How do we interpret?

“Make a right turn” = a) “Make an immediate right” or, b) “Bear right”?

In this case, Michael clearly misinterpreted his GPS. Really, he should have known, but I suppose there were a few ways to interpret.

When it comes to the scriptures how are we to interpret? I mean, we all interpret right? What do we base this interpretation on? Are all interpretations equal? Are there infinite interpretations? For example, if someone interprets particular OT and NT texts in a way that allows them to dehumanize and exclude people based upon their sexuality is this a valid interpretation or will this interpretation end up in a lake?

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16 comments
  1. teadeum said:

    Maybe the question should be “why” do we interpret? Perhaps it’s only to re-enforce our preconcived notions of what our particular favourite brand of Xtianity is? Or a way to “beat our theological chests” and show others how much we know about the bible?

  2. jt* said:

    That’s a good question.

  3. Tim Barnett said:

    Hey JT,

    Interesting questions.

    Let’s me try to respond to your post in how I interpreted what you wrote.

    I would completely disagree with your intolerant and dogmatic view that there should be unrestricted persecution of all persons who practice homosexuality. In addition, I disagree with your view that people should be openly encouraged to practice bestiality with their pets. Just SICK, JT! Finally, I can’t believe you said that The Office is the worst show on TV. It’s actually one of the best shows ever create.

    Of course, I’m just having a little fun with you here. I’m just trying to make the point that some interpretations are really wrong. Case in point, my interpretation of what you wrote.

    If we count terrible interpretations, then there probably are a potential infinite. However,when it comes to written language, I bet there is one correct interpretation. Namely, the one that the author is trying to convey.

    Cheers,

    Tim

    P.S. Great clip!

  4. Tim Barnett said:

    Wait, I forgot my second point.

    It seems to me, if there was no correct interpretation, communication would become impossible. Again, my interpretation of what you wrote is case in point. The only reason we can have a meaningful dialog on issues like God, The Office, or ‘interpretation’ is because we understand each others language, and rules of grammar, and context, etc.

    I’m just thinking out loud but I feel like the claims, “All interpretations are equal” or “Every interpretation is correct” would be self-defeating. For example, I interpret “All interpretations are equal” to mean “no interpretations are equal” or even “the moon is made of barbecue spareribs”.

    Speaking of interpretation, I’m teaching a Structure of the Universe Unit to my grade 9’s and there is a sentence which reads:

    “Uranus is a gas giant!”

    I’d tried telling my wife this interesting fact and she snapped. Something tells me that she misinterpreted what I said.

    Tim

  5. jt* said:

    Tim,

    At least you can’t be blamed for trying to hide you agenda! However, you did a great job of dodging the questions I posed.

    Notice, I didn’t make any positive statements. I simply asked 5 questions:

    1) How are we to interpret the scriptures?
    2) We all interpret, right?
    3) What do we base our interpretations on?
    4) Are all interpretations equal?
    5) Are there infinite interpretations?

    (I’ll reveal my hand a little bit and let you know that #3 is really where I’m headed here, but I’ll come back to this at the end).

    So, since you obviously did, in fact, misinterpret me do you care to take a stab at any of those?

    Here’s a couple responses to your comments:

    a) I couldn’t agree more that “some interpretations are really wrong.” For example, it would be hard to interpret John 3:16 as an encouragement to hate others. This, clearly, is a wrong interpretation.
    b) I wasn’t meaning to suggest that there are infinite interpretations. I merely posed the question. In fact, I do not believe there are infinite interpretations.
    c) “When it comes to written language, I bet there is one correct interpretation.” Does this include all genres? For example, would a poem have only “one correct interpretation”? How about a story or a parable? Only “one correct interpretation”? How about a song? What if the author is intentionally leaving her work open to interpretation? What if context plays a roll in interpretation? If you really take the time to consider the complexity of language (and the myriad other interpretative factors) I think you’ll see that perhaps it’s not always as “cut-and-dry” as you’re making it seem.
    d) “I feel like the claims, “All interpretations are equal” or “Every interpretation is correct” would be self-defeating.” Sure, this is the case sometimes but not all the time. Take art for example. Ten people could admire a particular piece of art and come away with ten different interpretations each of which would be correct. That’s the nature of art.

