Has the multiplicity of interpretations made the Bible incomprehensible? —YES
[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by Steve Kindle
For those of us in the West, once the Roman Catholic Church lost its hegemonic hold on the content of the faith, it’s become “every man for himself.” Or in the words of pope of the Reformation period, “With every man his Bible, soon every man his own church.” Quite prophetic, wouldn’t you say?
The Reformation’s emphasis on the right of every believer to interpret the Bible soon became warrant for any old interpretation that suits the interpreter. Who is there to suggest otherwise?
Add to this that the scholarly biblical academy can’t seem to come to a consensus on, well, you name it. We’ve arrived at a point where biblical inquirers are presented with a smorgasbord of options, and we pick and choose as it suits us, with no better reason than choosing a Ford over a Chevy, merely personal preference.
This all begins with the complicated nature of the Bible itself. In order to make sense out of the 31,102 verses, 1,190 chapters and 66 assorted books, it is necessary to employ a schema, or template, to organize its contents into a manageable whole. This is truly a “can of worms,” as the options for this are mind boggling. Additionally, the Bible is a product of people with a worldview quite different from ours. It’s a very difficult task to enter into that ancient world and think as they did. It requires immersing ourselves in cultures two to three thousand years in the past. Many bypass this step and just read it like the daily newspaper. This “what it means today must be what it meant then” approach is sure to yield disappointing results.
What this has done to the church is create oases of partisanship based not on what is found to be the highest truth, but on, as we know from H. Richard Niebuhr on down, economic and political confederacies. It means, “I belong to my denomination because I was raised in it,” or “The people were good to me and so nice.” No matter that you are led by a Jim Jones (Peoples Temple), or a Martin Luther King, Jr. People who, indeed, attempt to find the church closest to the Bible soon learn that it is a fool’s errand. Even the New Testament churches present a wide range of doctrines and differ in many ways. What would the doctrinally perfect church look like? The fact that there are hundreds of options (if not thousands) reflects the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of making sense of the biblical data to anyone but the interpreters.
The classic creeds from the Nicaean forward were attempts to cull the basics from Apostolic Christianity to bring order and clarity to the church. All they did was divide the church then, and today make understanding them as difficult as understanding the Bible. Homoousios anyone?
A literal understanding of the words in the Bible is no help either. Whether the literalist understands it or not, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted text. Whatever lens we view the Bible through will control the outcome. And we all wear lenses.
Now, as to the meaning of incomprehensible. The dictionaries basically define it as “unable to make sense.” My overall point is this: Because the Bible does not speak with one voice, but covers a variety of points of view, and even contradicts itself from time to time, one can’t expect its interpreters to do any better. This cacophony of interpretations is bewildering and finally debilitating to the average Bible reader who ultimately surrenders to what seems best, unable confidently to sort out the best among its many contenders. “This makes sense to me,” serves as the final judgment, because we make it make sense.
Any “sense” made from the Bible, is a derivative sense, derived primarily from the approach taken in the reading. There is no obvious sense lying on the surface for any fool to see.
None of this is, of course, the Bible’s fault. It has the inconvenience of being made up of words. Words are, after all, symbols, and symbols are capable of wide meaning, especially when read by people with different backgrounds and experiences. The meaning taken from the Bible varies greatly among women, minorities, third world, poor, oppressed, and oppressor (to name only a few). The meanings are so dissimilar that one sometimes wonders if they are reading the same book.
The real question is, is this a problem? Not if you understand that diversity of interpretive outcomes is inevitable. In fact, diversity of interpretation, for those who remain tentative in their work, is welcome. Why? Because it acts as a corrective. If we remain humble before the text and are willing to listen to others, inch by inch, we may actually come to a more suitable outcome than simply camping on what seems good to us.
