The Power of Positive Linking

Jayman brings up another interesting topic in relation to our on-going discussion of Hell and Universal Restorationism.

Nearly all Christians point to the Bible to support their views on the afterlife. Justice and compassion are in the Bible so you can’t call them extra-biblical factors. You can’t go to a site like and say the Bible is not playing the primary role in the arguments of Christian universalists.

The Bible is indeed playing a role, or rather, is being used as a tool, by both sides in this debate. And that brings up the matter of how the Scriptures can be used to lay claim to prophetic authority for one’s opinions, without incurring a prophetic responsibility to be right all the time.

We’ve all heard the stories about so-called prophets and psychics who claimed to have some special gift, only to be publicly embarrassed when their predictions and declarations turned out to be false. There’s a great risk in claiming prophetic authority, to the point that certain Old Testament passages even impose a death penalty on those who claim to be prophets, and aren’t.

One of the consequences of the Babylonian Captivity, however, was that the Pharisees stumbled onto a really clever scheme. Denied access to their Temple, they transferred their devotion to their Holy Books instead, and thereby hit upon an ingenious system whereby you invest the full power of prophetic authority in the books, and then draw on that authority as needed.

The power of this system cannot be overestimated, and is a big part of the reason for the success of the Judeo-Christian tradition. By transferring the prophetic authority away from themselves and into their Scriptures, the Pharisees managed to create a source of ecclesiastical authority that had the full force of God’s divine decrees, without incurring any personal liabilities—if anybody ever manages to prove you wrong, you just admit that you’re only human and you must have misunderstood what the Bible was saying. The Bible’s authority remains unscathed, and since you’re only claiming to derive your authority from what the Bible says, your authority remains untouched as well. You can have your cake and eat it too!

The engine that drives this scheme is the natural tendency people have to judge things by their associations. We saw this in a negative sense during the recent presidential campaign: the McCain campaign tried to imply that Obama was a radical because he had an association of some sort with William Ayres. And what works with guilt by association works with esteem by association as well, which is why advertisers like celebrity endorsements. (“Angela Lansberry talks about pain relievers…”? What the heck does she know about pharmacology??)

“Esteem by association” is the mechanism a lot of people use to inject their own, extrabiblical opinions into the Bible, and thereby to obtain Biblical authority for their opinions. If you make a claim, and then associate that claim with a particular verse of the Bible, it’s easier for people to associate your claim with what the Bible says, and to therefore categorize your claims as being Biblical, i.e. having the authority of the Bible behind it.

For example, Matthew 16:18 is cited by Roman Catholics as Scriptural authority for the papacy. The verse says absolutely nothing about establishing a permanent office of supreme authority within the Church hierarchy, it just says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” But because the Church associates Peter with being the first Pope, and because they associate the establishment of the papacy with the establishment of the Church, Catholics believe that the papacy is biblical. Not because the Bible says the Pope is the earthly head of the Church, but because they associate the papacy with Matt. 16:18.

This approach works just as well for Protestants as it does for Catholics, and is used for everything from abortion to creationism to gay rights to eschatology. The natural side-effect of this approach is that everybody wants the power of the Bible on their side, so everyone tries to create this linkage between what they say and what the Bible says. As Jayman points out, “Nearly all Christians point to the Bible to support their views on the afterlife.” And so they do, even though these views can contradict one another in some fairly fundamental and significant ways. The Bible doesn’t actually say who’s right and who’s wrong, but as long as you can find some passage or phrase or even a single word that sounds at least harmonious with the point you want to make, you can create the linkage between your concept and the Bible.

So yes, I can indeed say that it is extrabiblical to apply the concepts of justice and compassion to the Bible in a way that goes beyond what is explicitly written about them in the Bible. Anybody can point to the Bible and claim that in such and such a passage the writer was thinking about what they claim. In many places, the writer’s actual intent is ambiguous, and leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But that’s something different from having one particular interpretation singled out, by the Biblical text, as being the correct interpretation.

In sum, then, an interpretation that points to the Bible ( I => B ) is not the same as the Bible pointing to an interpretation ( I <= B ). The Bible says only what is actually written in the Bible; commentators come along after the fact and supply interpretations that are extrabiblical, i.e. they’re not written in the Bible, they’re opinions about the Bible. All interpretations are extrabiblical because if they were written in the Bible, we’d call them “quotes.”

