abdicate what I hold true. But I can of course pay close attention and reflect on what I find, and it may be that I will change my views based upon what I find. (I sometimes worry that I'm a bit too fluid in my views. Sometimes I wish that I had an absolute strength of conviction that would serve as my guide in all matters. I do have a few absolute convictions, but they seems to leave me hopelessly confused on a number of crucial issues.)

C Grace said...

Actually what I was trying to say about approaching the Bible the way a scientist approaches nature, is that it doesn't work and leads to a lot a nonsense. But you are right, at the deeper levels it does seem to corrolate. So here's my thought explorations

traditional physics - the equations really do represent reality. Knowledge is assumed to be absolute. F=mg is a true and complete description of how things work. So if you approach the Bible this way you assume that the knowledge contained in it is propostional and that it can provide a true and complete description of God, of man and of their relationship (stated this way it really does seem ridiculuous but many people do this with at least portions of the Bible without realizing it. example- God is soveriegn and man is hopelessly corrupt so therefore man has no part in his salvation- no free-will. This is Hyper-Calvinism)

quantum physics - there is a dimension to the reality beyond what can be expressed in the equations. An electron needs to be understood as both a particle and a wave simultaneously even though these seem contradictory. In practice we can only understand something about one of these properties at a time. You cannot know both the position and velocity. You can only express what they are in terms of probabilities, not absolutes. In the same way, the many different faucets of God's character or purposes seem incompatable to us. When we try to look at them too closely we can only understand one at a time. (God's justice verses His love) They can only be understood simultaneously if we are understanding them as part of the larger story and not looking at them individually.

I would also agree with you that we are drawn to a particular interpretation according to our preconcieved ideas of what is or is not plausible and we can become stuck on seeing only one side of the contradiction (just like for a long time electrons were only understood as particles.)

Of course this still doesn't deal with whether all of scripture can be trusted- that some of the contradictions might be due to human error. But I guess it does lead to the question, if the Bible is true (or mostly true), what understanding of it will fit all the seeming contradictions both within it and within our experience as human beings?

In my experience I have not yet found any irreconcilable problems within the Christian worldview. I have investigated a few other religions but none seems to me to be as internally consistent. Also they don't fit as well with my experience of human nature and understanding of history as Christianity. For me understanding Jesus Christ- his life, death and ressurection is the key to understanding everything else.

C Grace said...

I like the analogy of having a converstaion with scripture. My interests lie more with religion, history and literature rather than philosophy, so I don't know much about Kant or how his teaching might effect your worldview.