This diversity of interpretations is also good for us. Paul’s advice that we “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” puts the burden on seeking and finding for ourselves, but not just by ourselves, but in community with other seekers. Only in community can we be exposed to correctives and also the motivation to live out our discovered truths. Even though we may never find the ultimate answer (we see in a mirror, darkly), journeying together has its own rewards. In a very substantial way, the enigma of the Bible is also its greatest good.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I may be right about some of the more difficult areas of biblical interpretation, but the Bible is very clear on what we need to know for our salvation. Oh, really? Is Paul the authority that we are saved by grace through faith–not of works? Or is it James who says that we are not saved by faith alone? Or are the Restoration churches correct in insisting that baptism for the remission of sins is necessary for salvation, or the Baptists who believe that baptism follows salvation? And all are against the Calvinists who insist that humans have nothing to do with the decision! (We could go on, couldn’t we.)
Therefore, in the words of Micah,
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Or, as Ecclesiastes would say, “This is the end of the matter.”
What you highlight has been a problem that has plagued the advance of knowledge since at least the time of the sophists in early Greece history and has repeatedly reappeared from time to time. Currently it is found primarily on the left in the popularity of relativism and more formally in Critical Theory.
Its refutation was one of the main subjects of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and their refutations and others are a significant part of the foundations upon which Western Civilization has been built, which is perhaps why they have been removed from the standard curriculum at so many colleges.
Therein lies the rub. While the details may differ, the core of this argument would apply equally well to all communication including this one. After all just what is meant by incomprehensible? That we can understand nothing? That we will can never understand everything? That we will never completely agree? If it is the last two, I would agree, but then that would be a strange way to phrase this. If the first, then I would disagree, as not everything is up for grabs. Then again, rarely, is relativism ever pushed that far. Rather, it is pushed just far enough to undermine those beliefs that one disagrees with but not so far as to undermine all beliefs.
This is why currently the threat to free thought and speech come almost completely from the left with their wide variety of speech codes, trigger warning, and censorship. While they proclaim relativism, disagree with them and they will try to ruin your life should you draw their attention.
This is one of the major problems I have with such arguments, however reasonable they may sound, they cannot be lived out in any consistent manner. Ultimately they undermined themselves.
To be clear this does not mean that there is never any room for skepticism. This is a matter of the reasons and arguments put forth. As Paul said, test everything, hold on to the good. It is this concept of testing that is so key to science. Frankly I find it quite ironic that those who argue for relativity the strongest will turn around and argue that no dissent is legitimate for the beliefs they think are important beliefs such as global warming.
For them, it does not matter that this is based on computer models whose prediction have consistently been wrong. It does not matter that some of their most convincing arguments have turned out to be fraudulent. It does not matter that supporters have been caught more than once manipulating the data to get the results they want. It does not matter that Satellite data has shown no warming since it was started to be collected 20 years ago. None of this matters and to raise such issues is somehow invalid. Those who do raise them will be personally, and thus irrationally attacked.
On the other hand, one might ask, if consensus is the determiner in science, why not in the body of Christ? While the focus is for obvious reason on those areas where Christians disagree, the simple fact is that Christians agree on far more than they disagree as I point out in my book, Christianity and Secularism.
Sure there have always be some who disagreed, but then not all disagreement is equal. Sure we may all have lenses, but then some lenses are better than others. After all, there are people who think we did not go to the moon, or that 911 was really a false flag operation by the Jews. That disagreement exists does not mean that all sides are equally valid. Some disagreement can safely be seen as wrong.
Still, while I do not believe that consensus is a measure of truth, given this consensus it is hard to make a case that the Bible is incomprehensible, and while there is room for legitimate disagreement in some places, not everything is up for grabs. For example, the Mormon view that they are the restored Church and represent the true teaching of Christianity can, I believe, safely be rejected.
Elgin, thank you for another thoughtful comment. Indeed, the history of Western civilization is one of moving from one accepted view of reality to another. I’m glad you mentioned Plato and Aristotle. As you know, their philosophies are the very opposite of each other’s. And they are only one generation apart. In fact, in many ways, we are still trying to decide which one offers the more cogent view. Ironically, having to choose which one best answers the problem of relativism becomes a relativistic pursuit.
