No Interpretation Needed? Part 2

Last post we asked if it is possible to just read the Bible and understand what it says without having to ‘interpret’ it.

It’s a nice-sounding option, in theory.  Unfortunately for us, that option doesn’t exist.  In fact:

Is not every devotional reading (silent), every sermon (spoken), and every commentary (written) an interpretation or a series of interpretations of a biblical text?

We cannot escape interpreting the Bible.  We are not God.  Therefore, we are relative (conditioned by factors that are neither universal nor unchanging).

The entire history of Christian thought shows that Christians in different times and places have interpreted and understood the Bible differently.

Even at any given time and place, such as our own, is there not always a “conflict of interpretations” between, among, and within various denominational and nondenominational traditions?

approaching the text

If it were as simple as reading it and understanding it, there would be less divergence within Christianity.  But the reality is that there are manifold ways of understanding the text, just as there is no end to the number of denominations and traditions within Christianity.  This does not mean anything goes, or that all interpretations are valid – but merely that the text is rich, deep, textured, and from another time and place, meaning we should never become too strident nor certain that we have ‘the’ interpretation or have it all figured out.

We might be tempted to think that at one point — earlier in history, like in the early church — it was clear and everyone understood it the same.  James K.A. Smith reminds us this was not the case:

For Christians, many of the anxieties of hermeneutics (the theory and process of interpretation) are nothing new.  Well before we were haunted by the specters of Derrida and Foucault, the Christian community grappled with the conflict of interpretations (to say nothing of the Jewish/rabbinical precedents).  One can see such conflicts embedded in the New Testament narrative itself.  In Acts 15, for instance, we see a conflict of interpretations of “the law” — and we see a community grappling with interpretive difference in its midst.  Despite a common mythology, the early church was not a hermeneutic paradise; rather, debates about what counts as the tradition have been integral to the Christian tradition.  The early church was not a golden age of interpretive uniformity; rather, the catholic councils and creeds are the artifacts of a community facing up to the conflict of interpretations.

But often enough, as we noted last time, people simply deny that interpretation is necessary and unavoidable:

“We encounter this general attitude when we offer a viewpoint about, say, some controversial moral or political question to someone who (1) doesn’t like it and (2) doesn’t know how to refute it (perhaps deep down knowing that it is all too much on target) and so replies, “That’s just your opinion.””

Similarly, an unwelcome interpretation of some biblical text may be greeted by the response, “Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…” In other words, “You interpret; I just see what is plainly there.”

This, however, is simply not the case.  We all interpret.  It is impossible to do otherwise.  We read words or speak words, they combine to form meanings, and we interpret what that meaning is.

This “no interpretation needed” doctrine says that interpretation is accidental and unfortunate, that it can and should be avoided whenever possible.  Often unnoticed is that this theory is itself an interpretation of interpretation and that it belongs to a long-standing philosophical tradition that stretches from certain strands in Plato’s thought well into the twentieth century.  This tradition is called “naive realism” in one of its forms.  It is called naive both descriptively, because it is easily taken by a common-sense perspective without philosophical reflection, and normatively, because it is taken to be indefensible on careful philosophical reflection.  (Westphal, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?)

So is there no one ‘right’ interpretation?  Well… there is the original intention of the author, and then the original intent of the Holy Spirit… and certainly we must hold that God knows what he meant (means) to say.  But the point holds: we are not God.  Therefore, there is always a distance between us and that truest understanding of the text.  This is where faith and community comes in, and Merold Westphal, in his terrific book, Whose Community?  Which Interpretation?, sounds this note exactly:

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (“anything goes”) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have “the” interpretation) are the only alternatives.  We can acknowledge that we see and interpret “in a glass darkly” or “in a mirror, dimly” and that we know “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all, to the Holy Spirit.

My friend Chris put it in very nearly the same way, in response to my first post:

Reading the Bible doesn’t require any special study; understanding it is another matter.

Anyone can “get something” out of just reading the Bible (or any other piece of literature). But if we’re concerned to do our best to “get” what the author(s) intended, then we have a lot of work ahead of us, especially dealing with a collection of ancient books written in ancient languages from ancient and diverse cultures with ancient and diverse systems of law, morality, and religion. If that work is beyond us, then we at least have the work of learning from the experts.

 

So should you read the Bible on your own, in light of all this?  Yes!  Of course.  God will speak.  Just be sure you check with your friends (and maybe a good commentary) before you say, “God told me…”

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