Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Understanding Scripture: basic standards of interpretation

When I look at the state of theology discussions on the internet, it seems that some basic groundwork has not been laid to make progress possible in our discussions. For this reason I'd like to go over some things that seem to be neglected, things so basic that it's possible that some readers will be offended by their simplicity. But the level of Scriptural discussion around the internet makes it necessary to mention the minimum standards which I would expect as a basis to legitimately agree or disagree with an interpretation of Scripture. This shows my own interpretive framework; it allows me to hold my work accountable to these standards and allow others to hold me likewise accountable. This may also serve as a basis on which I can explain my disagreement with other views, or that may explain to others why I cannot hold to their interpretations.

The genre "plain exposition"
There are various kinds of writing in Scripture. For example, prophecy is notoriously hard to interpret, and the Scriptures contain cautions about whether people can really understand prophecy without guidance. But significant parts of the Scripture are plain exposition: they are meant to explain things, and the words are meant to be taken at their plain value. Of course this entails understanding the background, having a good translation, knowing when the author is tackling more complex material, and so forth. Taking things at their plain meaning does not remove the need for study, but instead focuses the study on the things most likely to bring the words to light as the author intended. That much said, for parts of the Scripture that are plain exposition, the plain speech is the rule of interpretation.

It is disturbing that people claim to have trouble understanding passages which are controversial or distasteful. Where it would be more honest to say we dislike what it says or even disagree, some instead call such passages unclear, though probably for the reason of not wanting to contradict the Scriptures. Our human unwillingness to see something in God's word has often blinded us to what it plainly says; our human confusion about what is right is often projected onto the Scriptures, and obscurity is sometimes imagined in the Scriptures when the darkness is actually in our own minds.

Resolving Tensions in Scripture
No passage of Scripture is allowed to overturn another passage. One passage may define the scope of another -- for example, the covenant of circumcision is not given to Gentiles -- but it does not deny the validity of the other. Someone who must overturn any Scripture in order to build a systematic theology has put the system above the Scriptures; the resulting theology is no longer fully Scriptural.

For an illustration, I'd like to quickly review one well-known case of tension within the Scriptures. I hope the faith/works tension is familiar enough for an example, though I will be brief because its over-familiarity may try the patience. When we read James, "A man is justified by works, not by faith alone," and Paul, "Justified by faith, apart from works of the law," taking them from their own settings and pitting them against each other, there seems to be a problem. The tempting solution is to take one passage out of context and use it to overrule the other. But which passage should overrule the other? If someone puts "works, not faith alone" at the top, works-righteousness and a denigration of faith are the frequent outcome, being the inherent temptation of such a view. If someone puts "faith, apart from works of the law" at the top, dead faith and a denigration of works are a frequent outcome, again being the inherent temptation of such a view. Note that the situation is made worse, not better, by putting one view over against the other or by allowing one passage to override the other. If we have any confidence at all in the trustworthiness of the books in the Scriptures, we will see that doing violence to the text of the passage will always have the result of making things worse, not better. Such a move damages the integrity of the Scriptures, all in the name of preserving their integrity. This move is based on a doubt whether the Scriptures have sufficient integrity and harmony of themselves as received, if the interpreter decides that one passage needs to overturn another and it could not be let to stand on its own.

True resolution does not use one passage to override the other, but trusts each author to say what needs to be said. James, on a fair reading, does not denigrate faith; his original point was "I will show you my faith by what I do." Paul, on a fair reading, never allows that faith could possibly be fruitless and without works. Using one passage out of context to overturn the other aggravates the tension. Allowing each passage to speak for itself in its own context shows harmony; it also does no violence to the text. To restate, using one passage of Scripture to overturn another is a sign of disrespect for the Scriptures as received and distrust that they already speak a cohesive message in context as received, without our added efforts.

The problem of "problem passages"
If a theological opinion runs up against a passage of Scripture which is incompatible with it, then that opinion is not fully Scriptural. We can discuss whether that passage is translated correctly or understood correctly; we can discuss whether a certain passage applies in the current setting. What we cannot do is discount it on the grounds that it would invalidate our own theory or view and therefore it cannot mean what, on the face of it, it seems to mean. If even one passage of Scripture plainly contradicts a particular view, then that view is not fully Scriptural. Such a theological view needs development or full reconstruction to be better informed by all of Scripture. "Problem passages" are particularly tempting grounds for creative exposition or the dueling prooftexts method which attacks the integrity of Scripture; but once careful study has been made how a passage speaks within its own context, that meaning must be let to stand if the results are to be Scriptural.

I know there are many other principles of interpretation which could be mentioned. Still, these few principles are so basic, and are violated with such regularity, that I single them out as the ones of which we most need reminding. I have seen a few theological debates on the internet which could not have been resolved by staying with these basic principles, a few debates in which more subtle principles would be brought into play or in which sometimes different opinions are possible. But the majority of internet theological debates I have seen would have been over quickly if people had honestly stuck to the plain meanings of passages, not tried to annul one passage by pressing another out of context to annul it, and had acknowledged that a plain passage against a certain view ought to require the refinement of the theory, not of the Scriptures. I have met people, to be sure, who say that the Scriptures do not have enough integrity to make a systematic theology without bending a few verses here and there. Call such a view what you like, but it is not fully Scriptural. Once some passages are allowed to override others, the view is weighted more on what the interpreter supposes than on what the books of Scripture say.

The next question for those who respect the integrity of the Scriptures is the extent to which it is possible to interpret Scriptures on their own terms instead of according to our presuppositions. (To be continued.)

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