Since you are so dead-set against relativity, you must think there is a point of view that is unassailable. That’s my problem with absolutism—there is only one right view. If you object to this on the grounds that it is possible for anyone to be wrong, then we are right back in the relativist game.
As for the incomprehensibility of the Bible, for you to deny this you must have a means of making it perfectly clear. Would you care to share it?
While Plato and Aristotle did have significant differences, they did agree that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that we can know it. I would agree that we are constant “moving from one accepted view of reality to another.” Only I would argue that the history of western Civilization has been in the direction of a greater understanding of objective truth, that there has been a purpose and direction, and while there have certainly been missteps and even reversals from time to time, that over all we have moved in a good direction.
But you are correct that I reject relativism. After all is it just a matter of preference that torturing babies for fun is wrong? I believe it is inherently wrong and that we can know this. If someone believes differently, if they think that torturing babies for fun is sort of like which flavor of ice cream you prefer, that some people like chocolate, others vanilla, some like torturing babies while others don’t; it is all just a matter of preference, then you are correct, I am very confident in saying they are wrong.
Again this is my problem with relativism, it is simple not a system that we could, or at least would be willing to, live by.
After all if everything is relative, then it really would not matter in any objectively true sense how society was structured or what the laws were. All the advances of Western Civilization in human rights and tolerance would have been wasted. Why should we see the abolitionist movement as noble, if slavery was really a preference with no real objective basis to choose between slavery and abolition? Why should we reject racism, or on what basis could we object to the ISIS forcing young girls into sex slavery?
That said, and perhaps I am wrong, but I do detect a bit of black and white thinking in your response. I do reject relativism, and believe that there is objective truth and that we can know it. But I do not believe we can always know it. It is not, for me, one or the other.
For example, the authorship of the casket letters, the letters allegedly written my Mary Queen of Scots that showed her conspiring against Queen Elisabeth resulting in her execution, has one and only one correct answer. Either she was responsible for them, or they were forged. But which, at least for the moment, is lost to history and there are scholars on both sides of this question.
Also I would say that there is often a big gap between what something says, and what the deeper meaning is and what the implications are that we draw form this. Thus I think John 14:6 is at a basis level very clear and easily understood. “Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However, as we seek to plumb the depths of this statement legitimate disagreements can arise, and when we start considering what this means for those who have never heard of Christ there is plenty of room for disagreement. However, I would argue that any understanding of this that conflicted with that basic statement was invalid. This by the way, is why I tend to stick to the main points being made within the context of the statement. When I do this often most of the disagreements I read about in commentaries become irrelevant to understanding the passage.
But while I do believe that there is, and can be only one absolute truth I do not believe we can always know it. For me our knowledge of the truth is much more like a spectrum with unknowable on one side and knowable on the other. Much of what we know is in the middle. Also I believe that truth is often very complex, and sometimes our disagreements are over different partial truths. Thus in the 19th century debate over whether light was a particle or a wave, it turns out that it is both.
As for my complete method, that will have to wait, as that is the subject of the book I am currently writing, assuming of course, I can ever finish it, and assuming Henry decides to publish it. (No worries Henry, it is a long way off)
My thesis is that the Bible does not “make sense” because there are so many options that bewilder the one who attempts to do so. Therefore, we manufacture our own “sense.” What else can we do?
You might say, “Well, pray for an answer.” Yes, and I know that many have and do, and we still come up with different and contradictory “answers to prayer,” or what we think are answers.
Let’s look at your “very clear and easily understood” example, John 14:6, “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” This can be understood in at least two ways. One takes it as a command, making salvation contingent upon “going through Jesus.” Another takes it as a general statement that anyone who finds God does so through the agency of the Logos, the intermediary between God and humanity, as understood in the first century. So, the first is appropriated by those who see Christianity as the one and only true religion, while the second is appropriated by those who see God working in many other faiths. The first is a “face value” understanding, unnuanced. The second takes prevailing philosophical understandings into consideration. It is only “very clear” to those who for whom it is “very clear.”
