Some of what I believe today – Biblical interpretation

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Biblical inspiration, Challenging conventional doctrine, Creeds, Ecclesiology | Posted on 20-08-2011

Those who’ve read my blog for any length of time know that I dispute the usual Evangelical/Fundamentalist doctrines of Biblical inspiration.  What may have not been so clear, except by extrapolation, is what I do (and do not) propose this means when it comes to the authority-basis for Christian belief and practice.

I begin with the premise (unprovable—that’s why it’s a premise—but I believe it’s defensible) that the texts we commonly refer to as the Bible; that is, the 66-text collection accepted by both Catholic and Protestant Christians, is authoritative for the understanding of God’s intent and humanity’s role in creation and redemption.  Though recorded by human beings with all their foibles, biases, and limitations, the Biblical texts are a faithful account of the things godly human beings have seen, heard, experienced, and done as they have interacted with their creator over a rather large span of history.  Whatever other traditions humans may have passed down—and there are many—the ancient texts of the Biblical documents are older (and therefore closer to the primary sources), more complete, and more faithfully preserved than many, if not most, other historical documents.  They deserve to be heard.

Nevertheless, if the Bible is authoritative about anything at all, we must consider its texts authoritative to the extent they do or do not self-identify.  Here is where I part company with the vast majority of the Evangelical church:  nowhere in the entire text of the Old and New Testaments, do we find a defensible basis for the claim that the Bible is the Word of God, or that it is infallible (as an aside, it’s actually a little silly to talk about a text being infallible at all…the only thing that can fail–or not–are those who attempt to interpret it).  I have written on this subject before and will not repeat the entire discussion here; nevertheless I cannot let this claim stand without referring to 2 Tim. 3:14-17 (my inclusion of all four verses, not merely v. 16 is deliberate).  In brief:

  • The term our Bibles translate as “scripture” is “gramata,” a form of the word graphe which refers to any writing, not only sacred scriptures (“scripture,” for that matter, is just the Latin word for “writing”).  In Paul’s day (if less so than in ours) there was plenty of writing that was clearly not divinely inspired…the lesbian poetry of Sappho or the racy plays of Sophocles for a couple examples.  The only reasonable interpretation of Paul’s use of “all scripture” in v. 16, I believe, is to refer to the context he set up in v. 14-15, in which he refers to those writings Timothy learned from his youth, which are “able to make you wise unto salvation.”  There is no basis but presupposition, to suggest that Paul was referring to the compendium of a canon that would not be agreed for another three hundred years.
  • Next we turn to the word which is usually translated as “inspired” or “God-breathed” in the passage.  Paul did us the inconvenience of coining a word theopneustos (the Liddel-Scott lexicon shows no prior usage) without giving us a definition of what he meant.  The word is obviously a compound of the word Theos, which can mean any god but in the New Testament is nearly always in reference to the one God of Abraham and Father of Jesus, and pneuma, one of two more or less synonymous words (the other is pnoe) that are variously translated in the Bible as “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind.”  A tradition has built up in the church that theopneustos refers to the process by which God influenced the writers of our scriptural texts, though Christians differ wildly about whether that influence was more in the form of a gentle nudge in the right direction or a direct control of the words and phrases used.  However, if we are candid (and here, few are), we must acknowledge that this tradition is conjecture at best; certainly not enough upon which to hang a dogma.  It’s equally possible that theopneustos refers, not to the source-mechanism of scripture, but rather to the operation of God’s spirit in the reader(s) as he/she/they/we seek God in the texts.  Whatever it means, there is absolutely no basis to use theopneustos as a synonym for “God’s Word,” a phrase which carries very specific meanings in the Biblical texts.
  • The interpretation of 2 Tim. 3:16 is further complicated by the fact that the sentence contains no verb in Greek.  While it is perfectly true that a translator must insert a verb (the “is”) into the English statement to make a coherent sentence (at least, if we presume that v. 16-17, not v. 14-17, are a single sentence), there is nothing in the text to guide the translator as to whether the “is” belongs before or after whatever word is used to render theopneustos.  In other words, while most translations read declaratively “All scripture is inspired…,” it is equally-valid to render it as the 1901 American Standard Version does:  “All scripture inspired of God is profitable…” which is a decidedly different claim.

