R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

A Philosophy of Biblical Interpretation

Aha! Now I remember something interesting I wanted to post about. Months ago, Cheryl asked me in the comments of her blog:

What is your approach to Biblical interpretation? (I'm thinking mostly literal vs. nonliteral here, though I'm aware there are many more nuanced approaches and you have one of those. And feel free to direct me to a blog post on this, as I think you've probably written one on it...)

Well, as it happens, I didn't have a blog post written on it, so I had to file her question away for future reference, and now here I am, finally getting around to it (thanks for your patience, Cheryl!).

I do approach the Bible literally -- that is, I believe that it may be read and understood without a secret decoder ring or years of special education. This is not to say that a theological education has no value, but rather that I believe any person capable of reading, say, the average newspaper article should be capable of grasping the basic narratives and concepts of the Bible.

Of course there are difficult texts and passages which require thoughtful consideration before the reader can be at all confident of their meaning; and there are also parts which at first glance seem merely irrelevant or tedious and are hard to interpret in that sense. But I do not believe that the Bible is so packed with allegory, metaphor and figurative language that a reasonably intelligent child couldn't understand the gist of what it's trying to say. I believe that God gave us His Word in order to communicate, not obfuscate.

Note, however, that taking the Bible literally does not mean failing to recognize that it contains poetic language, parables, metaphors and the like. Jesus used all kinds of analogies and figures of speech in His teaching, for instance; and the writings of the Old Testament prophets are full of symbols and visionary language. However, it is generally quite clear in the context when a given passage is figurative or poetic in nature.

In that sense, I read the Bible as I would read any other book -- I begin by assuming that the author(s) of said book have a message that they wish to communicate to me, and that I will be able to understand that message if I read carefully. It may take me a long time -- even a whole lifetime -- to fully grasp everything that is being said, but that doesn't mean that I won't be able to understand any of it.

The problem with the view that the Bible merely "contains" truth or that it is primarily figurative in nature is that it postulates a God who plays favorites with the intelligensia. The more sophisticated a thinker you are, the better you are versed in ancient literature and languages and symbolic interpretation and so on, the more of the Bible you will understand; whereas a person without the same access to higher education and extra-biblical historical writings and so on will be left in the dark. However, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians explicitly stated that God does not give preferential treatment to the highly educated. His message is not merely for some, but for all.

As such, I believe that the Bible can indeed be profitably understood and put into practice by anyone who approaches it thoughtfully and humbly, even if they are not an accredited Biblical scholar; and that it is also possible for a highly intelligent and educated person to miss the interpretive boat, if they approach the text in a spirit of arrogance or with preconceived notions of what it will or should contain.

Mind you, the real difficulty most of us (and I include myself in this) have with the Bible is not that we read it and fail to comprehend what it is saying, but that we read it carelessly or not at all.
Tags: bible, christianity, philosophy, theology
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