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Monday, June 05, 2006

Who is best at biblical interpretation?

With a heavy heart and a tear in my eye I have to disagree (slightly) with Jim West. I think. Besides, it's not as if sibling rivalry is anything new. ;-) Anyway Jim and the more extreme view put forward on adversaria give confessional types pride of place for top biblical interpretation.

Jim argues:

I agree, to an extent, that interpreters of Scripture should stand within the hermeneutical circle...Who, then, is the ideal interpreter of the Biblical text?... 2- A person standing within the Jewish or Christian tradition. 3- A person who actively participates in the community of faith and who has one eye on that community while the other remains fixed on the text.

Adversaria argues:

The most essential training in biblical interpretation that we will receive is not that provided by a theological degree, important though that is, but the training provided by belonging to a faithful Christian community under wise and faithful pastors. For this reason I am as suspicious of the assured interpretations of much modern biblical scholarship as I am of the interpretations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others like them. For all of their valuable linguistic gifts and scholarly credentials, biblical scholars outside of the Church are dilettantes who lack the basic training to interpret the Church’s Scriptures aright...Those who have not undergone and are not undergoing the paideia of the Christian Church, living as a community of discipleship under the Word of God, have no right to interpret the Scriptures. For this reason we should not even enter into debate with them on questions of interpretation.

Jim I notice is careful to use words like 'extent' and 'ideal'. This seems to me to downplay the exclusivism of a confessional approach. And it seems pretty clear to me from the past that Jim, if he doesn't mind me saying, is more than open to engaging with people from non-confessional perspectives. Adversaria is clearly much stronger ('we should not even enter into debate...).

Ok readers of this blog will not be overly surprised to hear my views I suppose. I am a little worried by the latter comments and they mirror the issues raised from a secular perspective that I find problematical, i.e. secular alone is right and no dialogue with confessional approaches etc. If I were a church person I'd also be worried because then the church would exclude a load of scholarship which could be entirely valid and accurate and the church would effectively be engaging in self-deception. But that, I suppose, is not my problem.

The other issue is when the more extreme view is applied elsewhere as it starts to look very unusual. Soviet historians were trained as historians and were committed to Soviet Communism but, it seems, wrote what was effectively propaganda seriously lacking in historical accuracy and often deliberately distorting fact. Should that history only be studied by a devotee? I know where I would go to find out about Soviet history and most likely it will not be written by someone dedicated to Soviet Marxism.

And we can of course take this further. Should a Leninist be the only proper guide to Lenin? Should Trots alone study Trotsky? Who would be left to study ancient pagan religions? Should we call on the pagan community to study religions of the UK before Christianity? Are traditional Catholics the only true interpreters of medieval Catholicism? I was taught Islam and the Quran by a non-Muslim so would it have been better for me to have looked for a Muslim lecturer?

I would also wonder how this could be implemented in the secular university department. In theological colleges/seminaries it would be obvious but in state colleges and universities?

And if we take the extreme view and say that there is going to be no dialogue then what happens to all those important books written in biblical studies from a non-confessional standpoint? Are they just to be disguarded? Isn't this slightly Soviet-esque?

And on the issue of 'no right' to interpret scripture that's just too bad I'm afraid. Bibles, for good or ill, are sold everywhere and telling people not to interpret them once they buy them would hardly work. Some non-religious people have been brought up with the Bible and what do they do? Forget it? The Bible is everywhere, used in secular literature, advertising, film, you name it. It is not an easy thing to ignore and if it is not an easy thing to ignore it is not an easy to avoid interpretation. If people want to convert non-believers then why shouldn't the non-believer ask tough questions? Is all of this going to be so easy to ignore?

There are other problems:

What to non-religious types do if they are worried about the use of the Bible by (say) the Christian right?

And what of the spectacular interpretations by the church that many might think are spectacular mis-interpretations?

Which church is right? They have differed dramatically over biblical interpretation so which do we choose?

Another worry is the sort-of-scientific feel to the more extreme view: only one perspective can, effectively, be right. It seems to me that the assumption that one is right makes the discipline largely pointless as all answers are more or less known and the only new questions are those that arise within the church (or even synagogue).

Now it seems to me that the only fair way to settle this is not to exclude any perspective. At the very least someone might then ask you a question you might not have thought of before.


Blogger Noel Slevin said...