    More to the point, when we’re talking about scripture I can think of many interpretations of scripture that were commonly held by Christians that were, in fact, terribly false interpretations. For example, the fact that the church once understood the earth to be the centre of our solar system with the sun revolving around it (based on misinterpreted scripture!). Another example, slavery. Fact: back in the day Christians used scripture from both the OT and NT to support institutionalized slavery. Obviously, this was another misinterpretation of scripture. In this vein I can’t help but wonder how we mis/interpret portions of scripture that deal with homosexuality?

    At any rate, my question remains: when we interpret scripture how should we go about it? What should our “measuring stick” be? What sort of lens should we look through (forgive the “should”, I’m not meaning to moralize here)?

    Peace.

    • Tim Barnett said:

      Hey JT,

      First, I was a little confused at this statement.

      At least you can’t be blamed for trying to hide you [sic] agenda!

      I’m not sure what you are referring to as my “agenda”. Could you clarify for me?

      Second, I’m going to take exception to the following statement:

      However, you did a great job of dodging the questions I posed.

      How did I try to dodge the questions? In fact, I think I came at your questions head-on. I sense a double standard here, because your friend teadeum answered your questions with a question and he wasn’t charged with “dodging the questions”. Am I being held to a different standard?

      I believe a sound case could be made that you are dodging the answers because they are certainly in my post. Allow me to demonstrate.

      You did ask 5 questions and I think I touched on at least 4 out of 5 although I’d certainly admit not exhaustively.

      1) How are we to interpret the scriptures?

      This is one question I feel like I didn’t adequately address. So let me see if I can briefly take a stab at it. Scripture, like any other written language, must ultimately be interpreted in light of context. Historical context, linguistic context, genre, language, semantic range, consistency with other passages and rules of grammar are all crucial if someone is to meaningfully study and interpret Scripture. To me this isn’t a profound question. Layman and scholars have been doing it for centuries.

      2) We all interpret, right?

      This answer is yes if it wasn’t clear. However, I think this is implied throughout my post.

      3) What do we base our interpretations on?

      I think this question is similar to #1 in some respects. We base our interpretations to everything above and, of course, presuppositions. Our presuppositions act like filter accepting some interpretations and rejecting others. For example, a naturalistic certainty would not interpret a bodily resurrection because his a priori beliefs don’t allow it, even if that is the best interpretation of the text. This is another reason why I believe that getting down to talking about presuppositions is essential to apologetics.

      4) Are all interpretations equal?

      I think I showed that the statement that all interpretations are equal is self-defeating when it is applied to written language.

      5) Are there infinite interpretations?

      If we count terrible interpretations, then there probably are a potential infinite.

      Now for a couple quick comments.
      First, you seem to ask a lot of questions. I think this is great. However, I’m starting to judge the sincerity of your questions. What I mean is; I feel like you should have a sign up that says “Only Questions Welcome, No Answers Allowed”. And anyone who dares to try to give an answer is arrogant or worse. You see, I made the assumption that these questions were not rhetorical. This is to say, I actually thought you were looking for people to post a response with possible answers. Clear, I was wrong.

      Second, I hope you didn’t take offense to my illustration of how some interpretations of written language are really wrong (something we agree on) I was just trying to make the point that you meant your post to be interpreted a certain way. Even if you didn’t make any position arguments, questions still need to be interpreted as questions, and words still need to be taken in context with their proper definitions. Again, I wasn’t trying to imply that you think that all interpretations are equal. I was trying to show that the mere idea has self-contradictions.
      Now my response to some of your questions (again, I’ll assume they’re not rhetorical).

      c) “When it comes to written language, I bet there is one correct interpretation.” Does this include all genres? For example, would a poem have only “one correct interpretation”? How about a story or a parable? Only “one correct interpretation”? How about a song? What if the author is intentionally leaving her work open to interpretation? What if context plays a roll in interpretation? If you really take the time to consider the complexity of language (and the myriad other interpretative factors) I think you’ll see that perhaps it’s not always as “cut-and-dry” as you’re making it seem.

      I didn’t mean to imply that all interpretations are the same. I would absolutely agree that context plays a very important roll as well as other factors. I probably shouldn’t have said that there is only one correct interpretation. It’s more accurate to say that I believe that the “correct” interpretation is what the author intended to convey. You asked, “what if the author is intentionally leaving her work open to interpretation?” My first response is that the correct interpretation is that the work is open to any equally valid interpretation. For example, my interpretation is A, and another persons interpretation is not-A. However, that leads to a violation of the law of non-contradiction. Again, I’m just trying to rap my mind around this. Can you give a real world example of this played out in written language?

      d) “I feel like the claims, “All interpretations are equal” or “Every interpretation is correct” would be self-defeating.” Sure, this is the case sometimes but not all the time. Take art for example. Ten people could admire a particular piece of art and come away with ten different interpretations each of which would be correct. That’s the nature of art.

