Friday, 14 August 2009

I Took A Cat To Holland

Biblical interpretation....

I am always weary of anyone who claims to KNOW what the Bible is saying over any particular issue.  When people or groups claim ultimate biblical knowledge and understanding I am always troubled.  How can we ever truly KNOW what Scripture is saying?  We can BELIEVE what Scripture is saying and have a level of confidence in that interpretation, but ultimate knowledge can never be assumed.  Here's a good analogy:

'I took a cat to Holland'.  
Now if I wrote that in a letter, what would I mean?  It can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

1. I took a feline to the Netherlands
2. I took a catamaran to the Netherlands
3. I took a Jaguar car to Holland-On-Sea
4. I took a catalytic converter to Holland

...and I'm sure the list could continue.

The thing with Scripture is that none of us can be sure of each authors primary meaning and context.  We can make very educated guesses, but absolute certainty can never be ours.

That is why Scripture as a blueprint can never be helpful or even attainable.  Scripture is there to reveal to us something of who God is and guide and lead us in our ethics and practice in the world we live in today.


Anonymous said...

Hi Joe, Rob again! I really don't have time to keep responding but your comments keep making me want to discuss things! We really must go for a beer otherwise I will have to keep commenting!

Thanks anyway for the banter thus far... was fascinated by some of your latest remarks about the Bible. Wanted to clarify what you are saying.

Are you really denying that anyone can have any sense of confidence about what the Bible is saying on any given topic? Theologians call the positive version of this doctrine the "clarity of scripture" and most would consider that denying it ultimately leads to dimishing any sense of the biblical authority. For instance, if we cannot know what it means how can we really obey anything it says? How will it have any authority in our lives? Now I'm not really sure you are saying this - presumably you believe we can know things for certain about the identity of Christ. I've read a really good chapter on this whole topic, might be in Grudems Systematic Theology, you read it?

I guess taking a "hard sceptisim" view about the clarity of scripture is really self refuting just like "hard sceptisism" about anything is self refuting - if you can't know anything for certain how can you know for certain that you can't know anything for certain. If you cannot know you cannot know so you have just said nothing in a very long winded way!!

Anyway be interested in your clarification here. God bless. Rob.

Joe said...

Hi Rob - Congrats with the news about the baby! Give our love to Christine.

I'm not saying we cannot have any confidence in what Scripture says and our understanding of Scripture, I'm saying that we must be careful not to believe our interpretation is THE interpretation of Scripture.

None of us come to Scripture as a blank canvas. None of us read it as a blank canvas. We all project onto our reading of Scripture our own culture, tradition, bias, doctrine etc. So whenever we read Scripture we have to be aware that we are never neutral.

We can never ask Paul what he actually meant when he wrote his letters. We are always interpreting his writings according to our own thoughts.

Take the women in eldership debate. Some traditions read Scripture and say that it clearly says that women must not be in eldership. Others (like myself) read it and say clearly women are meant to be in eldership.

Like I said in a previous post, I don't read Scripture as a blueprint. We have to read Scripture in light of the Church tradition and according to its own context.

I believe Scripture reveals to us who God is and that in Christ we see the fulness of God.

Joe said...

BTW, I haven't read much of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. I've dipped into it but don't find his writing stimulates me very much.

Thinking a little bit more about interpretation...

When Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God he often uses parables. I think that he does this because all human language is inadequate to truly convey what the Kingdom of God is like. So we may glimpse at what the KOG is like, but all language is inadequate.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jo,

I think you say some very important things about none of us being "neutral" when approaching scripture. I call this the myth of pure biblical objectivity.

Now you said:
"I'm not saying we cannot have any confidence in what Scripture says and our understanding of Scripture, I'm saying that we must be careful not to believe our interpretation is THE interpretation of Scripture." Which is of course true - but usually only one interpretation can be correct. For example either: a) God always approves of women in eldership b) God never approves of women in eldership or c) God sometimes approves of women in eldership. But not all three at the same time!! While we must be humble and generous not forgetting that other see things differently, we can still be convinced and confident in our minds that we have understood what scripture is saying on many topics.

