The fog of biblical interpretation

Mon, 09/01/2012 - 15:01

You are lost in thick fog in open country. You don’t have a compass. You have a map but you have no idea where you are on the map and you can see none of the landmarks—a hilltop, a church spire, a radio mast—that would allow you to get your bearings, triangulate your position, move forward in the right direction. You can see the details of your immediate environment clearly enough—the muddy path, the gate in the fence, the cows watching you with bovine amusement from the other side of the fence. But none of this immediate, localized “clarity” is of much use if your intention is to get home in time for dinner.

This is the problem—one of the problems—that the modern church has with reading the Bible. Very often what we mean when we affirm the clarity or perspicuity of scripture is that we can see the immediate details, we can understand the isolated verse or paragraph. The human mind is extremely adept at making apparent sense of what is put in front of it. We are skilled at assimilating texts into our worldview or theological system, and texts taken in isolation are usually powerless to stop us. They seem clear enough, but we have only a very poor, disoriented sense of how they relate to the whole—and more seriously, we have no idea in which direction to go.

I have just read an article by Andrew Wilson published in Christianity magazine in the UK, in which he suggests that the biggest theological debate in the next twenty years will be over “how we read, understand and apply the Bible”. What looks like a condensed version of the article can be found on the Theology Matters blog. Wilson may well be right, but I have the impression from what he has to say about the “clarity of scripture” that he has not seen the wood for the trees. He starts with this confident affirmation:

I believe in the perfect clarity of scripture, but I don’t believe in the perfect clarity of human thinking.

This makes sense only if a) we assume that the composition of scripture did not involve “human thinking”, and b) we posit the existence of an ideal text that exists apart from any actual muddle-headed reader—perhaps a “mother of the book”, kept in heaven, which we will be able to read with perfect understanding after we die. Both of these are thoroughly sub-Christian notions. What we have is a motley collection of historical documents written within a narrow cultural tradition by ordinary humans inspired by the Spirit of God. But that is not the point that I intended to make here. Wilson continues:

In fact, when you look at the way Jesus handled theological disagreements, he doesn’t seem to have identified the clarity of scripture as the problem—he was comfortable simply saying ‘it is written’. But he and the apostles did say that misunderstandings, confusion and disagreement could result from human beings’ ignorance, foolishness and slowness of heart, established human tradition being put above God’s word, immaturity and lack of discernment, carnality, hypocrisy, legalism and false teaching.

Now it is certainly true that a good deal of misunderstanding can be attributed to the frailty and fallibility of the interpreter. But the simple distinction between the clarity of scripture and the obtuseness of the interpreter is hard to maintain and even harder to apply.

First, what do we do with the fact that Jesus was a pre-critical interpreter of the scriptures while we are post-critical interpreters of the scriptures? I’m not suggesting that we understand the Old Testament better than Jesus, but we certainly cannot read the Old Testament in the same way that Jesus did. Jesus read the scriptures as a first century Jewish prophet. To some extent we can enter imaginatively into his world and look at things from his perspective, but as soon as we pretend that the distance between us and Jesus can be collapsed, we reverse the process: we no longer enter his world but drag him into ours.

Secondly, we have to consider to what extent Jesus as a prophet to Israel was a creative, innovative or subversive interpreter of scripture. What a prophet does with scripture in bending tradition in a new direction is not necessarily the same as what your average modern lay person, pastor or scholar does with scripture. Wilson’s article rather suggests—though he may not have intended this—that the real purpose of theology is to resolve our long-running disputes over “hell, penal substitution, the roles of men and women, sexuality”, etc. Jesus never let theological disputes get in the way of his eschatological purpose.

Thirdly, Jesus was not lost in a fog. He knew exactly where the landmarks were because he lived and breathed the story of Israel, as it reached back to Abraham and forward to the eschatological crisis of the end of the age. He certainly had to deal with details—the controversies that were thrown at him by an increasingly frustrated Jewish leadership, the particular challenges of forming a renewal movement, and so on. But the details presuppose the overarching story and are no more useful to the interpreter apart from that story than the path and the fence and the cows are to the person lost in the fog.


Your observations are a good argument for placing eschatology at the top of the list of things to be studied.  If Jesus falls back on eschatology at points of controversy then he is using it as a sort of road map.  In your analogy this would mean that he is clearly seeing the landmarks for what they are and if we don't follow his thoughts on the matter then we are hopelessly lost in the fog.  A critical starting point would be to properly define "the end of the age".

I agree, but how do we define the "end of the age" apart from the trappings of our post-critical context?

