Interpretation

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 “Me, I’m on the road again heading for another joint/We always thought the same way/We just started from a different point of view/Tangled up in blue”    Bob Dylan

When I have had the temerity, some would say folly, of raising and tackling a controversial subject by way of discussion with anyone who is up for it, It has been an interesting exercise and a helpful exposure to how other people think and how they formulate their opinions, where it starts, how it progresses and when the divergence occurs. Inevitably we reach an impasse,  a place where we can go no further. On the subject, there seems to be no possibility of a meeting of minds and we have simply to agree to disagree and get on with things as best we can. If it is a side issue or its importance does not touch our lives, it is easy, but if it impacts directly on our situation it can be seriously problematic.

When the issue relates to the bible, the sticking point is usually over interpretation. The perceived wisdom is that we read through different lens and interpret scripture in different ways.  So it is inevitable, from a reading of scripture we see things differently and can end up with different, sometimes opposing conclusions. That makes such a lot of sense and is quite understandable. It happens all the time and provides the colour and variety as well as the exciting tension of living. It allows us to be inclusive and yet recognise divergence. It is an acceptance of complimentary perspectives.

There is however, one assumption, one given in this position that shows it to be not quite accommodating as it seems. It presupposes, it prejudges that the bible, valuable, insightful, full of great things and a treasure trove of wisdom as it is, is in a way no different from any other writings. It was written by men and while it has been the single most significant influence in the development of western civilisation it is still a book (or library of books) with contradictions errors and most importantly subject like any other book to criticism.  It can be a source of great joy and inspiration and an object of our love. It can contain within its pages what we can believe to be the word of God but of itself it is not the word of God. It is not the words from the mouth of God, complete, authoritative and without error, the voice of God transmitted to us. Instead it is fallible, inconclusive and contradictory . That, I believe is the brick wall we meet in our discussions. That is where the roads part. The issue is not over the interpretation of the Bible, the issue is over what the Bible actually is.

I remember a group discussion many years ago led by a well-respected minister, highly regarded in “evangelical” circles. He was getting us round to thinking about how we interpret the bible and how our view can change and how we look at scripture differently. He described it as looking through different lenses, the lens we wear when we look at the bible. So we could read the prophet Amos, for example, in a traditional way and see certain truths then we could look at it from a more critical way and find quite different truths.   I was rattled, but managed to stammer out “but surely we need to clean our glasses open our ears and let scripture speak to us so that we can find the truth” he replied with one of those kindly sounding but patronising put downs “ Yes I know, I used to think like that too”.

This reached a new level of clarity for me quite recently. It was during Sunday worship and strangely through what they call “The children’s address”. It was quite profound. It was about glasses, how people with poor eyesight need them to see and are lost without them. And it was about the bible. The point was not that you needed good glasses or glasses with different kinds of lenses to read and understand scripture. The point was that the books of the bible are themselves the glasses that we need to look through and see who God is, who we are, why this world is the way it is and how we can begin to make sense of it.

Crawford Mackenzie

 

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Interpretation

  1. I’m curious to know how you apply this to more tricky passages in the Bible, e.g. Psalm 137 verse 9. If we use this passage as a ‘lens’ to see ‘ who God is, who we are…’ we might take a very literal understanding that God actually rejoices over brutal reprisals against our enemies that involve the destruction of their children. But of course, that’s not what we do, instead we say, “Oh, this is the Christian calling out to God for justice and when you take it together with Matthew 5:38 we see that Jesus calls us to a different response to evil.” We choose to understand aspects of the Bible by illuminating them with other passages. Fine, but that is surely an interpretation, is it not?

    Jeannie Mackenzie

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I think the example you describe certainly involves interpretation and interpretation is essential to any understanding. Of course. I was thinking of where we start when we interpret and I think that is the root of the controversy. Is it a matter of my view or am I subject to a higher authority. I subscribe to the later because I believe it to be true and that is what make sense of life and helps me negotiate the world.

  2. Interesting. I recall discussing this with you on Facebook some time ago. I am not sure that you are right to say that the interpretation issue hinges on the nature of the Bible. My reason for doubting that is that many individuals and groups who would share your basic belief about the Bible also are open about their interpretation framework. If I am right this seems to leave the Bible believer with three choices. One is to hold that the Bible is so clear in its import that there is immediate and absolute clarity as to its message. This would make it similar to a public notice like DON’T WALK ON THE GRASS. I would suggest that the example Jeannie gives in her comment would make it difficult to swallow that approach. The second would be to have a framework for interpretation, which of course puts you in another difficulty, in that such an approach sets an individual or an authority in a sense “above” the Bible. The third way is some sort of confidence in the meaning trends that are shared in your faith community, perhaps not fully articulated, plus a confidence arising from the personal experience of the believer that feels like a perfect match with the Bible’s message. That is a very subjective route to go down.

    • Thanks. But I don’t think I said that interpretation issues hinge on the nature of the bible. What I was trying to get to was that the controversy, the obstacle, was not actually about interpretation but about what the bible is. Interpretation seems a secondary issue to what you see as a reality (or not).

      • I also struggle with the three options you give “bible believers” people who, you say, share my basic beliefs- fundamentalist, liberal or subjective. I have thought about it and I don’t identify with any, but I would hold that the bible is absolutely clear (although your illustration of “keep of the grass” is a pretty jaundiced parody of scripture).The fact that it doesn’t appear clear to us is, I think, more to do with our poor sight and our murky glasses with the lenses we put in to filter out what we don’t want to see.

      • Thanks, have now had a second look at your post. I thought you were saying that acceptance of interpretive variety is based on the assumption that the Bible is an “ordinary” book. It still seems to read like that to me. Anyway I wasn’t seeing this as a controversy, more a matter of some interest to me in the student of humanity sense, and because I naturally reflect on what my own history in this has been.

  3. On your second reply. I did not mean to be sarcastic in the park sign analogy – it was more to clear that option out of the way. Maybe your recognition of an impasse is accurate and I do accept that you find the message of the Bible absolutely clear. But the student niggles on . . Leaving aside what may not “enter into the substance of the faith” would you be ever saying that a fellow Christian who understands the Bible differently from you on what you see as a major issue has not the clarity?

    • Wow. That is an interesting question and a tricky one, at that, too (and apologise for taking so long to respond) If I said “No” then my argument would be tied in knots. If I said “Yes” it would seem like rank arrogance. I feel I am being pushed into making a judgement on another person’s faith or clarity of vision and I am not comfortable about that. I don’t think that is what it is about. When what you might call fellow Christians see the bible as something differently, as less than the word of God, authoritative and inerrant, then the disagreement is fundamental and it is hard almost impossible to discuss different interpretations because we are essentially starting from a different place. If it all boils down to my interpretation, which is as valid as yours, even though we might end up with totally opposing views, then the object of our interpretation is denied its authority.

  4. Thanks. I am not trying to trap you but I was thinking about a different interpretation from one who shares your view of the Bible, as authoritative and inerrant, say a Jehovah’s Witness believer.

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