People like to call their interpretations “biblical” because they want to claim the Bible’s authority as their own (without incurring any personal prophetic responsibilities), but there is no valid, reliable, and objective standard for determining whose interpretations are correct. The things that the Bible talks about that require interpretation (like Hell, for instance) are things for which we have no real-world point of reference to compare to, in order to determine whose views are closest to reality. People are simply voicing their own personal, uninspired opinions, and then doing their best to borrow the Bible’s authority to dress them up in.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “The Power of Positive Linking”

  1. honestpoet Says:

    Excellent post.

    I don’t know how many times, during a debate with a theist, I’ve had to remind them that not everyone considers the Bible an authority (and I certainly don’t). They’re in such a habit of resorting to it to make their points, I don’t think they’re capable of arguing for or against anything without it.

  2. Modusoperandi Says:

    I do the same thing, but with the dictionary.
    For instance, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (the most inerrant of all dictionaries) on page 111, it says;

    “batman /’baetmen/ n. (pl. -men Military (in the UK) an officer’s personal servant. [Old French bat, bast from medieval Latin bastum packsaddle + MAN]”

    I think that the meaning of that passage is quite clear. That others disagree with my hermeneutics merely means that their own hermeneutics are faulty.

  3. Jayman Says:

    All texts require interpretation. The best interpretation is the one that explains every passage in the text in the most parsimonious fashion. This is how a text tells us which interpretation is right and which is wrong. Ambiguous texts may give rise to a number of plausible interpretations but the number of plausible interpretations is by no means infinite.

    Someone who truly understands a text can convey its meaning in his own words and is not restricted to direct quotes. Under your definition of “extrabiblical” (all interpretations are extrabiblical) it is possible for someone to accurately convey the meaning of the Bible and yet be acting in an “extrabiblical” manner. You would be better off just saying that an interpretation is not a direct quote from the Bible instead of using a confusing term (the “extra” implies the interpretation is not supported by the Bible).

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Parsimony is only a guide to the truth when it is applied to the truth. If you try to apply it to the inconsistent stories of men while assuming that these stories must be true, you end up supplying additional, speculative assumptions in order to create an artificial context in which the inconsistencies might be seen as reconcilable. Adding speculative assumptions, however, is the opposite of pursuing the most parsimonious interpretation. You end up with mere rationalization instead.

    The term “extrabiblical” correctly conveys the idea that the Bible says only as much as is actually written therein, and any additional commentary is being supplied by the person making the commentary. If you are saying no more than what is actually written in the Bible, then it should be possible to express what you mean using only verbatim quotations from the Bible. If you have to add to what is written in order to clearly express your idea, then you are necessarily going beyond what is written, and are contributing extrabiblical information.

  5. Jayman Says:

    Parsimony is only a guide to the truth when it is applied to the truth.

    When interpreting a text the truth we are evaluating is the author’s intended meaning. Thus parsimony is a guide to the truth even when the story is fictional.

    The term “extrabiblical” correctly conveys the idea that the Bible says only as much as is actually written therein, and any additional commentary is being supplied by the person making the commentary.

    The the text and its meaning are not the same thing. Take the following sentence: “Usain Bolt is as fast as lightning.” The correct meaning of that sentence is not that Usain Bolt and lightning would tie if they raced each other. You must go beyond what is written to properly understand the sentence’s meaning.

    If you are saying no more than what is actually written in the Bible, then it should be possible to express what you mean using only verbatim quotations from the Bible.

    To convey the meaning of the above sentence (“Usain Bolt is as fast as lightning”) you would have to forgo a verbatim quotation. Or try to convey the meaning of an allegory using only verbatim quotations.

    If you have to add to what is written in order to clearly express your idea, then you are necessarily going beyond what is written, and are contributing extrabiblical information.

    If you summarize the book of Esther in one paragraph have you gone beyond the text? More importantly, have you made a false statement?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Parsimony can be helpful in attempting to ascertain an author’s intended meaning, however it’s not necessarily an adequate or reliable guide because there may be a number of interpretations of “intended meaning” whose relative strengths and weaknesses are subjectively assessed. This is especially true in the case of dead authors, and becomes progressively more significant the more the author is removed from us in time, background, culture, etc.