You have turned the discussion away from my general thesis that the proliferation of differing, contradictory, and voluminous interpretations of biblical texts has made the Bible incomprehensible. It’s not a question of absolute versus relative truth. It’s a question about the ability of anyone to make sense out of this cacophony of voices. Our fall-back position is to take the view that makes the most sense to us. This is a highly individualized approach and demonstrates that getting to the bottom of a text is rendered impossible, or at least only by chance. How would one know?
The late Richard Rorty of Stanford said that without a godlike source to determine the validity of one view over another, we are left to fend for ourselves (or something to that effect). We have no such source, although there are many who would like to fill it. The whole purpose of taking my position is to remind people that there is a world of disagreement with any position taken, and, therefore, we need to be less aggressive in our insistence that a certain view is the one and only. There is too much of this going on today. Yes, defend your point of view, but understand that it is a point of view, not the final word. The Bible cannot render the final answer. We interpreters have offered too many options from which to choose.
Concerning John 14:6, I would point out that both of your ways of understanding are encompassed in what I would consider the plain and clear meaning of the text; that this passage is dealing with the centrality of Jesus to salvation. It does this with complementary positive and negative statements, a common way to emphasize a point. Yet the passage and thus the context does not really deal with those in other religions that must be inferred from what this and other passages say.
However, that said, there is no concept in the Bible of God working through other religions, at least not in any pluralistic sense. If you start trying to read things into the Bible, as opposed to trying to understand the Bible, then of course you will you will end up with numerous conflicting understanding, depending on what it is one is trying to read in.
So when you say, “The second takes prevailing philosophical understandings into consideration” I think you make a key distinction. There is what the passage says, which is often, but not always, pretty clear. Then there is the issue of how should we understand the text, and how we fit that into the rest of our beliefs. The inquisition came out of an attempt to blend Christian beliefs, with the then current revival of Roman Law and it legal inquisiti in religious matters. To me it is very clear that this was not just another viewpoint, but that this was wrong.
I do see Christianity as “the one and only true religion” (with some caveats for Judaism). Not all religions can be true. Both Buddhism, whose goal is to deny the existence of the self, and Christianity whose goal is the eternal life of the self can be correct. I have no problem saying that those sections of Islam that think God wants them to kill innocent people in his name while they enslave young girls, are false and evil religions.* I do not think that those who kill in the name of Allah will have 70 virgins waiting for them. Just because there are some who do not agree does not, by itself, make me wrong.
Sorry if I misunderstood your point about relativism, but that ultimately does not change my overall point that much, as the basic arguments are the same whether they are in relation to the Bible, or to truth. There are certainly things in the Bible we can understand, and there are things that are not clear. Through work and effort, we can come to a better understanding of God’s word and reduce some of the unclear parts. There are some understandings that are correct, some that are wrong, and some where we simply are not sure. We all bring our own intellectual baggage to our understanding of scripture, and it is something that we must guard against as we seek to understand God’s word. But that the task is difficult and not always successful, hardly means it is useless and not worth the effort.
Ultimately, it does not matter how many understandings of the text there are. In a very real sense there is only the understanding that I have, whether I got that understanding from the text or by reading it into the text, and whether or not I practice it in my life.
As for your final point, i.e., aggressive in our insistence that a certain view is the one and only, I simply do not see this as a problem with modern Christianity, and the trend is, at least in my view, in a positive direction. It certainly has been a problem in the past, but outside of an extreme few, not currently.
It is not Christians who are behind the growing wave of restrictions of speech and thought. It is not Christians who are the major source of the growing wave of intolerance and censorship. Rather, it is those who preach relativism and tolerance the loudest who will allow no difference of opinion. They moto seem to be tolerance for me, but not for thee.
*Note I see false and evil as separate terms, and would not apply the latter to all forms of Islam
Elgin, you write:
“Ultimately, it does not matter how many understandings of the text there are. In a very real sense there is only the understanding that I have, whether I got that understanding from the text or by reading it into the text, and whether or not I practice it in my life.”