      I’m glad you partially agree. But I think you should fully agree. The counter-example of art that you used is fallacious. Let me show you why. You unintentionally committed the fallacy of equivocation on the term ‘interpretation’. This is more informally called the ‘bait-and-switch’. For example, here is a syllogism from Wikipedia where there is an equivocation with the word ‘light’.

      A feather is light.
      What is light cannot be dark.
      Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

      The way one interprets a piece of art (i.e. a painting or sculpture) is different then that way one would interpret written language (ie. Scripture). The most important distinct is that something like a painting doesn’t communicate in written language like a book. Although I’m happy to concede that a painting can be interpreted 10 ways that are all correct, this doesn’t say anything about the interpretation of a written article, or poem. Why? Well, because we are ‘interpreting’ them in a different fashion.

      More to the point, when we’re talking about scripture I can think of many interpretations of scripture that were commonly held by Christians that were, in fact, terribly false interpretations.

      I completely agree with you.

      For example, the fact that the church once understood the earth to be the centre of our solar system with the sun revolving around it (based on misinterpreted scripture!).

      This is the geocentric theory proposed by Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer in the 2nd century A.D. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Suffice it to say, that certain church leaders of the time wanted to marry the science of the day with their faith. I don’t know of any verse in Scripture that teaches the Sun revolves around the Earth or even if any particular passage in Scripture was used to teach geocentrism. I don’t know if I would use this as an example of misinterpreting Scripture since there are many more, better examples.

      Another example, slavery. Fact: back in the day Christians used scripture from both the OT and NT to support institutionalized slavery.

      This is a good one. As you and I both know this was very poor exegesis. Again, this shows that lots of interpretations are possible, but there is a best interpretation. This goes to show that people try to make the bible say a lot of crazy things; almost all cults use some sort of distortion of the Bible. We need to do our very best to interpret Scripture in light of all the tools we have (context, etc).

      Obviously, this was another misinterpretation of scripture. In this vein I can’t help but wonder how we mis/interpret portions of scripture that deal with homosexuality?

      Just because there have been examples of humans misinterpreting Scripture should not necessarily call into question all sound interpretations. After careful study I would include the interpreted passages condemning homosexuality as an abomination into the latter category. This is not because I have a hidden agenda either or that I don’t like homosexual or something like that. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe the best interpretation of the scriptures is that homosexual is a sin.

      I would love to read your view on this issue and the Scriptures you use to back up your view and then maybe dialog back and forth.

      Peace and Love,

      Tim

  6. Ian said:

    We talked a lot about this stuff in my ‘Bible and Ministry’ class in Aberdeen. When it comes to issues of interpretation, I believe that a reasonable and necessary starting point is a clear view of the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible in community with a view to embodied participation in the story of Scripture. A link must be made between the words we read and the Word that we are called to follow, not with an emphasis on explanation but rather on application; this can be achieved through the communal practice of wrestling with the Bible to gain a better understanding of the nature of the text itself, and to uncover something fresh in relation to how the text shapes and transform not only our lives, but our communities and the world as a whole.

    A good book to read on this would be Webster’s ‘Holy Scripture’.

    Great questions here, Turtle.

  7. aislingclaire said:

    Yeah, good post. I’m pretty sure I ended up in the lake, until I walked out and realized how it probably meant a “bear right”.

    remember that time we sunk the paddle boat and you canoed around us?

  8. jt* said:

    Hey Tim,

    “I’m not sure what you are referring to as my “agenda”. Could you clarify for me?”

    Answer: “Of course, I’m just having a little fun with you here.” 😉

    Of course I’m holding you to a different standard…you’re Timmy B for crying out loud! And if there’s one thing I know about Timmy B it’s that he’s a man that surpasses my standards so I just have to keep bumping them higher for you. But seriously, I was just trying to egg you on a bit, perhaps I shouldn’t have said you were “dodging” my questions. You forgive me right?!

    I’d like to see if we can flesh something out a little bit here, you said:

    “Scripture, like any other written language, must ultimately be interpreted in light of context. Historical context, linguistic context, genre, language, semantic range, consistency with other passages and rules of grammar are all crucial if someone is to meaningfully study and interpret Scripture.”

