Interpreting the Bible Is a Knotty Business

Interpreting the Bible Is a Knotty Business

By Steve Kindle

What’s the biggest misconception about biblical interpretation? Not knowing that our worldview predetermines the interpretive outcome, or at least limits the possibilities. Even the biblical writers operated from a specific understanding of their world. Trouble begins when we confuse their world with ours, and there is no end to the confusion that entails.

Everyone sees their world through a metaphorical lens. If, say, you put on a pair of sunglasses with yellow lenses, the world will appear tinged in yellow. The world we see is always filtered through whatever interpretive lens we have. These lenses are often inherited or accumulated over time. Once a lens is in place, knowingly or unknowingly, everything flows from this.  They are simply the “givens” we inherit from the world we are born into. This is why if you are born in the Middle East you are likely a Muslim, or in Punjab, a Sikh.

Many are unaware they even employ a lens. For those who are unaware, they believe their conclusions are uninfluenced by anything other than pure logic.  For those of us who are aware, we are constantly judging our results with this in mind.

[Self-evident plug: I delve into this in my little book, “I’m Right and You’re Wrong!” Just click on the Books link on the Menu.]

Even biblical writers had lenses on when they took quill in hand. And I would put most of them in the Unaware category. Like most modern concepts, “worldview” would escape them. An easy example is why Paul saw same-sex activity as “unnatural.” In his purity world, fish had scales, therefore unscaled catfish are an abomination. So say goodbye to lobster and catfish! Pure animals have both cloven hooves and chew the cud (why, who knows?). Therefore, pigs are unclean because they don’t have cloven hooves. Humans are meant for procreation, therefore any act that is not for that purpose (same-sex sex) is an abomination. We who don’t live in a proscribed world of pure and impure find this logic wanting.

Here’s an example of a statement of Paul’s that makes sense only in his worldview. Ephesians 1:3-10 Here is what one interpreter made of this:

Note Paul’s understanding of the mind of God (if we can talk in such terms) before the creation of the world: “Before the foundation of the world,” he says, God’s first and primary purpose was to create a people for himself, who would live with him “holy and blameless in love.” Before and above anything else, he thought about a people he would adopt as family, who would be brothers and sisters of Jesus his Son.

I agree with the interpreter’s understanding of Paul (or whomever the author was), but I can’t agree with how he thought Paul reached his conclusion. Paul’s thinking could only have come from one who believed that the world was recently created (that 18.5 billion years had not elapsed), that the world was created as it is now, and God moved immediately to establish the human race.

One of the gifts that progressive, postmodern Christianity gives is how to see the biblical world on its own terms and not confuse it with our world. Conflating the two is the chief reason the Bible is misused and so many people dismiss it. Our task should be to make the Bible clear on its own terms and then see if it can be found useful today. Quite often it is. But it will remain either obscure or irrelevant if we don’t do this.

Another self-evident plug: Our video series, “Doorways into Progressive Christianity,” attempts to do just that. They are not expensive and can be reviewed at no charge for 72 hours. Check them out here:  Show them to your congregation or small groups and you will get some great discussions going.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting the Bible Is a Knotty Business”

  1. Fr Michael Backlund

    Love it, Steve! Preach it! Reading consequential texts such as those considered “sacred,” not only those in the Abrahamic traditions but in all religions, as if they can be understood in their “plain language” by anyone at any time in any cultural context has led to all kinds of mischief, from small matters to lethal ones. Making the assumption that believers with a mastery of basic vocabulary – albeit in the language their text has been translated into by someone whose competence to do so varies widely – can easily understand the scriptures because they have “the holy spirit” as guarantor of the accuracy of their private interpretation, has been and continues to be a dreadful problem. I’ve been through that phase myself, and the congregations to whom I’ve been preaching have come to be wary, I think, of what seems to be the “plain language” of the scriptures. Since our conclusions based on such interpretations have been and are of such magnitude socially, environmentally, and even militarily, I constantly remind myself, and counsel others to do the same, to approach such texts with the same respect and caution I would when working with wiring in and around my home’s main electrical panel. That is, among other things, only while doing so stone-cold sober, with rubber-soled shoes and dry hands, and after double checking that my insurance policy is up-to-date. Better still: calling in the experts, keeping an open mind, asking a lot of questions, getting a second and third scholarly opinion, and making vastly fewer assumptions regarding my own competence.

    1. Well said, Father Michael!

      Speaking of the “plain language” of Scripture…In an adult Bible study, I mentioned that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted text. Someone said they know of a text that needs no interpretation. He offered, “God is love.” To which I replied, “What do you mean by God, and what do you mean by love? Or for that matter, what did the Epistle writer mean?” Your caution about humility before the text is the first step in understanding, perhaps even acknowledging that we really only approach a text’s meaning, never quite entering its fullness.

      Thanks for commenting.

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