You're absolutely right, James - just because Christians believe their way is right does not mean that in academic circles other interpretations can be flagrantly disregarded. Christians must be prepared to acknowledge other interpretations as legitimate regardless of whether they agree with them or not.

No-one is saying that just because a view is legitimate that it is right. Politically, Thatcher and Kinnock had different views on public services. Both claimed they were right, but neither would challenge the legitimacy of the others' view. They just disagreed.

June 05, 2006

Blogger steph said...

Of course James is utterly and completely wrong and Jim is so very very right. Like only Zeus believers can do Classics and only Bush believing Republicans can comment on current US government and only Xtians can do Hebrew Bible because they own it now anyway...

June 06, 2006

Anonymous roundapple said...

Just as there are many ways of skinning a cat, there should be many ways of approaching the Bible. Since interpretations (from the fundamentalist through the historical-critical to the "secular") have, behind them, premises which may be mutually incompatible, the results should be evaluated based on how succesfully their objectives are achieved.
For example, N.T. Wright cannot be expected to produce anything "secular," yet he successfully does what he does. Bultman did achieve success within his time and the impact of his work can still be felt. The moment you answer the question positively in favor of an interpreter, you implicate yourself in the worldview he represents. You may not entirely agree, or you may even adopt a contrary perspective, but understanding an interpretation makes for two kindred souls (the writer and reader).
In short, historians of Christianity should be better at doing history, biblical archaeologists should excel at publishing data pertinent to their discipline, academic scholars ought to have no peer at theorizing (as honorable a discipline as theoretical physics) and bibliographies, popularizers should produce bestsellers and preachers should provide the best sermons. Each serves (or should I say deserve) a different audience. The debates among them arise because disciplines have inevitable overlaps. Yet and debates are always healthycan sometimes produce results which can shake up everyone.

June 06, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wise man - well, my Biblical Studies lecturer, the deeply non-Christian, and now departed, Robert Carroll (world regarded expert on Jeremiah) - once said to me that you should never trust a Bible without 'paratext', or notes.

His implication was this - all translators/interpreters come to the Bible with some sort of bias, regardless of whether or not they are Christians. And thus the only way you can understand their bias, and "interpret" their interpretation, is if they have left sufficient notes about the decisions they have made.

So - trust no-one! ;)


June 06, 2006

Blogger steph said...

Jim also claims that the Bible was written by the elite, for the elite. Was it? I don't know anything at all but does anyone know that? I thought that while the whole book might have been edited and put together by the victors, the various parts of it were transmitted and written down by all sorts of people.

Of course none of it was written for my interest - it was written for believers.... so I'll crawl back into my hole.

June 08, 2006

Blogger Roger Pearse said...

We might also ask whether a professedly 'neutral' or 'academic' approach would not itself be in fact equivalent in practice to studying the NT on the basis that what its authors have say as their key message is not, in fact, true! Oxford University Divinity School used to have some statement on their web page which sounded very inclusive, until you thought about just what views could and could not be expressed under it. I wish that I had kept a copy (it has vanished now).

Judging from most of the writings emanating from NT studies that I see or hear about, the real problem is the exclusion of Christians from (and hence their distrust of) the discipline.

June 24, 2006

Blogger John W. Loftus said...

There is no inspired word from God. Check out my Blog where we argue this. Click on my name.

June 29, 2006

Blogger Richard H. Anderson said...

Amateurs, who happen to be believers, have held that "In the beginning" is a statement that there was a time when there was no universe. Since Aristotle, the professionals have said the universe has always existed. Now with big bang, the professionals agree that there was a beginning.

just my two cents

July 26, 2006

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a question in general: We have hundreds of differing christian religions, all of which say what they believe is Correct based on the Bible. My question is, are there any non "religious" Bible Scholars, Historians etc who have simply interpreted the Bible as it is. I mean Scholars who have no preconceived ideas about doctrine. Scholars who have written about Bible passages, Books, Words etc and have published findings based on what it all actually says. To illustrate a bit more about what I mean, I could use the example of a Detective who arrives at a murder scene. The detective has no idea who committed the murder, so he begins to gather cold hard evidence, and over a period of time concludes based on the facts the "Joe Blogs" was the villain. Has anyone done a similar thing with the Bible, in just presenting the accurate facts and said well this is what it means?

April 13, 2008


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