    Therefore, I hold that the 2 Tim. passage, whatever its meaning(s), cannot validly be used as the basis for a claim of divine infallibility for the Biblical canon.  Other prooftexts used by the verbal-inspiration crowd fare no better when properly examined.  The Bible does not call itself God’s word–therefore, neither should we.

    This does not mean we have no record of God speaking.  Specific places–particularly the prophets with their “Thus saith the LORD” declarations, highlight that at the particular point thereby designated, they are repeating God’s word.  If we believe anything at all about Jesus’ divinity (a topic for another time), then Jesus’ own words certainly rise to the level of God’s words…and of course Jesus himself is described as the Word of God become flesh.  If, as I have claimed above, it is in error to view the entire Biblical text as the Word of God, and yet the texts in many places contain words from God, then it becomes incumbent upon us to discern which is which.  I have misappropriated another Pauline phrase and labeled this discernment process “Rightly Dividing the Word,” from which I get the R in my ROCK summary.

    As a rule of thumb, I hold to a hierarchy of authority among the texts, where the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels take supremacy, and shortly behind them, the words of the prophets where they explicitly highlight their message as the “Word of the LORD.”  Explicative works like the epistles follow behind these, and historical reporting still further behind, with wisdom and poetry such as Proverbs and Psalms bringing up the utmost rear (well, along with apocalyptic literature which frankly, nobody really understands any more despite their enthusiastic claims to the contrary).

    There is much more that can be said about the process of Biblical interpretation.  As is (I hope) evidenced in my writing, I hold that legitimate interpretation of the Bible begins with assessing the source of the particular message, examining both the historical and textual context surrounding it (the only valid use for a “prooftext” is to refute somebody else’s invalid prooftext…responsible Biblical interpretation can never hang a dogma on a single phrase).

    It is also valid to consider what other faithful believers have gleaned from a text.  But please note I said “consider,” not “accept.”  While I just got done stating that infallibility claims for the Bible are in error, it remains that nothing else rises even to the level of the Bible’s authority.  The claims of apostolic authority made by various church magisteria, episcopates, etc., are circularly established…that is, the authority by which they make their claim is the very claim itself.  No one—not the ancient church fathers, not the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, not Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Luther, and most certainly no one of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries (including the elders or pastors or bishops of your own church fellowship)—has the right or authority to make any statement that is not subject to the accountability question “what is your scriptural basis for that claim?”  And even if they answer that question, the validity of their hermaneutic is still subject to challenge, re-examination, and even correction.  The fathers, the great theologians, and the faithful “lay” people (and even, I would submit, the “heretics”) of all these ages still deserve to be re-heard through the lens of the Body of Christ searching the scriptures, yet again today, to see whether the things they say are so.

    And this brings me to my final point on Biblical interpretation:  it’s not a spectator sport.  If we believe anything about the work of the Holy Spirit, and if we accept the Biblical accounts as valid at all, then God’s modus operandi tends toward reserving his most important messages to be delivered by the “unimportant” among us (from a foreign whore to a talking donkey to a 12-year-old kid to a guy hiding out on the threshing floor to a young girl accused of breaking her betrothal vow to a swaggering, cussing fisherman…the people God uses tend not to be those we might have chosen).  Michael Jordan may be (or may become) a follower of Jesus, but in faith, there are no Michael Jordans.  I am grateful for the insight careful researchers such as Tom Wright have brought to the table, as I am for the insights in other centuries of many faithful men and not enough women who have also sought to understand God and his ways, and share their understanding with the rest of us.  But the real work of following Jesus—including rightly dividing his word—occurs not in the halls of academia and the magisterium, but around the tables (including the virtual tables of the net) where we break bread and open the texts in fellowship with one another.

    You, my sister, and you, my brother, may have as much to share with me about the things of Christ, as Calvin or Luther or Aquinas or Augustine ever did—perhaps even more than they.  We’ll still need to search the scriptures together to see if you’re getting it right (I need you to do the same with my thoughts), but don’t ever let the “authorities” tell you you’re wrong to speak or to question just because they say so, or because God gave them authority over you.  Jesus—and the real apostles, the ones in the first century—say otherwise.

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