2013 Me: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about inerrancy, and I’m not convinced. I realize that thinking about the Bible in terms of inerrancy doesn’t do justice to its awesome stories and its ability to change my life. But honestly, I’m so full of doubts right now and I’m really hoping that, with a little work, I can make the Bible into an absolutely true, God-given document, and then I’ll be able to base my subsequent truth-claims on the Bible! I don’t mind squishing the Bible a bit to make that happen.
2016 Me: Let’s take a minute to really think about this “ground of truth” business. Let’s assume for a moment that fundamentalist Christians are right and that God really did “write” the Bible word for word. Let’s say that God really cares as much as you do about pure facts. And let’s also imagine that you’ will eventually resolve all of the potential contradictions that you notice within the Bible. Now what? How do you get that Truth off the pages?
I’d just read the Bible, get the Truth, and use that to answer all my questions, of course! How hard could it be?
It could be very hard! Consider the sheer multiplicity of Christian denominations (by some accounts, there 9,000 of them), many (most?) of which claim that their own specific beliefs are clearly supported by Scripture and that everyone else is getting it wrong. Let’s not forget that both pacifists and violent colonists, slave-owners and abolitionists, Luther and his Catholic enemies all passionately argued that the Bible is on their side. If it’s really so easy to find the meaning of Scripture, then why do Christians find support for so many contradictory beliefs in the same Bible?
Obviously, most people interpret Scripture incorrectly because they want to force the Bible to confirm whatever they already believe. But I won’t do that; I’ll stay open and let the Bible correct me.
In your US History class, you had to read a sermon by a pro-slavery Civil War-era pastor. Did his use of the Bible seem particularly forced?
I remember that sermon. Honestly, he didn’t sound very different from the Christian speakers today who talk about how the Bible condemns homosexuality. They all seem genuinely concerned about what the Bible has to say. The scariest part of reading that sermon in history class was that he was so persuasive! It really seemed like the simplest interpretation of Scripture supports slavery.
So maybe intentional mishandling of the text doesn’t explain the diversity of interpretations of the Bible. But if it’s not a problem of intentional misreading of the Bible, then how do so many people get so many different meanings from the same book?
Perhaps the context in which you read a verse, a passage, or the entire Bible itself determines what meaning you end up with. Maybe different people interpret the Bible differently, and that’s why they come to such differing conclusions.
That’s it! I know how to make the Bible Absolutely True again! I bet the Bible was most true back when it was first written down – you know, back in its original historical context. But most Christians aren’t historians, so they read the Bible out of the correct context! If I just do some research and find out what the Bible originally meant, then I can finally side-step all of this ambiguity and get to the one true meaning of Scripture, and after that I’ll be able to ground truth in Scripture!
In one sense, I agree with you. If you’re going to treat the Bible as a bank of true information, then you have to specify which context it should be read in, and the original historical context probably has the best shot at being “correct.” But here’s the problem: by picking one specific and complicated method of interpreting the Bible, you have made it impossible to ground Truth in the Bible.
Wait – why not? Why can’t I have both?
Judging between different interpretations of the Bible requires you to make truth-judgments before you interpret the Bible and have its meaning to work with. If the meaning of Scripture is going to be true, you must already have your Truth before you start interpreting it, or else you’ll likely interpret the True document incorrectly and end up with non-Truth. If you need to work out a correct method of interpretation before you crack open the Bible, then the meaning of the Bible is dependent on your opinions about truth – and not the other way around!
Reading the Bible requires assumptions: assumptions about which translation of Greek/Hebrew to English is best, what the words in your English translation mean themselves, how to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses and passages, what is literal and what is figurative, etc. etc. etc. The text can’t tell you which assumptions to make in order to get the right meaning; even if the Bible did include a methodological prelude, you would need to make a bunch of assumptions on your own before you could even read that! What you bring to the Bible determines what you can find in the Bible. Again, if you need a concrete example of just how big a difference interpretive assumptions can make, look to the shocking diversity among “Bible-believing” denominations.
In order to turn the Bible into the “ground of Truth,” you would need to first elevate your own interpretive decisions and assumptions to the status of Absolute Truth. Otherwise, a limited, human interpretation of a limitless, Absolute Truth remains, for all practical purposes, limited and human.
You ruin everything!!
First of all, I don’t forgive you. Second of all, I’m going to ignore all of your confusing theoretical ideas. I want to find the meaning of the Bible in its original context anyway. Maybe I can get past your theoretical roadblocks once I have the original meaning in my hands.
Fine. Then next time, we’ll talk about the Bible within its original historical context – a topic that I’ve explored through one college class (I took New Testament at Virginia Tech, taught by the incredible scholar and professor Elizabeth Struthers Malbon) and the 16 books on that subject that I’ve read on my own.
Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt4: Historical Document?“