Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Getting the right interpretation

One attitude I commonly come across about getting to the truth of scripture, is to go straight to scripture and let it speak for itself. The idea is to try to be influenced by no one and nothing but the text itself. You build up your view based on nothing but scripture.

I am inclined to think, however, that such a method is doomed to failure. Usually, the person has been taught by their church and their parents how to understand the bible already, and that influences their thinking. But no matter the lengths you go to avoid outside influence, there will always be some. Even if you go back to the Greek, the very definitions of those Greek words available to you have been produced by people, and the meanings they give for the words will be influenced by their own theological ideas. It is also quite amazing the level of influence that a bible translation a person uses can have on their thinking. The theology of the translator finds its way into the text in a thousand subtle ways. So trying to be free of outside influences is an exercise in futility.

What I have found to be the best solution is to learn about all the different ideas. Be influenced by everyone in the sense of learning what all the different ideas and interpretations and views that people have had are. Armed with a full knowledge of all the issues, controversies, viewpoints and ideas, you can study the text and compare the different views against it.

I find it is very easy to evaluate two views against each other, and compare them against the text. By contrast it is very hard for a person new to the text to just sit down and read it and get it right. That person will be ignorant of the issues, so the interpretation they get will be ill-informed and random.

If you have only ever heard one interpretation of a particular sentence in the bible, then you are likely to believe that the interpretation you have heard is accurate. I often see many people who are “sure” they understand a bible verse simply because they have never heard of any view which contradicted their view of it. Out of naivety, they are ignorant of the other possible interpretations and views. In short, they are not in a good position to be sure at all that they have the best interpretation.

Martin Luther for example, spent a long time grappling with the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he had emotional objections to the one interpretation he had been given for it. Eventually, after much heartache he thought of another interpretation which he liked much better. He started preaching his view as correct. Since his time, scholars have managed to think of a half dozen different possible interpretations of those words. It is entirely possible that had Luther known about some of these other interpretations he may have decided one of them was a better and more accurate understanding of the text than the one he had happened to imagine.

My point is: comparing different positions is relatively easy but requires knowledge of those positions; whereas trying to “do it ourselves”, while being something anyone can easily do, more often than not simply gives an interpretation that is a result of our own ignorance of other possible interpretations.

Last night at cell group we discussed a certain passage in Corinthians on prostitution. I gave my view on it. Today I was reading a new commentary published this year which gave a novel view on the passage. After learning of the new view provided by this commentary, I have come to think that this new view is correct. My view has changed within the space of twenty-four hours due to hearing some ideas I had not heard of before. Due to my previous ignorance of this particular way of interpreting it, my previous beliefs about what scripture was saying in this passage were wrong.

Clearly it is necessary to try to have all the facts, ideas and controversies at one’s fingertips before making a good choice between them. It is always going to be possible that new information or a new idea might come along and cause you to change your mind. People who know of only one interpretation of a passage, and therefore believe that it is “what scripture says”, are most likely holding a wrong view out of ignorance.

Some people I encounter in my theological studies are very intelligent people who have done a lot of research and reading. But what has happened is that they have done it very narrowly. They know everything there is to know about one particular way of interpreting scripture. They have read volumes and volumes about one interpretation of scripture and come to believe that it is therefore the true and correct way of interpreting scripture. I read their writing and think “if only this person knew a tenth as much about other possible interpretations as they know about their own interpretation they would see in a second that their own one is clearly not the best interpretation.” With knowledge of both views I can compare them, and choose the one that best fits the evidence. With knowledge of only one view, they can’t.

I originally wrote this as a comment on Nathan’s blog.


Blogger Matthew P said...

Of course, even given multiple interpretations, a person will tend to side with the one which fits best with the views they already hold. But yes, considering multiple interpretations is good.


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