Shuck and Jive

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Word of God in Interpretation

It is a hot topic! The Bible in Conversations with Bob. Bob's turn! Join in!


Thanks for your quick response. We do agree on most of what you said were agreements. One quick comment: you said, “3) The Bible is not about predicting future events. Yup.” That may not be exactly what I said. I said, “Thus any attempt to make the Bible into something else, such as a way to figure out the future, is a misuse of the Bible.” If you meant that the Biblical writers did not, at times, intend to predict future events, we disagree. The prophets sometimes used the pattern of, 1.) You are disobeying God, 2.) You better change your ways, or 3.) There will be action by God that you won’t like. Sometimes the particular prophet would be rather specific about what would happen, like Jeremiah’s prediction of the Babylonians conquering Jerusalem. I meant we should not use the Bible to predict the timing and method of how God will act in the future. If that’s what you meant we agree.

Having said that, it seems to me that your post pointed us toward interpretation of the Bible and how that interpretation may be skewed by calling the Bible the Word of God. You said, “The Bible itself is not even. I think calling it all Word of God can make us think that all texts are on a par.” Here I find Roger’s and McKim’s book very helpful. They point to a couple of specific problems in the interpretation of the Bible throughout history and how those problems affected Biblical interpretation particularly in America.

The first problem was the use of Scottish Common Sense Realism Philosophy as a way of looking at humans, the world and the Bible. This philosophy said that all humans think the same so therefore we can all read the Bible and understand what the writers meant simply by reading the text. This is a very curious and dangerous assumption about the nature of reality. Cultural context always colors the way we look at the world. Even the particular language we use colors the way we look at the world.

Used by the Old Princeton Scholastics the Bible came to be seen as propositional truth. This had several effects on their interpretive method. First, as you pointed out, it leveled Scripture, theoretically making all verses equal. Curiously it also meant that they trusted the direct teaching passages like the letters of Paul more than the stories of Israel and the actions and parables of Jesus! So while claiming all verses were equal Paul was considered more equal. Nevertheless they say each verse in the Bible is a propositional truth statement, ultimately leading to the theory of Biblical inerrancy.

Now I think we can agree that some truth claims are propositional. 1 + 2 = 3 is a propositional truth claim. But when you get beyond mathematics you run into trouble. If you say, “The sky is blue,” is this statement really propositional? Actually sometimes the sky looks blue. The statement certainly does not reflect the scientific reasons that the sky sometimes looks blue to the human eye. And what if one has color blindness of one form or another? The sky may not look blue to that person!

All of this is to say that while there may be some propositional truth claims in the Bible there are many other ways and more important ways the Bible speaks. This is the danger for Americans when we call the Bible the Word of God. Because of our history of the use of the Bible we are tempted to say that the Bible is a series of true propositions. I prefer, in disagreement with our friend Aric, to gently and slowly teach the proper meaning of saying the Bible is the Word of God.

Now, as to some of the things you said about the Bible, including the quotes from Brueggeman, whose commentary on Genesis, by the way, is absolutely fantastic.

  1. Imaginative remembering. If this means that the process of movement from event to final form in which we receive the text today, I think I agree with it. By this I mean that an event happened. The people at the time interpreted the meaning of the event in the context of their relationship with God. The community remembered the event. Particularly in the parts of the Bible that describe ancient events the stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation. This also happened in the stories about Jesus but in a much shorter period of time. As the culture changed the description of the event changed and as the needs of the community changed the interpretation of the meaning of the event, particularly the interpretation of what God intended in the event changed too. Ultimately the stories were written down and collected. The very choice of which stories were written down and which were not reflected the view of the collector. Ultimately the editors put it all together, giving new interpretation once again. If this is what Brueggeman meant by imaginative remembering, I agree with him.
  2. Deeply permeated by ideology. Personally I don’t particularly like the word “ideology.” In America we have a tendency to use the word to mean “those people look at the world in the wrong way while we look at the world the right way.” The word has tends to get our backs up. If someone says I’m working out of an ideology in America we tend to think that person means I’m wrong. I prefer the term, with all its problems, “worldview.” Having said that, if ideology means the way culture, social class, topography, physical environment, etc., affect the way we look at things, I agree. The Bible is deeply permeated by ideology. Just the way the ancient Israelites talked about their land shows this. North was not up to them as it is to us! Their main points of reference were the sea and the desert. Still I am cautious about saying that the text reflects yearning for social advantage and property. This certainly is true in some sections of the Bible. But the prophets strongly criticized this yearning, at least as a personal yearning. The prophets had a tendency to speak for the poor and oppressed against the rich and the oppressors. Even parts of the Law, which may have not actually been obeyed, tried to level the economic playing field. Of course, these were yearning for social advantage and property from the perspective of the poor. A question: does ideology also refer to theology?
  3. Inspiration. We agree about this. I would say, however, that God’s own presence was breathed in these texts. By this I don’t mean to flatten the texts and make them all equal. I just mean to say that I am very nervous about saying that some texts reflect what God intended and others do not. How are we to make such a decision? I would instead say that we need to interpret texts based on the central core message of Scripture. If Jesus, or to use the words of some of the Neo Orthodox, the Christ event, is the core message of Scripture then all the rest of the Bible is to be interpreted in relation to the Christ event. Passages then take on more or less importance depending on how they relate to Christ. And we can’t forget that the New Testament writers and editors saw things in the Old Testament that were not intended by the original writers/editors because they saw the Old Testament through the lens of the Christ event.