One thing that must be acknowledgted here is the vast amount on which nearly all christians everywhere agree. We often focus on what divides us but there is much common ground - the creeds for instance - does any denomination in the world deny the early creeds - I don't think so.

Now I have also been thinking alot about the teaching of Jesus and his use of parables. Jesus' main concern is clearly not clarity! It seems he is always looking to expose our hearts and go deeper. Real love, real change, real belief are responses of far greater worth to Jesus than formalism and flawless doctrine. This really challenges me. I read the sermon on the mount yesterday, he has to be the most uncomfortably wonderful teacher ever! I am fasinated by the way he combines impossibly high moral standards with radically inclusive community. Our only hope must be his mercy and grace.

You said
"I don't read Scripture as a blueprint. We have to read Scripture in light of the Church tradition and according to its own context."
I've read your other post too but again not sure what you are really saying. Are you saying scripture alone is not suffucient? Not sufficient for what exactly? If it's not suffucient for something what replaces it? Church tradition? Us? How do we know how to do church if scripture isn't a blueprint?

Anyway, good to discuss. Hope you and the family are well.

Joe said...

Scripture is a means of God's grace. Scripture is not there simply to inform us, but it is there to transform us. As Scripture is read and heard, the Spirit speaks and acts through it. Through Scripture the Spirit mediates to us His gracious presence and action and therefore we are changed and sanctified by the Spirit as he speaks through Scripture.

Not only that, but as we read Scripture, the Church itself becomes a part of the gospel story. The Spirit causes us to 'indwell' the gospel story and become a living witness to that story. Scripture is a mystery, it is sacramental, it is a means of grace. And this is what I believe about Scripture.

Now coming back to your questions;

We cannot add or take away anything from Scripture. It is God's Word, living and active.

Scripture however is read within the context and tradition of the Church catholic, and it is within this community that Scripture has been interpreted. Therefore Scripture cannot mean just anything, there are theological constraints to reading it which if diverted away from would mean the reader would no longer be a part of the Church community (Jehovah's Witnesses are an example of this). So with the Creeds we have the clearest example of those theological constraints made as a witness to their interpretation to Scripture.

So Scripture is read and interpreted according to the community which is the Church. And it was the Church that was formed before the New Testament, as Israel as a community existed before the Torah. And it was God's speaking through the Church which was formative of Scripture. It was the life and witness of the Church, in the power of the Spirit, that was formative of Scripture.

Scripture is a witness to the presence and action of God through the Church at a particular time in a particular context. So we have to ask whether a contemporary pattern and ordering of Church is a consistent and appropriate response to the New Testament witness, which is very different to treating the New Testament as a blueprint.

The Church today cannot (in my opinion) look at the early church and believe that we can blueprint what they did and believe that this is THE way to do church. The early church were in a completely different context responding to a completely different world-view. The Church is not called to go backwards and be something it used to be, it is called to journey forwards, towards the goal that is ours in Christ. It is called to be transformed casting off that which hinders us. Scripture is not blueprint for Church. Rather Church must witness to Scripture according to its own context.

It would be very naive of us to believe that we read and interpret Scripture in isolation, and it would be wrong to do that. We read and interpret Scripture according to the witness and tradition of the Church. And this is to be celebrated because it is in this tradition that we can say that we are one. So whatever our differences may be, we can celebrate our oneness because we come to Scripture affirming the Core belief that Jesus is Lord.

Tom Haward said...

I guess I find it fascinating that you refer to Scripture as fact. Ultimately the Bible is a book, written my man and interpreted by man, with the belief that God has been involved in its creation. You do not know God helped inspire its creation, you believe you know.

Therefore, confidence in the Bible's authenticity is actually a leap of faith. You have to be faithful that there is a God who inspired those who wrote it and you have to be full of faith to believe no-one used their own agenda in any of the writings. Although most of the NT is written by one man, so that creates many questions about objectivity.