    I wonder if we can add something else to this list, namely, today’s context. While it is certainly important to consider the context of the writer and the original readers when interpreting is it just as important that we recognize our context (namely that it is quite different, culturally speaking, from the context of the writer/original hearers)? I’ll come back again to the example of homosexuality (because that’s the example I’ve been using and I think it’s relevant to today). How would you interpret the following verse: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them,” (Lev. 20:13). How would you interpret this verse in light of what you said in a previous comment that “I bet there is one correct interpretation. Namely, the one that the author is trying to convey.” It seems fairly clear to me that the author of Leviticus is saying that those who participate in homosexual activity ought to be put to death. Agreed? So, if this is what “the author is trying to convey,” and is therefore the, “one correct interpretation” how then should we proceed? Christina and I live in Toronto’s gay community, how should we interpret this passage in light of our neighbours? My hunch is that we need to consider not only the authors context and intention but our context. When Leviticus was written I’m not sure that homosexuality was the same as it is today. Should two males in a loving, committed relationship be considered “abominations” and therefore killed (according to the passage)? I doubt it.

    Again, I’ll reveal my hand at this point and say that I think love needs to play a roll in how we interpret scripture in our context. If God is love and all of the commandments can boil down to loving God and loving others then perhaps if we are to faithfully interpret scripture across cultural contexts (which admittedly, can be tricky at times) we need to be guided by love. Just a thought.

    “I feel like you should have a sign up that says “Only Questions Welcome, No Answers Allowed”. And anyone who dares to try to give an answer is arrogant or worse.”

    In hindsight I can see why you might feel this way. I don’t mean to shut people down or be a hindrance to honest discussion so forgive me if I fall prey to that. Thanks for pointing that out and holding me accountable there, honestly. I am striving daily to be more honest in how I converse with people. At any rate, I think I’m just a little bit suspicious of folks who think they’ve arrived at their destination; people who speak as if they’ve figured God out. While I think we can have positive dialogue about God and how He may want us to live I think we always need to acknowledge that we’re humans and God is, well, God.

    Finally, “I would love to read your view on this issue and the Scriptures you use to back up your view and then maybe dialog back and forth.” Are you here referring to homosexuality?

    Anyways, I’m thankful for folks like you Tim that are open to having dialogue. Thanks for calling me out on areas where I could improve and I’m glad to be able to call you a brother and a friend.

    p.s. – I’m out of the country this week and so I won’t have the same access to the internet as I usually would. If you respond and I don’t get back to you right away it’s not because I’m sulking in a corner somewhere!

  9. jt* said:

    “I believe that a reasonable and necessary starting point is a clear view of the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible in community with a view to embodied participation in the story of Scripture.”

    Ian, I think this is very important. I mean if we think about it, the only reason we each have our own bible (and can, therefore, do our own interpreting by ourselves) is thanks to the printing-press. If we think of Jews in 1st century Palestine they would be lucky if they had a copy of the Torah for each village! Therefore, whenever they read, heard or interpreted scripture it was most always in the context of community. We often wrestle with the text alone. They wrestled with it together and I think that’s something we’re missing out on.

    • Ian said:

      Not only that, but the text itself was written within the context of community. That’s a very important point that is often overlooked when discussing current issues of interpretation, ie: that it was written for specific people at a specific time for specific reason.

      ‘Interpretation’ is not just reading the text and figuring out what it means in our current context, but believing that the God who spoke through the biblical writers still continues to speak to His people today.

      God’s Word is not limited to the text.

      • jt* said:

        “but believing that the God who spoke through the biblical writers still continues to speak to His people today.

        God’s Word is not limited to the text.”

        Amen!

  10. Tim Barnett said:

    Hey J-to-the-Tizzle,

    First, let me start by telling you how much I appreciate you. I love talking about issues like these with someone with intellectually superior force. It helps me sharpen my own views and how I communicate them, and hopefully in the process I raise myself to your level.

    Second, I think it’s awesome that you and Christina are living in the heart of a “gay community” and have the opportunity to influence them with the truth of the Gospel. So cool!

    Ok enough complements. I can feel your head growing.

    I’ve spent a little time looking at most (if not all) the passages that refer to Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), as well as Rom 1 and the Lev. verse you brought up. And despite what my personal opinion on the matter is, I believe quite strongly that Scripture teaches that the act of homosexuality (in love or otherwise) is a sin that must be repented of. Without getting into it, I just want to make a couple quick comments about the Lev. passage.