Thank you for making my case.
Oh, and in no way am I suggesting that because we will come up short in our efforts to understand the Bible that the pursuit is not worth the effort. It is precisely because agreement or even consensus is not and never will be forthcoming that we must continue to work together in this common endeavor. Realizing we don’t have all the truth is to realize that we need each other who can be a corrective and inspiration along our own groping way. It’s one of the reasons I appreciate your willingness to engage me in these posts.
As for making your case, you are welcome. But if that is your case, I am left wondering why you used the word incomprehensible. Of course there are different points of view, but there are different views about virtually everything. It is also true that not everyone is civil about their disagreements, as a quick survey of the internet will soon establish. This is one of the reasons I so appreciate your hard work here. You have created a place where distinctly different points of view can interact and do so in a constructive fashion.
That said I would point out that a failure to be civil about disagreements on our part, is not the same thing as incomprehensibility on the part of the Bible. There are things that the Bible teaches that all reasonable people would agree that it does. That there is a God being perhaps the clearest. Atheists believe the Bible teaches there is a God, even though they do not believe in God.
While I agree that there are certainly things that simply unclear (just what was the problem after all with Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi) I believe that much bigger problems than clarity are our found in our efforts, foundations, and beliefs. These are problems I try to work on in myself. These are, in reality interrelated, but I will briefly treat them separately. Note, I do not see these as the providence of any particular group and these problems are pretty much universal though in varying degrees of from individual to individual.
You are very correct that it takes effort to read, study and mediate on the Word of God. To me it is a strange paradox that at the very time when the tools have made this easier than ever, actual knowledge among average Christians is on the decline, and for many Christians knowledge of God’s word is entirely second hand. How can you really understand it, if you don’t know what it says? If someone is taking a dogmatic stance based on what they understood their Pastor to have said in a previous sermon, it that really a problem with the incomprehensibility of the Bible?
In terms of foundations, we all approach the Bible with certain sets of beliefs. For example, I often refer to the Bible as the Word of God, because that is what I believe it to be. I understand not everyone agrees. How we approach the Bible will have a big impact on how we read it. One of the things that cracked my belief in atheism’s supposed “rational” approach was the superficial way they accused the Bible of having errors and contradictions. A big one for me was the claim that the Bible got the value of π wrong in 1 Kings 7:23. (This is problematic in too many ways to detail here, but the bottom line is that there is no problem.) In any event, this is not a problem with the comprehensibility of the Bible, this is a problem in us.
Finally there is the issue of belief. This comes in two forms and two types. As for the types, probably the easiest and most inconsequential are what might be called technical issues. Things like the value of Pi in 1 Kings 7:23 or the historicity of Genesis. Much more significant and difficult are those that are theological in nature as these go to the core of who God is and what he wants from us. As for the forms, the most obvious is just flat out disbelief as in the atheist rejecting Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God,” because they do not believe in God. A big problem with this understanding of the Bible is that it tends to suffer from confirmation bias. When they come across a seeming problem and they just stop. No need to look further, is it is just an error.
The other form sees the problem as in being in their own understanding and seeks to resolve the problem. These for me have been the most fruitful studies, particularly when they are theological in nature, and as a result I have changed my theological thinking or several points of theology. These were not easy, and the process at times took months or years.
I guess I can liken all of this to a book a friend recommended that I am currently reading, Bill Bryson’s, A Brief History of Everything. In one respect there is nothing new in this book for me. In terms of the main points, this is all things I have heard, and in some cases even written about in my own books. But at a deeper level, Bryson gathers together a wealth of information, and his approach highlights some often overlooked aspects of science. In fact, if you want a better understanding of why I take some of the positions on science that I do, read this book and just note the number of time he highlights how originally theories were rejected because they did not fit the then know science, and how those proposing them were treated. Also note how often he uses phrases such as “we really do not know.”