    Note that I’m not saying that commentary is wrong. It can be very helpful to point out, for example, that “fast as lightning” is a metaphor. The point, however, is that the commentary is not the Scripture, nor are all commentaries necessarily an accurate reflection of the author’s intent. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to point out the distinction between the text and the commentary, especially in the case of doctrines that are being derived from the commentary but being ascribed to the text.

    We might assume, for example, that “fast as lightning” is being used as a metaphor. But what if it wasn’t? What if the writer really meant that Usain Bolt could race an actual bolt of lightning and at least tie it? The commentary, in that case, would fail to correctly convey the author’s intended meaning. If we have a living author to question, we could settle the matter, but if the writer is no longer with us, it might not be possible to know for sure. We can apply the principle of parsimony and giving him the benefit of the doubt (which are actually conflicting principles), but either way, we’re likely to conclude that he must have meant it metaphorically, which may not be the case at all.

    The fundamental problem is that books are an inappropriate mechanism for managing doctrine in a living Church. Interpretations vary, even when you apply parsimonious hermeneutics, and people end up believing whatever interpretation seems right in their own eyes. Just look at the history of the Church! They claim to have the Word of God and the illumination of the Spirit, but they can’t agree on what the Spirit is telling them the Word is trying to say. That’s a sign of God’s absence, and it’s a major inconsistency with the character and motives ascribed to God by the Gospels.

  7. Paul Says:

    In the early paragraphs of this article it is asserted that prophets must take responsibility for their prophecies then siting the OT scriptures about the law and how prophets who fail to get it right must be killed. Using this reference the writer builds his argument for responsibility.
    I don’t know one OT prophet. None of the prophets I know would describe themselves as OT prophets. In fact most of them have declared their freedom from the law. I don;t understand why someone who claims knowledge would refer to these scriptures as relevant in establishing prophetic authority? They are not relevant and the NT prophet is under and entirely different mandate, guidance and objective. This is basic knowledge, so why the OT reference to prophets????
    Furthermore, it is obvious that our writer does not understand the premise of the Catholic Church’s assertion of having the “Keys to the Kingdom”. I don’t agree with their premise, but if you are going to make a point about it, one should have some basic knowledge about the subject.
    I don’t think it supports your argument as an example of “esteem by assocation”.

  8. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi, Paul, thanks for stopping by. I think if you go back and re-read my post, you’ll find that I did not say anyone today was an Old Testament prophet, nor did I say anything about what the Catholic Church teaches about “the keys of the kingdom.” My point with respect to the OT prophets was to illustrate the fact that prophets can be discredited (and worse!) if they claim to have received infallible knowledge from God, and then that “knowledge” is demonstrated to be false. Using “Scripture” as a proxy for one’s own alleged spiritual authority is a much safer approach, since it allows one to keep claiming divine authority even after they turn out to be wrong (cf. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, which suggested that the world might end in the 1980’s, based on Bible prophecies).

    The reference to the Catholic usage of Matt. 16 was likewise an illustration of the fact that people will cite a Scripture as supporting a topic that is not even mentioned in the verse quoted, in order to lend an air of Biblical authority to whatever notion they associate with the Bible verse. Perhaps an even better example would be Matt. 22, which Jesus quotes as supporting the doctrine of resurrection, even though it not only fails to mention resurrection, but suggests that the patriarchs are not even eligible for resurrection, since they are allegedly not dead. By linking the idea of resurrection to a verse that says only “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” Jesus created a false impression that Moses supported the Pharisaic idea that the dead would be raised to face judgment.

    By the way, Catholic doctrine is founded on the premise of Apostolic Tradition, which means that the correct teachings of Jesus are to be passed on by both the written and the unwritten traditions of the apostles, just as it commands in II Thessalonians 2:15. As such, they are not what you would call a “Bible Based” denomination, in the sense of claiming that Scripture is the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. Note, however, that I never said that they said they needed a scriptural reference to back up the papacy. They merely quote Scripture in order to reinforce their point. And they use “the power of positive linking” to do that.