To KNOW the Bible is 'true' (whatever that phrase means) is a falsity. To believe you know the Bible is true is valid. As is believing to know the Bible is irrelevant and false.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Rob here, good to hear from you. Just wanted to pick up on a few things you've said and ask questions really. It seems to me that you have some very different ideas about truth. I would be really interested to hear more of your thinking on this. The following link is a talk on this topic and it is from an evangelical viewpoint. I don't think you will agree with eveything said but I'd be interested to know your thoughts in response. The talk on "The truth" was the one I had in mind. It was delivered to a group of skeptical students at Oxford university.

Now you are raising a host of questions such as "Is it possible to know with any confidence that the Bible is true?" and "Is it possible to know with any confidence what the Bible means?".
I'm guessing that your answer to both questions is no - right?
Again, I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the following link. which i think may be relevant but i can't be sure as it won't play at the moment!

Take care,

Tom Haward said...


I understand truth as something which can be verified with certainty to be so. It's true that the sum of a triangle comes to 180 degrees. It's true that the earth orbits the sun and so forth. Those are physical truths.

When it comes to the Bible and the person of Christ, existence of God and so forth, those are much more subjective, theological and philosophical truths or falsities. You believe the Bible to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore true in what it states, from your understanding of it. You are only able to go so far as to say you believe it to be true. Issues of faith can only go so far until they are ground in subjectivity. History is not able to verify many things to do with the Bible (as with non-religious ancient texts) and so subjective faith of a stated 'truth' has to step in.

I guess the question is, do you know you believe it to be true? If you don't know that you believe it to be true and simply have the assertion that it is true with no room for doubt, we move into the realms of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism gives no room for doubt or sway from certain dogmas - it breeds contempt, not love. It's actually not the antidote to post- modernism - it's no antidote at all.

You can have confidence in historical accuracy of texts and therefore confidence in the stories they tell, but no-one (unless with arrogance) can be absolutely certain about matters of faith and the supernatural. That's why I have issue with certain streams of Christianity and their claim to know the Bible is 100% 'true'. I've been there and done that and feel ashamed of my arrogance at that time. If there is a God, then he has left too many questions unanswered and too many abstract notions in play for anyone to claim they have absolute truth over certain matters.

"Truth exists because God exists," is not a true statement. It's a faith statement. This is where I have issue. Our lives, experiences, hurts, joys and so on, have a massive influence on how we see reality and interact with it. I completely agree that truth exists but I do not agree with statements of faith being stated as fact.

I believe the Bible's content is able to give much to people's lives, but I do not believe it is the only thing that can give much to someone's life. I also believe that the Bible can be interpreted in too many ways (most of which can be justified) and therefore must not be used as the only means to guide people's lives.

Rob said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your reply - and for clarifying some of your views on truth.

You asked me whether I believe the Bible is true or whether I know the Bible is true. The latter phrase seems to suggest a greater degree of certainty.

I think in all honesty I would have to say yes to both. At first I "believed" and became persuaded that Christianity and truths of the Bible were real and genuine. But as I have grown as a Christian and studied and experienced more of life I would say I have gained a deeper sense of confidence in these truths. Not that I never doubt any aspect of christianity or am convinced that I have interpreted everything correctly. But I am more convinced that the Bible contains the truth than I was at the beginning.

I don't see how we can make the link between having greater confidence in something being true and necessarily being less loving? Atheists, Buddhists, Liberal Christians, Evangelical Christians can all be capabale of that in equal measure I am sure regardless of how certian they are!

Unanswered questions are a problem for every world view - and no-one has the monopoly on them. I don't think anyone has an entirely satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering for instance but that doesn't cause me to conclude that Christianity is untruthful as a world view. And we all have to come down on one side of the fence somewhere along the line.

Tom let me suggest one more talk to you from the same speaker. It is an absolute favourite of mine and explores what is unique about the christian gospel. Let me know what you think.

Anyway I think I owe you a drink too for all this banter! Hope you and Abi are well.