    How would you interpret the following verse: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them,” (Lev. 20:13). How would you interpret this verse in light of what you said in a previous comment that “I bet there is one correct interpretation. Namely, the one that the author is trying to convey.” It seems fairly clear to me that the author of Leviticus is saying that those who participate in homosexual activity ought to be put to death. Agreed?

    The author here, God, is definitely communicating that homosexually is a capital offence. When reading Leviticus, it’s important to keep in mind that these were rules that God was laying down for a people that He was setting apart. One way God separated the Israelites was to give them a number of laws, rituals, customs, and cultic practices (Note: I’m not using the term cult as a pejorative here). Now, these laws weren’t arbitrary. They were sins getting Almighty God and some carried a very heavy penalty. Like today’s penal (hehe, I typed penal) code, punishment shows the severity of the crime. Heavy crimes meant heavy punishment. Child sacrifice, bestiality, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath, all constituted capital crimes. Thus, the one thing this passage reveals is God’s feelings about homosexual behaviour.

    You raise a very good question:

    Should two males in a loving, committed relationship be considered “abominations” and therefore killed (according to the passage)?

    I hate pointing out fallacies all the time. I’ve read too many logic books. But this is a called complex question that should really be two separate questions.
    1. Should two males in a loving, committed relationship be considered “abominations”?
    2. Should they be killed for being homosexuals?

    Let me start with question #2. I would agree that we shouldn’t kill homosexuals. Levitical law is not applied to us. It was for a very specific group of people, the nation of Israel, and only for a time. However, to answer question #1, I think that it is still an abomination before God as stated in other passages of Scripture.

    Now, if you’re like me then you’re thinking that if Leviticus only applies to the Israelites and we should not be applying these verses to homosexuals living today. However, I think that the moral principle still carry into today’s context. For example, it’s still morally unacceptable to perform child sacrifice, or engage in bestiality. God’s feelings on these haven’t changed, but our response has. We don’t kill homosexuals, we love them. We love them enough to tell them about what Jesus Christ has done for us and for them. And we love them enough to tell them that God judges sin and that homosexually in one of many sins.

    Last point. You said:

    My hunch is that we need to consider not only the authors context and intention but our context.

    I thinke you should be careful with this idea of interpreting in light of our context. It seems to me this could end up in a slippery slope. For example, most people engage in sexual immorality (i.e. sex before marriage). This is often in a loving, committed context, but that of course doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a sin. But should we interpret these verses in our context so that sex before marriage is not a sin? The same kind of thing could be said for covetousness, or idolatry, but again these really are sins.

    In addition, if the authors context contradicts our context, which is right? On this issue, I don’t think we have to guess on the Authors feelings about homosexually. I would encourage you to study Genesis 18 and 19 (2 Peter 2 and Jude refer to Sodom and Gomorrah as well) and Romans 1.

    Could your proximity and relationship to the gay community be skewing your judgment of these verses? I know from experience that having unsaved family members has caused me to wish hell doesn’t exist and wish that everyone is saved. But having studied the relevant Scriptures I can’t in good conscience believe that either is true. It literally breaks my heart, but also makes me work even harder to preach Christ. I even gave a sermon this Christmas Eve to my unsaved family. My first sermon, JT, and it was not easy. It was on 2 Cor 5:21. I don’t want to see any more of them perish, but I can’t deny the truth that they will die in their sin without accepting Jesus Christ.

    Anyways, keep fighting the good fight brother,

    Love and Peace,

    Tim

  11. jt* said:

    Tim,

    I’ve been thinking about this issue of interpretation a lot lately. I think in this thread we got sidetracked with the discussion of homosexuality. I’d like to for a moment come back to this idea that everyone acts as interpreters.

    Here’s a few thoughts/questions:
    1)For something to be true must it be *objectively* so? With the scriptures, is it possible for them to be true without being *objectively* true?

    2) No one is autonomous. The idea of autonomous “individuals” is a lie perpetrated by modernity. It also is counter to the biblical narrative. No one is autonomous. We are all shaped by a particular story. Simply put, everyone must stand somewhere and is influenced to see the world by a variety of factors. Another way of saying this is that no one is objective.

    I think these are important questions for the evangelical church to wrestle with and not take lightly.

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