The words “the truth” will shock postmodernists and deconstructionists. Good. But it asks: How do we study and interpret the Bible? How do we find truth which really is out there, around us? This post is a simple reply to claims of unsolvable ambiguities in the Bible.
More strongly, this article in the series on Postmodernism and the Bible aims, very briefly, to balance out postmodern pessimism about acquiring knowledge and truth and achieving an accurate, sensible interpretation of the Bible.
Part Three deepened the definition of postmodernism, using the image of a truth soup. Postmodernism is hyper-skeptical about origins, essences, realism, foundations, metanarratives, totalities, and canons. (The prefix hyper has been a theme running throughout the series; see Part One for the reason.) Everything gets thrown into a truth soup so we can barely distinguish one truth claim from the next.
And in Part Five, we examined the conclusions of scholars who advance outlandish theories about Jesus, deconstructing him. Part Six provided the traditional view of Jesus according to the New Testament. Part Six “de-transmogrified” or “de-deconstructed” the strange ideas. (Transmogrification has also been a theme of the series; see Part One.) I believe that the Church needs clarity during this long, dry season of confusion propagated through the popular media. How many times have we heard, “That’s your interpretation!”?
We can be highly accurate about reality and our interpretations of the Bible. We really can know things “out there” that are independent of our minds. And the Bible, though we may not solve every puzzle, is not hopelessly confusing and indecipherably ambiguous. “Do not commit adultery” cannot accurately be interpreted as “go for it, dude.”
However, if the next section seems irrelevant to readers (and I can’t blame them), then they may scroll down to the section below next one. It discusses time-tested and traditional methods of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) of the Bible.
Three Theories of Truth
Can we find truth in science? Can we find it out there in a real world? Some doubt this. Here’s my most take, as nonprofessional student of philosophy.
I have written an overview at this post:
The three theories: correspondence theory of truth, the coherence theory of truth, and the pragmatic theory of truth. For a very good survey of the first two theories, as they relate to postmodernism, I recommend this book. The author argues most strongly for maintaining the correspondence theory. I agree. We should not give up on it.
Time-Tested Methods of Bible Interpretation
Not all is lost in deconstructive ambiguity and freeplay.
Exegesis means a careful reading and explanation of a text on its own terms, answering such questions as what does the text say? What are the historical assumptions that the original authors have? How can we research them? What are the authors’ intentions? What does a word mean in its context? Postmodernists imply that facts are ever elusive, and meaning can never be limited so that we can nail truth down. However, the next three simple steps provide clarity about the vast majority of verses in the Bible.
(1) The historical context illumines the meaning of an entire book of the Bible or a passage. For example, in the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible the introduction to the Book of Jeremiah places the prophet in his historical context. The scholar selected to comment on the book writes:
Jeremiah began prophesying in Judah . . . in a period of storm and stress, when the doom of nations – including Judah itself – was being sealed. The smaller states of western Asia Minor were often pawns in the power plays of such imperial giants as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and the time of Jeremiah’s ministry was no exception.
This excerpt explains why Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” Ministering at the worst time in Judah’s history, he was under house arrest during the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC (Jeremiah 38:28).
God allowed his prophet to foresee the impending doom and carnage (2 Chronicles 36:17-19; cf. 2 Kings 25). Throughout Jeremiah’s many prophecies, God promises his people restoration, so the book is not all bad news.
In interpreting the Bible, truths emerge after careful research into historical facts. We can eliminate such claims, for example, that the Four Gospels create a fictional Jesus and proclaim that this character is parallel to or comes from an Egyptian deity (see Part Five and Tom Harpur’s book the Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light). To counter this outlandish assertion, we place Jesus in his historical context, namely a Jewish one in first-century Israel.
The earliest disciples and New Testament authors never even thought about Jesus being an Egyptian deity. The very idea would have repulsed them. Why? By accumulating more historical facts on first-century Judaism, particularly among devout Jews and the Old Testament. Divine figures from heaven are not Egyptian deities, but are sent by God. Also, the Books of Acts shows that Christians resisted other religions as the missionaries fanned out through the Empire (8:9-25; 14:8-18; 17:16, 22-34; 19:17-20, 23-41). The point here is not to defend or explain this any further (see Part Six for more discussion). Rather, the point is that we do not need to range far afield into Egyptian religion to find the origins of New Testament beliefs. We can and should remain in a thoroughly Jewish context, particularly the Old Testament. Ockham’s razor, which says that the plainest and most straightforward explanation is to be preferred, applies here. Thus, Harpur’s interpretation does not correspond to the historical facts, so it is inaccurate and wrong.
Note how this exegetical step somewhat reflects the correspondence theory of truth. We dig for the (historical) facts, and they clarify the words on the page, not make them indecipherably ambiguous.
(2) The textual context clarifies the meaning of a verse. For example, Matthew 10:34 says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” Does the meaning of the “sword” here endorse a military holy war on society? Let’s examine the verse (bold font) in its textual context. Matthew 10:32-39 says:
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come
to turn a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household [Micah 7:6]
37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:32-39).
Luke 12:51, the parallel verse of Matthew 10:34, clarifies the “sword.” The verse (bold font) in its full context reads:
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
The meaning of “sword” is now clear. It indicates that following Jesus in his original Jewish society may not bring peace to a family, but may “split” it up, the precise function of a metaphorical sword. Thus, the verse says nothing about a military holy war on society.