What I'm left with after reading this is that, whatever our approach, Jesus method of interpreting the Bible is forever lost to us now, for better or worse. Now what?

I’m not sure I made the point in quite such a radical way. To say that we cannot read the Old Testament in the way Jesus did does not mean that we cannot grasp something of how he made sense of Israel’s condition and his own mission in the light of the scriptures. There are still some substantial adjustments that can be made once we begin to ask historical rather than dogmatic questions.

Besides we are not dealing directly with the historical Jesus. We are dealing with layers of memory and redaction. I think that the primary historical question is not whether we have any sort of access to what actually happened, though that is an important question, but how the early church told its story.

The Mother of the Book sounds like Bayard's Virtual Library - see How to Talk about Books you haven't Read.

You write "we certainly cannot read the Old Testament in the same way that Jesus did."

Why not? We learn language best as if we were like a child. How for instance might we read the Psalms based on the dialogue between father and son portrayed from the psalms in the Epistle to the Hebrews?  Should we follow Bayard by 'not reading'? Should we get lost in speculative genres or situations for performance, attempts to 'place' the poems in their library instead of reading them?  Or can we read word by word, questioning every translation, sticking with the text for years, not to 'figure it out' but because of the passion engendered in us (Psalm 18:2) אֶרְחָמְךָ יְהוָה חִזְקִי? I am passionate about you יְהוָה my courage. [This line is particularly a follow-on to the sense of Psalm 17:15 I in righteousness will gaze on your face // I will be satisfied to awaken in your similitude.]

And should we change the text like some translations do? 18:2 is an embarrassment to some scholars.  (REB renders it as if it was written with אהב.) Or Psalm 139:18 (REB, CEB and others), which gets mangled into counting rather than awakening [REB 17:15 is morphed into a vision]. The passion known and tempered in us 'awakening' from childhood (or rising from the dead) as we read is language learned from a mother, just like the end of the Psalter which commands all the breath-bearing to praise [breath-bearing, נשׁם (nshm), panting, used of a woman in childbirth (also 18.16, where the breath-bearing is used of God again implying a birthing process)].

It seems to me that we must follow Bayard: We certainly treat the Bible in every way that he notes - and this is necessary because even the canon is too much to digest in a tweet. And we are forgetful - even of things we ourselves have written! But it would be wise to know that we are doing these things. 

Just this morning, I picked up a book I got for Christmas, a recent one of P.D.James, The Private Patient. (c 2008) I said to my wife - didn't we read this one? It falls into the category of books we have read, forgotten, and even forgotten we have read. 

Splendid, Bob, though I’m not entirely clear how it helps us to understand Jesus’ hermeneutic, and I stick to my point: it is only to a limited degree that we can imaginatively enter the mindset of others, particularly when we have so little information from which to reconstruct that mindset.

Andrew - a few more thoughts picking up on these phrases: "in the same way that Jesus did" or "understand Jesus' hermenutic." Your mention of "information" reminds me of T.S.Eliot's Journey of the Magi - "but there was no information". (Good poem BTW)

Such being 'in-formed' is a process and was a process also for Jesus, a gradual awakening to awareness in faith. (I have heard it suggested that the prodigal son is his own self-portrait.) There is no substitute for faith. It is blind, but we see trees walking. It is deaf but the ear is dug, day by day opened a little. We are not given the information or the inner formation all at once. Our faithfulness will be measured by our discipline, if in words, then in words, if in music, then in music, if in art or construction or in any other field, then in that field. We encourage one another, not by our knowledge, but here a word or there an action. We have little confidence but it builds. We are filled with distortion, but the tortuous way is made plain, event by event (some terrifying, some shameful, still instructive - Torah-filled). 

As for understanding, it is in doing. An increase in stature is grown, not zapped. Faith is one of those things that continues. If we are 'in' this Anointed then we are within his hermeneutic. If we get sidetracked, let's hope for a nudge of focus. For me it was to read more OT and come back to the NT with more understanding of what 'anointing' or 'election' seems to be and less dogma and fewer confessional postulates and zero proof-texts (hah). 


Excellent points. The Bible is certainly not a systematic theology, and specific parts can't be handled in the best manner without taking in the entire narrative context and the cultures/times in which they were written. It baffles me that grown men and women who have studied the Bible for years keep coming up with premillenialism, for example. Then in moments of humility I remember how many many false trails I've followed and realize that I'm still in the fog myself.

Good stuff, Andrew.

Have you ever dove in much to OT biblical studies. I know and appreciate your writings on more NT narrative studies, but was wondering if much existed on the OT. But maybe that is not your passion.

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