Wednesday, April 08, 2015

It’s Not a Bug …

How many times have you made an ironic remark that sailed right over someone’s head, said something sarcastic that much to your surprise was taken literally, or made a joke that went over like a lead balloon?

You said one thing. A different interpretation was taken.

In the course of looking into the history of universalist thought, I came across this statement on one of the relevant Wikipedia pages: “The Bible itself has a variety of verses that appear to be contradictory if not given additional reader interpretation.”

That’s worth thinking about for a moment, isn’t it.

Everything is “Open to Interpretation”

First, every statement made or written in the history of humankind is to some degree open to interpretation. Words almost invariably have more than one meaning and those meanings are not immutable. They evolve sufficiently over decades that one generation may find itself offended by a word considered entirely harmless by the next. (Such misunderstandings may be cultural too; more often the word in question has simply morphed with time.)

Put words together and you have even greater opportunity for miscommunication. The more relaxed and natural the conversation we are having and the better we know the people to whom we are speaking, the more casually we tend to use words and the greater chance they will be misunderstood by those who are not intimately acquainted with our history, current circumstances, habits, personalities, and so on.

Ambiguity is why lawyerese exists, and why nobody ever reads the small print. Lawyers attempt to define all terms, close off all possible sources of misinterpretation and limit any potential confusion for the purpose of protecting one party from another. As a result, their work product is unreadable to most people. We don’t even try. Even so, loopholes are forever being found in the most overwritten agreements, and the courts rule in ways neither the lawyers nor those whose interests they seek to protect have contemplated.

If every conversation had to be conducted with legal precision, I’m convinced we would soon stop talking altogether.

The point is that the Bible is not unique in requiring “additional reader interpretation”. Ambiguity and the frequent necessity for clarification are bog-standard features of human communication.

Contradictions Galore

Second, while the Wikipedia statement is undoubtedly true of the debate around the false notion of universal salvation, we shouldn’t stop there: additional interpretation is required wherever we may be unclear about what scripture teaches, whether the subject is the sovereignty of God, the free will of man, the age of the earth, the question of whether or not there will be a “Rapture” and when it will occur in relation to the Great Tribulation, and so on and so on. Almost every subject in the Bible that one might debate needs additional interpretation. Multiple websites are devoted to the comparison of scriptures that appear to be contradictory.

Also, there are many passages of scripture that appear straightforward and obvious to the casual reader but are not as simple as they look. The command “Thou shalt not kill”, for instance, is routinely used as an objection to capital punishment. On the face of it, nothing could be clearer. It’s only four words, after all; none longer than five letters in English. How hard can it be to understand? Yet there are very good reasons to kill in specific situations, both historically and currently; scripture supplies many of them.

Critics of the Bible would like us to be surprised by the number of its statements that may be taken in different ways by those who are inattentive or unread, but it is entirely to be expected. No single statement in any language, however brief and on point, can be expected to self-qualify so perfectly that additional information is never required. It is in the nature of human communication.

We had better get used to the idea of discussing alternative interpretations, or we will not be much use in sharing the word of God with others. Not everything in the Bible is intuitive, and we are unwise to dumb down what the scripture actually teaches or obfuscate in the interest of trying to make things appear clearer and more obvious than they actually are.

Additional Reader Interpretation

Third, the phrase “additional reader interpretation” is a bit loaded and evokes the prospect of subjectivity in the approach to scripture. “How do you read it?” is a fantastic question to ask to draw out what the other person is thinking. However, some Christians have heard the phrase “What does it mean to me?” so often in church that they seem to have absorbed by osmosis the notion that all interpretations are equally valid: as long as you have one, live and let live.

In discussing “reader interpretation”, it should be understood that using the labels “right” and “wrong” to describe the way we read a text are only convenient shorthand. Interpretations exist on a continuum from “preposterous” to “not rationally disputable”. A good interpretation makes any statement consistent with its immediate context, its larger context and the whole teaching of scripture. It is buttressed by similar statements elsewhere in the word of God. A bad interpretation is generally all alone twisting in the wind.

It also helps if we can look to the example of Christ, the apostles and other demonstrably godly men and women to see how we ought to act on their teaching, convictions and principles. The command “judge not, that you not be judged”, for instance, may seem open to quite a bit of interpretation until we look at how the Lord and the apostles lived it out in their relationships with others. Their actions and interactions tell us how they understood these words and others much better than any speculation about what they might have intended. By carefully observing how they behaved we can discern whether “judge” means this or that.

Interpretive Difficulty is Not a Free Pass

Fourth, the fact that there can be numerous possible interpretations of any particular passage does not absolve us from the responsibility of finding the best one and acting on it. God holds people accountable for their thoughts, words, actions and (especially where his Son is concerned) their inactions, whether or not they happen to concur with the generally-accepted interpretation of his words. This is particularly relevant with respect to salvation, where God “commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness”. As to how the Lord Jesus is to be viewed, God is not merely making suggestions.

But this fact is relevant to disagreements about meaning between Christians too. Timothy was told to “study” to show himself approved. There is a right way and a wrong way to handle the word of truth, or if we want to think of the continuum I mentioned, there are better ways and worse ways.

I’d rather find the better ways, thank you.

Receptive Hearts Interpret More Easily

Fifth, and finally, the degree to which any statement is open to interpretation is in direct proportion to its unpalatability to the natural man. Or, as Paul puts it:
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Receptive, grateful, humbled and broken hearts interpret difficult scriptural commands or principles much more easily than proud, contrary and unthankful ones. To the natural man, the commands of God are intrusive, his ways offensive and perplexing and his morals insufficiently nuanced.

But the scripture was not written for the sort of critic who reads a few lines, cuts them off with a knife and throws them in the fire. It was written for those who find in that sort of presumption a cautionary tale.

That’s not a bug, folks, it’s a feature.

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