A foundational and basic way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:51 confirms our interpretation of Matthew 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against our own family, nor against society. But he warns us about possible family division.
Click on this commentary for more information about Matthew 10:34. It also shows how the historical context is important for interpreting the verse.
Therefore, our interpretation of verses in the Bible should cohere together with other verses. But plain and simple coherence is typically denied by the postmodern interpreter. For example, in Part Five we saw that Stephen Moore’s concludes that Jesus was a de-enlightened male contrasted to the enlightened Samaritan woman. But this conclusion violates the clear flow of the entire Gospel of John. Jesus never loses his grasp of his divinity or of spiritual truths. And the woman at the well does not discover deep truths about him apart from his careful guidance. She does not excel her male teacher.
To take the bigger point of view, the Bible indeed affirms metanarratives or major themes (Ephesians 1:9-10 and Revelation 21 and 22). Recall that postmodernists are suspicious of metanarratives. Nonetheless, everything is gradually pacing to the Grand Conclusion. The great themes and doctrines of Scripture are more unified and consistent and coherent than otherwise.
Though postmodernists decry unity and coherence in a text, it seems that this exegetical step somewhat follows the coherence theory of truth, but inside a text. A given verse coheres with other verses in its immediate and larger contexts. The results bring clarity and truth, much more often than not.
For an explanation and defense of the objectivity of interpretation, I recommend this book. But it’s not for beginners.
(3) Finally, the meaning of words should be studied carefully. To illustrate, the reader needs only to do a keyword study of “love” in the New Testament. The following two words will yield rich results, as they are examined in context: philia and agapē, two different Greek words for love. The results will sometimes be surprising. Many of us have time and again heard that agapē refers only to God’s love. That’s mostly true. But go to Bible Gateway and type in John 3:19. The Greek word behind “loved” (“men loved darkness”) is the verb of agapē. It can mean, then, a total commitment to something, even to darkness. So sometimes agapē does not always refer only to God’s love.
But how do we start a word study? A good concordance, such as the Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance, (here) is the first step. In this particular concordance every word in the Bible is listed, and each word is numbered. A Hebrew and Greek dictionary is found in the back, and each definition is assigned the same number as the one in the exhaustive list of words.
As it turns out, several publications of the Bible, like the Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, (here) number the keywords inside the text and just above the word. They also have a Hebrew and Greek dictionary in the back. Other reference books have keyed their word studies to match this numbering system. An example: Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (here). We may not become experts overnight, but we can make progress in expanding our knowledge of the Bible, each day. These three steps can be elaborated on and added to. But they are time-tested, as is.
I have an entire category on word studies. Here’s one about love:
However, many readers who take the Bible seriously are busy working and maintaining a household. They do not have time to study keywords in detail or to research the historical context. In that case, I recommend the New International Version Study Bible (here). I quoted from it, above, in the first exegetical step. It has a commentary built into it. These highly qualified and respectful commentators provide the historical context, not only in the Introduction to each book of the Bible, but also in transitional sections of any book and even a single verse. And these scholars inform us, when necessary, about the textual context, or they explain parallel passages. They also zero in on important words. They cross-reference verses that clarify a theme running through one book or other books as well. They do not ignore the latest interpretive methods, but they still base their own methods primarily on these three time-tested steps.
I find the scholarship of these commentators, written for the laity, to be very, very helpful. I refer to it all the time, as I read the Bible. The Study Bible has sold over six million copies.
Epistemology, the study of how we define and acquire knowledge, is my least favorite area of philosophy. Professional philosophers have confused things, and this lack of clarity dominates the discussion. But outside of the office and classroom they live by beliefs that correspond to facts. For instance, if their classroom theories cause doubt about driving a car safely, then their theories fail my driver’s test, as I call it. However, our knowledge of the real world out there can be strong and reliable. We nonspecialists need to know that there are alternatives to postmodern excessive doubt, anti-realism, and anti-foundationalism.
On a personal note, my motto has been: I will follow the facts, for they will safeguard me from outlandish conclusions. Thus, the correspondence theory should not be abandoned in favor of postmodern hyper-skepticism that tosses us here and there without an anchor. So I prefer the correspondence theory because I seem to live by it every day without thinking twice about it. It is commonsense-which our grandparents had (or have). Long live reality and my accurate perception of it with my reliable senses!
Also, the Bible is not hopelessly confusing and ambiguous. It may be true that many verses are difficult to understand, but the vast majority can be clarified with just a little research, following three simple (not simplistic) steps. Postmodern interpreters of the Bible who say that meaning is fragmented into a hundred pieces or escapes in a hundred different directions are hyper-radical. The starting point of postmodernists is hyper-skeptical. They do not represent mainstream Bible scholarship, though their appearance in the national media may (wrongly) imply that they do.
What about devotional reading? Must we become scholars to enjoy Scripture? Devotional reading is beautiful. Many have drawn comfort from Psalm 23, for example. One cautionary note: private edification is fine, but don’t build entire doctrines on it.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, it is not those parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand. The Bible offers enough clarity to be secure about morals and living life and a basic understanding of God. For me, that’s more than sufficient and understandable. It’s that simple – for me.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES
7. Interpreting the Bible and Finding the Truth
THE RELIABILITY OF THE GOSPELS
Church fathers and the authorship of the four Gospels
Reliability of the New Testament Manuscripts (Part 4 is the summary)