So, while I certainly see some texts as more valuable than other texts in looking at our present time, and I find all kinds of curious cultural traditions in the various texts, (Why did Abraham have his servant place his hand under Abraham’s thigh when he told the servant to promise to only get a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s relatives? Gen 24:1-4) I don’t see good texts and bad texts. I see texts that had particular meaning in a cultural context that now, because of our cultural context we hear completely differently.

An example: the concept of holy war. Holy war in the Deuteronomic histories meant that you had to follow certain traditions to be considered ritually clean to fight but also often meant that the enemy was to be totally annihilated. In that culture at that time that’s the way things were done. If Moab had won the early wars instead of Israel history would have been very different. The surrounding cultures of the day fought that way too. Does the central core of the Biblical message support the use of holy war? Of course not! Some days I reject the idea of just war as an accommodation of the Church to becoming a cultural power and agree with Hauerwas that the only correct position for the Church is pacifism! If we take the statement that all humans are created in the image of God as a basis for ethics, holy war cannot be commanded by God.

The really interesting thing about holy war in Joshua is the theological reason given for it and the subsequent interpretation of that reason in relation to Israel by the Deuteronomic editor. God condemns the Canaanites for their worship of idol and their immorality. But then the same standard is used to judge the Israelites and their kings in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

So I would say we should interpret passages in the Bible according to the trajectory of the Biblical story, creation, fall and redemption, and out of the core message of redemption in Jesus.

As to ongoing interpretation, it is absolutely necessary not so much to find the real meaning of the passage or to determine what texts are bad and what are good but rather to recognize that our cultural milieu causes us to read the Bible in particular ways and ask particular questions that may not be appropriate in another cultural milieu.

Having said that I still think it is critical to work as hard as we possibly can to determine the intention of the original writer/editor and the cultural situation of the original writer/editor before we start trying to apply a section of the Bible to our cultural situation. So scholarship and hard work is important.


  1. The prophets sometimes used the pattern of, 1.) You are disobeying God, 2.) You better change your ways, or 3.) There will be action by God that you won’t like.

    A few things come to mind in response to that point. First, these predictions were specific to their time, and conditional. By "specific to the time" I mean that they were not coded messages for some far off future time that their contemporaries could not possibly imagine, messages that could only be decoded generations later. On the contrary. They were addressing the geopolitical situations of their own time, not making far off Nostradamus-like predictions about World War III or the founding of Israel in 1948. By "conditional" I mean that these these "predictions" were predicated on the response of the people of Israel, and thus were not about making cast in stone statements about what would definitely happen in the future. The book of Jonah was completely predicated on the idea that these sorts of prophecies were conditional. The real point of these prophecies was not to make predictions, therefore, but to urge people to change their ways. This was the central message. It wasn't about fortunetelling, but about righteousness.

    Furthermore, this idea that God acted in history by rewarding the faithful and punishing the wicked was an example of wishful thinking in the theology of the time, and over time later Jewish theologies evolved away from that idea (think Ecclesiastes for starters). One of the valuable things about the Bible is seeing how theologies evolved over time. It became increasingly obvious to later biblical writers that righteousness was not necessarily tied to one's lot in life. God simply doesn't act that way, and the world doesn't work that way. Here we have a valuable lesson for us today--just as the biblical writers evolved their theology over time, we today are in a process of listening to God and testing our theologies against reality, and thus evolving our understanding of how God operates in the universe.

  2. mystical

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the pattern in the prophets was time specific and conditional, not intended as a long term prediction.

    This may surprise you but I wouldn't include Jonah in the prophetic tradition. I think Jonah was not a real person. It is my opinion that Jonah was written to oppose the exclusivist viewpoints expressed in Ezra and Nehemiah. I think Ruth falls into that category too.

    As for Ecclesiates, as wisdom literature I don't think it claims to make predictions.

  3. Bob,

    Yes, of course Jonah was not a real person, and you make a good point that the book opposed exclusivist viewpoints. But I also thought that it was a story that really made an important point about the nature of prophecy itself. Jonah was a bit of a comic character, and he was annoyed that the threatened destruction that he was enlisted to threaten with didn't come to pass. But of course Jonah was missing the point. Prophecy wasn't about making predictions.

    It is true that Ecclesiastes wasn't a book of prophecy, but I think that it did show a shift in underlying theology from that which was assumed by many of the prophets. The author of Ecclesiastes understood that bad things often happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Other parts of the Wisdom literature, such as in Proverbs, had a more optimistic viewpoint about justice in this life.

    I think the point is that there is almost a kind of inter-community dialogue going throughout the course of the writing of the Bible between people with different and evolving ideas about important theological questions.

  4. mystical, we agree!

    Does this mean Jesus comes back today? ;-)>

    Seriously, I see Ruth and Jonah as responses to the exclusivism of Ezra and Job in particular a response to the work hard and good things will come to you of Proverbs. Both show inter-community dialogue.

    How to interpret that inter-community dialogue is the real question. Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity went different ways in the first century on this issue. Curious, isn't it?

    Good call!