Skeptical About Interpretation

I have an unbelieving friend with whom I’ve discussed much about the Christian faith. I admit that, having thoroughly proclaimed the fact of God’s holiness, my friend’s personal sinfulness for which he is accountable to that holy God, and the good news that God’s Son has volunteered to represent sinners like him on the cross so that those who would believe in him would have eternal life, and my friend’s subsequent and persistent resistance of that message in favor of his own relativistic and pluralistic form of non-Christian universalism, I have taken the liberty to go on discussing other matters of “religion and politics,” knowing that many of you would advise against such a practice. I’ve even discussed this point with him as well.

Perhaps I ought to wipe the dust from my feet, but for good or ill, in all the discussions in which we engage on the Bible, occasionally I’ll use the word “interpretation” in a sentence, to which my friend will object in so many words: “You’re not supposed to have to interpret the Bible!” I don’t know if this statement is based on some skeptical school of thought. My Googling has not helped me discover if the current trends in anti-Christian philosophizing and rhetoric, a la Hitchens, Dawkins, Maher, etc., make assertions like this (if any of you know, please comment!), but here are a couple of findings related to this question.

About five years ago, the blog Reformation Theology posted on the distinctive method of interpreting the Bible. In a post called “The Reformers’ Hermeneutic,” we read:

The exegesis and interpretation of the bible was the one great means by which the war against Roman corruption was waged; which is almost the same thing as saying that the battle was basically a hermeneutical struggle. In light of these observations, one could say that the key event marking the beginning of the Reformation occurred, not in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg; but two years prior to that, when he rejected Origin’s four-layered hermeneutic in favor of what he called the grammatical-historical sense. This one interpretive decision was the seed-idea from which would soon spring up all the fruits of the most massive recovery of doctrinal purity in the history of the Church. (read more)

Then the Lord, through Google, directed me to this Power Point presentation on “Exegetical Skepticism.” Here’s a bit of what it has to say:

There are so many different ways of interpreting the Bible, how can we be confident that our interpretation is correct?
Skeptical Answer: We cannot be confident of our ability to interpret.  There probably is one correct interpretation, but we won’t know it even if we have it. . . .
So, if we can’t be for sure regarding interpretation, we must deal with probabilities rather than certainty.
What kind of interpretation is more likely to represent the text’s original meaning?
Answer: The most probable interpretation is the one that is consistent with language and literary genre similar to the ways that people typically used and understood them at the time the texts were written. . . .
What are some ways to ‘break-out’ of our own cultural and psychological restraints?
a.Ways to ‘breakout’ of our limitations
i.Discussion with other Christians
ii.Church History
iii.Approach the scriptures with humility.
iv.Learn more about the history surrounding the Biblical texts.

Although interpreting the Bible can be, at times, difficult (just as math, psychology, etc. can be difficult), this doesn’t mean we need to be skeptical about interpretation as a whole.  Rather, interpretative difficulties should simply encourage humility and hard work.
Besides the fact that, for example, the dictionary itself identifies “explanation” as a synonym for “interpretation,” I don’t know how else to explain that, yes, interpretation of the Bible, in fact, of anything, is not only appropriate, but necessary. Do you?

5 responses

  1. Everyone interprets everything. Nothing goes un-interpreted. Conversations are interpreted everyday and we do it with our basic instincts. The Bible’s difficulty is amplified though because Americans don’t read and they don’t know much about literature and especially genre. This makes modern day hermeneutics almost laughable because we base everything on feelings and conjecture instead of going by the basic rules of grammar. There is a right interpretation and one must utilize the basic rules of grammar and genre to accomplis the correct interpretation. But brother it’s hard to fight American subjectionalism and anti-intellectualism all at the same time. Good luck.

    1. I tell him something to this effect every time he denies interpretation. So, you attribute it simply to anti-intellectualism and subjectivity in general rather than to any particular contemporary intellectual trend from the atheists or skeptical scholars?

  2. Note-should be “american subjectivism”. Stinkin texting while driving in traffic!

  3. Yea- that’s my impression, Hitchens arguments are highly intellectual and complains that Christians can’t defend their faith. So I think basic ignorance clouded in anti-intellectualism mixed with American propensity for relativism is more likely. I don’t think it’s a new trend from our learned atheisitic friends.

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