Likewise with the Bible there are the basic teachings, God exists, he created the universe, we are created in his image, the fall, sin, Jesus Christ, redemption, etc. At a basic level these are all pretty clear whether one believes them or not. But as one begins to go deeper, issues arise that are unseen at the surface. Just how do we put this all together, what priority do we give to various parts. This would be a daunting task even before we begin to consider all the baggage we bring along with us on our expedition.
If this is what you mean by incomprehensible, then ok, but I find that a very strange usage of that term.
Yes, Elgin, “all reasonable people” agree; that is, if I get to determine who is reasonable. Certainly there are things that few would disagree with, such as “God is love,” but what is meant by “God” and what is meant by “love”? Agreement is not as easy to come by as you may think.
Now re: ” If someone is taking a dogmatic stance based on what they understood their Pastor to have said in a previous sermon, is that really a problem with the incomprehensibility of the Bible?” Of course it is. Now we have to ask, who would have the correct view (or neither)? How is comprehension available? How would we know?
Regarding, ” this is not a problem with the comprehensibility of the Bible, this is a problem in us. ” Absolutely! The way we are put together psychologically makes universal agreement impossible. The only people we can agree with start with the same premises we do, and we don’t always end in the same place. However, it becomes a problem with the Bible because it forces us to interpret it; it is not univocal, or perfectly clear on its surface.
As for how I use “incomprehensible,” I am suggesting that the proliferation of possible interpretations of any and all biblical texts makes determining the actual meaning in an incontrovertible way, impossible. Couple this with the human condition of inhabiting a specific worldview with which one addresses the Bible, and ultimate meaning will never be derived except to one’s own satisfaction. I see this as why there is so much biblical illiteracy in the church, and why so many people read the Bible for devotional purposes instead of deriving textual truths.
I assisted a Ph.D candidate in a research project. We went to a Roman Catholic church and had members fill out a questionnaire. I noticed an adult Bible study workbook and asked our host what he’s learned. “Well, there are so many opinions about what this or that means that we really need a pope to sort it all out.” Protestants don’t have a pope; we have millions of them. We have to make our own meaning out of our reading because there is no other way available to us.This is what I mean by incomprehensible–it is only comprehensible to the comprehender.
Thanks for the compliment on the overall emphasis of the EDN blog. While we all have points of view, we know that not everyone shares them. By actually discussing our differences in the open, we may find our way into new understandings, or actually get reinforcement. You are certainly a force for good in this endeavor, and I appreciate it a lot.
You give the example that “God is love.” While it is true that the terms ‘God’ and ‘Love’ are not fully comprehendible, it does not follow that they are incomprehensible as there is a big gulf between these terms. It is also true that one person can never fully comprehend another, even their spouse. But when a person says “I love you” to their spouse, is that really an incomprehensible statement? Should the spouse really respond back by saying, sorry, I have no idea what you said?
You are correct that we all have specific world views. But not all world view are of equal merit, but here it seems that we have come back to the more general issue of relativism.
As for how we know, we look at what lies behind our beliefs, as problems can often be found in the foundational premises upon which particular beliefs are based. In fact, I find this to be a common problem.
For example, during Reagan’s and Bush 43’s terms it was common to find Democrats who blamed them for the recessions that occurred early in their terms, even though the economic downturns started in the term of their predecessor. As one woman told me, they were in office at the time, therefore it was their fault. Yet when it came to Obama, this standard was abandoned, at times by the very same people, revealing the real underlying principle of it is always the Republican’s fault. Likewise you can find Republicans who take the flip side of this view, always blaming the Democrats. The arguments of people who vary their standards to achieve the desired outcome should be rejected. (For the record, I blame neither Bush for the 2008 recession, nor Clinton for the 2000 recession, though I do believe Carter shares some of the blame for the 1980 recession.)
There are other ways we can compare worldviews but again this takes us more into general epistemological questions that are beyond the scope here.
Let me just summarize by saying that while there are a wide range of views, not all views are of equal merit. Some are closer to the truth than others. Some are just wrong and deserve to be rejected.
Finally we do seem to agree that the solution for this is discussion and dialogue with those who disagree, keeping an open mind and a humble heart.